Thursday, October 30, 2014

Your Character is Your Contract with the Reader

We've talked quite a bit here on the blog about building and developing great characters in our stories, but we've not quite sliced it this way before. So, at the suggestion of one of our readers (and one of my writing mentors), this week let's talk about how we honor the contract we have with our readers in terms of our characters and how they interact with our stories. 

Characters are met in an instance but defined over time. As such, how do you remain true to your character as he or she or it (and you!) encounter the various twists and turns of a story?

Peter Welmerink: Character and plot need to weave about each other and grow together. Both need to develop simultaneously to maintain the readers curiosity, retention and draw to both. Having a great character in a stale plot line, or vice versa, will kill a story for me. You don't need both punching you in the face the whole time vying for your unwavering attention, but there needs to be that give-a-shit factor with both or I, like anyone else, will simply put down the book and move on to something else.

Lance Stahlberg: There's an interesting balancing act that goes on in telling a good story. Readers get invested in characters. Characters are what will drive your story and keep your readers coming back. Character is king. That said, focusing a story entirely on a character runs the risk of getting boring fast. They need to be involved in an interesting plot. Character-driven stories tend to come off as pretentious to me. So you ideally are going for a plot-driven story with a solid, memorable character to follow through events.

So here's the trick, which gets closer to answering your questions here: Characters have to be flexible. They must be solid enough to engage readers, but they have to be adaptable to those twists and turns you want to throw at them without screwing up your narrative. You stay true to them above all else by getting into their heads.

Mark Koch: Character comes first and foremost. They are the life to the setting and what makes a story something other than a beautiful photograph, whatever the medium.

Ellie Raine: My version of “remaining true” to a character is kind of hard to explain. I usually write in a first person perspective, so in regards to the narrating character, I sort of shift my personality during the writing. My way of thinking changes, my morals change (only for these sessions), and my history/childhood/upbringing changes. So in a sense, I’m not me when I’m writing. I’m that character. If something dramatic happens to them, the gears turning my brain are synced with theirs. Whatever their instant, knee jerk reaction to that situation is, that is what I feel "rings true” for them.

Though, for the characters surrounding the narrator (or those in 3rd person), I pretend that I’m observing my friends (or strangers I’ve encountered) during those dramatic events in the story. If my mind isn’t in the story, or if it is shoved out during the writing, then that’s a red-flag for me. If I’m thrust out of the story and am reminded that I’m writing it, that tells me the characters probably wouldn’t be reacting this way—and I try again with a different reaction.

Selah Janel: I think it’s important to remember where a character starts at, but to also allow room for growth. I’ve changed considerably over the years, so it’s unfair for me to think I can dictate everything blow by blow for a character. If something comes up that I initially didn’t plan on for that person, I’ve learned to embrace it because it’ll often make a story better.

Percival Constantine: Character is key. You have to know your character more intimately than you know your significant other, your parents, your children, etc.

Dave Creek: Depending upon the particular problem, you could go in the other direction -- take the story in a new direction based upon who your character has become. That might even lead you down a path you never would have thought of otherwise.

Logan Masterson: The world itself can often provide guidance, too. Especially with genre fiction, antagonists are free to provide all kinds of interference. Then there are geography, weather, and a bazillion other variables at our fingertips. Lastly, there are subplots. Not only do they round out characters, but they can guide them too. Subplots should intertwine with the main plot, and leading a character toward the goal is probably the best way to do that.

What do you do when you face that moment when you must chose between character and advancing the plot, when one seems to be a forced fit onto or into the other?

Ellie Raine: It depends on the plot points before this moment. If I write out those points on a whiteboard and see that I have too much characterization already, I will try to focus more on plot. If there is too much plot and not enough characterization, I will focus on character.

Percival Constantine: That's simple—you change your plot. This is why I keep my plot outlines somewhat free and loose, so I have freedom to change them if the character changes in ways that I didn't take into account when writing that plot.

Mark Koch: Well defined characters don't have to be so rigid in that definition as to be unbending. Hit something rigid hard enough and you will find that it will dent or crack. Those moments are some of the best moments in character development -- when we see that the characters have depth and more dimension than the sound bite voice over.

H. David Blalock: Okay, I'm going to just put this out there and say this is my opinion and you know what they say about opinions.

