Getting Inside Their Heads

How do you write a story about a character who’s completely unlike you? How do you get inside his or her head enough to make your story credible? Don’t we all admire authors who can do this well? Conversely, isn’t it boring (and confusing) when every character in a story thinks and speaks the same way?

www.publicdomainpictures.net

I’ve blogged before about creating convincing characters who are the opposite gender from you. But there are many ways besides gender to be different—age, race, time period, nationality, home location, economic status, intelligence, species, planet, etc.

www.wikipedia.org

A few years ago, I read Next, by the late Michael Crichton. In that novel, one of the characters, Brad Gordon, is abnormally attracted to very young girls. If I remember correctly, I read about Brad attending a high school girls soccer game. The scene is in Brad’s point of view, and I read about watching the game through a sexual deviant’s eyes. Not only was the scene disturbing, but I was convinced Michael Crichton knew his character well enough to capture his mindset.

It’s a difficult thing, writing from the POV of a character so unlike you, one who thinks differently, who has different goals and motivations. That character doesn’t share your (the writer’s) basic assumptions about how the world works. The character reacts to events with different emotions than you would. Your job is to make that character realistic.

This character might be very different from your targeted readership. The character might be an extraterrestrial, a British colonialist explorer from the 1880s, a serial killer, or a Tibetan monk. Your readers won’t know if you “got it right,” but you still need to make it convincing. None of those characters should think or act like you do.

Of course, it’s worse when your targeted readers do match your character and you don’t. If you’re an elderly male author writing romance, your depictions of young women had better be very close to the mark, because your readers will spot any unrealistic actions, thoughts, clothing, dialogue, etc. If you’ve never been in the military and you’re writing a war story, your readership expects you to get in the mind of your POV characters and convey accurate feelings and actions.

In this blog post, Monica M. Clark discusses some helpful advice she learned from author Terry McMillan on this subject. Her three recommendations follow, paraphrased by me:

  • Empathize. Spend time getting in the mind of that character, feeling the passions, seeing the world through those different filters.
  • Listen. If possible, find real people who are like your character. Go to where they live, if you can. Then watch and listen. Pick up the speech patterns, the clothing, the gestures.
  • Apply for a job. No, the job’s not for you, it’s for your character. Fill out a job application as your character would. That will build the bio for your character.

All great advice. Regarding that last item, there are some things you need to know about your character that would not appear on a typical job application, like physical attributes and personality. Write those down, too. As you write your story, refer back to the job application every now and then to check if you have things right.

The better you can convey different characters, the better your stories will be. For example, I do my best to depict characters who are completely different from—

Poseidon’s Scribe

When Is Your Story Ready?

On one hand, you’re anxious to send your story to an editor and see it published after its many revisions. On the other hand, you’re not sure it’s quite ready yet.

How do you know when you’ve truly finished a story?

writing-vs-sculptureWe could seek advice from accomplished authors. Unfortunately, the various quotes I’ve compiled run the gamut from the ‘don’t edit at all’ extreme to ‘seven revisions might not be enough.’

  • Robert Heinlein: “They didn’t want it good; they wanted it Wednesday.”
  • Laura Lippman: “You have to be able to finish. The world is full of beautiful beginners.”
  • Michael Crichton: “Books aren’t written—they’re rewritten. Including your own. It is one of the hardest things to accept, especially after the seventh rewrite hasn’t quite done it.”
  • Isaac Asimov (paraphrased from my memory): I write a first draft and never change a word. If they want a five-thousand-word story, I type five thousand words and stop. With any luck, I’m at the end of a sentence.

Thanks, Famous Writers! Great quotes, but not particularly helpful. Next I turned to the blogosphere and came up with some useful posts on the topic by Chris Robley, Dr. Randy Ingermanson, Bryan Hutchinson, Jessica Clausen, and James Duncan. I recommend you peruse those posts at your leisure for more in-depth advice.

