Sunday, April 18

How to Write a Genre Story: Character Introduction: Empathy

How to Write a Genre Story: Character Introduction: Empathy



The end goal of character creation, the Holy Grail, is for your reader to feel empathy for your character. 

Jim Butcher writes:

“...if you can make people love who you want them to love and hate who you want them to hate, you’re going to have readers coming back to you over and over again.” (Characters, Jim Butcher)

Creating empathy for your character 

Empathy, like happiness, can be elusive. 

The problem: I can’t will myself to have empathy for a character anymore than I can will myself to be happy! And I certainly don’t have a magic pen that I can wave to create empathy in my readers. Writing a character people love--or love to hate!--is a dark art.

BUT, as we have seen, there are things--like exaggeration, unusual position, and verisimilitude--that can increase the chance that your reader will emotionally bond with a character. 

If I could use an example. Happiness is wonderful, but one cannot simply will oneself to be happy. Also, there’s no list of things one can do that will guarantee happiness. That said, there are activities one can do (eat ice cream, take a long stroll on a beach, and so on), states of mind one can cultivate (focus on a goal, don’t have unrealistic expectations for oneself, and so on), that will increase the chance that one will be happy.

In the same way, there are things we can do to encourage a reader to love a character.

The Key to Creating Empathy: Sequels

Butcher writes:

“Like V-Factor [verisimilitude], empathy takes time to build and it relies heavily upon the skilled use of sequels.” (Characters, Jim Butcher)

(By the way, I’ve written about sequels in my blog post: Parts of Story: The Structure of Sequels.)

Empathy and Sequels

In writing, especially genre writing, stories are made up of an unbroken string of scenes and sequels.

Scenes are where the action happens. It is where the protagonist clashes with an antagonist, whether this clash is verbal/intellectual, mental or physical. In the sequel--which is a place where characters and readers alike can take a breath between scenes--we see the characters reveal themselves, their inner persons, through how they respond/react emotionally to the set-back (or victory) they experienced in the previous section. 

It is by seeing the characters REACT that we get to know them, get to know the kind of people they are. And here’s the trick that isn’t a trick at all, it’s just a basic fact of human nature: How a person responds to a setback is a large part of what makes us admire them, love them. Or despise them, hate them.

It is in the character's response to the setbacks of life that WHO SHE IS shines through.

Think of it this way. I’m old enough to have thought (when I was a teen) oh this is what I would do if such and such happened. For example, if I caught my boss stealing his employees tips, or if I saw my neighbour being robbed, or … well, you get the idea. And then, as one goes through life, those boxes get ticked off, some of those things, things that I was so sure I knew how I would react to, actually happen. And sometimes I didn’t react at all as I thought I would. My emotions weren’t what I thought they would be. Things that I thought would make me angry made me cry and vice versa. As a result I learnt about myself.

Sequels

So. Emotional reactions--authentic emotional reactions--are crucial for exposing a fictional person’s character and so for encouraging the reader to relate to, and bond with, the character.

Okay, now we’re getting into it. In a sequel order is important. (I write about this a bit in “How to Write a Genre Story: Character Introduction: Verisimilitude.”)

The Structure of Sequels

There are different possible structures for a sequel.

Dwight V. Swain:

1. Emotional reaction
2. Cognitive reaction
3. Anticipation
4. Choice

Jim Butcher:

1. Emotional reaction
2. Review, Logic & Reason
3. Anticipation
4. Choice

Here’s how I think of it:

1. Emotional reaction ==> a) Instinctive b) Cognitive
2. Reflection (look back, figure out what was)
3. Anticipation (look ahead, figure out what could be)
4. Choice

Sequels: The Order

Part 1: Emotional Reaction

The emotional reaction breaks into two. There’s the instinctive emotional reaction and what I think of as the cognitive emotional reaction.

Instinctive Emotional Reaction

I wrote about the instinctive emotional reaction in my last post, the one on verisimilitude.

Think of burning your hand on a hot stove. You react and your hand moves away from the burner before you realize what happened.

Think of the first time you felt betrayal. Perhaps your significant other told you they had been cheating on you with you best friend for the past 20 years, or perhaps you found out your business partner emptied your joint bank account of millions of dollars and fled the country. I doubt either of those apply to you, but we have all been betrayed in both big and little ways. Think of one time you felt betrayed. What was your immediate reaction?

