Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Setting up character....




Lizzie - from the cover of Who is Frances Rain?
In the glasses are a young Frances and Lizzie's Gran

When my main character and I mutually agree to record their story, the first thing they ask is to be written up as a real person, not a caricature of themselves - or of someone else.

"Let me tell you my story as it happens," they say. "Here I am, already in my setting, my world, see? I'll introduce you to the other people involved. So grab your laptop, or some pencils and lots of paper, and follow me! Oh, and by the way (this over the shoulder) we'll talk about mistakes you make later." They are always bossy....

And so, like Alice, I do their bidding - wide-eyed and curious about what's about to happen. But I also keep one canny eye on the situation as it develops. I am after all the boss in all this. I don't tell my character that, of course. They are so touchy.

But what triggers a character to show up at all? Is it something I've read? A photo? An event? What is the "kiss" that awakens a character in my head? Sometimes I know right away, because I've been researching something that interests me, and up they pop -- but other times, it can be a photo, an article, a dream, or finding something in an antique store - and it's only later that I figure out what the trigger was. In Who is Frances Rain? Lizzie showed up shortly after I found a pair of old spectacles on an island near our cottage. 

Two posts from Facebook friends made me think about a couple of things regarding character yesterday. One post was about naming your characters, and one was where a colleague said she was about to have "a meeting of minds with her main protagonist." I've had those. It can get ugly.

If you are like me, before I start a story around a character, I have to find out their name. Naming a character is as important as naming your own child. A baby can't tell you - unborn or too small to talk as they are - and, in some cases, you might even be forced to pick a name that someone else likes better than you.

I have found the characters in my novels generally refuse to tell me their name until I figure it out for myself. If a name doesn't fit, and I go with it anyway, my protagonist finds devious ways of letting me know it's wrong, wrong, wrong. When I finally hit the right one, we're both happy. And the character often gets a little smug about it, too.  

As an aside, I find it hard to attach certain names to characters, especially names that are popular at the time. I won't list them here for fear of hurting feelings. But, to me, there are, to my way of thinking, names that seem to diminish a primary character somehow.

I like names with character. I named my first fictional character after my maternal grandmother, Elizabeth, known as Lizzie to all. From what I hear, my granny was a character!

Lizzie agreed, yes, that was indeed her name. I named another main character in the book, Frances, because Frances is an old name, but mainly because it means, "free" and, if you've read the book, you know why I chose it.

I personally think names that are in fashion for awhile, and then vanish (thank goodness) can also "date" a book pretty quickly. Names can say a lot about a character before you even learn what makes them tick. So I avoid names that are connected to fruit, light fixtures, planets, desserts etc; and often those that are not spelled traditionally. I avoid weird spellings of traditional names, like Elizabeth, when they are morphed into atrocities like Elissabith. Seriously. I signed a book for a woman once, "To Elizabeth" only to find out it was Elissabith. She was quite annoyed. As was I...

After saying all this, I do have a lot of odd names in my fantasy trilogy, so really who am I to talk? Names like Cill, Ailla, Leto, Mennow, Jowan, Caul, etc - many of which I made up. But these characters live in fantasy worlds, so anything goes. Besides, I'm the boss, remember....

In the first novel of my fantasy series, The Watcher, Emma's mother has named her two girls Summer and Winter. Winter is my main character. She has pale skin and white hair. She hates her name, because she is constantly teased about it and her looks. So she announces one day that her name - from that day forward - will be Emma. Her mother says, "Are you aware that Emma means "grandmother?"

Emma doesn't care. She just wants to be plain, simple, straightforward Emma. Despite the change, Emma is anything but plain or simple, but she does remain Emma -- and she also remains straightforward throughout the three books. Being Emma gets her through some pretty harrowing adventures trying to beat The Game, once she falls into a number of very strange worlds!

Once the name-game is over, I know other conflicts will come between my characters and me. And the "meetings of minds" meetings grow in number as the pages grow in number.

After a story gets rolling, my characters and I get along pretty well on the whole. But now and again we suddenly take off in different directions, and that's when we go into head to head combat. The character sometimes wins. But it's when they take a seriously wrong turn, like Emma does in her deadly games in The Watcher's Trilogy series, that I know I have to take charge and redirect a story and get my character back on track.

Actually that happens a lot in rewrites. But by then, I am in full control, and I always get the last word. I am the boss after all!

And of course, each of my main characters has a different personality, so I am dealing with a variety of needs and wants - depending on their upbringing and the story. I've been thinking a lot about characters and their development in stories.

After going head to head with a main character recently, I began to wonder about  chickens and eggs (maybe because my character's family has some in their city backyard in 1907) - but there is this strange "which comes first feeling" in a story where characters cause events to happen in their lives, but then, events outside of their control also happen as well - and both of these forms, involving plot, change that character's personality and their needs and wants. Mmm. Something else to muse about ...

As it is, I'm already thinking about some changes in my new mss.









4 comments:

mywithershins said...

Great post! I love how you have to 'whisper' comments so your characters won't get upset! They do seem to have a mind of their own, sometimes, don't they? Often I have no idea where my character is going or what they are going to do until I get to the keyboard. :)

Margaret Buffie said...

It's funny, but just writing this has turned around a big section of my new manuscript. Sometimes really thinking about character helps! (But don't tell them!
:-D)

Elsajoy said...

This book was written the year I was born. I'm not even sure how, or when I got it, but I found it while reorganizing my bookshelf (pregnant and nesting like crazy) a few hours ago and decided to read it. I absolutely loved it. It reminded me of my summers in New Hampshire, and I laughed and cried, it was simple and to the point and just written wonderfully. So I goggled you and here I am, thanking you for helping me pass a couple of hours with a lovely book. you are the first author I've ever formally thanked and I am an avid reader:) I think I may do it more often.

Margaret Buffie said...

Thanks, Elsajoy so much. I'm very happy that you liked it and that it brought back fond memories for you. What more can an author hope for? It means a lot to writers to hear that someone really enjoyed one of their novels and especially when they add that they thought it was "wonderfully written". :-) I am happy you reorganized your bookshelves! I wish all things good for you and your wee baby. Thanks again.