Sunday, August 29, 2010

Discovering Characters

You could say I've been on a vacation from the blog (although not from much else). I may get around to telling you what I was doing on my "blogcation" in terms of writing, but at the moment I'm ready to get a move on.

I'll be starting up the dare again on Wednesday, but in the meantime I'm dipping back into my critique group, and I noticed something this week about how readers (including myself) react to openings and how it changes later on in the story.

First I had that really nice review for Have Gun, Will Play, in which the reviewer mentioned something about my favorite character technique - that of revealing characters slowly throughout the story:

"When we meet them at the beginning, they are simply thrown into our laps. Their history is presented to us in a slow trickle throughout the novel, so much so that even in the last paragraph we are given tidbits that let us greater understand their character. This was skillfully executed, and flaunts the author’s impressive mastery of character development."

(Pause for me to do Happy Dance.... Ahem. Back to the blog post.)

Yes, I love peeling back the onion on a complex character. I love the discovery process. It's one of the reasons I like series - whether in books or on TV. You get to discover more and more about interesting characters.

However, there is a down side to this technique. It's even hinted at in the quote above. The characters are "thrown in our laps." If you're going to do let the audience discover the character over time, you can't burn your steps. You have to start minimally and simply. A really good series can take a lot of time to develop.

I noticed this week in critiquing others that, even with a skillfully handled first chapter, I flag things - awkward bits, discrepancies - but once I have read a few chapters, I'm into the story and that stuff doesn't mean as much. I noticed when other people critique my stories, they often don't "get" the characters at first, but then as the story develops, something clicks and the comments change.

I had a nice positive crit today where I noticed that most of the comments were on subtle little character notes. They were mainly unexplained things that in a first chapter would either just confuse the reader or be overlooked. But by the sixth chapter there is context, and suddenly they are the most important thing in the room.

Context supports even those things which are still unexplained. Once the audience has seen a pattern of behavior, they don't necessarily need a full explanation. Especially if the character does new things that seem to fill out the pattern - and it becomes like clues. The audience begins to trust you, and to understand that not only is there an explanation, but there is more to come.

The down side of all this, as I said earlier, is that first chapters are always a bear. No matter what you do, there is no context. And no matter how you write it, the most interesting stuff will go over the audience's heads. It is your job to hook them with something they can understand.... but even there you have to be careful about not lying to the audience just to keep them there.

But a well set up first chapter pays off in the end - because if you do it right, that when you get a great audience reaction to those subtle little character notes. In many ways, it's all in the set up.


Mary said...

the problem is that the awkward bits can put people off reading on far enough to get into it. . . .


The Daring Novelist said...

Yeah, which I why I mentioned that the first chapter is a bear.

I've noticed, though, that this is more of a problem when people are seriously critiquing. If they're LOOKING for stuff that's "wrong" they will find it.

I want to wax more about this issue - that of getting the audience to trust you when you're doing something "different" etc.