If you’re anything like me at first I had an almost physical reaction, it was like a punch to the gut. I couldn’t catch my breath. There was an odd dislocating sensation, it was as though I had been kicked out of the ordinary world of my normal existence.

Cognitive Emotional Reaction

THEN, in the second stage, the emotions come. Emotions like pain, disbelief and anger. Then perhaps resentment and the desire for revenge. But these emotions are what I call cognitive in the sense that they are your reactions, your emotions, where for the first few seconds or minutes, you just felt the shock, like static electricity, wash over you. 

Part 2: Reflection

After the first wash of emotions sweeps over someone, they start asking questions like, “How did this happen? Why did this happen? This involves looking back at their world and noticing how that world has changed. You thought your partner was working together with you for your mutual good when, instead, he had been lying to you. Now you wonder: How was it really? How--why--did I allow myself to be fooled, what happened? What did I do wrong? How could I prevent this from happening in the future?

Part 3: Anticipation

Next, our fictional someone looks ahead and says, perhaps with a sigh, Okay, THAT happened. Now what?

Well, there’s rarely only one possibility. If my business partner made off with the company’s money it might look something like this:

Possibility 1:
I could hire someone, perhaps a PI, to get the money back, or try to get it back myself.

Passibility 2:
Forget about the loss, write it off. He’s gone, forget him. I’ll earn the money back.

Possibility 3:
Steal the money back. Get him to trust someone like he got me to trust him and steal the money back. Do to him what he did to me.

There are more possibilities but you get the idea. Which possibility our fictional person chooses will tell you a lot about her, it will begin to reveal to you the kind of person she really is.

This brings us to…

Make sure the STAKES (what the character has to lose) and the potential REWARD is clear.

We must cash out each possibility in terms of what the hero would risk and what they stand to gain, what are the potential drawbacks and benefits?

Your reader must be crystal clear on what the personal cost and potential reward is for each contemplated course of action.

Part 4: Choice/Decision

It’s important--crucial--that the hero has a goal. A goal gives the hero a way to order possibilities, the good and the bad.

Think of a pyramid. The top of the pyramid is the hero’s goal. The idea is to order the potential plans along the pyramid. But this pyramid has different dimensions. One could order the potential courses of actions, the proposed plans, according to each plans chance of success or one could order the proposed plans according to whether each plan would necessitate the hero violating their principles, or a person could order the plans according to the likelihood that bystanders will be injured, and so on. In other words, in choosing between the proposed courses of action, tradeoffs will be introduced.

Difficult Tradeoffs

Tradeoffs are great for creating tension. Let’s say that Possible Action A would get the hero the closest to his goal but it would mean violating one of the principles he lives by. 

Does the hero want to achieve his goal so much that he is willing to violate the code that has structured his life and has made him the person he is? Or will the player abandon his goal and so stay true to the principles he lives by?

This is a difficult decision and what he chooses to do will tell us a lot about him. 

Examples:

Goal: Save a young child from an evil villain who would do nasty things to her.
Principle: I keep my word. Always.
Cost: Hero would have to break his word if he is to save the child.
Dilemma: If you keep your word you will have to allow the young child to die.

Goal: Save a village from starvation.
Principle: Saving lives is good.
Cost: The life of a young child.
Dilemma: If you let a young child die, you will be given a big sack of money and so be able to save an entire village from starvation. But that would mean letting a young child die when you could have prevented it.

Or let’s say you’re writing a romance:

Goal: Find your soulmate, the lost half of your true self.
Principle: Keep the secret of your strength/power.
Cost: The cost of being accepted by your soulmate is that the hero would have to make himself vulnerable, he would have to place himself at the mercy of someone he isn’t sure he can trust.
Dilemma: The hero has a secret that he mustn't share. If he shares it, then another will know how to weaken him and he could die. But he has fallen in love and his love is telling him: You don’t trust me! If you truly loved me, you would trust me. Share your innermost secret with me and I will know that your love for me is true.

So, what will the hero do? Will he choose the way of trust and acceptance of what he hopes is true love or will he stand by his principle and say, “You can accept me as I am or not at all. Your choice”?

Each choice a character makes will affect how your reader feels about him.

In my last example I was of course drawing from the biblical story of Samson and Delilah, but the writer could resolve this conflict however they wanted. Perhaps the girl is forcing the hero to choose because she has been charged by the hero’s enemy to get his secret and doesn’t love him. Or, perhaps, she has been burnt before and simply wants to know that the man she loves would trust her with his life and she really would die before she gave up the hero’s secret.

