The Bridgebury Blog

The story of a girl and her books.

Month: March, 2013

Tics and Character Development

Reading Tina Connolly’s book Ironskin has got me thinking about how I differentiate my characters from one another. You have to be able to differentiate your characters, because if the reader can’t tell your characters apart – well, how are they going to like them, root for them, any of that necessary stuff? (Yes, I just called character development necessary stuff.)

Anyway, you’ve got to do it. I’m sure you already knew that. The question is how you’re going to do it. How they speak? How they don’t speak? How they interact with other people? The clothes they wear? That’s all up to you. Ironskin has me thinking about character development because there’s a particular example of character development that has stuck with me, because I’m honestly not sure if it worked with me or not. It was almost a little too weird. But maybe the fact that it stuck with me shows that it did?

I’ll just get to describing it, shall I? The little girl character, who is supposed to be a little weird, given, on several occasions , is said to “clack.” I think that this is meant to describe a noise she makes with her tongue. I think because I don’t know, because I can’t find a place where the book actually says she made the noise with her tongue. I could have missed it.

The problem I have with saying that the little girl “clacked” is that every single time I read that, I was thrown from the story. I couldn’t picture it. Couldn’t hear it. Or I could, but it just seemed like such a bizarre response to what was going on in the novel that I had to backtrack and ask myself, “Did I read that right?”

And every time, yes, it did actually say that she clacked.

Now, I’ve never met a little girl that clacked. This doesn’t mean that they don’t exist. Or that they shouldn’t exist in a fantasy novel. It’s just… something like that, a strange habit of one of the main characters, requires a little more explanation than what was given to the “clacking.” Which, from what I read, was just about none. And if the explanation distracts from the story, maybe your character shouldn’t have that particular tic. In my reading of Ironskin I would say that the clacking did distract me from the story. It threw me every time.

However, you do have to differentiate your characters. And maybe, just maybe, I need to take into account the fact that the author might have meant to do that. She wanted this little kid to be weird, even weird enough to make me go ‘really? now that’s weird.’ And if that’s the case, it did its job. But why? Why would you want to do that?

I’m not sure there’s a real answer here, or even a solid way to judge one way or  the other. Whether or not it works for each reader will be based solely on preference, temperament, and other individual traits. Maybe there are people that read Ironskin and didn’t blink once when a little girl clacked. All I can say is that it didn’t work for me, but it also got me paying better attention to how I develop and differentiate my characters.

What about you? How do you make your characters unique, or what have you seen out there that has or hasn’t worked for you?

The Happy Protagonist

I recently read Gretchen Rubin’s Happiness Project, and will admit that I got a lot out of it. I relish the thought of being able to make my life a happier one by changing my attitude rather than my life. Changing an attitude, while I don’t want to say easier, is certainly a less obtrusive solution. It requires work on your part, but you can do it yourself. That appeals me.

But it’s also got me wondering about whether or not you could have a protagonist for a novel, or even a short story, that has this attitude. Laughs, doesn’t blame others, doesn’t look to others for approval, always follows their passion, does little things to make themselves happy, is very polite to others… I keep wondering if a character like that would be boring, or maybe insufferable in their perfection.  Of course, this is taking the ideal to an extreme. No one is like that all the time. But what if this character was? Would there still be tension enough for a good story?

Of course, as soon as I brought this up to my fiance, he said that the main character from American Beauty was a perfect example of this kind of person, and there was still tension, but the tension was in that this character’s way of seeking happiness was destructive to others. Now, I haven’t seen this movie; it wasn’t on netflix when I tried to watch it as research for this blog, so any of you who have seen it should chime in down in the comments and let me know what you think about that example. I will say, that I do see how that could work – a conflict between the character and the social environment around him. But I can’t help but think that this character wasn’t exactly using Gretchen Rubin’s attitude for happiness if his happiness was so destructive to those around him.

But on a similar note, I can see how a person at peace with herself could draw conflicts to herself because those around her are not that at peace with themselves, and find her poise and carefree nature frustrating, or are just plain jealous, or plain just don’t understand it. Actually, that description makes me think of a book I read in high school, Stargirl. So there’s that. I guess I’ve got two examples there.

The lack of tension, then, is in the character themselves, but not in the story that you create around them, because no matter what the character’s temperament, you can always find someone or something to conflict with them. And then there’s also the possibility of taking such a character and seeing how far you can stretch that happiness before it breaks, and they’re broken. But that would be a much darker story, if still an interesting thought experiment.

Does anyone else have anything else to add to this? Have you written a happy protagonist, or read about one? How was it handled?

Frank Underwood: A Reason to Care (Spoilers)

Warning: This post contains spoilers for House of Cards. You have been warned.

