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Friday, September 24, 2010

I'm in

The following blog post is a result of the Great Blogging Challenge issued by Elana JohnsonJennifer Daiker  and Alex Cavanaugh, in which participants were requested to discuss the topic: Writing Compelling Characters.  However, before we get to that, late in the game I found an opportunity to post a "gratitude post" facilitated by Jen at Denton Sanitorium.  This one is important to me, so, I'm including a link to a post I published a few weeks back and hope you will also read: At Long Last

Great Blogging Challenge

A few years ago, my then “tween” daughter started to watch “The Gilmore Girls,” a story about a single mom from a wealthy family raising her teenage daughter in rural CT. In those years, there wasn't much time for T.V., but when that show was on; I’d hear something intriguing, stop and sit down in front of the screen.  Before long, I gave up any pretence otherwise and planned my time to include each weekly episode.

After several years, the show went off the air, fading out with youngish single-mother Lorelei and her then adult daughter Rory sitting in the coffee shop they frequented, eating a last breakfast together before Rory moved away. For weeks after, I wondered what happened next. How did Lorelei adjust to life without her daughter Rory? Did she and Luke, the diner owner, get back together? Was Rory successful in her quest to become a journalist? Did crazy Kirk get any less crazy? I lay in bed at night making up stories that continued the lives of the characters I’d come to love. Intelligent characters. Funny characters. Sincere characters. Characters I believed in. Characters that compelled me to watch the show.

Now, that, of course, was TV. But I could give you thousands of examples of characters in books that hooked me the same way—two that captivated me early in life include Scarlett from Gone with the Wind; and Meggie from The Thornbirds.

I read both of those books as a teenager and sat bereft after finishing. In spite of the fact that she was selfish and spoiled, I rooted for Scarlett, because the author made me understand that she was insecure,  unaware of her faults and though no one but the reader knew it, deep down she hosted snippets of goodness. I was so vested in her as a character that over the years, when poor imitators wrote sequels to Gone with the Wind, I rushed to purchase them, just to realize some resolution to what happened between Scarlett and Rhett. Those sequels were not well written, but I was transported by Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 novel and therefore compelled to read them, because I had to know what happened next.

As for The Thorn Birds and Meggie—ah dear Meggie. I ached for her in that household of taciturn men, and longed to pummel her mother for her lack of compassion for her only girl. And yet, though Fiona Cleary’s aloof demeanor has such a harsh impact on Meggie, McCullough imparted enough detail about the woman's early life that as much as I wanted to slap her, I felt sympathy for her. As for Ralph, the priest, well, he should have let Meggie move on, but instead demonstrated his humanity as he was drawn back to her time and time again. The right thing would have been to stay away. The real thing, the thing that most of us would have done too,  meant coming back.

Through this believable writing, authors Margaret Mitchell and Colleen McCullough captivated me with their stories and ensured that I was emotionally attached to the players. More recently, via Harry Potter, JK Rowling mesmerized my entire family. We’ve read all the books—together out loud, or one after another. During a notable summer when our daughter was at camp, her dad read one copy at home while she brought one to New Hampshire—I wasn’t allowed to see the secret notes she enclosed to him in her letters until he finished and I could take my turn.

Rowling fashioned her characters so legitimately, that we had to read.  Harry, Ron and Hermine were charming, genuine, kind, imperfect—everything kids are in real life (well, except for the magic part). Sure they could perform spells, but similar to mere mortals children, they got in trouble.  They were chastised for  taming trolls; mistakenly took potions that transformed them into cats, and were always discovered somewhere in the castle they weren’t supposed to be.

As readers, we bought into their reality because its impact on them was plausible (Who has never experienced an after school detention after all?) and because they got into mischief as a result of admirable goals. Driven by loyalty to Professor Dumbledore, they acted out of passionate desire to defeat evil. Nothing about their circumstances is believable, yet we believe in the characters, because in their mission to defeat Voldemort, they are human and fallible like us.

