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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Open Discussions About Writing » How long to get to know your main character(s)?

Author Topic: How long to get to know your main character(s)?
Member # 9398

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I'm in the 2nd draft of a novel, and one of the criticisms from my previous novel (New Arbor Day) and the first draft of my WIP has been that the reader doesn't get to know certain characters as well as they want to. I had less of that response in the current, but when the charge was made it was against one of the primary characters.

So in my 2nd draft, I'm targeting this issue with her. I'm 10% in and I haven't changed much other than adding a couple of little nuances of behavior, but not much in the way of new scenery/flashbacks/personal references. At the moment, the pace to me requires pushing that more toward the middle. I feel torn between the tension of plot movement and character development.

Question: At what point do you like to feel engaged in the getting to know the character? Obviously, little glimpses of behavior, habits, setting, etc., aside. And avoiding the question of how you know you've gotten to know them. But, what is the marker (percentage? Event? Other?), where you begin to say "I don't think I know this character well enough for this?"

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Well, there's lots of ways of getting to know a character, and you clearly have a pretty good handle on what they are. But what seals it for me, the "marker" if you will, is the decisions the character makes.

Ideally those decisions are unexpected, but once made seem obvious for the character; but you know you've got it made when readers argue about it like they feel they know the character better than you. Even better is when they get furious with you over the character's behavior instead of disagreeing in an intellectual way.

As for wanting to know the characters better, that covers several distinct situations. The first is where the reader can't understand a character's actions. If that's intentional, and the reader is supposed to read on to learn what the character is up to then fine and good. If the reader is *supposed* to understand the character's actions, then that's a situation that requires your immediate attention, and you deploy all the techniques you mentioned, plus a little foreshadowing by showing the character's decision-making at work.

The final situation is where the reader can't get enough of the character. That's a desire I wouldn't be in too much of a hurry to fill. It means you're doing something very right, and you don't want to mess with that. How many LotR readers longed for more information about Gandalf, or perhaps a story or two about Radagast or the other wizards? If you're inclined to oblige readers with such information, better to give it them in a sequel than kill the magic right away with TMI.

By no means sacrifice pacing for characterization, if your pacing is good.

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Plot development and character development go hand-in-hand, I believe. A dynamic way to do both at the same time is to put characters in passionate interactions. Who people are is artfully revealed by how they interact with others. A character may think of himself as a noble persona. The character who he interacts with might think he's an egotistical bigot. If given sufficient "telling details," readers will decide for themselves which they want to be associated with and with which they agree to a degree.

Leave readers the imagination work to do that they can do. If they're engaged, and they will be if there's circumstances they can figure out on their own concurrent to reading, they will stay focused if for no other reason than they want to see their assumptions confirmed. Artfully pose dramatic questions and artfully delay answering them. Do I the reader empathize or sympathize with this character? Maybe. Not quite. Later, maybe closer. Later, maybe I do or don't. Later, maybe I pity the fool. Later, maybe I envy the lucky son of a motherlover.

As a narrative unfolds, changing circumstances deepen a character's persona. He or she reacts one way toward intimate acquaintances, another way toward strangers, another way between males and females, another way between superiors and subordinates, whether actual or perceived as such, and so on.

Other "markers" as well reveal character identity, the settings they interact in and with, the things they wear, carry, use. Brand-name or generic? Status markers or urban camouflage? Rich or poor? Smart or lazy? And like chameleons people are subtly adaptive personas.

Subtler yet, if writing in a close narrative distance, from a character's sensory perceptions, the character's selective perceptions express identity most artfully.

Begin revealing character identity from the first line and never let up. Take leisure time, though, linger, adding to the character's identity while also developing setting and milieu, plot, idea, other characters, events, and voice and attitude. All expanding as the narrative unfolds. Keep in mind that subtle changes have greater influence, usually, than profound changes.

The Paretto Principle speaks to the ratio of subtle to profound: eighty percent of effects come from twenty percent of causes; twenty percent of effects come from eighty percent of causes. The former appeals more strongly to audiences than the latter because readers want to think for themselves and will thank you for letting them. The latter is the hard sell of marketing, pushy advertising that alienates rather than persuades consumers.

[ December 12, 2012, 03:29 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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I agree with extrinsic that "plot movement and character development go hand-in-hand." I don't think you should stop the movement of the story for character development, unless your pacing is too fast.

