Friday, February 24, 2012

understanding character

Why are some actors not very good? Talent, of course, is part of any discussion about any art. But just setting aside talent for a second, when an actor isn’t truly in a scene I think it’s often because they don’t understand the character. Or they understand the character only in a surface way and so their lines and expressions and body language all seem untrue. I think this is what happens to writers. They force themselves along and a scene just gets less and less true. The reader feels it when reading the manuscript. The writer isn’ t there in the scene and the scene feels false.

How do you get there inside the character? I think writers find different ways. Some outline. Some journal. Some write and rewrite and rewrite and rewrite and so on. Thankfully, we have many chances. But one thing to consider is you have to try to see the scene unfold in a moment-to-moment way through the eyes of your narrator. When you’re actually writing the scene, you have to try to be there by living the scene. If you’re there in the scene, you’ll make the right decisions and the scene will be true. Of course, you should test and retest this in revision but being there in the scene will allow the fiction to move forward in an organic way so that the plot grows out of the situation and characters.

It’s a constant struggle and it isn’t easy but one thing I do always try to do is see the scene unfold through the character.


Unknown said...

I have a novel for which I've hired an editor and coach to try and get it in a publishable state. She says that she doesn't like my main character because he doesn't care about anyone else. She said that he's an alcoholic sociopath. (good to know, since I patterned him largely on myself. I should probably look into that)

Do you think a character needs to show a love of all mankind to be likable? Is it enough for him to love his wife and his dogs, and to have friends, and to witty and humorous? Well-liked by others?

(great blog, by the way)

Brian Yansky said...

Thanks, Michael.
In two words, Hell no.
We read, at least in part, to experience the life of a character, so I think we need to empathize with the main character and understand him. Even this isn't always true though. There are exceptions. If a terrible character is interesting we might just want to read about him or her for that reason. I'm thinking of someone like Hannibal Lector or Iago.

But lots of characters have serious flaws. Most.
Your character sounds like someone we'd empathize with.