Where, you might ask, is she going with all this?  Well, here's the thing. I’m not practiced at writing fiction. It’s new for me—something with which I’ve challenged myself over the last several months. So what I have to tell you may go against all professional advice, or sound as naïve as a four-year-old. But given the above examples, I’d say if you want your characters to compel your readers, you must make sure they:

  • are true to life
  • instill emotion in the reader
  • provoke sympathy or empathy
  • come with imperfections
  • act believability, even under unbelievable circumstances (i.e. Harry Potter)
  • leave the reader wanting more
If you can do this, sign me up. I’ll read your book any day.

What do you think it takes to write compelling characters?

30 comments:

Jennifer Shirk said...

Wow, SO true. Man, I LOVED Gone with the Wind and the Thornbirds. There were great characters in both of them.
I wish there was a magic formula for writing compelling characters. But I think a writer really has "be" the character when they write.

Mary said...

If you write characters this way please let me know when your book comes out I want it on my reading list.

Jen said...

I'm with you! Characters with raw emotions, making them believable, relateable, all is very important. I hope to make my characters with enough quirks that people can feel them, understand what they're going through!

I'm happy to be a new follower and thanks for joining us in this challenge! It's going to be a blast visiting everyone's blogs!

Robyn Campbell said...

Great post, Liza. I agree with everything you said. Characters have to be memorable. They have to be real. And they are, because they live in our heads. :)

Happy National Punctuation Day. :)

rae said...

Great post! I'm convinced that GOOD fiction is worlds harder than non-fiction for the very reasons you identify.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I think you nailed it with leaving the reader wanting more.

glnroz said...

I agree with you totally. I don't consider myself a writer, but "knowing" the character is more enjoyable (to me ) to write about. I like for a character to make me agree and disagree with them..and anticipate the next encounter (wanting more, i suppose). I wonder, is that the reason I check to see your post everyday? Ye'uh, that's the ticket..

Ro Magnolia said...

Such an interesting post. I have recently begun to think about this from a totally different viewpoint. Have you ever read a book where you really found yourself completely apathetic towards the main character(s)? I've read a few where I actually found the heroine to be down-right annoying and found myself with little drive to finish the book, except a somewhat apathetic curiosity to know if the character might possibly become more endearing as the pages turned. So I have begun to question what it is about these characters that leaves me cold, what makes them irritate, or at the very least bore me to tears.

Generally speaking, it is when I feel this way about characters that I am also very aware that I am reading a book. When I love the characters, I am so engrossed in the story that somehow I lose the sense of the tactile pages and cover and go beyond those defined physical limitations into another world where the characters are completely alive and living their lives in 3D colour in my mind. When I am not in love with the characters, I am very aware that the book is there in my hands, with a definite beginning and end, with black text on white paper, and words that have to be translated from visual images to an imaginative world.

It's interesting that you brought up the subject of Harry Potter. I found those books to be very interesting when I was reading them but promptly forgot all about them the second the last page was turned. I suspect it was because they are so incredibly formulaic. The characters were interesting, but the plot line was so clearly following a set standard that after I closed the book, I had zero interest in what happened to the characters. Somehow, I never once forgot that they were fictional and that they had no life outside of the the pages of the book.

Other books, totally different experience! To this day, I mourn the heroine in a particular mystery series I read years ago. After writing three in the series, the author died and although she died long before I ever picked up the first book, I was so devastated to learn that she was never able to finish the series. Her characters were so alive, intriguing, and lovable that I feel like they came alive in my own mind and so I carry them with me to this day in a small part of my memory.

So what is the difference? What is it about some characters that leaves me cold? Not sure yet, but I'm wondering ... is it that the characters are less believable? Or are they just fashioned after people I wouldn't actually like in real life? Or, in the case of Harry Potter, are they lovable characters but not strong enough to carry them past a weak/repetitive plot line?

Elana Johnson said...

Excellent thoughts. I do think we must appeal to the emotions of a reader, really make that connection, so they will wonder about them after they finish. Be it TV or books, they should do the same thing.

jen said...

I'm leaving my comment here, hoping you'll find it.
Thanks for linking your letter to my post today. It was absolutely beautiful, and I'm so sorry it took such a tragedy to awaken those feelings.
Thanks again!

Robin said...

