Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Making it Real

When I think back on some of the plots of books I’ve really liked, some of them seem utterly preposterous. And yet at the time, I was totally engaged and went along for the whole ride. How does that happen? It’s all about engagement with the characters.

I have read some pretty good books with characters I wouldn’t want to know. Also, if a plot is intriguing enough and the setting well established, you can limp along with so-so characters. If the plot is teaching you something, that can also make up for dull characters.

But the best of all reading worlds is when the characters seemed like real people.

How does an author do that?

I recently had an experience that reminded how it works. I’m working on a thriller. In the first draft, I skimmed over my protagonist, knowing I would go back and “fill in the blanks.” He’s a guy. A guy with a special ops background of some kind. A guy with a girlfriend, and a son, and some kind of bank job. Blah, blah. I figured I would get to know him as I wrote, and that in the next drafts I would build on what I learned about him. I know a lot of western men, and I figured I’d be fine.

In the book there are also Middle Eastern men, Arab Afghanis. I know no one who fits that general description, so I worked hard to find out what these men would look like; the kind of clothes they would wear; the things they could be proud of, angry about, afraid of; their attitudes toward strangers, towards their family members, both men and women; toward their peers and their servants. I tried to find out what their homes would look like inside and out—what kinds of rooms they would have, their furniture. What would they spend money on? I worked hard to picture them not as “they” but as familiar individuals. I struggled to give them believable quirks, likes, and dislikes.

I gave the first 100 pages to my writers group to find out what was working and what wasn’t. Although I shouldn’t have been, I was surprised when they all said the Afghani characters were more interesting and more believable than the western characters.

What that means is that the better characters are those that an author has worked hard to get to know as individuals. It’s not enough to know that my protagonist is “a guy” who has elevated training of some kind that gives him the ability to overcome the obstacles in the plot—it’s more interesting to know why he sought that special training, what he has done with it, and where’s he’s going. Not A guy, but THE guy. He’s someone specific, with traits that come out of his experiences; that makes him behave certain ways in certain circumstances based on his pasts, his fears, his dreams. That’s when the character becomes real.

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