Thursday, June 25, 2009

Characters Alive on the Page

by Gigi

I have a trick I use to figure out if a character in a novel was a great one. When I think back on a scene, if it takes me a moment for me to remember whether I read about that character on the page of a book or if I saw them on the stage or the screen, that was a great character. If a character is drawn effectively, I can visualize them effortlessly, and that image sticks with me.

Now, I'm not talking about great books here. Though it's often the case that vivid characters end up in great books, I don't think they always go together. As a lover of mysteries, some of my favorite books involve the cleverest of plots that leave me wonderfully satisfied at the end—and yet I can't remember a single character.

(This happened to me recently when I picked up a second book by a Clayton Rawson, an ingenious mystery plotter from the '30s. I must have been halfway into the book before I realized one of the main characters was a recurring character from the first book.)

But if a book has both? Yeah, those are the books that will stick with me.

So if it's characters who come alive that we're looking to create, where does that magic come from? For me, I was involved in theater long before I ever imagined writing a novel. In high school, I wrote, directed, and acted in plays and short films with my school friends. (And yes, my first failed attempt at writing a novel involved a cast of characters from a theater production.)

With this theatrical introduction to storytelling, I learned to approach a story visually, looking to actors—with very few props and bare-bones sets—to engage the audience. Character was the most important tool we had.

When I started writing more seriously, I found I was in danger of letting my love of characters sabotage my plots. These characters of mine had lives of their own. This is a great problem to have—up to a point. It's the reason I tend to write in intense bursts, rather than a little bit each day. When I'm successfully getting into characters' heads, they end up taking over. At some point I have to remind them who's the one who's alive and doing the typing.


Dana Fredsti said...

I will always take good characters over plot, but...both together? The best!

Unknown said...

Great post Gigi! I think all writers should take at least one acting class or otherwise watch what actors do. Also reading plays is a great way to get a feel for the difference between real human speech and the versimilitude of fictional dialog.

I've always thought of character and plot as two faces of the same thing -- like particles and waves...When the writer has integrated the plot events with the flaws and strengths, needs and fears of the main character, I get to reader heaven!

Unknown said...

So when do we get to see some pictures of Gigi on stage???? :)

Gigi Pandian said...

I did actually think about posting a stage photo, but then I realized all those photos are from long before the digital age, and I didn't have a scanner handy while writing this post. Someday :)