In my continuing series from the Rose State Writer’s Conference . . .
These are notes from William Bernhardt, who spoke on characters and plot at the 2012 conference. I re-read them a while ago and realized how much good information is here!
1.) Fiction (and characters) should be lifelike — but not real.That’s because readers want escape. They don’t want their own boring lives. They want characters who are doing something different, somewhere different.
2.) Once you tell your readers what your character is, they start forming a mental image. Tell them he’s an investment banker, and they will form a mental image based on their own previous experiences. So if you want to counter that and replace it with something else, do it fast and do it well! (Here, I think of St. Julien Perlmutter, oceanic historian and researcher extraordinaire in Clive Cussler’s Dirk Pitt series. You say “researcher” and “historian,” and an image comes to mind probably of some nerdy guy in a tweed jacket and glasses in the stacks somewhere. Perlmutter fits none of those descriptors.)
3.) Action = character. Let me say that again: action = character. Character is revealed by action. Character is revealed when people make choices under pressure. You’re confronted with a gunman. Do you run? Hide? Beg? Or attack? The greater the pressure, the greater the reaction. (Don’t know what I’m talking about? Sign up for paintball. Really get into it. Not a video game; the real deal where you get splattered if you get shot. You’ll learn really fast what you’re capable of doing under pressure — and that will give you an idea of what your characters might be like under pressure, too.)
4.) One of the most valuable tidbits: contradiction makes characters more interesting and more lifelike. Make them as complex as possible — especially your antagonists! He even suggested this: give your villains 2 bad traits and 1 good one; give your protagonists 2 good traits, and 1 bad one. It’s easy to give your protagonist a bad trait. But can you give your villain a good one?
5.) Speaking of villains . . . in real life, no one thinks they’re the villain. They just want something that happens to be at odds with what your protagonist wants. Your villain may need to be malicious, but see #4 — the more complex your characters, the better. Give them good reasons to be the way they are, and act they way they do. More importantly, give them a goal your reader can sympathize with. (To me, one of the best examples of a sympathetic “villain” is the creature in Dean Koontz’s Watchers. “The Outsider” was created in a lab; he knows nothing more than what he was created to know, and yet, he wants Something More. He is insanely jealous of his fellow creature, a brilliant Golden Retriever named Einstein, who is taken in and loved. Although his goal is basically to kill Einstein, his reasons are entirely sympathetic by the end of the book. Koontz does a brilliant job with making this particular “villain” so three-dimensional that I cried for it!)
6.) But. Creating three-dimensional characters creates a bond with your reader, a promise. It says “You’ll see this person again, and they’re vital to the story.” So if the only time that waiter is going to be seen is when he brings your protagonist a coffee, we don’t need to know anything else about him. If the waiter suddenly begins to bug you and pop in and out of your life and tell you his life story, then he needs his own novel. But in this novel, where he has one cameo, we don’t need to know anything else other than that he’s good at bringing coffee.
More next week!