Something I recently read on an author page is that you always must increase the tension as you are writing. You read that and thought to yourself, "Well, that is obvious." Except sometimes when you are writing you spill too much too soon. It is all about layering the tension. Not telling too much too soon. How you roll out the story so that it has just the right amount of tension and punch is important. And it isn't as easy as it sounds. Since I read that I stopped working on my novel and started reading again. It is one of things I look for as I am reading. How is this author layering the tension in this story? When you read strictly for enjoyment you don't even notice it. When you read as a writer, you do. You start reading on two different levels. It feels weird.

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Super list, Liza! I think you nailed the most important things. I gotta believe them and I gotta care. And when they stick with me long after the book is finished, I know the author got it right.

Stephanie Faris said...

I remember back in the 90s when "fanfic" was huge...people would get frustrated with the way storylines were going on their favorite shows (usually shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and write their own. I guess many of those people are writing books or blogs today!

Bish Denham said...

I know the characters of a story I'm reading have gotten to me when I continue the story in my head after I turned off my light.

Heather said...

I think a character that sticks with a reader is wonderful, and really the best way that a writer knows they've created a compelling character - when they get those questions, "What happened to them now??"

Talei said...

Great examples!! I think the best characters are the ones who think about long after the book is finished or the movie is over. You wonder about them and hope for a sequel! ;)

Glad I found your blog too. ;)

Melissa said...

SOOOO true. When I love characters I sit, long after, and imagine other possibilities for their lives, what happened after. They stick with me and I think about them a lot. This post was great.

I hope I can pull off all of the aspects you mentioned as I would love it if, one day, readers felt about my characters the way I feel about my favorites.

paulgreci said...

The part that resonated most with me was "leaving the reader wanting more." If you can do that, you are probably doing everything else.
Thanks!!

Carolina Valdez Miller said...

So um, are we the same person? Because you love everything I love. I was obsessed with the Gilmore Girls!!! And oh my word, The thornbirds and Gone with the Wind, be still, my heart!!! and oh dear Harry...

Anyway, I digress...great breakdown for compelling characters. I think the very best mcs are the ones that leave you wanting to imagine the rest of their lives after the story.

Helen Ginger said...

Not practiced at writing fiction? You just wrote a post about how you wrote fiction, albeit in your head. Nonetheless, you were creating.

And your list is spot on.

Jennifer Hoffine said...

Loved Gilmore Girls...you're right, incredible characters!

Nice post.

Kittie Howard said...

Hi, I'm dropping in from the blog fest. Nice to meet you!

Gone with the Wind and The Thorn Birds, my two all-time favorites (and both read several times.) The characters remained in my head long after the book closed for all the reasons you wrote about. I also think layering the tension works.

This is a really great post. I'm happy to follow you.

Pondside said...

I think your list is complete - with one addition.....a best-selling fiction writer told me that she never forgets her reader, and that she respects her reader.

Quinn said...

I love how you give multiple examples and all the advice. Great post!

N. R. Williams said...

I love those characters too and wanted to yell most of my way through The Thorn Birds. But, Harry Potter is my favorite. But then, I love fantasy.
Nancy
N. R. Williams, fantasy author

Elizabeth Mueller said...

True! I so believe that a great writer can give a rock dimension by bestowing an deep emotion into the reader's head! A boy picks it up and tosses it into the lake, leaving the family of rocks at his feet that cry out, 'don't throw daddy in!' LOL, yeah, you get what I mean!!

Come and visit me!

Nicole Zoltack said...

I love love love Gone with the Wind but refuse to read the so-called sequels. From everything I've read, they fall so short of the original that it isn't even worth it. But Scarlett and Rhett did get together, of that I'm sure. :)

Julie said...

Great post! And you are so right. I recently re-watched a few seasons of a favorite (and long gone) TV show, just because I needed to check in with the characters that compelled me. And I wish they'd come back and compel me some more. :)

Sandra Ulbrich Almazan said...

Any character that makes you want to read more about him/her is definitely compelling!

Cinette said...

Leaving a reader wanting more - that's my goal. Hopefully I can meet it!