Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Unpacking Your Characters

The first time I met my best friend, he was a 6' 3" package of charm, humor and witty banter, all wrapped up in blond hair and tied off with a pair of arctic blue eyes. It took nearly a year for me to dig deep enough to understand that his crooked smile and steely gazes meant he was laughing at me. Its taken a good amount of time since then to figure out he's enjoying my passion and not making fun of me. We've known each other for over 18 years and I'm still learning things about him I never knew.
If he were the MC in my novel, I don't have even 18 hours to show my reader's all of him, much less a couple of decades. Real people, in real life aren't what readers want though. They want the fantasy, mystery, blond hair and blue eyes without spending time in the character's nothing box' or cleaning up  their dirty laundry
Your reader must feel they are deep in the heart and mind of your characters, but not so deep they'll run away. So the question is; how do we unpack these characters?
In an earlier post about filtering, I talked about some of the words that separate the reader from the character. Words like: knew, realized, watched and understood. To get even deeper in the package though, a writer must go deeper. We can't tell the reader what the character is doing, we must show them and let them feel it.
There are a few ways to do this. I'll only cover a few today.
1. Include movement. This is a tough one because 'left foot-right foot writing is frowned upon. So you have to be careful. here's an example- "John dug the shovel into the rich soil."
A sentence with movement, but a little bland. "Splinters tore through the soft flesh of his palm. John sunk the blade into the dark earth, turning the scent of moisture, grass and mulching leaves into the crisp morning air."
You can feel the shovel and experience the scene because the description of the movement takes you bodily into the scene.

2. Never leave your characters alone. The character might be alone in the scene. Your reader may be alone while reading. You were probably alone when you wrote it.However, You and your reader are in the characters mind, or the character is revealing themselves to other characters through dialogue and reaction.
Another example- " Terror shot through her heart as the darkness of the alley swamped her."
Do you see it? Feel it?Maybe, but...
"Her ears dulled behind the thumping of her heart. The constriction of her throat kept a scream from clawing over the dry patch where her tongue stuck to the roof of her mouth. Before, night was a soft, warm mask of anonymity. This blackness slithered down the alley walls in clutching fingers." .
Our character is alone, but now, you are beside her in that alley.
3. Use of dialogue. This one is hard for me,because I'm still trying to find my voice. Giving your character a distinct voice will automatically conjure love or hate by the way they speak.
"What if I were to call the police and make a report? Would that make you feel better?"
Now lets give this speech some voice.
"S'pose I dial up ol' sheriff Calhoun. S' pose I tell him how y'all was tresspassin' on my land. His holdin' cell o'er in Jackson's got some real nice vermin infested cots. Y'all be right at home."
The next time this character speaks will you recognize him? Will you expect him to spout pretty words or articulate his syllables. No? You've just started to unpack his character.
These techniques expand your word count, deepen your reader's connection to your characters and bring your scenes to life. They also complicate your writing, turn your prose into poetry and distract from the plot if done incorrectly. Middle Grade writers, short stories, and children's writers especially want to avoid too much description because their readers have short attention spans. Even in a short story though, if the writer focuses on the important parts of the story and doesn't waste word count on details or dialogue that doesn't move the story forward then the unpacking is worth it.
Take a paragraph or chapter you're working on and try some of these techniques. If they don't work or they ruin your writing, then try something else. However, if you find you like being with your characters even more, then keep writing and learning.

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