Saturday, April 14, 2012

L is for Likability

The indomnitable Chuck Wendig may have said it best: "The audience will do anything to spend time with a great character. We’re junkies for it. We’ll gnaw our own arms off to hang out once more with a killer character."  (By the way, you should definitely read the rest of his 25 Things You Should Know About Character post, though not if you're sensitive to profanity.)

I know a great character will make me hike through miles of an otherwise bleh landscape.  There is a certain long-running series which will remain nameless that I only stick with because of the main character.  It was great in the beginning, predictable in the middle, and now as it's gotten old enough to vote, it's almost painful.  Yet, there I am, year after year, looking forward to another romp with my old friend, the main character.

I may be kidding myself, but I hear tell I'm pretty good at creating a likable character.  I've spent some time trying to figure out what exactly makes certain characters leap off the page for me, and what it is that I do to create lovable characters myself.  My answers aren't perfect, or complete, but here's what I've got for your reading pleasure.

  1. Know who they are.  Even secondary characters deserve a bit of a backstory.  Most of it will never make it to the page, but it makes all the difference for me as a writer to know a little history on anyone who has more than a cameo role.  It informs how they speak, what their priorities are, how they dress, how they relate to others...everything.

  2. Know what they look like.  I am a firm believer in leaving as much description as possible OFF the page.  I like a reader to be able to construct whatever appearance they like for a character, assign any race, make them any size they like in their minds.  But when I write, I see scenes in my mind like a movie, so I need to know who's playing the parts.  It helps me imagine how a character moves through the world if I know what they look like.

  3. Bring some personality to the page.  I'm more than a little obsessed with people's speech and body tics.  Every professor I ever had in college had at least one verbal tic.  One was obsessed with adverbs.  By the end of the semester, I had a tally sheet for every time she said actually, really, definitely, probably, and so on. (In one three-hour lecture, she said actually 92 times.  NINETY-TWO!!!)  So, every one of my characters has some little habit that identifies them as a person.  One rubs her thumbnail on her lower lip, another can't keep his hands still when he's nervous, another is addicted to ice.  It makes them feel familiar and human.

  4. Speech patterns.  I'm not talking dialect here, but everyone has a unique way of speaking.  In writing, it's not always good practice to write truly natural dialogue, because the way people talk in real life is, frankly, dull.  But even with spicy, snappy dialogue that keeps the pace moving, you should be able to identify who is speaking most of the time.  Some characters make liberal use of profanity, others never use it.  Some speak formally, while others can barely stand to use a complete sentence.  And you know you've met at least one person who has exclamation points at the end of every sentence.  You never want to go overboard with a verbal tic, but if you know a character's backstory, and a little bit of their personality, you should be able to predict how they'd answer a question.

    Just for funsies, let's see how a few different characters I've created would answer a simple question.  (By the way, this is pretty much exactly what we're talking about when we talk about 'voice' in a story.)

    Question:  How did you math test go?

    Jack:  "Could have been better, I guess." (Maybe if I'd actually studied...)
    Gwen:  "Who cares?  I refuse to learn calculus on moral grounds."
    Mike:  "I made that test my bitch.  It actually cried a little when I was done with it."
    Levi:  Shrugs, looking down.  "Fine."
    Jemimah:  "It was fun!  What did you think of it?"
    Caine:  "If I told you, I'd have to kill you."
    Mariska:  "It's possible I just achieved the first negative score in the history of math."
    Sun:  "Shh.  We're not talking about that."

  5. Save some cats.  Blake Snyder's Save the Cat! book on screenwriting is invaluable if you want to learn about the mechanics of Hollywood storytelling.  I know there are others out there, but that's the one that really helped cement it for me, so naysayers can just keep their nays to themselves.  In it, he says that the key to making any character likable in the first few minutes of a movie is to give them a save the cat moment.  This is the time when a character, even one you shouldn't expect to root for (like the criminal hero of Ocean's Eleven, for example) shows their humanity, their heart of gold.  I'm not saying a boring, or two-dimensional character can be made workable by showing him rescuing orphans from a burning building in chapter one, but it certainly wouldn't hurt would it?  So give your characters an opportunity to do the right thing in some small way, even if they procede to be insufferable assholes for the rest of the story.  Even if it's simply being kind to the store clerk at the gun shop where he's restocking on ammo to go on a killing spree, you need to show us a touch of humanity to give us a glimmer of hope for this character's journey.
Okay, I think I've about worn out my soapbox on this issue, so I'm going to go ahead and dismount.  *curtsies*  Thank you for your attention.

1 comment:

Heather Whitley said...

You're not kidding yourself. Your characters are my favorite, bar none. They could discuss math tests for pages, and I'd be riveted. It all comes down to your expert grasp of tics and cat saving.