Story-telling has gone from simply telling a story to the tale having to be riddled with "relateable" people. Since the advent of soap-opera fiction, readers have changed in their expectations towards identification with the players. Readers want to inhabit the hero (or the villain, depending on the reader's character). However, character development is part of the plot. It shouldn't be a problem to have the character react differently than expected as long as the progressive growth of the character itself is plausible. 

Most every story relates a change in a character from one state to another, whether through conflict or epiphany. As such, all characters should act "out of character" at least once as an expression of that growth. The magnitude of that odd behavior should define the level of radical growth the character experiences. 

In other words, if a character must act "out of character" to forward the plot (and the writer doesn't want to completely abandon the storyline) then the character must adapt. Plot advancement trumps character action.

Marian Allen: If there's a conflict between what you need the character to do and what the character WOULD do as you've developed her, and you absolutely can't get some other character to do the thing or reshape the plot, then you need to sit down and pretend you're having a heart-to-heart with your character. "Why would you do this thing? It seems so unlike you." Eventually, you come up with a wrinkle in the character that makes the thing INEVITABLY what she would do. Then you make a note of it and go back and iron that wrinkle into the fabric of what came before.

Lance Stahlberg: There is a metaphysical aspect to writing. Instead of just being a puppeteer and making your creations do whatever you want, you have to give them life. You know that you need the plot to move from A to B and somehow get to C. But when your character is confronted with a situation where you need them to go one way, but they refuse because it would go against their nature, the character wins every time.

It's now your job to figure out how to get things back on track. There's a lot you can do to finagle events to move things where you want them to go, but not quite as much when it comes to characters, once they are established.

Selah Janel: I stop and think very carefully about why I’m trying to choose one over the other. For me, they go hand in hand…a character is either reacting to the plot in an authentic way, or the way they act move the plot forward. For me, personally, if I come to a point where I’m in crisis, it’s usually because I’m trying to force something to happen and it’s either not being translated right by the characters or it’s just the wrong thing to happen. On the flip side, I may think up new ideas mid-manuscript and stop to rehaul everything because it’s a better idea than what I’d initially planned. I have to be very honest with myself at times – am I writing something that’s best for the manuscript for that character, or am I going slightly AU because I’m amused and it’s what I want to read? Is there some way to combine the two to preserve what I like but still move things forward and stay true to the character?

A friend of mine once said that "making the character perform an action that runs contrary to his or her character just to move the plot forward is a betrayal of the trust of the reader." Agree or disagree? Why?

Frank Fradella: Witness The Mummy 2. In the first film, the entire plot is driven by the love of two people -- Imhotep and Anuck Su-Namun. Without that backbone, you have no story. By the time the second film comes around, they have both proven their love over and over again, even winning against death itself.

And yet at the end of The Mummy 2, when the stone temple is crashing down around them, Anuck Su-Namun gets scared and leaves Imhotep to die?

I call bullshit. The entire story hinged on that relationship, and they threw it away in an effort to make the "heroes" look better. THAT was a betrayal of the characters. I was very, VERY angry with them over that."

Logan Masterson: Characters can sometimes frustrate us, and never moreso than when they refuse to stick to the script. I, for one, am always looking at ways to subtly influence my players to keep them in line, but I'm pretty good at it. Characterization is just natural for me. I pay close attention to each major character's known and unknown motivations. I sometimes do mindmaps of these relationships. Then, I can use other characters to nudge a contrarian in the right direction.

Selah Janel: A little of both. I think yes, you have to be careful to not let your personal interest control the character in a way that the reader is going to find disheartening…..but at the end of the day you are the author. You’re the one with the pen. It’s your idea. I think it’s also slightly dangerous to be writing with the intent of giving people what they want, especially if that’s not true to your original (or slightly altered, even) vision. It’s just as dangerous to pander as it is to try to force a character to do something that isn’t necessarily in their wheelhouse, in my opinion. If the plot needs to move, it needs to move – that may mean stopping and taking extra time to rework the plot, it may mean taking time to rework a character or redefine what that character’s actions might be, but I also feel that worrying too much about what readers are going to think is something that will compromise the end product, as well.

