"" Rob Parnell's Writing Academy Blog: Give Your Character Attitude (Revised)

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Give Your Character Attitude (Revised)

Welcome to this week's newsletter.

It's a shock a minute story about murder, mystery, love, loyalty and two friends with awesome psychic powers! 

If you've ever wondered if I could write a 'real' novel, now's your chance to find out!  I promise you'll be thrilled!

Click on the image above to see this week's Write On video! 


Soon - probably next week - I'll be starting a new masterclass on Plotting Fiction. Look out for that!


Give Your Characters Some Attitude

Rob Parnell

The other day, a writer friend of mine told me her publisher recommended she read a certain book to get the flavor of what they liked to publish.

Eager to know, my author friend rushed to find the book and devour it... only to feel slightly disappointed - and confused.

She wondered what it was about this book the publisher liked. 

The story wasn't great. 

The writing was average. 

Some of the pacing seemed awkward. 

Then it hit her. 

It was the ATTITUDE of the protagonist that gave the book its appeal. 

The hero was feisty, quick to anger, even spiteful and yet somehow lovable.
It's no secret that I believe the key to good story telling is 'character'. 

It should come before everything else - before plotting, before story, even before putting pen to paper. 

If your characters aren't real to you, their stories will never work.

Characters should live in the present - even when you're telling stories in the past tense.

It's one of my theories that ever since Mark Twain, American fictional characters have been largely 'living' without consequence - because that reflects the kind of people we aspire to be: active, driven and focused. 

It makes following their stories more compelling.

Let's do some exploring, shall we?

Think of some classic fictional characters. 

What's the first thing that comes to mind? 

Their physical appearance? Rarely. 

It's usually their demeanor, isn't it? 

Their unique way of interacting with the world - yes, their attitude towards what they do.

James Paterson's Alex Cross is a great character because he's all heart. He loves his family and truly values friendship - and takes his psychopath's activities very personally!

Patricia Cornwall's Kaye Scarpetta doesn't respond well to being patronized or underestimated. She's also way too protective of her niece - for what purpose other than busybodying is not made clear!

Notice too that Scarpetta gets much more critical of her partner's bad habits as the series progresses (even though her own morals get increasingly looser.)

The Da Vinci Code's Robert Langham is intrigued by mystery and secret symbols. Interestingly, despite being a simple college professor he seems to possess almost James Bond like powers of endurance. 

In Angels and Demons, for instance, he actually falls out of a plane without a parachute over Rome... and survives with barely a scratch! (They left that bit out of the movie!)

I think Harry Potter's appeal has much to do his ordinariness. He never believes he's capable of what he has to face. Everybody and his dog knows he's supposedly destined for greatness but he doesn't ever seem quite ready for it.

Bella in Twilight knows only her day to day existence. She's so self obsessed it's easy to see why she appeals so completely to teenage girls.
Ana Steele in Fifty Shades of Grey is completely stuck in the moment - to me, a victim of the present, living essentially without consequence - which I'm sure is a large part of her appeal.

The next time you're inventing (major and minor) characters, don't just imagine their physical attributes, try to give them depth by wondering what they would be passionate about or, conversely, have little interest in. What would annoy them - or thrill them?

Give them short term agendas, things they are committed to achieving or seeing come to pass. But don't make them too analytical in the European sense - as this may hamper their potential for irrational - that is, compelling - actions.

And remember, never impose a story on a character. The best stories come out of the main character's conflicting agendas.

For example, it's not enough to have some anonymous killer trailed by any old ordinary detective. 

The killer must be fully realized - impulsive, obsessed - and there must be very good reasons (if only in his own mind) why he does what he does. 

Similarly, for any good fiction, the detective should be motivated by much more than just 'doing his job' to make a story like this compelling.

Once we know the killer hates women and perhaps himself, and that the detective is terrified of losing his wife to him, then we begin to care about the outcome.

I think one of the reasons Hollywood movies work so well is that the big stars come with a ready made attitude. Or at least one we associate with the actor, whether it's real or not.

We all know what to expect from actors like Brad Pitt, Al Pacino and Scarlett Johannson. No matter what characters they play, we sense their attitudes, their strength and depth, even though we know they're only acting!

So, the message is that during character development, try to imagine being inside the heads of your characters. 

Imagine what it feels like to be your character - moment by moment - the way real people are. 

We often don't analyze our own motivations or even understand them.

We just act.
As should our characters.
Don't just give them attributes, histories and agendas, go the extra mile and give 'em attitude!

Keep writing!
 rob at home
Rob Parnell
The Easy Way to Write

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