Blogging about the process…while I write The Kaleidoscope, a Novel of Unusual Circumstances – Entry 2
My main character, Harold, is the most complicated character, and he should be, because most of the book will be from his point of view- POV. And because of that, he’s the one whom I should pay the most attention to in preparing to write. Because I challenged myself to really get into his head, I have been studying how other authors do it.
To make it workable, I will concentrate on three major areas:
- Use details that resonate – sprinkling in small moments from Harold’s memories will make him seem more real, less cardboard
- Demonstrate motivation with feelings– people are emotional beings, and before we form words, we feel our hurts and hates.*
- Know a character’s backstory, shames, accomplishments, and what he WANTS, even if every detail doesn’t seem important at first.
I read a couple of novels recently that demonstrated these points really well. Tammy Greenwood’s “Two Rivers,” is a first person POV of a widower with a young daughter who becomes involved with a girl stranded after a train wreck. Greenwood’s depiction of Harper meets all the rules for writing a dimensional character. From the beginning, we’re drawn into Harper’s world:
“Once, a long time ago, I made a split-second decision that has made me question who I am, what I am capable of, every day since. And this instant, this horrible moment, has haunted every other moment of my life. I don’t think I am a bad man, but sometimes I just don’t know.” (Kindle loc 222)
Immediately, we’re into Harper’s head, feeling his angst and also, cleverly enticed by Greenwood to keep turning the pages to find out what happened so long ago. Conflict and mystery!
Some complain that deeply written character-based stories have little plot, but Greenwood’s able to handle both because her character’s thoughts and memories help to move the plot forward, adding dimension:
“On Christmas Eve we always stayed up until midnight. And just as my mother’s Windsor chimes rang out, my father would make a big show of going to get the Yule log (which was actually nothing special, just the biggest piece of wood on the wood pile), and my mother would ceremonially disappear into their bedroom. A few minutes later, she would come out with a handful of splinters from the previous year’s log, which she kept in a shoebox under her bed. This tradition, pilfered from her distant European ancestors, was meant to keep the house safe from fire and other demons. I hadn’t thought about the irony of this, one of my mother’s few but beloved customs, until this moment. I felt suddenly wrecked with nostalgia.” (Kindle loc 3771)
Harper recalls this childhood memory with such detail we feel as if we’re there with him…no! We feel as if it’s OUR memory. It would take me two more pages to list all the details Greenwood packed in here about her MC. You’ll have to read for yourself why this memory is another important tactic. By the way kids, did you spot the RESONANCE? Another important tool.
Another master at character development is author Joanne Bischof. In “Be Still My Soul,” bad boy Gideon finds himself in a shotgun wedding. (Bad boys are particularly tough to cast as main characters, but Bischof’s a genius at making us love and hate him at the same time. In this scene, Gid regards his life situation so we know how he feels about his dilemma:
“Whether he wanted to or not, he’d have to take responsibility for his family…The thought sobered Gideon, fueling the fire under his feet. He would have to find work soon. And a house. He could not offer his family much, not in eight months, but there would be a roof over their heads…Through his own blood and sweat, he would spend the rest of his days repaying an unseen debt. Apparently God hadn’t been satisfied with his sacrifices already. With his fingertips, Gideon turned his glass in a slow circle on the table.
Figures.” (paperback, p 135.)
*Each author paints an internal picture, never using the words “feel” or “thought” but actually walking the reader through the thought process.
To do that, an author skillfully shows, not tells using natural beats, action and emotion. “To convey feelings well, a writer must also utilize nonverbal communication, which can be broken down into three elements: physical signals, (body language and actions), internal sensations (visceral reactions) and mental responses (thoughts).” “The Emotion Thesaurus” (Kindle loc 93)
Why does this work so well? There’s actually psychology involved!
In “Million Dollar Outlines,” David Farland explains that when reading fiction, our minds don’t separate what’s going on with a character and reality. It’s like we really get in there and feel the experiences. A surface treatment of “he anguished” or “worried about” wouldn’t provide the same response in us, the reader, as the two examples.
Another ingredient that’s important is conflict. Notice in both samples, each of the guys struggles against something. They’re not cardboard guys wearing the latest jeans and cologne, they have spiritual selves, railing against God in Gid’s case, or being chased by guilt in Harper’s.
Back to Kaleidoscope. Here is Harold’s character description, so far:
Harold XXX (no last name, yet) a 39 year-old divorcee, works in a bank processing commercial loan paperwork. His ex-wife, Georgia, left him for the Sparklett’s delivery guy, telling Harold he was boring and dull, and would never make anything of his life. Ruddy complected, he pays great attention to his appearance, pressed slacks and white button down shirts, laundered weekly. He also keeps his cubicle at work immaculate, and expects everyone else to do the same. He lives in an apartment complex within walking distance, across a city park from his work, making it convenient since he doesn’t drive (having failed every driving test he’s ever taken). Harold has a plan to win Georgia back; he’s convinced that if he gets a promotion he will once again earn her respect, but first he must correct all his officemate’s errors, which will prove his worthiness for the job visiting commercial properties to evaluate them for their loan status. But since he doesn’t drive…
Here are the books I’ve referenced in this post:
What books would you recommend that drew you into the character? Books on craft?
What do you think of Harold so far?
*update! Kristen Lamb has a blog that you HAVE to subscribe to if you are serious about writing. Here is one she just posted on complicated characters. Creating Multi-dimensional characters. Must. Read.