Thursday, February 9, 2017

Editor's Notes #27: Hooked On a Feeling

Writing fiction is all about plucking at people's emotional strings, whether you're aiming for tender feelings, indignation, laughter, fear, or any number of the bajillions of things that encompass the spectrum of emotions.

How do you get people to feel what you want them to feel? I've gotten steaming mad at a character's stupidity or self-centeredness. I've also laughed along with a protagonist who happens to be a serial killer. [Only semi-related side note: if you've never read anything by Tim Dorsey, you're missing out on an absolutely entertaining killer named Serge and his sidekick, Coleman, as they enjoy everything Florida has to offer. "Quirky" is not quite the word for it. I came across the "why dead people show up in later books" section of Dorsey's site, and couldn't believe how many more books he's released since I last picked one of his off the library shelves. And now, back to our regularly scheduled program . . .]

The classic "show, don't tell" is one way of getting those emotions across. Think about it: if you're telling someone about a traumatic event that happened to you, they're going to respond in a completely different way depending on whether you're listing "this happened, and then this happened," or whether you're trembling and fighting back tears as you struggle to choke out the words. Why would writing a scene be any different? Show how a character is physically dealing with things, and you're on your way.

With a sympathetic character, you can create a sort of bond between the character and the reader, so there's a bit of investment there. This can be brought about in a funny way, like how you just can't help but root for Tuck Watley (Tuck Watley: Freedom Fighter Fighter by Brandon Meyers and Bryan Pedas) because he's just so . . . well, he's indescribable, but trust me, you're rooting for him for the sheer entertainment value. Or you can root for the underdog who's been screwed over way too many times, because everyone's been treated or judged unfairly at least once in their life. Or maybe you can even root for Nick or Kevin from S.K. Anthony's series, The Luminaries, because they're incredibly sexy, yet intelligent good guys who are also some of the baddest guys around. Whatever tugs at you will pull you in if it's done well.

You could also create a character who is NOT sympathetic, and make the reader hate him. The emotion is still a strong one, and they'll not forget him easily. However, take care to not make him unlikable in every way—I edited a book once where a character was such an absolute jerk that I couldn't stand him . . . and he was supposed to be one of the protagonists. I ended up telling the author that I didn't even care what happened to him and would not want to keep reading if I had bought the book. Fun fact: turns out this particular author (who I knew was actually a skilled writer) had cowritten that particular book and was not happy with the other person's contributions (that awful character being one of them). All that was needed was a neutral voice (mine) to allow the author the necessary backup to break ties with the other writer and redo the book completely.

Letting your emotions into the writing can be an odd thing. If your character is insane, I'd imagine it's a tough call for exactly how crazy to write him. Will people think he's over-the-top freaky? Will they think you're like that in real life, and that's how you write crazy so well? Will they think you're wimpy if you're a guy who writes a really tender scene? Do writers even care if anyone thinks they're writing from experience? I need to know these things.

Have you ever written anything really strange and wondered what someone would think of YOU after reading it, even though it was fiction?

17 comments:

  1. I used to have a problem with fiction stories on my blog. The readers would keep assuming the main character in any story was me! It was very annoying, especially a short story I wrote called "Player." The main character was a jerk who used women constantly and got a brief comeuppance. I also wrote a multi-parter where the main character was rather abrasive. That one worked out better. Those who liked the story didn't really like that character, which was my intention, and no one thought he was supposed to be me.

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    1. I have to say, I've never assumed an author models his characters after himself, because frankly, that's pretty ego-driven . . . and most of the authors I know are always so full of angst about whether people will like what they've written that they'd never make themselves so vulnerable in print.

      Thank goodness your readers got over blaming you, haha.

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  2. Lynda, good post.
    I've found it easier to portrait a character with traits and thoughts similar to my own. Unfortunately, not many people would read a book with me as the main protagonist. Therein lies the challenge of any author. It helps to think of your protagonist as someone you may know or to have the characteristics of a particular person. I've gone so far as to list the traits of my characters and refer back to the list to make sure I have them thinking and acting consistently. Your advise to show and not tell is also important, yet hard to do.

