First, find out what your hero wants, then just follow him!
– Ray Bradbury
If you love a character enough, you’ll follow her anywhere.
Mad Men’s final episode summed up this truth: my favorites will all be back next Sunday, to form a rogue offshoot of Sterling Cooper ad agency. And you can bet I’ll be there, ready for the live event despite the plenitude of DVR options. I want to hang out with these people in my so-called real time.
Quick sidebar: what is it with sociopathic yet empathetic antiheroes? Tony Soprano, then Don Draper. I love to hate their flaws and yet I don’t want to see them hurt. How is that?
I’ve fallen in love with several other crazies and quirkies on various TV crime shows. How can I not follow the brusque, hard-shelled Mary of In Plain Sight who spits out one-liners to keep the ever-devoted, ever-philosophical Marshall Mann close yet at bay? Then there’s her dynamic with her endearing family of dysfunctional addicts. I love the exchanges between hipster-hacker-nerd Garcia and superhero, brooding protector Morgan on Criminal Minds. Oh, and what about forensic anthropologist Temperance “Bones” Brennan and FBI Special Agent Seeley Booth? The Mentalist? My goodness, I have so many friends to track…
So as I trail my TV loves, I have to ask, Why should someone fall in love with my novel’s character?
Revision forces this question. Here are four strategies that work in getting my answer.
1) I ask, What back story fuels this present moment? While driving, while cleaning, I invent Wendy, the protagonist of my novel, at ages five, seven, and 15. (It helps she’s only 16.) Characters with back story—especially serious scars—have that other kind of character you want to track.
I also keep in mind that not all back stories are equal. In the first drafts, one is tempted to tell it all, but I have an easy solution for my long-windedness: the Out-Takes File. Dump each body there, every single darling. Don’t how care how good it is if it’s just a tangent. I often don’t know that till draft four or five.
2) I demand at each plot twist, WWWD? (What Would Wendy Do?) Not, what do my readers want, what do critics want, what do friends want, but what would this character do now, by her own internal logic and particular brand of crazy? That makes her magnetic rather than dull; intriguing, rather than rote.
3) I listen for her voice in counterpoint to others during dialogue. How does Wendy speak around her mother? Her love interest? Her nemesis? Her new best friend? How elevated is her diction? How long are her sentences? Crafting this down to the very word makes readers’ ears perk up.
4) I force her to face a fork in the road as often as I can. This is new for me, who’s more of a character author than a plot author. In my past efforts, I’d a series of character anecdotes, string ’em together, and call it a novel. Fortunately, when I conceived of the novel, I had intentions to make it a wovel — a web novel where each installment ended in a decision point and readers would have to choose plot direction A versus B. Though the novel hasn’t been uploaded, I wrote the first half with this driving energy, and it paid off. I had to follow her through each adventure, even at 5:00 AM.
Sidebar #2: It helps my writing immensely to watch crime shows because they never can afford a weak plot. Meanwhile, I read quite differently: I’m a huge fan of Jane Austen, a new fan of Richard Russo, and Elizabeth Strout.
Finally, a clarification: the question — Why should someone fall in love with my character?– does not precede the act of creation. First, I hear a voice, and I start to write. I heard Wendy’s voice with its clinical, sarcastic edge, hiding her alienation, and I had to follow. I saw the freak front, the mask and the glove of her Michael Jackson obsession, and I had to get it down. Then soon I saw all her reasons why.
Which characters will you follow to the ends of the TV and literary earth, and why?
Writing Prompts: Please note that writing prompts should always be pursued in emotionally-safe environments with the supervision of someone who interested in encouraging good writing, self-awareness, and reflection. A wonderful resource is Pat Schneider’s Writing Alone and With Others.
© Lyn Hawks. Writing prompts for one-time classroom use only and not for publication in any form elsewhere without permission of this author.
• If you could pick any book or movie character to be your best friend, who would it be? If you could pick any book or movie character to be your worst enemy, who would it be? Now write a scene where you two get into some kind of trouble or end up helping someone. What happens?
• What person do you most admire? Why? What has this person done that you would like to do?
• Create a character for your own book. List all the qualities he or she has that you believe other kids would really like. Write the first chapter of your book.
• Finish this sentence by adding 50 words: I would love to follow…Or…I would never follow…
Secondary & Adult Prompts
• Which fictional character could you easily consider a friend or enemy? Imagine a scene where you can talk to this person in real life. Where would you be, and what would you discuss? What would you do?
• Examine a piece of writing where you have described a fictional character or a real person. Highlight in one all the places where you show the admirable parts of the person; then highlight in another color the flaws of the person. Write a short analysis of why your reader would be interested in reading about this person, for both the positive and negative traits.
• What person, living or dead, do you most admire? Why? What has this person done that you would be willing to follow or imitate?
• Create a character who is a satirical portrait of any trends and fads you see as superficial. Make your character a social commentary of what NOT to follow.
• Finish this sentence by adding 100 words: I would love to follow…Or…I would never follow…
• Have you ever written a character you just had to follow? Why do you think you enjoyed describing and tracking this character so much?