The home of commentary related to the historical novel, my research on the fourth and fifth centuries, the relevance of those times to now. The blog is interactive and invites comments, debate and questions. Book groups are welcome to schedule video chats with the author.
The Flight of the Sorceress
Front and Back Covers
Wednesday, March 23, 2011
CREATING BELIEVABLE CHARACTERS
“Spectacular women characters.” Jonah Raskin, author of Natives, Newcomers, Exiles, Fugitives.
“Compelling characters” Holly Shumas, author of Five Things I Can’t Live Without, and Love and Other Natural Disasters
“Very realistic characters.” Coffee Time Romances Review.
“The central roles played in particular by Glenys, Aschi and Hypatia, revolved around each other to create a plot tension and foreboding that did really work.” John Nash, Molokai, HI.
“You can’t help but feel for these women, who are so grossly over-matched but who still do not give up.” Historical Novel Review.
“The Sorceress is an enlightened mind… her tenacity will impress you, but it is her will to flourish that will make you want more." Ransom Stephens, author of The God Patent.
Reviewers, blurbers and readers have uniformly described the characters that I created in The Flight of the Sorceress in such terms. I do not hold an MFA. I’ve taken writing courses, yes, but what I am doing is drawing on over forty years of experience as a trial lawyer when I create my characters.
Lawyers, and in particular trial lawyers, have a unique experience when it comes to assessing states of mind and human emotions. We get the opportunity to question people and to demand answers under oath. This power is not limited to adversaries, or even witnesses, but extends to jurors. I have taken the testimony of more than a thousand witnesses. I have been counsel in well more than a hundred trials. I have questioned innumerable jurors. In some of the more significant cases, I have had the benefit of insights from jury-selection experts and focus groups.
What am I looking for? Well, besides the truth, I am looking for how people react when I put them under stress. And I want to know whether I can replicate those reactions. When that occurs, I know that I have found a behavioral trait that signals an emotion. It is what poker players call a “tell.” Does the person habitually evade eye contact when feeling pressed and uncomfortable? Does she attempt to zero in and make eye contact? Do knuckles go white? Do hands instinctively fold across chests? Do veins in the neck constrict?
Trial lawyers know that these subtle behaviors are subliminally processed by jurors when they are assessing whether or not a witness is lying. People are “read” as much as they are heard. So it stands to reason that when creating a believable character, the task of the author is to provide realistic and appropriate “tells” within scenes, rather than to attempt to describe emotions.
But these skills are not unique to trial lawyers. Many of you have day jobs that qualify you to draw better characters. Maybe you are or have been a therapist, a shoe salesperson, a waitperson, a teacher. You have opportunities to witness behavior and to draw conclusions. Will this person tip well? Is she really out to buy shoes? Is he evading in his responses to your questions? You notice little things that tip you off.
We, as authors always hear the advice, “show” don’t “tell.” Well there is a tendency when writing description to tell. It is easier in some ways. We tell about facial hair, physical features, dress. But what we really do in life is evaluate what we are being shown. So it is possible to show, and let the reader do the same evaluation of your characters as you do when you deliver a plate of spaghetti to a cheapskate you know in your heart is going to stiff you on the tip. If the author does her job skillfully in describing the character’s behavior, little more need be done in expounding on the emotions. In this respect, the readers are your jury.
That is not to deny the importance of description, especially when it comes to the descriptions of significant characters in a book. It goes without saying that characters should be distinct from one another, to avoid confusion. But I personally go for detail work, rather than rough brush strokes. Saying, for example, that a character is “heavy set and oafish” doesn’t do it for me. I would prefer to know that his sweat-stained size forty-six belt had been extended even further through the addition of a few poorly placed auger holes. Now I know much more about the man, based on a single sentence.
And I want to take that image with me into the next scenes where the character appears, so don’t load me up at the first sitting with a lot of description. Let me digest that bit before offering me another bite. The author should manage the portions and allow plenty of time to dole it all out. This is especially true when there are contradictions within a character. And, there should always be contradictions. I’ve gotten criticized for the absence of contradictions and flaws in my characters more than their presence. Readers know that no one is perfect, flawless, airbrushed. Or that the villain must be all bad 24/7.
When an author draws such a character, unless it is intentionally cartoonish, editors and agents will begin to cringe. I have plenty of personal knowledge on that front.
(Note: there is both a print report and a video. Check out the video.)
This defendant, whom I will call Hugh Swindle, (a real name actually) might serve to inspire a potential villain in a novel. What shall we take from him for our novel? Certainly not an accurate description of the whole man, but perhaps some mementos.
Before you read on, take a few moments to jot down how you would describe Hugh Swindle if you were planning on making him a character in your novel. Send it to this blog. Hopefully we will get some real feedback on this and be able to compare notes.
Now that you’ve done your bit, here is mine: "He came at the camera with his hand outstretched to block photography. "You'll have to leave," he said, in a monotone as cold as a Canadian wind blustering over an icy lake in the dead gray of winter. It was a meaty hand, a hand that meant business. And the etchings on his face betrayed little experience with joy."
One of my favorite writers of all time is Dashiell Hammett. He could do that with his descriptions. His books rarely exceeded a couple hundred pages, but his characters persist in my imagination because he compelled himself to be creatively spare. There is no mind-wandering allowed when you read him. Skip a few words and you risk missing the boat. I know a lot of us are mostly writing eBooks these days so the metaphor I’m about to impart may be a bit inapt but I’d say that writing believable characters involves saving the forests.
So, I’m not the final word on this subject. I want to learn from you. Send in your character sketches and we might just all learn a little something beneficial from each other.