Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Bonding with Your Story's Characters 1 - Nine ways to deepen your connections

I spent this last weekend with writers, and I learned more about their heroes, heroines, and villains than their loved ones. That makes sense, right? Writers, caught up with the characters who are dominating of their current manuscripts, should have them top of mind.

But it occurred to me that I often end up talking with non-writers about characters from their favorite novels, movies, and television shows. It can get pathological, I suppose, but it makes sense that people are devoted to their fictional friends. They often know more about these characters than they do about loved ones, especially in the cases of novels and short stories where they get glimpses of thoughts, unfiltered.

I feel my own strongest stories are where I get to know my characters inside and out. In fact, I'm often driven to keep writing stories when things aren't going well -- I'm stuck, the emotions are difficult, I can't solve a plot problem, my opinion of the story is at a low, or words aren't flowing -- because of my familiarity with the characters. Because I have bonded with the characters. Often to the point where they are talking to me and won't be turned away.

Except when you have something urgent in real life, being bonded to your story's characters is an advantage. And, although the bonding can happen immediately -- at first sight? -- for me, it usually is the result of imagining a lot of scenes, working through chapters, or deliberately interviewing characters.

Friends of mine bond by other means. Some can take an abstract worksheet (age, eye color, place in family, education, etc.) and assemble the details so they draw breath. Others, who have powerful visual imaginations, clip pictures from magazines and put together characters that way. (Remember how Truman in The Truman Show reconstructed the image of his true love, Sylvia?) Many writers base their characters on people they've met or composites of real people.

Knowing a character and learning enough so that character comes to life on the page is an achievement, but I think bonding with a character can take more. How do we, as writers connect on a level where it is impossible to turn away? Where are time is given generously? Where we'll stretch our imaginations? Where we'll do whatever is necessary to give our characters the best (stories) and won't be satisfied with anything less than excellence?

I've looked over some of the elements of real life bonding, and I've thought about these in terms of story characters:
  • Investment - The more time, energy, and imagination we put into a relationship, the more likely an intense bond will result. This is the point behind courtship, right? And, ideally, parents invest in their kids to the point where an intense, unbreakable connection is formed.
  • Communication - I interview characters repeatedly as I work on a book or a script. And, when they  whisper in my ear unbidden, I listen. 
  • Commonality - How often to you meet new people and probe to find out if they know people you know, have visited or lived in places you're familiar with, have professional connections, or just shared interests? If you deliberately find out how what you have in common with your characters, it will help you to connect with them. 
  • Concern - I don't know how you write a story where you don't, personally, care about what the protagonist goes through or how he or she ends up. And, while you probably aren't rooting for your villain's success, caring about him or her can create a valuable bond. I'll add that developing empathy, so you can share the emotional highs and lows of characters, can add to the power of a story. I often will revisit a scene and make a point of re-experiencing the conflict through a different character.
  • Tolerance - If you don't have characters whose views and values you don't share, your story will lack dimension. And, if you can only see your points of disagreement, you'll never connect with characters who are different in fundamental ways from you.
  • Reliability - Characters need to have some stable traits and values, even to the point of predictability. While the best stories usually have characters who go through important changes, they remain, fundamentally, the same people at the end.
  • Surprise/Mystery - At the same time, if your main characters don't surprise readers from time to time and are completely transparent, they'll be boring. Secrets are good. And, though the writer should know a lot more than the readers, I think there is a great benefit to having characters who surprise and fail to cooperate with the writers on occasion. This makes the writer/character relationship more interesting. And it creates healthy curiosity.
  • Mutual dependence - My characters rely on me to tell their stories with respect and authenticity. I depend on them to choose, act, and feel.
  • Shared work/risk - Few things pull people together more than working together and facing common risks. I watch to see if my characters are pushing hard to participate in my stories, including going to extremes. I strive not to go halfway in the work of creating all aspects of the experience readers will have to they can participate in the lives of the characters, something my best characters demand. And I make it personal, taking the risk of revealing myself, taking chances with difficult material, and experimenting with storytelling techniques.
I hope this list intrigues you. I'll explore it in future posts, giving examples of how it applies to protagonists, villains, and secondary characters. I'll also share some of the open-ended questions I use to connect more deeply with my characters.

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