Thursday, October 30, 2008

Character Likeability

When a reader is unable to connect to a story, a common reason is that he finds the characters unlikeable. Even if he enjoys the writing style and the plot, if he dislikes a character enough the entire book becomes unbearable to read. Scan through enough Amazon reviews and you’ll find numerous rants along this vein.

Which begs the question: Is a writer obligated to create likeable characters?

Before we can answer the question we have to define what it means to be unlikeable, because to different readers it means different things. If by unlikeable the reader means merely irritating, the answer is maybe. In general, I would say that liking or not liking a fictional character is subjective and the author is entitled to her creation. However, if enough readers find the character too unpalatable to spend any time with, the author ought to take note and consider toning it down a bit.

If by unlikeable the reader means morally repugnant, I would say that no, the author is absolutely not required to change her character. My feelings about this are along the same lines as the use of profanity in literature—in order to examine life’s big questions, sometimes it’s important to go to the dark side. The greatest conflict in the universe is good vs. evil; to ignore that fact by populating a book with only nice characters is absurd.

However, even if a reader is willing to accept that an immoral character is worthy of her attention, he may still find the character unlikeable if he is unsympathetic. Once again, the writer is not required to change the character’s moral code for the sake of the reader, but I do feel that she has an obligation to evoke a little sympathy in the reader or at least give the reader some understanding into the character’s motivations. Giving immoral characters a sympathetic turn is one of the great hallmarks of skilled writing—especially when a writer convinces a reader to set aside his own moral code just long enough to root for the bad guy.

A character need not be immoral to be unsympathetic. Sometimes his motivations are simply obscured; the reader will then find his actions puzzling and illogical. Without the transparency of motivation, the reader may find difficulty connecting with the character.

Next Time: The Secret to Creating Sympathetic Characters

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Writing What You Don't Know

About ten years ago, I created a series of teen books called ON THE ROAD. It was about a recent high school graduate named Miranda who takes a year off before college to travel across the country. I had envisioned a fifty book series with Miranda visiting every state in the union. I loved the premise and quickly found a publisher who loved it, too. The only problem—which I kept to myself—was that at the time I had never traveled west of the eastern seaboard.

Information wasn’t as widely available on the Internet as it is now, so I set about doing my research the old-fashioned way. I read many travel guides and clipped newspaper articles about popular destinations; I requested info from the chamber of commerce of several cities; I talked to as many people as I could about the places where they grew up.

Even still, the task felt overwhelming. There was too much room for error. What if my details were wrong? How could I possibly capture the feeling of a place without ever being there?

For a while, these two questions paralyzed me—until I reminded myself that I wasn’t writing a travel guide, I was writing fiction. Yes, I wanted to do justice to the places Miranda visited, but the real point of the story was her own self-discovery. It was more important to stay true to Miranda’s inner journey than to worry about documenting every nuance of the landscape. It was then that I learned the magic of the well-placed detail. If you confidently scatter a handful of researched details within your fiction, the reader will often believe that you are an authority on the particular subject.

For example, at one point in the series, I had Miranda travel to Cincinnati. I don’t know much about the city, but being a foodie, I know about their famous chili. So, I stuck her in a diner, which is easy enough to describe, and had her order a 5 way (spaghetti, chili, onions, beans, and piles of cheese) just like a native. The detail is specific to the region, interesting to people who have never been there, and nostalgic for those who have. Other small details to consider: the terrain, native trees and flowers, landmarks, popular phrases and customs, local businesses, climate, etc.

Or what if you’re writing about an industry you’re unfamiliar with? Don’t feel like you have to pull a Tom Clancy and know it inside and out (although there’s nothing wrong with that) before you can write about it. Research two or three aspects of the industry really well, place them strategically in the story and move on. You don’t have to inundate the reader with detail to be convincing. Just a sprinkling here and there will suffice.

I’ll admit that writing about what you don’t know does, at times, feel a bit fraudulent. Here’s why it’s not: the purpose of fiction is often to reveal universal truths, which often requires a writer to stretch beyond his realm of experience. Secondly, a reader brings her own experiences to the work. Give the reader a few good details to hang her hat on, and her imagination will do the rest.

When I turned in my final manuscript for ON THE ROAD, I remember being a bit nervous because I had sent Miranda to San Francisco. I wasn’t really sure I could write about such a famous city convincingly. When my editor called to discuss rewrites, she was very excited.

“I lived there for ten years, you know,” she said.

Oh, great, I thought. Busted.

"You nailed it.”

I had to laugh. I really didn’t do much at all—it was her experience of San Francisco that brought the story to life. But I still didn’t tell her that I’d never been there.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Dialogue Workshop: The Interview

Dialogue is a tricky beast. The key is to make it as natural is possible (when appropriate), but what sounds natural to our ears doesn’t always scan well on the page. I’ve learned a few techniques here and there to deal with different dialogue problems—today, I’m going to talk about how to avoid writing an exchange between two characters that sounds like an interview.

All writers have done this at one time or another. You have two characters and you need to convey some bit of information, so you kick off the dialogue with character #1 asking a question. Character #2 answers the question. Character #1 asks another question. Character #2 answers that question. And it continues on and on with character #1 basically conducting an interview and character #2 adding nothing to the conversation.

For example: let’s say we have two characters, Bob and Joe. Bob has sent Joe to the store to buy some soda. An hour later, Bob finds Joe sprawled on the couch, watching TV.

“Did you go to the store, yet?” said Bob.

“Yeah,” said Joe.

“How long have you been sitting here?”

“A while.”

“Where is my soda?”

“On the counter,” said Joe.

“Why didn’t you put it in the fridge?”

“I forgot.”

“Was there any change?”

“It’s in my coat pocket.”

There is always a place for a character to ask repeated questions, but like all things, it should be used in moderation. This time, I’m going to rewrite the example, eliminating all but one question:

“Did you go to the store, yet?” asked Bob.

“Yeah,” said Joe, “Got back a while ago. Soda’s on the counter.”

“It’s warm.”

“I forgot to put it in the fridge, sorry.”

“You can leave the change on the table,” said Bob.

“It’s in my coat pocket if you want to get it now.”

By eliminating all but one of the questions, you can avoid the monotony of interview-style dialogue. The conversation becomes tighter and Joe has the opportunity to participate and have a little personality.

A different way to combat an interview is to answer a question with a question. This is a particularly good technique when there is tension between the two characters. Here’s the same example again, rewritten with Joe asking some questions of his own:

“How long have you been sitting here?” asked Bob.

“What are you, the TV police?”

“Where is my soda?”

“Where do you think? It’s on the counter,” said Joe.

“You could’ve put it in the fridge.”

“I forgot.”

“Was there any change?”

“Are you worried I’m going to keep it?”

It’s a bit much to counter every question with another one, but you can see how answering a question with another question turns the tables and puts Joe in control of the conversation instead.

Another option is to have Joe avoid answering the questions altogether:

“Did you go to the store, yet?” asked Bob.

“It’s on the counter,” said Joe.

“It’s warm. Why didn’t you put it in the fridge?”

“The change is in my coat pocket.”

In this example, Joe’s answers come across as non sequiturs, but in the context of a larger conversation it would illustrate avoidance and closed off emotions.

Interview-style dialogue sometimes reads like the author is thinking aloud; it's almost as if
he's the one asking the characters what's going to happen next. When you catch yourself in the question and answer cycle, take a moment to dig a little deeper.