Friday, July 29, 2016

Prose Blip – Introducing Characters

Without characters, you don’t have a story. If your story has no characters… it’s not a story. While it’s true that you can have a story with weak characters and a strong plot [and vice versa, of course], it’s always best to strive for strong characters and strong plot.

Now, you can find all sorts of ways to develop your characters. You can fill out “character sheets”, you can hang out with other authors and role-play your character in “character lounges” to find out what they’d do in certain situations. You can take online personality tests, like the Briggs-Meyer test to find out what their “type” is and how that personality can affect them.
Let’s assume we’ve got a really nice character, k? They’re fully developed and we’ve found their voice and we even have other characters for them to interact with. Wonder of wonders, we even have a decent plot and an idyllic setting for them.

The obvious move, then, is to actually write the story.
Easy, right? Sit down with your preferred writing utensil [be it pencil, pen, laptop, typewriter, or charcoal on a cave wall] and start writing.
You’re off to a good start: your main character is doing things, the plot is starting to be introduce and-
Oh snap.
The main character is interacting with another character. Oh snap oh snap oh snap.

What do we do?
We have to introduce this character. We have to make our reader be aware of this other character and we probably have to describe them a little bit. It’d be weird if suddenly this other person was standing there talking to the main character and no one knows where they came from or who they are.
In the real world, people scream “stranger danger” when an unknown person suddenly appears from nowhere and talks to them.
You don’t want your reader to reach for their mental “stranger danger” button when you bring a new character into the plot. No, you want them to embrace this new character and accept them as a friend – or enemy.


The Three Bs

There are three basic ways you can introduce a character, the three Bs. You can introduce your character with:

-a Bang
-a Barbershop
-a Barrier

Allow me to expound on these, because at last one of them is probably confusing:

A bang creates a whirlwind of conflict around the new character. It allows your reader to be caught up into an emotion that they associate with a new character. You have a chance to show off how this character acts and how they look and speak and move and feel. A good example comes from Scott Westerfeld’s Goliath, which is the third book of his Leviathan trilogy.
I’ll keep this spoiler-free, if possible: basically, the main character [well, one of the two] meets a mad scientist. This is the “good kind” of mad scientist, however, so that’s not where the conflict comes from. Instead, the conflict is fueled from the mad scientist’s setting: stuck in an encampment surrounded by starving, massive bears. This conflict allows us to feel emotion: tension and urgency. It allows us to see how the new character reacts [which I won’t explain, because spoilers], and so forth.
Other examples: Gollum in Lord of the Rings, Mutt in The Scorpio Races, Talmanes in The Fires of Heaven, and Rue in The Hunger Games.

Next, a barbershop reveals a character in a relaxed setting. You don’t have to use a barbershop, but it was a place that fit the concept well. Back in the good ol’ days (as it were), barbershops were the place that the men went and hung out to chat and get a haircut and a shave and read the newspaper.
The average novel isn’t set in the early 1900s, and so a barbershop might not be the best place for it. A lot of fantasy novels will use inns or taverns or even palaces (when applicable), his-fic tend to use parlors for upper classes and the general store/market for lower classes, and sci-fi enjoy their high-tech lounges, hotels, and bars.
Whatever works for your story.
This sort of introduction can be a little difficult to pull off well, because the conflict is an undertone in this case. You rely heavily on your characters and the circumstance of their meeting to pull it off well.

Perhaps the most obvious example I can think of is The Andy Griffith Show, in basically any episode ever. Because it actually takes place in a barbershop, I feel like it’s a good example. In many, many episodes, you open on Andy and a few friends hanging in the barbershop, playing checkers or getting a shave or reading the paper. 

Then a new person walks in. This could be a literal new person who just came to town, or an old friend who just wasn’t there yet.
Oftentimes, this “new” character is the one who brings the conflict and emotion with them. It’s usually subdued, but can often escalate to a full blown problem.
The point is: when you introduce characters in the Barbershop, details are important. The scene starts slow, at least for the introduction. You end up with a lot more description, often a good deal more dialogue, and then a transition into conflict and action. Each detail you choose to describe has to reveal something about the new character.

