By The Hilt

"What lies behind us and what lies before us are small matters compared to what lies within us." ~ Emerson

Archive for the month “June, 2012”

Character Building: Or, Suck It Up Princess

In my previous post, The Voices In My Head, I talked about how to identify a good character, but how about creating one?  I believe the key is this: flaws.  Good characters must have flaws: bad guys and good guys both.  No one is perfect in real life, so when you try to create someone perfect in fiction, it turns out flat and unbelievable.  Flaws are what make us human, and they’re also what make  us interesting.  There is little less interesting than a flawless character.  I think that’s why I always found Superman really boring – he only has one flaw/weakness, and it’s not a very interesting one.  It’s all or nothing.  No, great characters need flaws that are interesting, flaws that cause them to crumble when you least expect it, and, conversely, can be overcome when you least expect it.

Good characters also need to be developed.  They need to grow over the course of the story.  They need to learn, and adapt, and overcome.  Otherwise they’re just flat, and flat is boring.  Flat is fine for minor characters, at times, especially ones that are more plot devices than characters.  On the other hand, having more rounded characters will make your story that much richer.  But your main characters must grow, or else the reader will just get bored or frustrated with them and abandon your story.  The thing is, you can’t start out with a character that’s fully developed – it’s a process.  So either your character grows, or remains flat.  There is no third option.

Another vital aspect to characters is realism.  Now of course we have to keep in mind that obnoxiously true quotation: “The difference between fiction and reality is that fiction has to make sense.”  On the other hand, sometimes your characters and your plots does need just a tiny bit of something that just plain doesn’t make sense.  Characters, like people, can hold two contradicting beliefs.  They can do things that are totally irrational, even if they were otherwise the most rational entities in the world.  Things can happen for seemingly no reason.  Of course, all these things need to be carefully measured and balanced against the above quotation.  But adding just the right amount will make your characters more real and believable.  (This, of course, links in with flaws.)

Your characters also need to be motivated, and you the author need to know by what.  No one acts completely without reason.  Even if a person is unaware of their own reasoning before or during – or even after – a given action, that doesn’t that there is no motivation.  Knowing the rhyme and reason of your characters is vital for each of them to remain the character that they are.  A character acting irrationally is fine; a character acting outside of the bounds of their own character is not fine.  Characters need to act in character at all times to remain coherent entities.

And of course, your characters need a degree of complexity, an aspect which includes almost everything else I’ve mentioned. People are never simple; your characters shouldn’t be either.

So what do you think it takes to make good characters?  These are just a few random musings; what have I missed?

Write always,

E.S. Hilt

Words from Elmore Leonard

“I try to leave out the parts that people skip.”  ~Elmore Leonard

I got this quotation when I posted one of my first entries here.  WordPress helpfully displayed it on the left bar that appears after you immediately post an entry.  When I read it, I laughed.  Mostly, I laughed because it reminded me of something, a conversation I’d had very recently before seeing the quotation, but let me say something first.

I try to write like that, for a couple of reasons.  Let me say that I’ve never been a fan of The Lord of the Rings series.  Or anything by Tolkien, really.  I feel he’s too… verbose.  I remember slogging my way through the first LOTR book and noticing a particularly lengthy and boring description of a hill that actually had no (or very little… I can’t remember exactly, it was quite some time ago) significance to the story.  In short, I hated it.  I remember being read The Hobbit when I was in grade four and liking it somewhat, but I tried reading it later and didn’t care for it anymore.  I never did read the other two of the LOTR series.  I couldn’t bring myself to do it.  So when I write, while I like a certain degree of descriptiveness and world-building, I try to keep it balanced.  I include enough to create a mental picture, but not so much my readers will get bored.

But back to why I laughed; not long before I first read Elmore Leonard’s words, I’d been getting some close friends and family members to read my first book.  The first draft (quickly proofread, but only for spelling and obvious stuff like that) was done, and of course I was immensely proud and wanting feedback.  The bit of feedback two gave me related to that quote, but in opposite ways.  One thought I was too “flowery” in my descriptions, and said I ought to cut them out.  The other said that he wanted more world-building, more descriptions, in my story.  I found myself agreeing more with the latter critic than the former, but it just goes to show that you can’t please everyone.  On the other hand, I now have a handy quotation to defend myself with if anyone complains too much about the latter!

What are your thoughts on the quotation?  Are you the sort to include too much, or too little?  Please, share your thoughts!

Write always,

E.S. Hilt

The Voices In My Head

“Shut up, voices, or I’ll poke you with a Q-tip again.” – source unknown

Characters are those pesky entities that many writers coexist with inside their heads.  Mine can be very vocal and distracting, pulling my attention away from matters at hand with no concern for how important those matters may be.  Then again, when time and circumstance allow, I can daydream for hours with them.  They make long car rides enjoyable and provide a kind of company when I’m bored.  Pesky though they may sometimes be, I don’t know what I’d do without them.

