Tag Archives: Character

When is a Character Too Much?

13 Jan

I had a friend of mine read my book last week. It was weird for me because it’s a Young Adult book mostly aimed at girls and he’s a young-20-something-professional. Not exactly my ideal reader. Sill, he read it through (twice!) and gave me some good feedback on scenes and characters. And of course, I’m going to blog about it.

One of the things he said is that a character of mine seemed over the top and unbelievable. I understand completely why he said this. My problem is that I wanted her to seem a little over the top, but not unbelievable. It got me thinking, when is a character’s personality ‘too much?’

I recently started watching the show New Girl on Netflix and I find it funnier than a baby turtle eating a huge strawberry (Google this, it’s hilarious). One of the characters in the show, Schmidt, I find over the top and unbelievable. But do you know what? He’s my favorite character. I can’t imagine ever meeting anyone like him in real life because he’s such a character. And yes, I mean that in more ways than one. There are other more realistic characters written into the show that help accentuate how eccentric Schmidt is and I still love him. Now, I’m thinking that it might not be a bad thing for a character to be a little unbelievable. We’re each such individuals that no one would believe that we’re real.

I further questioned myself, is it bad that my character is over the top? Do I want her to be? Yes. Do I want her to seem unbelievable? No. But where is the balance? Where is the thin wire and how can I jump onto it?

I’m thinking of people I’ve met who seem over the top. I knew an ‘over the top jock’ in high school, I’m friends with an ‘over the top theater nerd,’ I went to college with a ‘I think I’m Japanese even though I was born 100% Caucasian in the Midwest’ girl and at a NaNo event, I think I saw a British pixie. So that’s about four, five if you safely assume I’m forgetting one at the moment. And these people are memorable. I can describe their characteristics that make them almost unbelievable in vivid detail. Isn’t that what we want in our characters? Don’t we want them to jump off the page and scream at our readers so that they can’t forget them?

Thinking back on my manuscript, I think I could tune my character down a little bit and maybe humanize her a little more by adding more motivation so you understand what made her so over the top. Besides this, I don’t really want to change a lot; I like her. Though, I want my readers to like her as much as I do.

Reader, I need your advice. When is a character too much? When has a writer gone past ‘over the top’ and hit the moon instead? Please leave me a comment and let me know what you think.

Shameless plug: Like my Facebook Fan page?

Until next time, write on.

Advertisements

Book Review: Burning Bright by Tracy Chevalier

16 Oct

It’s been a while since I did a book review so I’m excited to be able to do this one.  I added Burning Bright to my To-Read Shelf because I was thinking about Chevalier’s other title, The Girl With the Pearl Earring. I loved that book and the subsequent movie was enjoyable as well.  Chevalier’s ability to tell the story of an artist through another person’s eyes was captivating to me.  Another of her books, The Lady and the Unicorn, had a similar structure and I enjoyed it equally as much.  While searching Chevalier’s book offerings, I looked for those that told the story of an artist and was delighted to see Burning Bright on that list.  I hadn’t heard of it before and instantly added it to the queue.

Book cover from Goodreads.com

Book cover from Goodreads.com

Burning Bright by Tracy Chevalier

The Kellaway family packed up their things and moved from a small town in Dorsetshire to London at the eve of the French Revolution.  Father Thomas Kellaway has been promised work by Philip Astley, a circus owner in the suburb of Lambath.  The family sets up shop and are soon overwhelmed by the quick-paced city life of Lambath.  Their neighbors are varied, from the up-tight landlady Miss Pellham, to womanizing circus-heir John Astley, and the French-sympathizing William Blake.  It’s around Mr. Blake that this story turns.  The Kellaway children, Maisie and Jem meet another neighbor, Maggie Butterfield, who grew up in the rough-and-tumble of London life and is intrigued by the ignorance of the Kellaway children.  Maggie makes fast friends with Jem and the two explore London together and delve into their interest in neighboring Mr. Blake.

At the time of the action, Blake has already published his book Songs of Innocence and is at work on Songs of Experience. Chevalier’s novel is set up so that the first half reflects the innocence of the children (Maisie, Jem, and Maggie) who are often shocked by Blake’s work-in-progress.  In the second half of the novel, Blake continues to run into the children in more ‘adult’ situations as the novel shifts to a second half focused on the experiences of growing up.

To me this book was not as enjoyable as Chevalier’s other works.  In the others, I liked how the reader got to know the artist as far as their work and their motivations.  In this novel, Blake’s character stays to the background, only coming forward at pivotal moments when the children are having realizations that are making them grow up (aka become more experienced).  Blake seemed like an almost unnecessary side character that could have been written out of the book.  Without him, the story of the Kellaways and Maggie would have gone on; he was not a critical piece of the puzzle.  In fact, I had to work to add him into my plot summary.