I have always been fascinated by what I generally think of as “spiky protagonists.” These protagonists that aren’t really nice, aren’t good, have a moral compass that is just a little – or more than a little – off. We shouldn’t like these people, shouldn’t continue to root for them, but we do. But why?

Frank Underwood is a perfect example of this type of character. He is not a nice man; we know this from the start. About 30 seconds into the first episode, he kills a dog. Given, the dog has been hit by a car, and one could argue that it’s a mercy killing. But puppies = good. Puppy killers = bad. (I’m sorry Frank, but that’s how it goes.)

And yet, and yet. He’s the main character, and we keep watching. We are invested in him and we want him to achieve his goals, and while the means that get him to that goal may not appeal to us, we (well, at least I) never stop cheering for him.

Why is that? How have the writers of this show managed to draw us so far into this character despite the fact that we’re not like him, probably at all?

Part of it may be that we wish that we were like him. Do we wish that could stop caring about the consequences of our actions, that we could be cold-blooded enough to use the people around us like the pieces on a game board? He is certainly powerful, lives a life of luxury, is charismatic, is like-able, at least on the surface. Is that enough? We want to be him, in some way, so we cheer him on? Yes, but that’s not all.

There’s also the clever little asides that Underwood has especially for the audience. He explains things to us, he is honest in his interactions with us as he is not with the characters around him. He’ll roll his eyes, shoot us a meaningful glance, tell us his deepest secrets; “I despise children – there, I’ve said it.” Let me put it this way: relationships between people deepen through sharing and trust. You can even actively make a relationship deeper by sharing of yourself, by showing trust. Underwood does both of those for us, the audience, and on top of that, we rarely see him be that honest with anyone else except with his wife.  It’s a clever thing that the writers have done with this show: they’ve had Underwood go through the motions of creating a relationship with the audience, and on top of that, he makes us feel privileged, as even the president is not. And it works. It makes an immoral character like-able. We maybe don’t like what he’s done, but we like how he’s treated us, and we’ll continue to follow, to watch, just to find out what happens to him.

And isn’t that exactly what you’re looking for in a story, whether you’re reading or writing it? A reason to care what happens next.

Learning About Words In Words: Out of Oz by Gregory Maguire

I really wanted to write a blog post about what I learned from reading Out of Oz by Gregory Maguire. I wanted to grow, as a writer, and one of the best ways to do that is to read critically, right? And if I knew I was going to write a blog post dissecting the work, maybe I would try to read more critically. Such was my thinking. I did not want to write a review, did not want to judge the book. I just wanted to highlight my takeaway.

Unfortunately, like my experiences in Columbia College Chicago’s Fiction Writing Department, this is a lot harder than it sounds. It is really fucking hard to pin down what you learned from a book, at the nuts and bolts level. This isn’t history, or science, where it’s dates and facts and ideas. This is something that I find exceedingly hard to quantify. It’s about the words, and the storytelling, and the characters. But it’s something more than just that, because a book is more than the sum of some characters doing things, it’s more than the way an author uses cliff-hangers or doesn’t. Or apostrophes. Or semi-colons (That’s me. I love semi-colons.).  Or bigger words.  It’s a whole entity, a framework of words. It’s a pattern, and a rhythm. Not heard, but… something else. Experienced. Thought. A rhythm of thought. In any case; it’s hard to describe what exactly you learned from a book in words. Or at least it is to me. I think I know what I learned; I can feel it in my gut. But ask me what exactly I learned, and I can’t quite explain it to you. I just know exactly it’ll feel in my own work.

It’s a bit like the way I write. A lot of the time, I feel like I’m navigating a foreign terrain with my eyes closed. I know what it’s supposed to look like (I do have an outline) but I’m still reaching out with my toes at every footstep, testing the ground, measuring it, trying to get a good sense of this place that I’m making. The same way with characters; I have character sheets drawn up, but I’m still working, every day, at sliding into their skins. I’m trying to feel my way into understanding them. And when I do finally find my way inside, that’s when I’ve found the right pattern of words to encapsulate them. And that’s when the words flow, when I’ve got this tenuous, fragile sense of who the character is, what the story is, and I’m holding it so carefully, afraid of crushing it.

But I’m getting off topic. This is supposed to be about Out of Oz.

So what did I learn? I learned something about the pattern of hopeless stories. I internalized the feel of an ending with no real resolution that was still vaguely satisfying. It felt very open-ended, and I’m still exploring whether I liked it or not. I also learned that if you have less resolution, people will end up thinking about your story more than if everything is very pat. I got a good look at some patterns of words that fit very well with what I generally thing of as ‘spiky’ characters – my favorite kind. Those will be particularly helpful with my novel.

But I think what I get the most from any book is a new variation on the structure of a story, a stretching of my idea of what a story could be. But this, of course, is a vague takeaway, and nowhere near satisfying. My apologies.