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Sunday, October 30, 2011

Characters: the meat and bones of a story...

I have to work today, so I've been trying to prepare some posts in advance in anticipation of participating here today. You know how it is, you're a busy person. If you're like me, you have a full-time job that keeps you running all day long. When you get home, you have to take care of everything that you love, and if you're lucky, you have a little bit of time left over to get a head start on the next day.

So, I was really proud of myself for writing a post in advance! Only when I got ready to post it, I realized that I had written an essay on Halloween, and not your typical guest blogger bit. *face palm*

Last night, as I was chatting with someone on my website, I begged desperately for suggestions as to what I should talk about today! Thanks to Beatrice, who suggested that I talk about characters, I'm going to start the ball rolling here. :-)

It's a good question, it really is. One that I hadn't really given a lot of thought to before. Most of the time, my stories arise out of a ‘single what if…?’ It's my favorite question. I'll read a story, watch a movie, notice an article in the newspaper, and think to myself, "What if that guy came from an alternate reality?”

My favorite saying is "everything is grist for the mill." It's true. Even in the middle of traumatic events, a tiny part of my mind is registering how I feel, and the sensations and impressions around me. Sometimes, I can even hear that voice that says, "You know you're going to use this in a story some day." I haven't yet decided if this is a good or a bad thing!

So my stories usually begin with an idea. Once the idea is formed, the characters seem to come to me. I'm not one to speak about having a "Muse." It does seem to me, however, that I have a whole slew of characters waiting in line for me to tell their stories. When the idea presents itself, characters step forward and raise their hands. Well, okay, sometimes they're more pushy than that. :-)

The story itself seems to shape the characters. The story that I want to tell grows and evolves as the characters shape it. It's kind of an organic process. I can tell you that I'm rather superstitious about titles. If I have an idea gelling in my mind and characters milling about, if the title doesn't come to me quickly with a sense of "that's it!", then I know I don't have a winner.

I tend to see my characters in pairs. That's hardly surprising, given that I write romances! I'm looking for characters that complement each other, however. While I'm not an ardent supporter of "opposites attract" in terms of relationship stability, you have to admit that a certain amount of contrast and conflict makes reading romances interesting. So in Unspeakable Words, I wrote about two opposite characters who, through a series of circumstances, had to rely on each other. The basic premise was simple: Jerry was precise, persnickety, and not particularly well-liked by his coworkers. Flynn was smooth, undeniably attractive, successful, and yet somewhat of a loose cannon. My plan was to disrupt Flynn on a fundamental level, so that he would have to rely on Jerry for help. In the course of doing this, I would also bring the two men closer together and manipulate events so that they would realize how important they were to each other.

That was the premise, at any rate. Once I began writing the characters themselves took over. They took me on a wacky, sexy, roller coaster ride, and left me with so many loose threads at the end, that I realized I had at least two more stories to tell. Now, who are the manipulators? :-)

Something similar happened in Crying for the Moon. With Tate, it was my intention to create a character that was irritatingly nice. Someone who wouldn't be put off by Alex's abrupt attitude. People have told me that when they began reading the story, they thought Alex was a jerk. Yeah, he was. But he had good reasons! I needed a character who would override those reasons. What I didn't expect, however, was that Tate would be so disarming to everyone — myself included! And where did those secondary characters come from? Here I am, busily writing a romance, and the next thing I know, the novel has been peopled with a whole set of characters as real to me as the main ones. Now I find that I must go back and tell their stories as well!

One of the common themes in my stories is the concept of "living is more than mere survival." It's an important theme to me. In many ways, for various reasons, I have spent more time as a spectator than a participator in life. They were good reasons; I would not go back and change them now. But I often find myself telling stories about characters in similar situations. Their story is how they learn to live instead of merely survive.

Probably the best example of this, is in Raincheck, in which Rodney the gargoyle spies on the tenant in his building, and makes up stories about the two of them together. It could have easily been creepy and disturbing. I like to think, however, that it is the character of Rodney himself, that makes all the difference in the world.

So tell me about your favorite characters? In movies, in novels, on your favorite television show. Tell me why you like them or why you love to hate them. If you really want to make my day, however, tell me which of my characters are your favorites. :-) I will be randomly selecting someone among the commenters to receive their choice of one of my stories in a digital format. More importantly, however, you will make my slow, cold, miserable day at work more interesting! I'll be back and forth away from my desk over the next few hours, but I guarantee you that your comments will keep me entertained until I can get back to answer them!

Sarah Madison


Tabitha Rayne said...

Oh, your characters sound so intriguing... learning to live, I like that. So are you completely involved with their lives when you write?

Sarah M. said...

Oh dear, yes. I start out thinking about what they look like, and what has happened to them to bring them to the point where the story begins. Next thing I know, I'm seeing whole scenes unfold when I'm supposed to be doing something else, you know, like *working*. :-)

Then they show up at breakfast, drop down in an empty chair, and explain to me what I'm doing wrong and what they really are all about. Most of the time, by the time I'm finished with the story, I'm so invested in them that I want to write fanfic of my own work! *facepalm*

I think that's why I end up planning so many sequels... :-)

Na said...

Thanks for sharing a bit about how characters come to you. With an idea I can see how characters can come and I'm sure for everyone it's a bit the same and a bit different. As a reader, characters are one of the most important part of a story. I want to connect with them and care about their journey.

Debby said...

Loved the post. My favorite characters are those that really click in the book. It is odd but some characters just do not have chemistry. There are so many I could list but my mind is frozen.
debby236 at gmail dot com

Sarah M. said...

I'm still trying to figure out how to reply to individual comments, but I think I'm going to have to go with names here!

Na: You are so right! If I can't connect with the characters, then it doesn't matter to me how well written the story is, I can't get invested in it. Conversely, when I love the characters, I will follow them through silly plots with holes you could drive a Mack Truck through!

Also, I apologize for the many typos in this post here--I wrote it in a hurry this morning using VR software and I'm still working out the bugs!

Sarah M. said...

Debby: Chemistry is EVERYTHING! I'm with you there--they have to click. Sometimes it is the writing, sometimes it is the characters, or the actors who portray them. I find it funny that I can read the premise of two similar stories or movies and one will grab me right away, while the other leaves me 'meh.'


Stormy said...

I love hearing about how writers find their characters and create their stories...thanks for sharing. Two of my favorite movie characters are Lucy and Jack from While You Were Sleeping (1995). Lucy's character is obviously so lonely even though she has some friends and when the opportunity to be a part of a real family presents itself she wants it so bad she can't say no even though it means doing something she does really bad, lieing. Then she meets Jack. This is one of my favorite rolls for Bill Pulman. His character is normal (mostly average) and yet he sexy all the same time. He's attracted to Lucy even though he knows he shouldn't be and when they both finally admit it...sigh...that's my favorite type of romance.


Sarah M. said...

Ah, Stormy, I'm with you there! That is a perfect example of how you can take what is basically a silly premise, but give it to two compelling actors with chemistry, and have them pull it off into a delightful movie!

Come to think of it, that's how I feel about Sandra Bullock in The Proposal, too!

Oh, THANK YOU for leaving a means of contacting you, should you win a prize--I should have suggested that all along, shouldn't I? Now I'll have to hope I can track the winners down... :-)