The first half was a little slow and seemed very childish to the point at which is was boring.  The second half of the book was much more enjoyable and interesting.  Based on some of the themes in the second half, I would say I’m part of the target age range for this book and it surprises me that such a large part was mainly juvenile.

A focus of the text is what lies between two extremes.  Blake has the children think about what lies between.  If innocence is the left bank of a river and experience is the right, what lies in between? The answer, we come to find, is life. Life is not black and white, good or bad, innocence or experience, but a combination and a fluid journey between the two. Maisie starts very ‘innocent’ and along her way gains experience, but never really loses her childlike joy.  Maggie starts the story very hardened by London ways and in the end finds herself seeking a simpler life.  The children cannot be categorized as one or the other and continually drift from one side of the metaphorical river to the other.  Maisie and Maggie’s shared common name, Margaret, shows again how the journey of two girls who start so differently and share something as crucial as a name can cross and cross again in the areas of grey.

This opinion can be related back to Blake’s books directly and is a theme in many other texts as well. It’s the crux of a coming of age journey in which a character finds that the world isn’t as simple as right and wrong.  Coincidentally, this is something I explore in my first WIP.  I think areas of grey are a big part of growing up. Maisie, Jem, and Maggie come to find this quickly.

Chevalier brings this to a head in the last scene of her novel, when Maggie and Jem have a copy of each of Blake’s books.  One was a gift for Maggie, the other for Jem and the two cannot figure out which is for whom.  They both reflect the contents and ideas of the two books together.

Writers Takeaway: Chevalier’s ability to weave historical everyday life into a story is commendable.  She is truly a master of the craft.  I enjoyed the rich characters she created and who all served a strong purpose in the book.  The one thing I hoped to learn to avoid is a slow start to the book.  I felt like the exposition went on forever without there being a real turning point to the plot. The story was a little too character-driven for me and I learned that there needs to be some more action to it to keep things interesting.

Overall, I do not recommend this book.  I give it three out of five stars.

Novel Girls: Voice, Description, and Motivation

7 Sep

I’ve been fortunate enough to find a group of other females around my age who are also aspiring writers.  Because we’re all working on long-form fiction, we decided to call ourselves the Novel Girls.  (It’s a novel idea, HAH!)

We try to meet weekly on Thursdays to have dinner and critique each other’s work.  There are four of us, NJ, KK, and SG.  SG’s been on an extended business trip for the last six weeks, so it was just NJ, KK and I last night.

There were three main writing points we went over last night that I wanted to note here, either for my later reference or to help another writer.

  1. Distinctive voice: KK shared a great piece with us last night that rotated between three settings and four characters.  The opening scene was a female character and she used some wonderful description, internal dialogue, and flashback to give the character a very distinctive internal voice.  The next time we saw this character, she was in a scene with three other people and her voice was a little lost in all the action.  The other characters were busy having a conversation and this female was standing by, listening.  It almost seemed to me like KK had rushed through writing that part because she didn’t give the character the distinctive voice she’d worked so hard to give her in the first scene.  This helped me remember that my characters have personalities and will react to everything around them.  It’s important to be sure this personality shines through in every scene and that they have an appropriate reaction to the things they hear and see. even if they’re not narrating that scene.
  2. There’s a limit to what one line of description can show: NJ shared a piece that started with two female co-workers at the end of the day, getting ready to leave for work.  NJ described one as having a large shoe collection that matched her outfits each day and the other as having a wrinkled business suit.  A few lines later, she wrote that unlike the first, the second character didn’t care about her appearance.  This one took me a second to process because to me, a business suit with wrinkles at the end of the day didn’t imply slovenliness.  With one or two lines more of description, the character could be more developed, come across as a careless dresser, and it might not even be necessary to say she didn’t care about her appearance.  This made me realize that my character’s clothes aren’t even described very much in my text and that how a character dresses can tell a lot about them.  (For reference, my book takes place in 1920s Chicago.)  I recently was invited by an acquaintance to visit her grandmother’s old house, where she still has some of the clothing worn in the late 20s and early 30s.  I hope that after seeing these clothes, I can find a way to show my character’s personalities through their simple clothing choices and be a little less ‘show-y’ and more ‘tell-y.’
  3. Character motivation needs to be strong, even if the character isn’t speaking: I have a scene where my male protagonist is trying to evade a female character he doesn’t like AND the scene is narrated by my female protagonist (confused a bit?).  KK’s comment was that she didn’t understand why the male protagonist was doing what he was doing; she couldn’t find his motivation!  Our ultimate decision was that I should switch the order of a few scenes, but it made me realize that in scenes where the non-narrating character needs some motivation, it takes a lot of attention to detail to make sure that motivation is clear.  It could be done with dialogue, description, etc., but it needs to be there.

 

I’m not sure if this helps anyone else, but it sure helps me to think through it!  What’s some advice you can share about writing?  Maybe it will help me with my next critique group!  Please leave a comment and share.