On Writing: A Character’s Emotions

How would you react to the end of your world? In Groundhog Day, each morning was the same and only Phil Connors changed as he lived through the monotony of his new world. Interestingly enough, such monotony would make it easier for you to cope; you would know what each day would bring.

But what if the opposite were true? What if you woke up to a different world every day, where nothing was familiar and nothing made sense? You would learn to cope with the current day as best as you could, but the next day you would have to start coping all over again in an entirely different milieu. Even worse, everyone you know has disappeared. One day they were there, the next day . . . nothing.

In my current work in progress, my hero is struggling with this very problem, but it seems to me as if he’s being a bit too accepting of the situation. Dealing with his neurotic mother all his life could have trained him to be adaptable, which would make him accepting. He could be shell-shocked, which could explain his lack of emotion. He is dealing with the possibility that he’s gone crazy, which could further explain why he’s not emoting all over the place. And, to top it all off, he is in the denial stage regarding the deaths/deletion/disappearance of his mother and his friends.

But the question arises: are his the proper reactions for the situation? Could his restrained emotions be due to my lack of understanding of the human psyche, my inability to write emotional scenes, or perhaps simply my dislike of overly emotional characters?

Emotions are seldom pure and simple; they come mixed, like love and hate, fear and attraction. Sometimes they are inappropriate, such as laughter at funerals, anger at imagined slights. Some people have extreme emotional swings, and other people react unemotionally no matter what happens. And sometimes, the more outrageous the situation, the less emotion it garners.

With such wildly divergent possibilities, in the end, it comes down to what I can make the reader believe, and more importantly, what I can make myself believe. If I believe his reactions are the proper ones, I can write them properly. I like the idea that he is a stoic guy moving through his changing world until one insignificant problem arises to send him over the edge. But if he is that stoic, will he go over the edge? I think not.

And so it goes.

Creating a Character — Part V

Interesting characters make interesting stories, not the other way around. Cardboard cutouts and comic book heroes serve the needs of many popular books today, but I want more than that for my current work. A tongue-in-cheek apocalyptic novel, it could easily dissolve into foolishness without a well-developed character to give it credibility. During my last few posts, I have been profiling this character, but he is still not fleshed out. He needs physical characteristics, though not all characters are defined by the way they look. If I remember correctly, Mark Twain never described Huckleberry Finn.

Does it matter what my character looks like? I won’t know for sure until I start writing the book, but I doubt it. He is an ordinary guy who becomes extraordinary because of all he endures. Now that I think about it, that is the basic plot of all of my books, and one I never get tired of reading or writing. I realize that to sell in this tight market, a book has to immediately capture the attention of an agent, an editor, a reader, and to do that you need more than an average guy. But I am so tired of reading about gutsy females, stone-cold business executives, leftover war heroes, beaten-down cops, bitchy/successful/beautiful/rich women, muscle-bound gunslingers, that an average guy suits me and my story just fine.

My main characters all tend to be stoic, which make them seem unbelievable or standoffish. Most people like to experience emotions vicariously, and if characters react stoically, it makes it hard for readers to identify with them. So I need a character tag: a habit or trait that helps Chip stand out from the page. It’s a simple thing, but I decided he likes candy — not just any candy, but something specific like licorice or butterscotch. He always carries a few pieces with him, and then one day not long after the world ends, he reaches into his pocket for a candy that isn’t there. This, more than anything else he has experienced, tells him that the world he knew is gone, and his stoicism slips. Does he cry? Scream? Have a temper tantrum? Throw things?

I don’t know. I guess we’ll find out after I write the book.

Creating a Character — Part I

Plot without characters to give it life is merely a recitation of activity, and characters without plot to give them meaning go nowhere. The best way to learn about your characters is to throw them into the plot and see what they do, what they say, and what they think. In this bizarre merry-go-round called fiction writing, however, characters drive plot, which means that you need to know who your characters are before you can begin figuring out where they are going.

I have always had a general idea of who my main character was before I started writing a novel, but I have never created a history or a full-bodied character sketch for him or her beforehand. Although the writing experts say such a sketch is necessary, I never saw the point in generating material I would not use. But since I am getting nowhere with my latest writing venture, I thought I would try it. See where it leads.

I decided the hero is going to be a man. Originally I had planned on a woman, but as I said in an earlier post, the man has the stronger story and the more poignant choices to make, so he will make a better point-of-view character. For purposes of this sketch, I will call him Chip.

What I know so far about Chip’s history is that his mother is overbearing and interfering. Though she lives only an hour away, she came to visit and stayed for months. He hates himself for being a wimp and not kicking her out, but she is his mother, after all, and she has no one but him — his father ran out on them when Chip was in grade school. The story begins (and the world begins to end) the night Chip asks his mother to leave.

Chip is thirty-three, the owner of a pet store, and currently without a girlfriend. Perhaps he is leery of a relationship, not wanting to end up with someone like his mother. Other than that, I’m not sure I want to get into his background. Do we need to know where he went to school? What his childhood was like? What his failures and lost opportunities were? Do we care about his politics, his beliefs, his travels, his ex-girlfriends? Seems boring to me, and I can’t see that it makes any difference when the world is ending.

Most books on writing say that an interesting and enduring character must have a strong desire, a goal he will do anything to achieve, but do Chip’s present desires really matter when everything is about to change? To begin with, Chip’s only desire is to get his mother out of his apartment, though later he will want desperately to escape the human zoo where he has been incarcerated. Is that enough to propel the story? Or do I need to give him another desire, one that he has at the beginning and that follows him throughout his adventures, until at the end he gets either what he wants or what he deserves?

I’ll have to think about that and get back to you.