In every free moment, my mind will typically drift towards whatever story or characters are foremost in my mind.  I spend so much time with the “voices in my head” (so affectionately dubbed), that I wonder what other people think about when their mind isn’t occupied with pressing matters. Evidently these voices are both a blessing and a curse.  But on to the object of this blog entry: the characters themselves.

What makes a favorite character?  My favorite character is probably Herald Alberich of Karse, from Exile’s Honor by Mercedes Lackey.  He’s a strong character, steadfast in his convictions and, I’ll confess, I also love him because he’s a bit of a BAMF.  He’s far from flawless, but I love him just the same.  But why do I love him?  In part, it’s likely because I see a part of myself in him, or at least, how I would like to see myself, or what I aspire to.  Strength of conviction and strong morals are something I value a great deal.  And as for being a BAMF… well, that particular acronym will never describe me (since physically, I’m a total weakling), but it sure is fun to imagine.  But to extrapolate from this, looking at what makes a character a favorite is too personal to each individual to turn into a writing target.

So what makes a good character?  I must admit, the voices in my head aren’t always my characters, and my stories.  If I’m reading a good book, or have watched a good show or movie, those stories and characters can find their way into my consciousness too.  So all picky, technical or more objective attributes aside, that is how you tell if a particular character or story is a good one; it gets inside your head and won’t go away.  But what about those more objective standards?

I’ve never been one much for sticking to hard-and-fast categories for things.  I do like to analyze and dissect things (not physically, just mentally), but I’m smart enough to recognize that any generalizations that result are just that – generalizations, and not rules or laws.  What works for one person may not work for another.  No matter what kind of rule you write, something, somewhere, will break it.  Life and all the elements in it is far too complex to be captured in any paltry human rule, even when it comes to the human aspect of creativity.

In my books, a character is a good character if the reader reacts the way you want them to: hating the characters they’re supposed to hate, and loving the ones they’re supposed to love.  I always think of Delores Umbridge from the Harry Potter series.  Do you love to hate her as much as I do?  It’s in her design.  We’re supposed to hate her.  And it goes even further than that; we love to hate her.  That’s how we know she’s a good character.

So what are your thoughts, dear readers?  What do you love or hate about various characters?  Who are your favorite (and least favorite) characters?

Write always,

E.S. Hilt

Plots, Schemes, and General Nefariousness

It was the butler!

It wasn’t the butler!

You only thought it was the butler!

You only thought it wasn’t the butler, but it is!

How important is plot?  Obviously, very, so let me rephrase that: how important is an original plot?

Let’s face it; coming up with an original plot idea these days is virtually impossible.  With the abundance of stories out there, almost every plot has been written.  When it comes down to it, all plots today are recycled, just with a new “twist” or “spin.”

So what’s a writer to do?  All of this just reinforces my conviction that plot is far from being the most important part of the story.  It’s still obviously better to have a better plot than a worse one, and the plot can still make or break the story – but that still doesn’t mean it’s the most important element of a story.  I’ve always been a firm advocate that characters are the most important element of a story.  You can tell the same story a hundred times and love every single time if the characters are good enough.  For me, characters are what make or break a book.  If I like and connect with the characters enough, the story will suck me in and make the experience magical.  If I dislike the characters enough, I might not even finish the book.

Of course, there’s another way to get around the “plot problem.”  Simply put, some writers don’t write for the sake of the story.  (“Story” here means the cumulative total of plot, characters, world, etc. in a novel.)  Some write to convey a message.  For example, dystopian novels.  I’m thinking of books like The Giver, by Lois Lowry, 1984, by George Orwell, and A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L’Engle.  I’m also thinking about movies like Gattaca.  I’m not saying these are bad stories, but I know that while I came away thinking them interesting and enjoying how thought-provoking they were, I didn’t really like them as stories.

Other authors carry their stories in other ways too – science fiction and fantasy especially sometimes get away with mediocre plots and characters by creating a world so incredible that you become absorbed into it that way. (See James Cameron’s Avatar for a great example.  I love it, but let’s face it – it’s just Disney’s Pocahontas all over again.)  And I’m not saying that any story that doesn’t focus on its characters as the most important element is miserable – far from it – but I would argue that all the best books have the best characters.

So what say you, my readers?  How important is plot to you?  Would you rather read a twisty mystery novel with a great plot but horrible characters, or would you rather read a book with an unoriginal plot but characters you love?

Write always,

E.S. Hilt

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