It’s been a while since I had a guest post here. Today I’m happy to host Martin Lastrapes as part of the blog tour for his debut novel, Inside The Outside. Martin’s book covers a very confronting subject and his post today is a reflection of a part of that issue. He talks about character development and how to make us care about characters. Very important if your characters are hard to like! So, take it away Martin.
Creating the Illusion of Flesh and Blood on the Page
At the center of my debut novel, Inside the Outside, is a 15-year-old cannibal named Timber Marlow. Aside from being a cannibal, Timber is also something of a killer. But despite her penchant for eating flesh and occasionally taking lives, she is the hero of my story, which means I need for the reader to both like her and sympathize with her. So, how do you get the reader to care about a character who has done terrible, gruesome things? It’s not quite as complicated as you might think.
Any story worth telling has a character worth caring about. If you create a dramatic scene without properly developing your character(s), then your reader won’t care. It doesn’t matter how big the explosion or how bloody the body count, if you’ve not properly developed your character(s), then there is nothing at stake. Nothing to be lost or gained.
Consider any news broadcast you’ve ever seen. Invariably, there’ll be some tragic event being reported—a murder, a bus crash, etc. If the news broadcast simply says, “Something bad happened today and two people died,” you may very well think it’s a terrible thing, but you don’t really care (not if you’re being honest with yourself) because you don’t know who died. You’re not invested, yet. Suppose, then, you learn that the two people who died were a mother and her child. Then suppose you learned that the mother was in her mid-twenties and the child had recently learned to walk. Now, before you’ve even learned their names, you care a lot more about their deaths. You know things about them, you’re invested in their stories.
Of course, when you write fiction, you’re not dealing with real people, which means you must create the illusion of flesh and blood. While it’s important to have an engaging plot, your reader will have a difficult—if not impossible—time engaging in it if it’s not inhabited by a character (or characters) they care about. But, if you can successfully create the illusion of flesh and blood, your reader will read every page—every word!—of your story, because they’ll need to know what’s going to happen next, they need to know how your character’s journey ends.
How do you develop a character?
First of all, the physical description of your character generally doesn’t bare any consequence with regards to how real they are. Now, this doesn’t mean the physical description isn’t important; you definitely want to give your reader at least some idea of what your character looks like. However, don’t overestimate its importance. Unless the physical nature of your character carries some weight or influence on the overall story being told—such as a war veteran who’s lost a limb or a fantasy character with unique physical attributes, such as a Minotaur—it’s best to keep physical descriptions to a minimum.
More important than the physical descriptions is the nature of your character. The reader doesn’t care about your character based on how they look, but rather who they are. One of the best ways to illustrate your character’s nature is to show the reader what types of choices they make. And you want to dramatize your character’s choices so the reader can feel the weight of them.
Let’s say, for example, your character is walking down the street and they come across a bag filled with money. While there are many possible choices to make, the first and most immediate choice is this: Do they pick the money up or do they leave it on the street? The moment your character makes that choice, your reader has learned a lot about them.
Let’s say, then, that your character picks the money up. Now there is another choice to make: Do they spend the money or do they take it to the authorities? Again, this choice tells us even more about your character.
And, finally, let’s say, your character spends the money: Do they buy themselves frivolous gifts or do they use it to pay for something important, like a life-saving operation for their child? As you can see, the more choices your character makes, the more real they become. And the more real they become, the more the reader will care about them.
In the end, every character you will ever create will ultimately be some version of you. Even if you weave a character out of thin air, they must first be filtered through your imagination. You mold your characters as from clay and, in so doing, your fingerprints will be left all over them. Now, this doesn’t mean that your characters have to feel the way you do or make all the same choices you would make.
Even if your character is doing something that you would never do—like robbing a bank or running a marathon, for instance—the choices they make are filtered through your imagination. So while you may never have robbed a bank yourself, if this a choice your character makes, you must imagine how they would do it—which means that, really, you must imagine how you would do it.
Let me leave you with a simple writing exercise:
Think about someone you know very well (i.e. a parent, a best friend, a lover, etc.) and picture them in your mind. There are hundreds of details that make up that image in your mind, so imagine that, in order to describe them in prose, you were only allowed to select three details. What would they be?
Their height? The color of their hair? The size of their feet? The way their breath smells after a nap? The way their toes crack when they walk down the hall? Selecting only three forces you to focus on the most important traits. The same is true for your characters.
So, next time you begin to develop a character, try this:
• Select three physical traits—as in, three details that can be experienced by any one of the five senses.
• Select three abstract traits—as in three details that cannot be experienced by any one of the five senses.
• Select three things that make them happy.
• Select three things they are afraid of.
• Select three choices made that they are deeply ashamed of.
• Select three personal victories that changed their life.
And as you make notes of these traits, what you are essentially doing is building your character. So once you get back to your story—be it a novel or flash fiction or anything between—you can feel confident that your reader will care about your character, because you’ve taken the necessary steps towards making them real, creating the illusion of flesh and blood.
MARTIN LASTRAPES grew up in the Inland Empire. He studied at Cal State San Bernardino, where he earned a Bachelor’s Degree in English and a Master’s Degree in Composition. Inside the Outside is his first novel.
Inside Martin (Official Author Website): www.martinlastrapes.com
Facebook Fan Page: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Martin-Lastrapes/211321185585755
GoodReads Author Page: http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/5041733.Martin_Lastrapes