Friday, September 27, 2013

Take Your Time with Characters

“I am a stranger in a strange land.”
                -Charlton Heston, The Ten Commandments
Try not to front load your story with facts and exposition about your characters.  What they’re all about, where they come from, the 1-2-3 of what a reader needs to know to understand them, you will have plenty of time for that.  Let who your characters are and what they've been through become a mystery that unfolds in the course of the story.  This will give your readers another reason to turn the page.  It is no different from meeting a person in your own life.  We get to know people gradually over hours of interaction and conversation, and if we are talking with an interesting person who we discover we like, this is a conversation that we hope will not soon stop.  Don't rob your readers of that chance at discovery by telling them everything up front.

I wish I had a lot of really good examples handy of books that do this exceptionally well, and books that don’t.  I can think of one manuscript in particular that does a great job revealing character relationships gradually through a lot of flashbacks, playing up the mystery approach, but subtly.  Unfortunately the manuscript hasn't been published, so what good does that do any of us? 

A severe example from film is Citizen Kane, where the whole movie turns on the question of what happened to shape the character of a rich newspaper mogul whose final words of regret were “rosebud.”  Dickens’ A Christmas Carol takes the same form.  As Dickens’ ghost story unfolds, we learn about the complexity of Scrooge’s character, or at least his past, the reliving of which brings the old miser crashing into an epiphany.  In these stories, the mystery of the leading character is a propelling force of the narrative.  The questions are writ large: why is Kane so distraught at his death?  Why ‘rosebud’?  How does a mean bastard like Scrooge get to be who he is?  Was he always that way?

The key, in any case, is that these questions linger.  They aren't dashed off in brief.  Any time we meet a new character, we all ask the same question, like our old mothers or children at the movies: “Who is that?”  As an author, you ask yourself the same question when anyone new shows up on your page.  Resist the urge to answer that question in detail right then and there.  It reads the same as a long interruption of all the interesting things actually going on in the movie while you try to explain to your mom everything she needs to know about a given character.  You both end up missing a lot, and take the wind out of any character revelations to come.  When you write these interruptions, the effect is worse.  Now you don't diminish the impact of later revelations.  Those moments never happen, and characters can feel stagnant.

This character business is one of the things writers talk about when they talk about showing instead of telling.  You don't have to have all of the answers at once.  In fact, that's preferable. So when you’re writing and that little voice in the dark pipes out, “Who is that?” remember what you actually say at the movies.  “Wait and see.”

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