Three Dirty Birds on Character
Three Dirty Birds are talking Character today with James Scott Bell’s Revision and Self-Editing for Publication (2e).
Kate: So much wonderful in this chapter, it’s definitely not a skimmer. There’s stuff in this chapter that I’m definitely going to apply (if the day job ever calms down enough to let me write again).
Ana: Yes, I thought it was an interesting chapter. The first section I marked was the one about flaws. I liked the lines “A flaw alone is nothing. A flaw explained is depth.” It’s so simple and yet so true.
Zoe: I got a lot of notes out of this chapter. (Unfortunately all of them to do with my current project, and none relating to our Sunday morning discussions….)
Kate: I think that’s the point of it. For some reason, everything I read in this chapter came back either to Knight, which I still have to revise, or Bite Me, which I also still have to revise. It’s made me excited about the projects again, despite my dread of revision.
Zoe: Oh good! I did particularly like the sidebar he had with the story of Lambert the Lion who was raised by sheep. “Know your character’s inner lion. What is it that will make her roar and fight? Bring that aspect to the surface early in the story and you won’t be hampered by the wimp factor.” If you can find a way early on to show your characters’ potential for the big fight at the end, that big fight is going to be more believable—and your character’s going to be more interesting to follow in the journey to the big climax.
Ana: Keeping this chapter in mind I actually found a way to make my current MC less wimpy than I’d originally planned (unintentionally). Just realized while I was writing, no, I can’t do this, that would make him a wimp.
Kate: It’s given me a lot of ideas about how to handle Ross, since he straddles the line between wimp and laid back. Which means I need to come up with a couple of scenes to explain some of his personal quirks, and to show what it takes to bring out his lion.
Zoe: Another thing I really liked was the concept of “pulling back 25,” where you brainstorm, based on your character’s traits, some over-the-top reactions he could have to situations, and then you pull back 25% to get a realistic but unexpected reaction. The example Bell gave was what drove home how well that could work. One of the over-the-top scenarios he came up with for a character was that he could cut opposing counsel’s tie with scissors. When he backed it up, he had the character grabbing the other guy’s tie and throwing it in his face.
Kate: I liked the part where he was talking about minor characters, because they are so hard to get right. He calls them Allies and Irritants. Another way of saying that they have to have a job to do, other than scenery.
The example he used was from Stephen King’s Carrie, from the beginning. He describes a neighbourhood boy on a bike, in an almost sympathetic manner, then shows how everyday people/kids treat Carrie. Then, he foreshadows Carrie’s later telekinetic action by having her knock the kid down. So, the boy was scenery, but he also passed along a lot of very important information to the reader.
Ana: I don’t know if this is because I’m bad with scenery, but I never think up minor characters to add to the scenery. They always have a job… kind of like tools. I’m too lazy to make up characters that I’m not going to use in some way.
Kate: I suspect there are people out there who write in minor characters as ‘colour’, without giving a thought to their purpose in the story. A minor character that doesn’t move the story along in some way is just a waste of words.
Zoe: Minor characters really do need to pull their weight. I’m struggling with that in my current project because there are certain characters that have to be there because of the setting, but—how to make the most of them?
Kate: I think that’s a later draft thing. I’m not sure you can see how to deepen them until you’ve got the main characters sorted.
Zoe: Oh definitely. I keep telling myself not to sweat it right now. Also not sweating the fact that half of them are called [INSERT NAME] because I’m too lazy to scroll back 20,000 words to see what I called them.
Kate: ROFL. I do that with place names. “Yeah, I’m too lazy to come up with a name for this place right now so for the time being it’s gonna be *grand cathedral*.” Heck, I don’t even know what university Kev and Mo are attending. Right now it’s ******** University. 😛
Ana:My MC has no last name. MC2 got one yesterday. Also, MC goes by a shortened version of his name, and so far, I’ve had no chance to tell the reader it’s just a short version and not his full name. So, it’s like he only has a nick name at this point.
Zoe: In some published books, the MC doesn’t even get a first name. Fight Club comes to mind…and another one I was just reminded of the other day but forgot again. I never named the college in Roommate (or pinned down the specific locale…and got dinged for it in a review, but what can you do? I didn’t want anyone going, “Oh, it’s that school.” So it’s just generic kind of rural, probably in the South.)
Ana: I have read some books, especially literary works, where names of places and schools were shortened to just one letter. I think I recently read one where the character was living in the K– District. Similarly, I’ve set my novella in Tokyo, and though you can guess it’s somewhere close to Shinjuku, I’m not going to tell the reader where exactly my MC lives.
Zoe: That was very common in the past. I think it was a trend at one time.
I enjoyed the section on Opposition Characters. Especially in early drafts, I struggle with making these anything more than just “opposition.” I made a bunch of notes to work on developing my opposition character’s goals—and why those goals are important to him.
Ana: I rarely have opposing characters, but when I do, I often end up putting more thought into them than my protagonists…. What can I say, evil fascinates me.
Kate: I think the whole Grit, Wit and It thing should apply to both your lead characters and your opposing characters. Otherwise, you have no reason to enjoy the give-and-take between the leads and the opposition. It’s something I worked hard on with Michael, from Knight, because I wanted people to see how Ross could have gotten into that situation.
Ana: I liked where he pointed out that you don’t always have to render your characters feelings, but you must know what they are in every scene. I find that often, when I’m stuck, it’s because I’m not sure of what’s going on in the head of the character whose POV I’m not currently in. It’s easy to forget about that for me.
Ana: Also, reading all the lists in this chapter makes me tired. #lazywriter
Kate: Lots of lists. Lots of questions to ask yourself, too. What really sold me on this chapter was how wide ranging his examples were. So many different books and films, in so many genres. It really added some authenticity and weight to his words.
Zoe: I only found it a little problematic when he’d say, “That scene in such-and-such,” and since I wasn’t familiar with such-and-such, I had no idea. But when he explained an example more fully, I could connect better. (Like he did with Carrie. I wouldn’t have remembered the beginning of Carrie for anything—I read it almost thirty years ago. But he quoted from it, so I knew what he was talking about. Other examples not so much.)
Ana: Yeah, sometimes he just throws something out there without explaining it.
Kate: I didn’t mind it so much. I figure I can always look it up on the internet, or get the book from the library. There were enough spelled-out examples to make his points for me.
Zoe: Yeah…I’m not going to research references in the book I bought to help me with my story.
Ana: I think he and I have different tastes in books.
Zoe: Fortunately his explanations of concepts don’t need examples. The examples just make it easier to get the concepts (if you get the example). But you can get the information you need without the examples.
Kate: I liked the exercises at the end of the chapter, too, though I didn’t have time to do them. But they seemed very practical and I kind of wanted to do them, but dayjob.
Ana: I liked number three, and might try it. (Have I mentioned yet how lazy I am?)
Zoe: I liked the exercises too…but didn’t do them because I saved all my Dirty Birds reading for late the night before our discussion. I might play with the obituary one later today though.
Kate: I thought the obituary one was particularly appropriate for you, Zoe.
Zoe: I’m flattered.