Saturday, March 26, 2011

Breathing Life

At the Tampa conference last month, during the Q&A after I spoke to the Harlequin team, one staff member asked a question that really put me on the spot. To paraphrase: "How do you create these very different characters who feel so real and alive?"

After thanking her for letting me know that, at least for her, I'd achieved what I set out to do with Zach and Judy, I gave her my well-considered professional answer: "I don't know."

But in all I've read about how to nail characterizations and achieve deep POV, the common technique is to ask yourself questions about the character's childhood, likes and dislikes, memories, beliefs and feelings, et cetera. It's all stuff that is inside the character's head or heart. This is the opposite from my own jumping-off point for most characters. Well, I do start with the conflict I expect the character to experience-- in the case of "The Kingdom of Childhood," that I would have a teacher who felt drawn into an affair with a teenage boy, and a boy who lacked the life experience to avoid a situation that would inevitably make him feel like he was in way over his head. But past that, much of my characterization work involves not the character's mind, but his or her body.

That's counterintuitive, right? Fiction is built on emotions and relationships and interior monologue. But to bring a character to life, she needs to be more than the sum of her thoughts. With Judy in "The Kingdom of Childhood," I initially conceived her as a blonde, slightly doughy woman in her mid-to-late 30s. For the life of me I could not make her work in the story. I wasn't feeling it at all. I had Zach down, but he and Judy had no chemistry; they would not play together. Finally I threw out my old Judy and replaced her with one who was different not only mentally, but physically. The new Judy was dark-haired and older, small and slight-- elflike, according to her father, or according to Zach, "about the size of a twelve-year-old." This means that even as an adult, she looks up at Zach from the same perspective from which she saw her childhood crush, Rudi, when she actually was a child-- making it all the more difficult for her to create a boundary between her childhood self and her adult one. Her small stature also means that the rest of the world, Zach included, does not perceive her as a physical threat, even as the reader comes to know her capabilities. Thus her body becomes an important POV aspect both for herself and for the story's other main character.

And then there is Zach. He's a sixteen-year-old boy, and so by definition he is very much driven by the dictates of his body. He gets hungry, he gets horny, he has to pee, he becomes filled with antsy energy that he needs to run or exercise to work out. Under stress he gets sick to his stomach. He worries about his appearance and his sexual performance, he tries to eat a healthy diet but harbors a guilty love of Coca-Cola, and when he's coming down with a week-long flu, even a hot shower can't help him and all he wants is his mother.

These types of details all need to fold into the greater plot. There's no point in incorporating them just for the sake of adding detail, but rather to create a character who lives and breathes on the page and whose motives are therefore that much more believable. I think my interest in this aspect of characterization comes from the protagonist of John Updike's "Couples," Piet Hanema. It's hard to love Piet. He's an insecure, clownish man, an unhappily married hornball with a wandering eye. You wouldn't want to hire him as your contractor, you wouldn't want to give him too much booze at a party, and you sure wouldn't want to be married to the ass. But in a novel, boy oh boy, does he come to life. His struggles between his physical self and his spiritual one are epic. For my own part, I love writing characters who struggle to maintain control over their physical selves. One of my favorite characters that I've ever written is Jerry in "In Stereo Where Available," who is a recovering alcoholic; he tries really, really hard to master a body that is always trying to compel him to make really lousy choices.

All of these characters are-- or at least, are intended to be-- intelligent and emotionally driven, with long-range goals and spiritual sides. They just have bodies as well, and bodies that really matter. Just like real people.

No comments:

Post a Comment