Friday, August 23, 2019

ON WRITING: Keeping your characters in character

Interesting fiction involves interactions with multiple characters, all of whom need to be individualized, to feel true, to be distinct from one another.  Crafting compelling characters (what is going on with all this alliteration?) is a big challenge, maybe the big challenge, of any writing endeavor.  They are the engine that propels your narrative, the choices made and the conflicts that arise are what create the ebb and flow of the drama, ratcheting up the tension with an unexpected decision that cascades through a dramatic turn of events, pulling along the reader to see what happens next.  Characters are the lifeblood of your story. 

But, keeping your characters consistent (more alliteration?!?) can be difficult, especially if you're in the opening pages of your first draft.  At that point, you're still trying to figure out who these people are, trying different things, pushing them into situations, feeling them out, learning about them.  Eventually, they do become more solidified, more real, and, at times, as you're writing you'll find the choices made by your characters come almost naturally, as if they are writing themselves.  It's a pretty cool feeling when you get to that point where the people on the page act as naturally as your neighbor or your family.  But you need to write a bit to get to that point. 

Which brings me to a recent example.  My buddy, Dan (his name's up there, to the right), and I are currently writing the first draft of a YA horror novel.  I'm currently in the middle of chapter 6, and though we have pretty good descriptions for our main characters, they're still evolving and I am still not at a point where the characterizations are lodged in my brain.  I'm still learning they are while trying to remember, fully, who they've been up to now. 

A bit of context:  The setting is a small string of three islands, off the coast of Maine.  The island population barely boasts a couple hundred people, between the three.  Our main characters are two 12-year-olds, one from away, one a local.  The one from away has gone to the library to try and find some information.  He gets there, and the librarian is busy with a family, so his friend takes him to the second floor to look around, while they wait.  This second floor is surround, all the way around without a break, with windows, allowing for a 360 degree view around the building, including a straight shot to the harbor, which is about a half-mile away. 
End contextual infodump

So, our protagonist walks over to the window looking out to the harbor.  It's a pretty amazing view, and I wanted to get this across in the scene, so I had our main character thinking about what a cool view it was from there. 
And all was good, I thought.  I'd described the interior of the library fairly well, and I'd gotten some cool aspects included, with the view of the harbor from the second floor as the big piece. 

Except, our protagonist, Jim, wouldn't react this way.  (something I figured out later, while lying in bed)  He was brought to this island by his father, even though he didn't want to move.  His father has been gone for a couple of weeks, at this point, in order to work on a big fishing vessel so that they can make ends meet.  Add to this all the anxiety and frustration that comes from moving to a new place and starting at a new school, and you can imagine how much pent-up anger Jim has inside.  He's mad.  He doesn't care about some great view from the library.  He wants to go back home, where he grew up.  He wants his father back.  He wants to be anywhere but here. 

So, why would he react in such a positive, almost awestruck fashion?  Answer:  he wouldn't. 

The next day, I rewrote the end of that scene.  I had Carrie, our other main character, remark on how cool a view it was to Jim, and then he turned away, saying, "Yeah, sure," and commented on how it only made him think of how small this island was and how far away home was.  It was a good rewrite that evoked what epitomizes each of these characters.  And it felt good to catch that and keep these two people consistent.