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Soon - probably next week - I'll be starting a new masterclass on Plotting Fiction. Look out for that!
Give Your Characters Attitude
The other day, a
writer friend of mine told me her publisher recommended
she read a certain book to get the flavor of what they
liked to publish.
Eager to know, my author friend rushed
to find the book and devour it... only to feel slightly
disappointed - and confused.
wondered what it was about this book the publisher liked.
The story wasn't great.
The writing was average.
the pacing seemed awkward.
Then it hit her.
It was the
ATTITUDE of the protagonist that gave the book its
The hero was feisty, quick to anger, even
spiteful and yet somehow lovable.
secret that I believe the key to good story telling is
It should come before everything else -
before plotting, before story, even before putting pen to
If your characters aren't real to you, their
stories will never work.
Characters should live in the present - even when you're telling stories in the past tense.
It's one of
my theories that ever since Mark Twain, American fictional characters
have been largely 'living' without consequence - because that reflects
the kind of people we aspire to be: active, driven and focused on the
moment, living in the present.
It makes following their stories more compelling.
some exploring, shall we?
some classic fictional characters.
What's the first thing
that comes to mind?
Their physical appearance? Rarely.
It's usually their demeanor, isn't it?
Their unique way
of interacting with the world - yes, their attitude
towards what they do.
Paterson's Alex Cross is a great character because he's
all heart. He loves his family and truly values
friendship - and takes his psychopath's activities very
Cornwall's Kaye Scarpetta doesn't respond well to being
patronized or underestimated. She's also way too
protective of her niece - for what purpose other than busybodying is not made clear!
Notice too that Scarpetta gets much
more critical of her partner's bad habits as the series
progresses (even though her own morals get increasingly looser.)
Vinci Code's Robert Langham is intrigued by mystery and
secret symbols. Interestingly, despite being a simple
college professor he seems to possess almost James Bond like
powers of endurance.
In Angels and Demons, for instance,
he actually falls out of a plane without a parachute over
Rome... and survives with barely a scratch! (They left that bit out of the movie!)
Harry Potter's appeal has much to do his ordinariness. He
never believes he's capable of what he has to face.
Everybody and his dog knows he's supposedly destined for
greatness but he doesn't ever seem quite ready for it.
Twilight knows only her day to day existence. She's so self obsessed
it's easy to see why she appeals so completely to teenage girls.
Ana Steele in Fifty Shades of Grey is completely stuck in the moment - to me, a victim of the present, living essentially without consequence - which I'm sure is a large part of her appeal.
time you're inventing (major and minor) characters, don't
just imagine their physical attributes, try to give them
depth by wondering what they would be passionate about
or, conversely, have little interest in. What would annoy
them - or thrill them?
short term agendas, things they are
committed to achieving or seeing come to pass. But don't make them too
analytical in the European sense - as this may hamper their potential
for irrational - that is, compelling - actions.
never impose a story on a character. The best stories
come out of the main character's conflicting agendas.
example, it's not enough to have some anonymous killer
trailed by any old ordinary detective.
The killer must be
fully realized - impulsive, obsessed - and there must be very good reasons (if only
in his own mind) why he does what he does.
any good fiction, the detective should be motivated by much
more than just 'doing his job' to make a story like this
know the killer hates women and perhaps himself, and that
the detective is terrified of losing his wife to him,
then we begin to care about the outcome.
I think one
of the reasons Hollywood movies work so well is that the
big stars come with a ready made attitude. Or at least one we associate with the actor, whether it's real or not.
We all know
what to expect from actors like Brad Pitt, Al Pacino and Scarlett Johannson. No matter what characters they
play, we sense their attitudes, their strength and depth,
even though we know they're only acting!
message is that during character development, try to
imagine being inside the heads of your characters.
Imagine what it feels like to be
your character - moment by moment - the way real people are. We often
don't analyze our own motivations or even understand them.
We just act.
As should our characters.
just give them attributes, histories and agendas, go the
extra mile and give 'em attitude!