Monday, September 10, 2012

Ho-Hum, Is Your Novel a Bore?

If someone asks you to draw a person, what do you draw? Do you draw a stick figure (which experts would say is the point beyond which you no longer developed your drawing ability in early elementary school)?

Or, do you draw a body and head that looks like a cartoon? Or, do you draw a more representational body with hands and realistic face features?

The point being that we develop alternate ways around drawing representational figures when our skills are lacking.

Do you also find alternate ways around drawing an emotional picture of your protagonist?

Last week I talked about how we can limit ourselves in our writing regarding technology depending on the point past which we will not go in our personal life. We could do research, but we might feel it is not worth going through the process of learning all those new technologies and terms when, what the heck, we personally don’t care to go there. 

Do you do the same thing with emotion?

Check yourself regarding your use of emotions in writing:
  • What emotion or emotional experience drives your character?
  • What emotional issue is your character dealing with?
  • Do you give your characters the kind of depth and reflection that turns them from wooden stick figures to full blown people?
  • Or, do you keep them as talking he-said, she-said mannequins?

When authors use the Red Smith quote about, “opening a vein and letting the blood out onto the page” they are talking about emotions. We must become vulnerable and give our characters real emotions for readers to be able (or want to) relate to our story. If we protect ourselves and hold back our deepest emotions, readers will be unmoved by our character’s struggles. Our characterization will be weak or worse, fall flat.

You say your character is in pain—not good enough. Show us why, when, how she came to be in pain—what does that pain look like:
  • in the way she lives
  • through what lens does she view the world and relate to it
  • what skewed vision does he have
  • what does he resist
  • what off-center logic does he operate from (and how did he come to have this viewpoint)
Explore how emotion operates in your own life. Give it to a character and then put her in the dramatic situation you have plotted and see how she reacts—don’t protect her from the speeding train, see how she will get out of its way, or not.

And there are always at least two choices: resistance or go deeper.
  • Resist and repeat a negative reaction over and over
  • Go deeper and find the weakness in your character (and maybe you) that that emotion uncovers
There is a consequence to everything that happens—forcing your character to take an action he would rather not take. If it was easy for him, or you protect him by not giving him the hard choices, why would we be interested to read on? Ho-hum.

Live it, see it, feel it, smell it—let your character experience it through your own emotional lens. Your readers will come back for that roller coaster ride. And, you just might find that you learn something in the process of solving your character’s emotional struggles.

What emotion or emotional experience drives your character? 

How do you use emotion in your writing?

Do you stop reading if you are bored with the characters an author has ‘drawn?’ If not, have you thought about what element in a story makes you stop reading?



John Brantingham said...

Fantastic post! The point isn't in allowing our readers to know what the characters are feeling but in having our readers feel those same emotions with the characters.

Cora said...

Good point. I am of the opinion that if the character's emotions are right on, the reader will automatically feel them, empathize and stay involved in the story. Thanks for your valuable input.

Patricia Gligor's Writers Forum said...

If I have to choose between well developed characters and an intriguing plot (which I shouldn't have to do but for the purpose of making my point, we'll pretend I do), I'll choose characters every time. I don't enjoy novels where the characters are little more than "stick" people.

Eileen Obser said...

Great post, Cora. Going deeper is so important. I've had it said about my own work -- and say it to colleagues and students. It's not enough to just tell -- with emotions we really must show.

Sara Walpert Foster said...

Empathy is what keeps me in a story. I think that is why I can read across genres and sometimes love a story that is in a genre that I don't usually read. Your posts seem to play with the whole what makes a narrative worth reading and we keep coming back to character or plot. You probably know by now that I say character all the way, although I love a good plot that allows the character(s) to grow and change and teach me something about life.

Barbara Forte Abate said...

A most valuable post, Cora! You've truly done a wonderful job of laying out the essential aspect of writing characters beyond skin deep. In my experience-and I'm putting my pen down in order to speak here as a reader-a well composed and deeply designed character can effectively carry a less than thrilling plot. Not surprising considering that this rule pretty much applies to real live people as well!

Cora said...

Good comments, Barbara, including the one about real live people;)
(and thanks for the compliment.)

Cora said...

I do the same, I read across genres. It's the story that grabs me, not the genre.

Cora said...

Thanks for your comments Pat.

Cora said...

Going deeper with genuine emotions--that's key.

Kim Griffin said...

I have to be able to relate to the character on some level to keep reading. If a writer can accomplish that and make me feel for the character from the start, he/she can take me pretty much anywhere.

Great post!