Well, that’s it! This is the last post in my mini-series on character introductions. Also, I’m nearly at the end of blogging my book. If you have a topic you would like me to write about, please do suggest it! Leave a comment or contact me on Twitter: @woodwardkaren. Good writing!

-- --

Other posts in this extended series (I'm blogging a book):
How to Write a Genre Story: The Index

Where you can find me on the web:
Twitter: @WoodwardKaren
Pinterest: @karenjwoodward
Instagram: @KarenWoodwardWriter
YouTube: The Writer's Craft

Blog posts you might like:

Links

Characters, Jim Butcher.

Monday, April 12

How to Write a Genre Story: Character Introduction: Verisimilitude

How to Write a Genre Story: Character Introduction: Verisimilitude



This post continues my mini-series about how to introduce a character. I’ve already written about Exaggeration, Unusual Position and introducing characters in Action. 

Today I’m covering Verisimilitude and later this week--I’m aiming for Thursday--I’ll close the series off by writing about Empathy. Here are links to my previous posts in this mini-series:

How to Write a Genre Story: Character Introduction: Exaggeration
How to Write a Genre Story: Character Introduction: Unusual Position
How to Write a Genre Story: Character Introduction: Characteristic Entry Action

(Here is an index to all the blog posts in my soon-to-be written book: How to Write a Genre Story)

Verisimilitude

Verisimilitude. No, that’s not an exotic disease.

If a character has verisimilitude then they act believably which means that they act in a way that is consistent with who they are, with their core attributes. By the way, I’m getting much this information from Jim Butcher and his wonderful article, Characters. Jim Butcher calls verisimilitude the “V-factor.” 

He writes:

“The most exotic character in the world becomes nothing more than an annoying cartoon figure if he doesn’t behave in a consistent and believable manner.”

As an example, Butcher mentions Jar Jar Binks. As you likely know, Jar Jar was first introduced in the first of the Star Wars prequels, The Phantom Menace. 

It seems as though the character of Jar Jar checked most of the right boxes. He definitely had exaggerated and unusual traits and he was introduced in a way that helped make him memorable. But then WHY were Star Wars fans' reactions to him so mixed? Jim Butcher thinks that it is because, at least in part, Jar Jar didn’t have a consistent and believable manner. To paraphrase Butcher, the V-force was not with him. (Sorry, couldn’t resist!)

How to give a character verisimilitude

I think there are two things that make a character feel real.

First, as we have seen throughout this mini-series, you give the character tags and traits that illustrate who they are. Further you make at least one or two of these traits exaggerated, unusual. 

Second, a character’s V-factor has to do with HOW you communicate a character’s emotional reactions. That’s what Jim Butcher focuses on and that’s what I’ll talk about, below. Here I just want to note that if this sounds similar to the pattern of a sequel, I would agree. This is the very same pattern. And it is enormously important.

Think of when you’ve encountered a sudden setback. What happens? Well, myself, I’m hit with a wall of pure, raw emotion. There’s no thought, not yet. It’s sort of like when I touch a hot stove (and, yes, I have been that idiotic, ‘Gee, I wonder if it’s hot yet.’) My hand started to move away from the burner before I felt the pain. Then I had a reaction which was, “Wow, touching a hot burner was a really bad idea.” Finally I made the decision to not do that again.

That’s perhaps a silly example but think of any sudden, negative, shock you’ve had. A significant other suddenly breaking up with you, hearing that you’ve been betrayed, and so on. Human beings have a reaction to those sort of things and it happens in a particular order. If that order isn’t right your readers probably won’t notice it but, still, it won’t FEEL right to them.

So. Jim Butcher lays out the three stages:

1. Emotions
2. Reactions
3. Decisions

In one of Jack Bickham's books he gives an example of a person coming home from work and, as they usually do, he calls out, “Honey I’m home!” But he is met with the silence of an empty house. Puzzled he looks around and spots a piece of paper on the hall table. He walks over and looks at it.

It’s a note from his wife. She tells him that she has been having an affair with the grocer for the past year and that she has left him.

What is his first reaction? EMOTION. A wave of emotion, of pain and regret. He’s not thinking about anything. There’s a chair nearby and he slumps into it because he doesn’t want to fall down. 

