Thursday, May 21, 2015

How to Make Characters Relatable

It's Dan today and I'm here to talk about a tricky element of writing: making characters that are relatable to the reader. This might be more of a "Writing Craft 202" issue, for those writers who pass the 101 class, where one learns how to write coherent sentences and the basic structure of a story.

Among my agented friends, the old chestnut "I didn't connect with the main character" seems to be a reason for editor rejections. Let's ignore the possibility that this is publishing industry speak for I don't want it but don't have a specific reason, and discuss how to tackle the problem.

What Makes Characters Relatable?

I don't claim to be an expert in this, so I'll defer to Ben Bova:
"The protagonist must be admirable, or at least likable, but he should have at least one glaring weakness." -Ben Bova
Fundamentally, relatable characters are ones that we care about. Some things that might make me care about a character include:

  • Admirable qualities, such as courage, intelligence, honesty, and work ethic. (Example: Ned Stark from A Game of Thrones)
  • Sources of pain and suffering, be they physical or emotional or both. (Example: Harry Potter)
  • Strong motivation and proactivity (Example: Katniss from The Hunger Games)
  • Feelings and emotions that leap off the page (Example: Tris from Divergent)

I'll admit that the last one, item #4, is where I struggle the most. I'm an action guy: my characters are more likely to take a swing at something than sit around and think about their feelings. But I have it on good authority that my co-bloggers are experts at this sort of thing, so I look forward to their takes on it.

How Do You Make Your Characters Relatable?

It's your turn! What makes characters more relatable to you? How do you go about writing them?

Lisa: Please don't make them perfect in every way then realize too late that you've done this and give them a freckle on their nose that they whine about in order to make them less perfect.
My favorite characters are hard to like because they're so very flawed. Yet, it's impossible to not like them because you've made them so realistic. Just be wary, all personality flaws need to have a background or else you risk losing  readers' "I like this character even though she's a _____" exception.
My go-to for a character, especially a main character, is interviews. You need to ask your character a hundred questions, and have them answer in first person even if you're writing in 3rd person. You figure out your character's motivations, big or small, idiosyncrasies, etc. when you do this.

Caitlin: My husband and I were just watching old episodes of Arrested Development and we were talking about why the new version felt flat with us (and many other people). In the original, Michael and his son, George Michael, are relatable. They have flaws, for sure. Michael can sometimes be a little bit selfish (though nothing like his other family members) and George Michael is hopelessly awkward. But they have desires and cares and are trying to be their version of a good person. So, it doesn't matter that the rest of the characters in the show are completely unrelatable because they are ridiculously self-centered. We can hold on to Michael and George Michael, who aren't so hopeless, and laugh at the ridiculous situations. But, in the second one, when those characters weren't the center and were portrayed as pretty ridiculous themselves, then there was no footing.

So, I think a relatable character is someone who's trying to be a better person, even though they often fail at it. Now, a "better person" can mean a lot of different things depending on a character’s and world’s values, so you don't have to have a super warm and fuzzy character, but if the character isn't somewhat aware of his or her faults, and actively trying to combat those faults, then it would be pretty boring to follow them around for a whole book.

Karlie: For me, a character becomes relatable when they start fighting for something other than their own life/desires. Or when they mess up seemingly beyond the point of no return. I can relate to both those things, and it makes me sympathize with them. Honestly, I think everyone relates to things differently. And this is digressing somewhat, but I have the opposite problem you do, Dan - my characters tend to sit around and reflect way too much! So I think it's finding that balance between the characters realizing what the problem is and acting to fix it.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

The most important thing I've "discovered" as a writer

Hi, everyone. It's Lisa on the spot today.

There are some invaluable things writers have discovered, lessons we have learned. I believe we should share with some of our less experienced writers, or even the experienced ones who just haven't had the fortune to stumble upon the "great thing" that you have.

For some people, it's a certain outlining software. For others, it's a valuable lesson learned about plots. We might like to hear your very valuable lesson.

My most important thing is meditating. It slows your brain, makes you see clearer. Makes you understand things about your characters/story that you couldn't understand before.

What is your most important thing? Why?

Dan: I'd say the most important thing I've learned is the importance of building relationships with other writers who are near your level. This is different from networking or building a following, but rather a handful of close writer confidantes. Writing is a tough business to be in, and there's always a temptation to shout your discontent from the mountaintops of blogs and social media. That's rarely a good idea. If you have close writer friends who understand the struggle, you can talk (rant) to them in private channels without the worry of a PR fallout. If and when you finally do have some success, your close writer friends will also become your staunchest supporters. In short, a good friend is worth his or her weight in gold.

Caitlin:  Both good points! I think the most important lesson to learn, and that I still often need to remind myself, is that every writer has to find and then follow his/her own path. Sure, a famous author got that way by doing X, Y, Z. Or maybe one of your Twitter friends is having success with A, B. and C, etc. But that doesn't necessarily mean that you have to do A, B, C, X, Y, and Z. Some or all of those letters might not be right for you, and that's okay! :)

Thursday, May 7, 2015

When You Have No Time to Write

I’ll admit, life has been throwing me a few curveballs lately! They aren’t necessarily bad curveballs (and could even be great curveballs) as long as I can hit them correctly. But, hitting them just right requires a lot of time, energy, and focus. (And I’ll also admit that I don’t know much about baseball, so I hope that analogy works!)

While those curveballs are taking a huge toll on my writing time, I’ve also realized that it’s during the somewhat tumultuous times that I need writing the most. The creative release helps me refocus and re-energize.

But where to fit it in amongst all these other tasks and concerns? I usually type, but I’ve since bought a small notebook that I carry everywhere so I can write whenever I’ve got a moment. Just this morning, on my commute, I sketched out a new outline (which I fleshed out in my head while falling asleep/taking a shower/walking around, etc.) that I’m pretty excited about! So even if I haven’t been able to get lost for hours in a world (something I love doing), I still have ideas percolating and I’m getting things down.

What do you do to fit in writing even when the rest of life demands a lot of you?

Dan: Finding time to write got more complicated when I had kids, which should surprise exactly no one. Now, I usually make time first thing in the morning or after they've gone to bed. It's tough, because the morning time is limited and the night time has me fighting against the urge to sleep. But I agree, it's good to keep going even when life gets crazy.

I'm a big fan of the notebook and pen method. Not only can you carry a notebook and pen just about anywhere, you can often get away with using them to write/outline/plan without being obviously-on-the-computer. It's useful for finding little moments of downtime and getting down ideas when they strike.

Lisa: This is the prompt I needed this week. Your notebook advice is most welcome, Dan and Caitlin. I've been so sad and disturbed about my lack of writing time lately, and I was just trying to figure out how I'm going to juggle it all. And the "all" I'm talking about are very necessary and desired parts of my life. I've nearly cut out all of television, though I could finish cutting the rest of that out. It does nothing for me, not even in the storytelling/research department. I am realizing I'm no longer taking anything in, just entertaining myself. And really, it'd be so much better (and efficient) to entertain myself in my own stories. So, that's my advice, cut down on television and the time you cut will surprise you as far as how much you can put toward your writing. And I'll use the above advice - take a notebook with me. Which I do already, but it had become more of an inactive object rather than an active writing device. It was for "if I think of something" instead of "so I can think of something." Also, I've been wasting a lot more time on social media than I used to. I realize that writers need to stay involved in that department, but if I'm not writing anything, there'll be nothing for followers to read eventually. Writing is more important.