Friday, June 28, 2013

Getting to the core of a character

Somewhere before you hit the first big turning point in a story, there's got to be a crucial scene where you connect with the main character. You also need a connection on the first page, or darn close to the first page, but I've talked about first pages lots before. What I'm starting to notice more now in my reading are the subtle scenes that come a little bit later.

Here's what a good story needs right away:

The "first pages connection" isn't quite the same as the hook, or as dramatic, but it's just as important: the character wants something. Never underestimate the power of want! In the first pages, the want  is usually an external one. In Altered, by Jennifer Rush, right away we know Anna wants to spend time with Sam, and to get him to open up more. But he's guarded; he doesn't share much of himself. Who can blame him? He's locked in a tiny cell in a basement.  Anna's free to come and go as she pleases, but she's inexplicably drawn to Sam.

About thirty pages into the story, there's what I call the "getting to the core of the character" scene. We know enough about Anna and Sam and the other boys in the basement to be intrigued. But so far it's been mostly externals.

You know like when you meet someone in real life and you both like Star Trek and horses and writing and mythical creatures and chocolate. (Someone like me, hah). If you like all those things (or even just one or two of those things) I'm going to automatically want to spend some time with you, talking about those things and curious to learn more about you. But it doesn't mean we're going to be best buds, or ever even talk again unless we happen to run into each other again.

I think it's the internals, the core of characters and real people, (wait, characters are real people, right? oops, delusions at high altitude getting me again) that make for a more lasting relationship. Or in other words, get a reader to really connect with a book. (At least for females. Females and males and relationships is a whole other dissertation, there).

Anyway, books that have a "getting to the core of the character" scene are ones that end up sticking with me.

Rather than trying to describe the elements of a "getting to the core of a character" scene, here's an example of an excellent one from Altered which shows up about 30 pages into the story:

"What about what you want? Your hopes, your dreams? What are you passionate about?" He swiveled to face me full-on. "Your instructor was telling you to dig deeper." 
The look on his face transitioned from open understanding to something guarded, as if he was silently prodding me. As if he was holding back what he wanted to say because a frank answer would make it too easy. 
I rested my head against the wall and stared at the ceiling, at the pockmarks in the tile. Trev liked wrapping his advice in complex philosophies. Nothing was ever simple with him. 
The problem was, I didn't know what I wanted out of my life. [How many of us do? We think we've got it figured out, and then things change. Or we change!]. What was I passionate about? The boys. The lab. Dad. Baking. But sketching a pumpkin pie sounded pretty darn boring. 
Maybe Trev read the confusion on my face, because he added, "Start with your frustrations. How about that? It's easier to tap into anger or annoyance."
When I returned to my room that night, I'd opened my sketch book and stared at the blank page. [Or me as a writer, staring at a blank page]. What frustrated me? My mother being dead, yes, but I needed something fresh. 
And then it came to me: Nick. Nick frustrated me. 
Soon, my pencil began to slide across the paper at an alarming pace. As I sketched, I felt it, a fire in my arm, a tingling sensation in my fingertips, like I was bleeding that passion onto the page. When I was finished, I had one of the best drawings I'd ever done. In it, Nick stood in the middle of a deserted street, bottles broken around him, liquid spilling everywhere while he peered out from the page....

You can see by my bracketed comments within the scene just where I was really connecting with this character, with this story.

There's lots of other things that drew me about this story, too. The ending had an incredible twist. Actually, two twists:  a character twist and a plot twist. The book had intense action nicely balanced with  introspection and character development. Tension "thick enough to braid." Details that you notice, but later they come up again and you realize they had another meaning than what you first assumed.  That is such a cool trick, that one there with the lemonade (key word to remind myself) (sorry, I know it makes no sense to you). I definitely need to brainstorm how to include layered meanings in my own writing. 

I could go on and on about cool writerly things I found in this book but I will limit myself to one last one. The infamous looking-into-the eyes cliche!  I looked into his deep amber eyes, and I was lost... gag. Almost as pervasive and terrible as the main character looking in a mirror to describe himself! But here we have something quite different: 
When he didn't immediately counter, I looked up and met his eyes. An unremarkable green, like river water, his eyes were nothing to look at, but they were something else to be watched with.
This observation gives me happy chills because it's such good writing. It makes you catch your breath without being overdone. The main character noticing someone's eyes is so cliche: even an original description of eyes is still cliche. But the author flips the cliche right around... unremarkable eyes, but being watched by them is what is remarkable. 

How important is "getting to the core"  to you? Am I just a hopeless romantic? 


  1. Ok, so I like the "looking into his eyes" example, but I feel like the example about what the character wants is SOOO obvious that I want to roll my eyes and move on already. Maybe it's just me?

    Like... with Harry Potter you know what he wants without another character having to obviously and awkwardly ask him what it is... he wants acceptance, a family, and to defeat Voldemort. (I know, I know... I'm always falling back on HP, but what can I say? I luv him!)

  2. I definitely liked that last one about being watched by those eyes. *chills* yep. I think character needs can be cliche and it's okay because what matters is that we find a way to connect. I think emotions are cliche anyways...we all have them, we all react in similar ways to situations. I know a lot of people who could connect with Anna...heck, my boyfriend could connect with Anna because he's had those same thoughts. lol.

    Great post!!

  3. You're not a hopeless romantic - I'm that way too :) I love connecting with characters and I want to feel like I know them, like I know what they're thinking and the reasons behind their actions. Cookie-cutter characters do nothing for me.

  4. Stina LindenblattJune 29, 2013 at 4:52 PM

    You sold me on both the concept of getting to the core of the character and this book. The writing sounds great!

  5. I'm seriously bookmarking this post. So much awesome tips here it requires a second read. Great post, Margo! :)

  6. Very impressive article. I have read each and every point
    and found it very interesting



Follow by Email

My Blog List