Then he REACTS. Then he’s angry. How could she? How could she lie to him like that? How could she betray him, deceive him? She had told him she loved him, and all that time…

But what should he do? He could try to get her back, try to track them down. He could hire a private detective to find them. Perhaps the grocer had pressured her, perhaps he had blackmailed her. Even if not, perhaps he could win her back. But does he really want to do that? Perhaps he should let her go her own way. 

The man presses bloodless lips together and makes a DECISION. To hell with her. He will scrub her from his life, from his memory, from his heart.

You see the pattern. If we had the decision before the emotion, it wouldn’t be credible or if the man had the reaction after the decision that wouldn’t make sense. You might be thinking, “Well, yeah… Did you really have to tell anyone that? Isn’t it obvious?” And, sure. On one level it is, but it is something that writers can get wrong and then the character doesn’t feel real.

Summary

When an event important to your character occurs, have your character react to it in a way that makes sense (see above) AND in a way that makes sense for them, that is true to their core characteristics. Those two considerations are equally important.

Well! That’s it for today. I’m trying to keep to a schedule of putting out a blog post on Monday and publishing my interview with a marvelously interesting writer on my YouTube channel on Tuesday. Tomorrow I will upload my chat with a singularly fascinating individual, Lydia Moore.

I hope you have a wonderful week, I'll talk to you again on Thursday. Good writing!

-- --

Other posts in this extended series (I'm blogging a book):
How to Write a Genre Story: The Index

Where you can find me on the web:
Twitter: @WoodwardKaren
Pinterest: @karenjwoodward
Instagram: @KarenWoodwardWriter
YouTube: The Writer's Craft

Blog posts you might like:

Saturday, April 10

How to Write a Genre Story: Character Introduction: Characteristic Entry Action

How to Write a Genre Story: Character Introduction: Characteristic Entry Action


Introductions are important. 

Do you remember the first time you introduced your Significant Other to a parent? There are few things in life you need to get right the first time but that’s one of them! Another one is introducing your protagonist to your reader.

Character Introductions

What makes a character introduction work? What needs to be communicated?

Jim Butcher writes:

“...it is critical to make sure you get the bare bones of your character into his [the reader’s] head immediately.”

By “the bare bones of your character” I think Butcher is referring, at least in part, to what I’ve been talking about in previous articles in this series: character tags. (For example, see How to Write a Genre Story: Characters: An Introduction to Character Tags

Characteristic Entry Action

Sorry for using a long quotation, but Jim Butcher hits the nail on the head here. I can’t say it better or more clearly.

“A solid CHARACTERISTIC ENTRY ACTION consists of introducing your character to the reader by bringing him into the story in the course of an action which clearly, sharply typifies who and what he is.

“Lethal Weapon 2 starts off in the front seat of a stationwagon during a police chase, with Mel Gibson howling in excitement and pounding on the ceiling while Danny Glover fumbles for the siren, tries to talk on the radio, and tries to convince Mel that they don't really need to be doing this. It strongly establishes both characters as cops. It demonstrates Mel's love of wild action, Danny's cautious approach to his work, and the relationship dynamic between the two. (I liked it so much that I borrowed shamelessly from it to start off Grave Peril.)

“Every Bond Pic that opens on the "opening mission" template does the same thing: it shows you Bond being a heroic spy and engaging in lots of danger and action.

“Your character is a frustrated high school nerd? Then have him come on stage late for his school bus, which promptly drives away even though the driver obviously saw him coming. (IE, Spider-Man.) Your character is a titanic lumberjack? Then start him off towering over the north woods and felling fifty trees with each swing of his axe.

“Make the introduction count. This is something you can't afford to screw up.” (Characters, Jim Butcher)

An Example: Riggs and Murtaugh from the Lethal Weapon series

I just rewatched the start of Lethal Weapon 2 (sometimes I love doing research! ;). It was epic! It sets up Martin Riggs as a reckless thrillseeker, interested in going after bad guys regardless of the price to either himself or those closest to him. And then there’s Roger Murtaugh, Riggs’ partner. Murtaugh is an excellent foil for Riggs. He overthinks things where Riggs underthinks them. Murtaugh has a loving wife and family, Riggs is alone. Murtaugh is patient and careful, Riggs is impatient and careless. And all those qualities come out right at the start.

As for what Riggs and Murtaugh’s character tags are, I would say that one of Riggs’ tags is what I’ll call his ‘crazy face’: those insane wide eyes coupled with that almost Joker like grin. Also, Riggs wears casual clothes while Murtaugh wears a proper suit with a red tie. These nicely help to both indicate each man’s character as well as help us remember it.