Finally, the barrier either sets the new character and the main character at odds, or stymies both of them, creating a mutual enemy. Many stories will use the Barrier method to introduce the Ally or the Minor Villains. A good example of this is from Lord of the Rings, when we meet Tom Bombadil. The four hobbits are wandering through the Old Forest, and are completely lost. The trees hate them and are rather malevolent. This creates a Barrier to the hobbits, who just want to pass through to the other side.

What does this Barrier do? It creates a tense scene in which we are introduced to a character who rather dislikes that the trees are being a Barrier. Tom and the hobbits become friends through a mutual “enemy” – the old willow.
When creating a Barrier to introduce new characters, one of the most important things to remember is this: the Barrier has to fit the story. You can’t just create a Barrier from thin air because you need a new character. It has to fit. In The Lord of the Rings, the Barrier is naturally created the moment the hobbits enter the Old Forest. They had no intention of doing so, at first, but the movement of the plot forced their hand and by doing so sent them into the one place where conflict could easily arise and a new character and an entirely new facet of the world could be introduced and woven into the story.

Information or Secrecy

One of the truest marks of an amateur writer can be found in the introduction of characters. I’ve come to be able to spot a new writer just by how they describe a new character.

The giveaway: the amount of information we receive.
Here’s the deal; I want to be able to see the character and their emotions, but not their entire lives.
A lot of new writers will be so excited about their newly developed character that on their first appearance, they want to share everything they know about this person. Is that a bad thing? Well, the idea behind it isn’t. If you have a character you love, you’re more likely to write them well and they’re more likely to be actually developed.
At the same time, however, spending five paragraphs describing every physical attribute of your character and another five telling me their life history is… wrong.
That’s not how good writing works. 

On the flip-side is the cliché “mysterious character”, of whom the reader gets to know nothing about. They’re shrouded in shadows and their voice is so quiet you can’t even tell what their gender is based on how deep it is. They don’t speak much, they don’t move much, feel much, and all we know about their backstory is that it’s “dark”, because the Ally tells us so.
When you first introduce a character, you need to give a basic description and clear emotions. Readers need nothing else at that very moment. Yes, we want those other things later: quirks and dialect and more description and snippets of backstory, but not now.

Basic description shouldn’t slow the action. The scene shouldn’t pause to tell me how blonde her hair is or how green his eyes are. In fact, I don’t even need to know those things unless they’re relevant. Just like describing setting, vivid, relevant details will paint the picture far better than a case file of information.
I don’t need to know the character’s weight, height to the exact inch, hairstyle, clothing choices, eye/hair color, skin color, nationality, and about of facial hair unless it is relevant. When it becomes relevant or the scene slows down, then you can describe this person. 

For instance, I have a character (from Asher’s Song) who is completely, starkly white on her arms and face. Her eyes are completely white, as is her hair. There’s a lot of backstory behind why, but when she’s first described, that backstory isn’t important.
What’s important is that she’s whiter than a sheet of paper and that everyone else is normal. The details I chose to describe her with? The whiteness of her iris and the contrast between her white skin and her normal skin [in the specific case, her arms and legs].
I didn’t describe how long her hair was until halfway through the novel, long after she was introduced. Her backstory wasn’t brought up until it became relevant to the story. I didn’t talk about her occupation, the way she walked, her accent, her height, the size of her hands, none of it. When she was first introduce, those details about her eyes and skin were all I provided, besides what she was wearing.
It was all the scene needed.

Emotions, not physical attributes, are what make a new character human. We don’t sympathize with a list of physical facts. We sympathize and come to love the emotions and drives behind those physical features.
That is where my description of May (the character above) lengthened a bit. I took the time (because the scene allowed it) to show her emotions, to show how she interacted with the world around her, even when it was unfair.
The thing is… when I introduce May, I wanted the reader to empathize right away. I didn’t need them to have a clear picture of May, I needed them to have a clear sense of connection with May. Based on my Beta readers, it worked, at least a little.

Introducing a character can be hard. They make our palms sweat and our brains shut down. It’s hard, because we don’t want to ruin it.
It might take a few tries. That’s okay. Writing is about creating, yes, but it’s also about learning.
Learning to create art better. Learning to tell a story better.
One character introduction at a time.

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