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    1. Having read some of your work, I think you're doing a great job of character creation. Keeping a list of traits is important! I do that for the books I edit, just to make sure I notice any inconsistencies from book to book (if it's a series) or chapter to chapter. I've caught a thing or two here and there—situations where "I can't imagine this character would really react this way"—but for the most part, the authors I've worked with are consistent.

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  3. I love a book that can make me care about the characters. I have the same problem as The Silver Fox. People think that "I" means me. I've explained many times that my poems have a persona and they aren't necessarily about me. Janie Junebug is a persona, too.

    Love,
    Janie

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    1. Janie, I do remember you explaining exactly that to many concerned readers in a blog post. I can't remember exactly, but I believe it was a particularly haunting poem. And everyone was like, "I hope you're okay!" in their comments.

      It's nice to have people who are concerned, but not for the wrong reasons. I try to keep in mind that everyone online has some type of persona, because most of real life is too close to our hearts to share with strangers.

      At least you know you're writing makes people care!

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    2. Almost every time I write a poem, I say, IT'S NOT ABOUT ME! But it is kind of people to care.

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  4. Yes, actually. I was worried people would think I was a guy after writing Static in male POV :P - lol

    Awesome post!!!! I truly believe in humanizing my characters. Otherwise why would anyone care about them? Myself included lol

    S.K. Anthony: Why You Should Write Your First Draft Before Outlining Your Novel

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    1. Well, if I hadn't met you in person, I might have worried that you'd turned into a guy, or that you were a guy pretending to be a gal when we'd met in Hershey (it's legal now, lol). Thankfully I have a brain wave connection to you and I know EXACTLY what's going on in your brain. It's frightening, but doable. I like it.

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  5. Glad that author was able to part ways and write the character better. My main character was difficult, but he wasn't a complete jerk.

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    1. I was happy for the author as well. The book had already gone through beta, and the beta reader's comments and suggestions were pretty consistent with mine, so I think it was a good move all around to just rewrite.

      I think a difficult character is fascinating. He or she inspires the reader to keep reading, whether it's to see a change or growth, or to see the character get a comeuppance at some point.

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  6. Curiously, this is the complaint I've just received about my characters. The story is good, but the characters aren't connecting. Part of that is because I didn't think it a good idea to have a "cry-baby" for my protagonist. It's something I have to work on through the rest of the story and when I get to the edit/revise step.

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    1. I should think it would be a tough balance to write a character's distress without him/her coming off as being wimpy. But as you say, that's what the revisions are for. Once the story is sorted out, that type of thing might resolve itself with more clarity than while you're in the midst of things.

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  7. Hey, thanks for the mention in this! I'm truly flattered and honored (we both are, but I usually only speak for me... usually) to be included here with the likes of Tim Dorsey and S.K. We took great care to make sure that even if the reader thinks Tuck is an idiot, they're still secretly rooting for him. We're glad to hear that came across well.

    Fun fact: Tim Dorsey is so completely humorless in person. We met him at a writer's convention a few years back, and he's just a walking pair of mom jeans with socks and sandals. He didn't really want to talk with anyone, and let's just say our jokes were not well understood... or replied to. I guess he's just one of those guys who's funny when he writes, but not so much in person.

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    1. I love Tuck Watley and always will. I have to root for him because he somehow always comes out on top anyway, so I may as well be on the winning side.

      Tim Dorsey . . . pfft, what a jerk. If he didn't respond to you guys, then he's someone who clearly has no discernment (mom jeans emphasizing that, I suppose). I'll still think his books are funny, but now I'll read them with a sneer on my face. I think that will help.

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  8. I am so glad to see your blog posts again. I was afraid you had forsaken us... Great post as always. As scary as a few of my villains are I have had people look at me differently and I consider that a win.

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    1. Thanks for the visit! I may as well get used to the fact that I'll have to put the blog on hold from November to January as long as I hold my current day job. I'd miss it too much to give it up completely, though.

      You've written some pretty ruthless characters. But then again, you're a nurse, so you've probably seen some pretty gruesome stuff. Truth is stranger than fiction, right?

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