An Example: Trinity from The Matrix (1999)

Another example of a (literally) kick-ass Characteristic Entry Action is how the character of Trinity was introduced in The Matrix (1999). She appears to defy the laws of physics as she methodically, quietly, dispassionately kills those who have been ordered to arrest her. This establishes her as an outsider, a rebel. Further, she clearly possesses knowledge and abilities beyond what seems possible for humans.

I know I’m dating myself by saying this, but the first time I saw The Matrix was in the theatre. I don’t think anyone breathed during that opening sequence. It’s, hands down, the best I’ve ever watched. And it gave us a very good sense of who Trinity was and, by extension, who her companions were, what they were like and what her role in the story was.

To sum up:

A. Get the essential characteristics of your protagonist (or any major character) into your reader’s head as quickly as possible.

B. Make these essential characteristics interesting! (An unique object that is a bright color or an object--like a wizard’s staff--that can do unusual and unpredictable things, a low laugh that is tied to Bad Things Happening, and so on.) 

C. Especially if you’re writing a genre story, be sure to make at least one of the traits exaggerated along either a mental, physical or familial dimension.

By the way, I know that some of the tags I’ve mentioned can seem like cliches, but I think that whether people groan when they read a story about a wizard and his staff depends on the writer making that particular wizard unique. One way to do this is for the writer--you--to use your own memories, your own particularity, as a lens through which the reader can see the character. Since you are unique, this will guarantee that your stories will be unique. And, of course, they will also have your voice.

A Writing Exercise

As an exercise pick someone in your life and make a character of them. What are their strengths? What are their weaknesses? Now tweak these traits so that they are extreme. (You never have to tell them you’ve done this!)

For example, one of my friends (I went to school with him) is very smart and open to new experiences (that’s one of the personality dimensions). This means that his tagline in life could be stated as: ‘Boundaries? What boundaries?’ His nimble mind and his readiness to explore alternative possibilities have given him a few good stories over the years.

If I were to create a character based on my friend I would make him as brilliant as Sherlock Holmes but in every story he would hold a different eccentric theory about how the universe really is. But he would also find a way to test the theory and, if it didn’t hold up, he would change his beliefs. And I would try to tie that theory, or the testing of that theory, into whatever it was that cracked open the case for him.

Oh, and he’d name all his children from characters in his favorite books. I think I would give him seven children. They would be adults and live all over the world. Perhaps a different one would be his Watson in each story. Or something.

That’s just a silly example, but perhaps it will inspire you to think how you could help merge the universal (I think my character will be a detective…) with the particular (...and he will be based on my experience of my friend.)

Until next time, good writing! I hope you are having a wonderful weekend.

-- --

Other posts in this extended series (I'm blogging a book):
How to Write a Genre Story: The Index

Where you can find me on the web:
Twitter: @WoodwardKaren
Pinterest: @karenjwoodward
Instagram: @KarenWoodwardWriter
YouTube: The Writer's Craft

Blog posts you might like:

Tuesday, April 6

How to Write a Genre Story: Character Introduction: Unusual Position

How to Write a Genre Story: Character Introduction: Unusual Position


Today I continue my series on how to create a memorable character. 

In my last post (How to Write a Genre Story: Character Introduction: Exaggeration) I went over Exaggeration. In this post I would like to chat with you about what Jim Butcher refers to as “Exotic Position,” but I’m going to call, “Unusual Position.” 

a. Put an exceptional character in an exceptional situation.

Jim Butcher writes:

“Locating your character in an unusual location or situation is another way to help create immediate interest. ... A sentence about a young woman sitting in a chair is far more blah than a sentence about the first female shuttle commander maneuvering in her EVA frame in high orbit.”

Here are the first three paragraphs of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Fellowship of the Ring:

“When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton.

“Bilbo was very rich and very peculiar, and had been the wonder of the Shire for sixty years, ever since his remarkable disappearance and unexpected return. The riches he had brought back from his travels had now become a local legend, and it was popularly believed, whatever the old folk might say, that the Hill at Bag End was full of tunnels stuffed with treasure. And if that was not enough for fame, there was also his prolonged vigour to marvel at. Time wore on, but it seemed to have little effect on Mr. Baggins. At ninety he was much the same as at fifty. At ninety-nine they began to call him well-preserved; but unchanged would have been nearer the mark. There were some that shook their heads and thought this was too much of a good thing; it seemed unfair that anyone should possess (apparently) perpetual youth as well as (reputedly) inexhaustible wealth.

