Dynamic Characters: How to Create Personalities that Keep Readers Captivated
by Nancy Kress
Writer's Digest Books
If you've never read any writing advice by Nancy Kress, you're in for a treat. I've been familiar with Ms. Kress's marvelous talent for writing about writing for years, and she never fails to give me a light bulb moment. I often feel like she's uncovered something that I already knew, but didn't know I knew. She brings concepts out of the dark and into the light where I can use them. It always pays for me to keep whatever I'm working on in the back of my mind as I read a good writing book, so I can see the places where I might apply what I'm learning (or being reminded of.) This book helped illuminate a character I've been struggling with, so of course, I'm going to recommend it highly.
The book contains three main sections:
- Creating Strong and Believable Characters: The Externals
- Creating Strong and Believable Characters: The Internals
- Character and Plot
Provide the villain with self-justification. Even Hitler thought he was justified in genocide. The more twisted and evil your villain, the more important it is to show how he justifies his actions to himself. Everybody has an internal story about why they're actually right in what they've done. Show us his, and in terms we can believe that he believes. Do this by having his self-justifications invade every area of characterization we've discussed so far: thoughts, dialogue, background, peripheral attitudes, even dreams.
This is not uncommon wisdom, but it bears repeating because fledgling writers have a tendency to resist it. (Heck, I've seen experienced writers resist it.) Ms. Kress stresses how important it is to go into the villain's motivation and not to just brush the surface. Again, this isn't a unique insight but what's familiar can suddenly look different--sharper, clearer, easier to embrace--from a different angle and the author provides lots of those. If you don't have a light bulb moment or two (or twenty) reading this book, you're clearly such a good writer that you should be writing your own writer's guide rather than reading someone else's. (And if you do, let me know. I'd like to read it.)
One of the other things she provides is a form she's labeled "The Intelligence Dossier." You've seen it before. It's got lots of aliases. It details the character's vital statistics: hair & eye color, height, weight, family background, education, occupation, religion, etc. This isn't a new concept. Like many other concepts, Ms. Kress takes it farther and in a slightly different direction than most I've seen. This dossier, too, has sections.
- Your character's basic statistics
- Preferences & mannerisms
- His/her social ties
- How does he/she spend a typical day
- Your character's inner life
Just like I knew that the mother and her eleven year old daughter in my WIP should have a pet. After all, what kid doesn't want a pet? And there is no good reason for her not to have one. I knew that. Neither of them are allergic or away from home for excessively long days. I just hadn't acknowledged the lack in an out loud sort of way, but I was wrong and I knew it. The dossier forced me to face it. And that's the value of questionnaires like this; they force things front and center where, if you're paying attention, you'll see it fresh and realize that you've been ignoring some valuable things.
That value isn't always as obvious as my pet example, however, and this is where this book shines because the author spends time showing you how to recognize the hidden treasures.
As good as the first two section of the book are, it's the third section that wowed me. I think most writers who find character building easy (as I do) struggle with plot, and those who find plot easy struggle with characters. (If I'm right, then there is justice in the world after all.)
The third section--Character and Plot--shows you how to build plot from character. Or conversely, how to build a character for your plot (if your that alien type of writer for whom that comes easily). Character and plot are, after all, interwoven. There's a lot of good stuff in this section.
One of the first things that caught my attention is the subsection titled Character Decides How the Protagonist Feels about the Conflict Resolution. The author goes on to say that this is actually your story's theme. Here's the example she uses to illustrate this:
Two novels are written about a woman's struggle to find love. In both books, she doesn't find it. In the first novel, she ends up defeated and bitter. In the other, she discovers that she is strong enough to stand alone, and even enjoy it. The resolutions are identical, but how the protagonist feels about each resolution is not. This means that the first book conveys the message "Love is destructive." The second conveys "Losing something can show a person positive paths."
Ms. Kress goes on to deal with such things as secondary characters, types of plots, and how and when characters need to change and how to convey that to the reader. She strays a bit into things like how much detail to put into a fight scene, but--and I may be showing my bias here--it's all good stuff.
A couple of things stood out as useful for me that I hadn't read elsewhere.
One is where she talks about revising. She illustrates how solving certain types of problems can be done via secondary characters. This is the kind of knowledge that if it saves you from even one massive rewrite in your career, it's well worth acquiring. (This section actually reminded me a bit of Syd Field's The Screenwriter's Problem Solver [which I reviewed here] because of the way she tackles it.)
The areas she highlights for this treatment are:
- Characters unaccounted for
- Actions you need for your climax are undermotivated
- Some situations aren't as plausible as you would like
- You need more and/or better foreshadowing
- Some sections of the book seem thin
- A key scene reads too much like a cliché
- A subplot doesn't feel closely enough tied to the main story line
In another offering, she details the four elements that must be present in order to convince the reader that your character has changed and/or grown, starting with showing that the character is capable of changing in the first place. That sounds rather obvious when it's stated like that, doesn't it? And yet, sometimes overlooking the obvious is so easy that we can't see what we've done wrong. It's also so much easier to fix when you know what the required elements are.
So even I've seen some of what the author writes about her in other places, there are also gems I haven't seen elsewhere, which leads me to the conclusion that there may or may not be gold in them thar hills, but I guarantee there's gold in this here book.