Ellie Raine: Again, this depends. If there was a strong reason for the character to go against his usual behavior, then I’m more likely to accept it. But if there is no explanation, I will forever question why a character did something so unexpected and irrational (according to their established personality).

Mark Koch: If you have to force a character forward or into a situation or action contrary to their dictates as they are defined- be true to those dictates regardless. Have them react accordingly. Force them, by means of outside influences or fate, but then keep them honest by expressing anger, or outrage, or sadness, or irritation and defiance. At the very least, give a window to some guilt or shame afterwards depending upon what the plot requires.

If someone walked up to you or me and compelled either of us to do something we would not choose to do- we'd have a predictable reaction. If it was truly contrary, that reaction might even create an opportunity for a new plot point or story of its own. Revenge. Redemption. Regret.

Percival Constantine: Agree completely. This is why I think it's important to have flexibility in your plot. I was a huge fan of the TV show How I Met Your Mother, yet the series finale was one of the worst endings I'd ever seen in any medium. To the creators' credit, they had a fixed ending in mind, something that doesn't often happen in TV and especially not in sitcoms. But over the course of the show's nine-year run, the characters evolved and that original ending no longer made sense. Yet the creators still insisted on using it and the result was an incoherent mess that betrayed the trust of the viewers. 

Jay Wilburn: If the character doesn't fit the action and being forced into committing the action can't be explained by the circumstance or some change in the character, then the story outline is wrong. The course of events needs to be rethought to fit the world and characters you created. It may only be a small adjustment in the end. It might be a different journey than you expected to the same destination. It might be a different story than the one you originally thought you were writing. As you need to be ready to kill your characters, you also need to be ready to kill your original story outline when it has outlived its usefulness.

Lance Stahlberg: Wholeheartedly agree. A reader will notice characters acting out character faster than they will notice a supposed plot hole. They can be pretty forgiving of the latter if you keep the characters enjoyable.

At what point, if any, does the reader's need supercede that of the storyteller? Is there a time when it becomes more important to move plot forward "come hell or high water"?

Lance Stahlberg: Never. If you can't move your story forward in a way that keeps your characters consistent, then either your plot sucks, or your character sucks. Or maybe just the corner you wrote yourself into sucks. Both the plot outline and the characters have to be malleable enough to get through those rough patches.

I mean, there are ways to get away with a character being forced to act in a way they normally might not want to. Heat of the moment, stress under pressure, an impossible choice with no “right” answer, false perception at odds with what's actually happening. Or maybe a core trait of the character is that they are unpredictable. But there always has to be some way to reconcile what a character does with who they are. Always. At minimum, you have to acknowledge in the narration or inner dialogue that they acted oddly, which you could always explore later. But never ignore it.

Mark Koch: Storytelling gives your character lemons because the plot has to advance? Have them do something with them, be it make lemonade or curse the lemons and grind them under their heel.

Great characters don't appear to be directed in the story, they appear to be reacting to it as it unfolds. Give them choices that are true to who they are- even if they don't get choices in the outcome they can always choose their inward or outward reaction.

Dave Creek: You can take the character anywhere you want her to go as long as you motivate that action. It may take going backwards and putting in the motivator earlier in the story.

Ellie Raine: The only time I can justify sacrificing character development for plot is when a reader is half way (or sometimes near the end) of the book and still doesn’t know where the hell it’s going. I’ve read too many books that only cared about developing characters, and so went entire stories staying in the exact same place with little plot advancement. But on the other hand, I’ve read a few books where they didn’t give a damn about character development, and I ended up not caring about the characters at all.

Percival Constantine: Never. Characters can change and grow over time so they shouldn't be stagnant, but at the same time that change has to be visible. A character who was once a paragon of virtue and honesty in chapter one can't suddenly be a lying, back-stabbing bastard in chapter ten without any reason for that change. If you get to a point where you have to move the plot in a way that is contrary to your character, then you need to change the plot or go back and see where you went wrong with that character's development.

Selah Janel: I worry about moving plot forward on a schedule more with shorts or anthology calls than I do individual projects. That being said, I do think you have to keep a balance in pacing the plot and everything else. That being said, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t work together. Plot needs character and character needs plot. It really also comes down to show don’t tell –- this is where you need to figure out ways to showcase your characterizations as quickly or succinctly as possible to keep the story rolling while still being true to your cast.