“‘It will have to be paid for,’ they said. ‘It isn’t natural, and trouble will come of it!’” (The Fellowship of the Ring, J.R.R. Tolkien)

Everything about Bilbo and his surroundings is unusual. Bilbo Baggins lived longer than was normal for hobbits. And not only that, as his years stretched out, he showed no signs of aging! Also, he was extraordinarily rich as well as adventurous--in fact, his travels abroad had made him a local legend! And of course we’re talking about hobbits, a population of people who are completely unaverage in all sorts of ways, including their diminutive height.

b. Put an exceptional character in an ordinary position.

Jim Butcher writes:

“Naturally there's the inversion of this, too, where you take a very unusual character and put him in an utterly mundane position, like Mister Incredible working in Insurance Cubicle Purgatory.” (Characters, Jim Butcher) 

The movie True Lies with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jamie Lee Curtis springs to mind. 

“Harry Tasker leads a double life: to his wife Helen and his daughter Dana, he is a boring computer salesman often away on business trips, while in actuality he is a secret agent for a U.S. intelligence agency named Omega Sector whose motto is 'The Last Line of Defense.' ” (Wikipedia)

True Lies was a nearly perfect movie! Harry was a spy who had one of the most exciting jobs imaginable who pretended to be in one of the most boring jobs imaginable. 

Subdivisions: social, geographical, intellectual and moral

Butcher doesn’t go into detail about these variants, but here’s my interpretation:

Social position

An unusual social position, so something different from the average. Some of these are tropes, the commoner who is really royalty, the fey child unwittingly raised by human parents, and so on.

Geographical position:

Everything is relative. What would be considered unusual to Americans--a trip to Reykjavik or Honolulu--would be ho-hum to the people who lived there! Visiting Mars or The Moon, today, would be unusual but perhaps in 500 years it will be commonplace.

Intellectual position:

I think that Sherlock Holmes’ intellectual position was quite different. He was a genius. Perhaps he would say that he just noticed things other people didn’t and understood what he noticed. Perhaps it’s the same thing.

Moral position

This one I’m not sure about. Perhaps it would involve taking an extreme moral stand? Someone who cannot, or who refuses to, tell a lie no matter the cost? A monk or a nun who lives in a religious community? Someone who has vowed to never harm another creature?

The Unpredicted

We, as humans, are interested in the unpredictable--or at least the unpredicted--because it can kill us--because, by definition, we can’t prepare for it. We are on the lookout for things that violate our expectations, our understanding of the world. This is true for our story worlds as well.

Think about your life, what memories, events, come to mind? For myself, I remember when I came in third place for the high jump in elementary school. That event stands out because I wasn’t (and this is a charitable way of putting it) a top student in Physical Education. I was definitely more of a nerd than a jock!

Going back over my personal memories--especially my early memories--there is something emotional involved with all, or at least most, of them. For example, receiving an unexpectedly wonderful gift at Christmas or someone breaking their word about something I cared very much about.

As humans, we need to remember the exceptions, the things that aren’t as we would expect. When, in real life, we come across these things we need to understand them and incorporate them into our world view.

Jim Butcher’s character, Mouse

I’ll close with an example.

One of my favorite characters in Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files series is a dog named Mouse. 

Physically, Mouse is impressive. He is a Tibetan Temple Dog (which in The Dresden Files is a rare breed) and is absolutely massive, standing waist high to Harry, and Harry is 6’9’’ tall!

Intellectually, Mouse is exceptional. My impression from reading the series is that he is much more intelligent than the average human. Harry Dresden is the Watson to Mouse’s Holmes--though that’s not quite right because, although Mouse might be smarter, Dresden is a powerful and wiley wizard.

Mouse’s origin is unusual. He is thought to be a descendant of an ancient Foo spirit. In Blood Rights a litter of puppies had been stolen by someone evil and Dresden had been commissioned to get them back. But one, Mouse, chose to stay with Harry and stowed away in his car, the Blue Beetle.

Okay! That’s it for today. I tried to get this post out on Monday but, well, better late than never! :-) Good writing! I’ll talk to you again on Thursday.

