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Tuesday, February 2, 2010

We can build the character…We have the technology

Please welcome guest blogger Mechele Armstrong

In my opinion, one of the most important elements of writing is building characters. Give readers a great story, they might come back. Give them a character they fall in love with, they will come back. Give them both, and you have them hooked.

But how do you build characters that people want to live with? Characters who stick in someone’s memory long after they’re done reading?

Well, there is one thing that I’ve found that makes characters stick with me. The little things. Little actions. Small pieces of dialogue that reveal without being overwhelming. These things reveal so much about the character without swatting you over the head with it. They make a character become real to me.

Whenever I talk about this subject, I use the movie, Aliens as an example. Aliens has a marine squadron going onto a planet against the aliens. They have multiple characters and a short span of time to make you care about these people. And you have to care about them before they start fighting the aliens, otherwise what is the point?

You have little pieces of dialogue and actions that reveal the characters. Apone (the sergeant) says, “All right, sweethearts, what are you waiting for? Breakfast in bed? Another glorious day in the Corps! A day in the Marine Corps is like a day on the farm. Every meal's a banquet! Every paycheck a fortune! Every formation a parade! I LOVE the Corps!” as they are waking up from stasis. He’s a marine through and through, with a lot of spirit. Hudson, a male marine, asks Vasquez, a female marine, has she ever been mistaken for a man? Definitely reveals his jokester behavior. Vasquez fires back, “No. Have you?” She shows she can take it as well as dish it out. There are many more instances that make us start to like this group as a whole. So when the aliens are found and attack, we are invested in this corps’ fates. There is no wasted dialogue or action. Everything reveals something about a character.

Hicks is the character who probably benefits from his characterization through small events the most. When Ripley is talking to the squadron about the aliens, they are all joking around. Hicks asks, “What are we dealing with?” He’s the one to take this seriously and try to find out what’s to come. On the way down to the planet, they are all tense and shaking on the chaotic drop. As they are about to land, Apone says, “Someone wake up Hicks.” He’s a calm character to fall asleep during this hectic time. When they find a child, Hicks is the one to realize what they are dealing with and keep the others from shooting her. He pays attention more than the others and doesn’t shoot first. After the aliens attack, there is a scene where they are all looking at screens. The little girl they rescued is trying to see what’s going on but she’s too short. Hicks picks her up and sets her up so she can see what’s going on. It’s never mentioned, brought up, or highlighted. But it tells us so much about the character of Hicks. It’s why Ripley calls to him when she and the little girl are in danger. It’s why we care so much when Hicks is in peril later in the movie. We like him, yet his screen time in the whole film isn’t a great amount. They made the most of when he’s on screen and everything he does tells us about him without even calling attention to the revelations.

Another character who I find very intriguing is in the Harry Potter series and I think benefits from small revelations. Neville Longbottem. He starts out as the student who loses his toad on the Hogwart’s express. Across the books, he’s mentioned, sometimes only briefly, yet has a huge part in the final book. His character arc is a wide one, yet he’s not even one of the main characters. Everything about him is revealed in snips and bits of pieces. He’s forgetful. You find out a secret about his parents that tells you so much about his character. And slowly he transforms from a goofy boy into someone willing to stand up to Voldemort for what he believes in. All in all, I doubt there is one book’s worth of information on him. Yet, he’s a character who stands out to me in this series.

So how can you integrate this into characterization? I think there are a lot of ways to reveal things in small pieces that reveal over time and also make a character very real.

--favorite words. One thing I try and do in my books is the characters have words they use and no one else uses them. Some of my characters have favorite words to curse with. Some do not curse at all. Makes it easier to tell who is speaking and also give insight into characterization

--particular way of speaking. Saying, “How are you doing?” versus “How you doing?” They both say the same thing but in different ways. And each way of speaking tells us something about the character.

--a small action. Opening a door for a woman. Or an older lady. Looking down when a lady is getting dressed or sneaking a peek. Each of those actions tells us something about the person doing them. Neither of them is huge in the grand scheme but they build up like with Hicks to make a reality based character

--reactions. How do your characters react to others? A belligerent tirade against a man for doing her wrong or a blank stare in reaction to the same tells us much.

--Facial expressions. A smile or a frown can tell how a character is feeling but also tell us about them. Maybe they are stoic and never laugh. So when they finally giggle, it means a lot. Or they giggle all the time so when they stop laughing, we know it’s serious.

--a tic. A character might drum their fingers. Or shake their leg. Depending on the character, it can say a lot about them if they have a characteristic action.

There is so much you can do with characterization this way. I say, to make your character stand out, focus on the little things. Because they do mean so much.

Mechele Amstrong aka Lany of Melany Logen



Settler's Mine 5: The Man

Colton returns to Settler's Mine searching for his mate who he'd abandoned years before. He'd been on his way earlier, but once he and Larkin mated, they couldn’t keep their hands to themselves and it delayed his trip.

Michipi has made a new life for herself at Settler's Mine and doesn't want to trust Colton again, no matter how sincere he seems. Especially with his new mate receiving all the perks of the heartstone glow that she never got.

While Michipi enjoys being the subject of being two men’s desires and what they have to offer, however good they both are she can't get past Colton’s past betrayal and denies the future of their mating. When an old enemy resurfaces to make an attempt on Colton's life, Michipi is forced to realize that she needs both men in her life. But has the knowledge come too late, and at too high a cost?

Mechele Armstrong lives in Virginia and writes while technoing with a computer geek hubby, listening to piano from one child, debating Harry Potter with another, ball throwing to a spaz cat, playing psychiatrist to a neurotic dog, and serving one diva kitty. She loves open bedroom doors and things that go bump in the night, which is why she probably writes what she does. She's always looking for new worlds to play in so she never knows what will come up next. Her world is where sensuality and wonder collide.


Danica Avet said...

I love characters. The clues you've mentioned here only help give them depth. It makes you not only care for the character, but helps humanize them enough that you laugh when they laugh, hurt when they hurt.

Great, great post!

Alexis Morgan said...

I really enjoyed reading your post. Revealing character, especially in secondary characters, is such an important element in building a ensemble cast, especially when a writer is developing a series. I love reading a book that really catches my interest and makes me want to revist that world again. It's the secondary characters who make me feel that way.

Thanks for the reminder that even the small stuff is important in creating the big picture.

Jessa Slade said...

I adored Hicks! In MY version of Aliens, there's a great Ripley/Hicks love scene and the romance is MUCH more developed :)

These are wonderful, concrete tips. Thank you for laying them out so clearly.

Mechele Armstrong said...

Thanks Danica. I'm still learning about writing in depth about characters. I feel like I barely scratch the surface when I write but I love adding little nuances to them.

Mechele Armstrong said...

Thanks Alexis. It's the same way for me. I love secondary characters. I may adore the hero and heroine but I like enjoying the supporting cast, too.

Mechele Armstrong said...

Thanks Jessa! LOL I too love Hicks and would have loved to have seen more between he and Ripley. I hated the next movie for *cough* their treatment of him. He was such an intriguing character with relatively small screen time.