Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Connecting With Our Characters

by Lucy Marsden

Sometimes we struggle with it as part of a first draft process—a feeling that we don’t know this person who we’re trying to write about, and so the character feels one-dimensional or inert for a while.

Sometimes the issue is that the outside world has pulled us away from our story for so long that we’ve forgotten whatever it was that we thought we knew about our story people, and are faced with the challenge of re-immersing ourselves and bringing the story back to life.

And sometimes it’s something totally different, some other factor that makes our characters feel like awkward, unlikeable strangers to us. I won’t pretend to be able to analyze every aspect of this; my guess is that the struggle presents differently from writer to writer. My fabulous critique partner, Ruth Cardello, and I both recently dealt with this issue, however, and I thought it would be cool to invite her over to talk about our different experiences with our estranged characters, and what helped us to finally connect.

LM: Ruthie, you recently self-published the first book in your Legacy series, MAID FOR THE BILLIONAIRE. The positive responses to the book that you received resurrected your enthusiasm for completing the second book in the series, FOR LOVE OR LEGACY. You’ve spoken to me in the past about how difficult it was to reconnect with the characters in this book. Can you say more about that?

RC: Lucy, thank you for asking me to share my experience on your blog.  I've learned so much over the years from listening to others work through the bumps and slumps that are part of the writing process. I hope my experience is able to help someone else.

I finished MAID FOR THE BILLIONAIRE over a year ago and began dabbling with the second book.  In the last year, however, I changed jobs and added a new baby to my family.  My busy schedule left me feeling disconnected from my characters—a feeling that intensified with each "pass" I received in response to my first book.

 I wrote and rewrote the first chapter so many times that I forgot what I loved about the hero and the heroine in the first place.  Stephan had sizzled on the page in book why was he a one dimensional, overdone douche in the second book? 

I had to reconnect with my first story to find out, and I'm guessing that it's that process that you'd like me to share here.

LM: Yes, please!

RC: First, I had to get excited about writing again.  I had heard that some people put a book up on Amazon and B&N for free in order to gain an interest base before they publish and charge for their second book.  I decided to take the plunge.  What did I have to lose?  If the first story wasn't as good as I hoped, then I would know pretty quickly as the reviews came in.  Maybe Stephan was never that sexy of a character, and that's why he was having trouble carrying his own book.

I uploaded my book four days ago, and as of right now (clicking over a tab to check), 1,106 people have downloaded it.  The reviews were better than I had hoped, and emails are coming in from people around the country who want to read Stephan's story.

So, I dusted off my original chapter—yes, the first one I wrote before my revising frenzy beat the life out of it, and read it back to back with MAID FOR THE BILLIONAIRE.  The problem was instantly clear.  In the first book, Stephan promised the reader a complex character with strong motivation for his actions.  When I tried to fit that character into the more traditional beginning of a category romance, however, his character deflated.  He didn't want to be defined by the heros who had come before him.  He had his own story to tell.  I just had to get out of his way.

I'm happy to say that Stephan is back in book two and raising the temperature on the page again.

LM: So glad to hear it, Ruthie, and so glad that you could come over and be part of this discussion!

For myself, I think a couple of different things were going on in the scene that I was working on. First, I had been away from the scene for a couple of weeks, and that always makes me feel like I’ve got this heaping helping of inertia to overcome in terms of getting back into the story world.

Second, the hero and antagonists’ goals for the scene had changed, and were still in the process of re-gelling, so I was whacking myself over the head for a couple of hours trying to nail down what Bastien wanted, why he wanted it, who was getting in his way and how, and how he was going to react to that emotionally and behaviorally. You know—trifling stuff like that.

Last, I think I unconsciously use an omniscient camera angle during my first draft; I am so worried about laying out the story for myself, that I am telling almost everything and showing almost nothing. And there might be nothing wrong with that; writing is mostly about re-writing, and layering in all the stuff that you don’t gravitate towards during your first pass, but here’s the thing: that omniscient lens was making Bastien feel facile and distant, and it was leaving me cold.

My current MS is an erotic romance, which means the story is ALL about emotional and sensual intensity and immediacy. Moreover, this was the scene where my hero and heroine would finally meet! Instead of being immersed in the fun of that, though, I felt like I was watching my toothsome hero through several layers of plexiglass, or possibly even Tupperware. What to do?

Well, I started by going to the library, barricading myself in one of the private study rooms, and shoving super-duper earplugs in my ear. The rest of the solution was a two-part procedure:

1) I pulled a piece of text from one of my favorite romance authors, Denise Rossetti, whose use of deep, third-person POV feels very powerful to me. I noticed how completely she put me in the skin of her characters, how every sensory detail and emotional reaction was SHOWN. I noticed how the vibe of a particular character infused his thoughts and perceptions and dialogue-- every bit of it was so very him. Then I went back to my scene, and looked for opportunities to use the same techniques.

2) I repeated to myself, over and over again: “Stop rushing to tell this story. Slow your ass down, and BE in the scene with Bastien.”

Thankfully, this worked. Bastien isn’t as exuberantly 3-D as he will be in time, but I can hear him and feel him in a way that I couldn’t before, and the heat and humor that should be in the scene is showing up, praise Jah.

So tell me, because I’d love to hear more from other folks: What blocks you when you’re trying to connect to your characters, and how do you get around it?


Terry Odell said...

I just keep writing. I know much of it will be trashed, but I'm starting a new WIP and have about 2 pages written where I'm getting to know my character. Whether or not they survive is irrelevant; this draft is for me.

Terry's Place
Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

Luce said...

YES. A Discovery draft is definitely whatever the writer needs it to be in order to make the characters and story come alive.

THANK YOU for that reminder, Terry!

Denise Rossetti said...

Hi Luce,
I was just googling my name, as one does... :) when I came across your post.

Seriously,thanks so much for the vote of confidence. I'm really chuffed to know something I've done actually worked the way I intended. As a matter of interest, which character was it?

And all the best with Bastien. (Love the name!) Toothsome, hmm? Sounds fabulous!

Luce said...

Holy moly...

Hey, Denise--so glad you were googling! I adore your writing, and wish like hell that I could catch a workshop some time.

The character was Mirry, from TAILSPIN. I love your story people--your heroines as much as your heroes (can't wait to meet Mehcredi and Walker in THE LONE WARRIOR!)--but I fell for Miriliel the Burnished the first time I met him, and he's been special to me ever since.

Thanks for the good wishes and for dropping in!

Jemi Fraser said...

Love this post - great advice. I sometimes find myself rushing to tell the story when I need to slow down and 'sink' into the characters and show their story instead :)

Luce said...

I know, Jemi! It's like, What am I rushing for, I'm missing all the GOOD stuff!