Links

Characters, by Jim Butcher

-- --

Other posts in this extended series (I'm blogging a book):
How to Write a Genre Story: The Index

Where you can find me on the web:
Twitter: @WoodwardKaren
Pinterest: @karenjwoodward
Instagram: @KarenWoodwardWriter
YouTube: The Writer's Craft

Blog posts you might like:

Friday, April 2

How to Write a Genre Story: Character Introduction: Exaggeration

How to Write a Genre Story: Character Introduction: Exaggeration


Story Openings: Introducing a Main Character

You never get a second chance to make a first impression. Today I want to talk about character introductions. 

First, an acknowledgement. This post is inspired by Jim Butcher’s post, Characters, where he goes into all this in great and glorious detail.

Second, when I write, “a character,” what do I mean? I like what Jim Butcher has to say about this:

“Maybe your people look like sentient renaissance mice, or maybe they look like talking cats, but there are going to be beings running around your story with a bunch of conflicting desires. Those are your characters.” (Characters, Jim Butcher)

Characters must be interesting.

We all know that characters must be interesting. I mean, of course!

Jim Butcher gives five characteristics that make a character interesting. I’ll list them and go over each one.

1. Exaggeration
2. Exotic Position
3. Introduction
4. Verisimilitude
5. Empathy

We’ll go over each of these starting, today, with Exaggeration.

1. Exaggeration

Exaggerate something, some feature of the character.

Physical: Big nose, striking blue-white eyes, enormous height, and so on.
Mental: Extremely smart, clairvoyant, telekinetic, and so on.
Emotional: An extreme and irrational fear, extreme courage/bravery, and so on.

i. Exaggerated traits are more interesting.

We are hard-wired to pay attention to exaggerated characteristics. Jim Butcher gives the example of two different situations and then challenges his audience to ask themselves which situation is the most interesting. What follows is roughly based on Butcher’s example.

Imagine an ordinary path with oak trees that reach out to each other over the path (this forms a green tunnel of sorts) and an ice cream shop at the end.

Situation A:
An average sized man walks down the path, under the tree branches and enters the shop.

Situation B:
A seven foot tall man walks down the path, bangs his head on the first branch before ducking. He then tries to enter the shop but clobbers his head on the door jam.

I’m more interested in the second character because there is nothing to the first. The exaggerated trait by itself, though, isn’t all that interesting. It only becomes interesting when it comes into contact with an environment that is calibrated for people of ordinary height.

Note: This reminds me of what I wrote about in my post about settings, specifically that the setting is the crucible for your character. It’s rarely the characteristic in itself that is interesting, it is that characteristic in conjunction with an environment. For more on this see my blog post, How to Write a Genre Story: Setting and the Hero's Journey (Part 1).

ii. Exaggerated traits are more memorable.

I’ve found that exaggeration does help recall. I have a book to recommend, “Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering,” by Joshua Foer. Foer goes through the history of memory techniques, the role of memorization in history as well as how to improve one’s own recall.

Anyway, in that book Joshua Foer notes that (this is an extreme simplification) to remember something--say the capital of Delaware, Dover--it helps if it is associated with an image. The idea is then to recall this image, and have the image act as a memory prompt. 

One thing Joshua Foer stresses is that it helps recall if the image depicts something that is exaggerated. Here’s the key I think, the brain doesn’t notice things we expect to see, but it will notice something it doesn’t. The exaggerated is, by definition, unexpected.

Jim Butcher writes:

“SECOND, it's a device to create an acute mental awareness of your character for the reader. Remember that the goal of this kind of story-craft is to create that virtual world inside your reader's head. The reader is glad to help you along with that. I mean, readers will provide a lot of the background sets and extras and so on if you give them a chance--but one way to make it easier for them to get into the story is to create a clear impression of a character on them, so that they always have a clear image in their head of who that character is. Exaggeration helps with that--it gives the reader something unusual and memorable to associate with any given character.”

Well said! I’ll leave you with that. Have a wonderful weekend! I’ll talk to you again on Monday. Good writing!

Related Posts:

Story Openings: Throwing Trouble at the Protagonist
Story Openings: Five Choices
An index to Jim Butcher's posts on writing: Jim Butcher on Writing

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Other posts in this extended series (I'm blogging a book):
How to Write a Genre Story: The Index

Where you can find me on the web:
Twitter: @WoodwardKaren
Pinterest: @karenjwoodward
Instagram: @KarenWoodwardWriter
YouTube: The Writer's Craft

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