Here’s my distillation of guidance from those blog posts, mixed with my own experience. It boils down to your attitude toward the story:

  1. Are you proud of the story? Are you proud enough of it that you’d be happy to see it in print, with your name as the author? If so, it may be ready, so long as it’s not a false pride, and instead stems from the confidence that you’ve done all you can to make the story good.
  2. Are you tired of, or even sick of, working on the story? Your creative muse is aching to move on to something else, and the thought of spending more time on this story is depressing. If this is truly a reaction to working on the story, not the story itself, it may be ready. If you’re sick of the story itself because you think it’s terrible, or you can no longer summon up the enthusiasm you once had for it, it probably still needs work. In that case, it may be best to set it aside for a few weeks or months so you can look at it fresh later.

At some point, you need to decide: (1) submit the story for publication, (2) shelve it for a while and edit it later, or (3) abandon it. Sometimes circumstances will force your decision—things such as an editor’s deadline, the desire for publication, the fickle muse’s yearning for a different writing project, etc.

Sometimes, there’s nothing forcing you to decide and you’re still stuck in limbo, wondering if the story is ready. At that point, you might want to ask yourself whether it’s the story’s readiness that’s in question, or yours. Has the story become a sort of child, one you’re trying to protect from the harsh world out there?

If so, remember: you’re a writer, and writers create stories for readers to enjoy. Time to let that story out, and let it find whatever acclaim or obscurity it will, while you move on to write the next one. You can do this; take it from—

Poseidon’s Scribe

Tightening the Screws

Today I’m discussing why and how writers increase conflict in their stories.  Long-term fans of this site with keen memories will recall that I promised to get to this topic in a previous blog entry.  Far be it from me to let you down.

Conflict is a necessary part of all stories and it’s a good idea to ramp up the level of conflict as your story proceeds, both to hold your reader’s interest by building tension, and to subject your protagonist to a progressively more difficult test of character, forcing him or her to confront inner fears or character flaws.

220px-Jurassic_Park_posterLet’s look at a couple of examples.  In the 1993 movie “Jurassic Park,” directed by Steven Spielberg and based on a novel of the same name by Michael Crichton, we see a gradual step-up in conflict.  The central protagonist, Dr. Alan Grant, is persuaded to leave a paleontological dig to conduct a review of a theme park.  Once there he is awed that the park engineers have re-created living dinosaurs.  He is put in close contact with children, which he dislikes.  When part of the park’s security system is deactivated, a Tyrannosaurus attacks the group.  Grant and the children must spend the night in the park, with predatory dinosaurs on the loose.  They encounter cunning Velociraptors, and finally both Velociraptors and the Tyrannosaurus.

Fiddler_on_the_roof_posterConflict need not be physical, or even dangerous.  In the 1964 musical “Fiddler on the Roof,” with music by Jerry Bock and lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, the conflict is of a different nature but also increases.  The village milkman, Tevye, must first contend with the fact that his eldest daughter has chosen her own husband against tradition and his wishes.  Then his second daughter likewise makes her own marital match, but with a political and cultural radical.  Later his third daughter seeks to marry outside the Jewish faith.  Finally, on orders from the Tsar, Russian authorities expel the Jewish villagers from their town.

Notice how, in each case, the author chooses plot events that begin with small conflicts and then escalates, figuratively tightening thumbscrew devicethe screws as with the medieval torture device, progressively challenging the characters with more taxing situations.  Just as the protagonist resolves or comes to terms with one disaster, a worse one occurs.  Moreover, the nature of the conflicts is such that they strike at a character flaw.  In Dr. Grant’s case, it’s his dislike of children.  In Tevye’s case, it’s his over-reliance on tradition.  The protagonists are forced to grapple with their own weakness and try to overcome it.

It’s sad, in a way, that writers must put their characters through the torture of increasing conflict intensity, just for the sake of reader enjoyment.  But as long as the characters stay imaginary, it’s all legal, so ease your mind about that.  You’re welcome to comment on this topic of increasing the level of conflict.  I’ll return now to my Work in Progress (WIP).  Please don’t mind any screams you might hear as the screws get tightened by—

                                                      Poseidon’s Scribe