Question: At what point do you like to feel engaged in the getting to know the character? Obviously, little glimpses of behavior, habits, setting, etc., aside. And avoiding the question of how you know you've gotten to know them. But, what is the marker (percentage? Event? Other?), where you begin to say "I don't think I know this character well enough for this?"
I'm not really sure if there is a point in a book either percentage-wise or event-wise where I think I should understand the character now. Getting to know the character happens so slowly that I don't realize the point where I have a good feel for the character. But I do know that I often get frustrated by characters if I don't understand their motives. So I'm wondering if that is the real problem here. Maybe the motives of the characters aren't that clear.

This is just a guess, so I don't really want to go into a big long post about how to get character motives on the page if I'm way off. Besides, OSC has explained character motivations way better than I ever could in his writing lessons. Here are two links if you are interested. A Conversation on Character and Point of View.

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I want to know the characters right off. My test: By page ten I should know enough about the character that if you take them out of the story and drop them into an entirely different situation I should know how they would respond.

For example, if you took Han Solo out of his realm and dropped him into Midwest America, 20th century Earth, you can imagine what he might do. And his reaction would be significantly different than Luke's.

Short version - get your character defined immediately. Show their personality from page one.

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I have come to feel it is not as much how the character looks like or acts, but what drives them. Make me care.

Make me care about both the internal conflict as well as the external conflict that the character must overcome in the story.

One must be immediately clear when the story opens and the other need be at least intimated, and then dished out to draw the story forward to its eucastrophe.

Dr. Bob

[ December 13, 2012, 03:53 PM: Message edited by: History ]

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Grumpy old guy
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I'll defer to Lajos Egri when he says that every character must have his/her own premise and it is this that defines them. Because of that premise, they can only act in one way to situations, a way that is consistent with their premise.

genevive42 is right in one sense, but I want to read a story where the character 'grows' in front of my eyes. By finding a way to articulate a character's premise, or world view, early on will give a sense of who the character is. As that character confronts his obstacles and overcomes each of them, they may be left scared and battered, but they will have learnt something and their 'character' will have broadened and deepened.

To arbitrarily demand to know a character by page 'x' or by half way through the story for me would mean the character is relatively static which translates as dull and boring. I like characters who can still surprise me on the last page by their reaction to something. Not because it's an 'out of character' reaction, but because it's IN character, I just didn't realise it before.

But, that's no easy thing to accomplish.


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All good thoughts.

Matt, useful as always. I agree that decisions make the best way to develope a character, but I think I do that fairly well (you be the judge next week), but at least for her character that doesn't seem to be enough. I'm wondering if I just need to spend more time inside her head, giving her internal dialogue?

Extrinsic, I like the idea of lingering questions. Answering things piece by piece. To clarify, about halfway through, both readers did say they felt like she "came into her own". So in a sense, I suceed, but both wanted it to be earlier . . .

Phil, . . . which dove tails into what you were saying. I don't think there should be an 'X' page, but clearly my readers thought it should have been earlier, though at the same time we do want out characters to continue to grow and surprise. I think of Katniss at the end of the Hunger Games, or Mockingjay to be specific. I didn't agree with every choice of Ms Collins, but I did understand them. Yet, I was surprised by Katniss with the district 13 president. I meant, I sensed it coming, and it made perfect sense, but seeing her make the decision was surprising.

MAP, you hit close to home I think. When I think back to what was said, at least one said he didn't know where she got her idealism from (for example). So I might need to follow up with them. Was this a confusion about motive, or just a question about her backstory that they wanted answered? Are those the same thing?

Genevive (and Dr. Bob), I think I get what you're saying. There should be some kind of "we're in step" that occurs so that not only the decisions make sense but so that I care why the decision was made and what the outcome was. But you're not saying the character stops evolving at that point.

Lots of things to mull over. I think part of it was that at that halfway point, I lost some of the "blank space" on her character. Certain aspects of her conflict became more clear to me so in a sense there was a part of her that wasn't responding because the conflict was too remote relative to her character. The Muggy Middle is good for something I guess.

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Member # 9398

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Map, thanks for the links those really were helpful once I took the time to read them.

OSC seems to confirm my suspicion that lack of internal dialogue was at issue (lack of TELLING motivation). I just have to be sure its her POV and not mine.

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Robert Nowall
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It's a tough call, but I think it would be better defined along the lines of "making the reader care about the character." I seem to get into situations where I care, but seem to come a-cropper on making the reader care.

On the other hand...I'm reading an online comic strip where, in the current sequence, the main character is, in fact, a mass murderer. Yet I care---and how was that trick managed? The artist / writer made her a person to me, one with a substantial and developed background, and a rich emotional life, all filled in bit by bit as the strip moved through several sequences.

(Hmm...that gives me a few ideas about my current thing...)

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