What I Know After Five Weeks

…and doggone it, people like me!

So here I am, right in the heart of the book, about 33,000 words in. It’s been a productive month. And, as often happens, I learned something about my writing this week through a surprising source.

As I wrote about a couple of weeks ago, once we get through the first fifteen or twenty thousand words, we know who all the players are and what fundamental problems the book is going to have to get them through. The last ten or fifteen thousand words will be the resolution of those problems, for better or worse. So what’s the fifty thousand words in the middle doing? I mean, why bother? It should be like bowling, right? Set the problem up and knock it down.

But early this week, I got an e-mail from a friend. He’d read one of my books, and loaned it to his high-school-senior granddaughter. She read it, and enjoyed it as much as he had. I won’t replicate that message here, but one of the things she said that really landed with me was that the characters were compelling and multifaceted and “just plain likable.”

And that’s what I’m doing in the middle of the book.

What makes a character compelling? I think it’s when they have a compelling self-problem to address. Vin Diesel isn’t a compelling character in the F&F franchise, because his whole worldview is external. Stuff happens, he reacts to it. The writers try to tag on a little internal struggle, but come on, that’s not why you watch those stupid movies.

Characters are compelling when they’re compelled. When they’re driven by some internal demons or some internal motivation to do something bigger than everyday life. Let’s stick with the action-movie mode for a minute. James Bond as portrayed by most actors has been externally driven. Villains or girls (or sometimes girls who are villains) present themselves, and he responds. We wait for the fight scenes or the wisecracks. But Bond as portrayed by Daniel Craig is completely different. He hates his life, he doesn’t want to live this way any more, and he’s aging out anyway. He does what he does, because of patriotism and because it’s what he knows how to do, but he fights against it every step of the way. So the explosions and motorcycle chases are still cool, but the movies are way better because Bond is now a compelling character. He has an internal life that he hasn’t resolved.

What makes a character multifaceted? I think that it comes through seeing how they react to different kinds of people and events. They have a personality that’s expressed more or less the same way in different life moments—not perfectly consistent, because none of us are, but reactions that are reasonably evoked from that person. So every interaction gives the characters a chance to show you a different facet of who they are, a different glimpse into how they think. And those interactions have to be different enough to give you meaningful difference in how characters respond. If every single challenge in your book is yet another bad guy, or yet another alien, or yet another dinosaur, then your characters have only one facet to show you. (There are a lot of action movie stars whose facial expression has two modes: happy and resolute.)

Am I right?

And how does the writer choose what other kinds of people and interactions to put in there? The writer does not choose! The writer knows the characters well enough to know their friends and their workplaces and their habits, so that’s what shows up. This is what ethnographic writing is about; it’s about studying a person and their ecosystem thoroughly enough that you know how everything’s related to everything else. There are surprises for the reader (and the writer), but they aren’t “plot twists.” (Oh, no! He has amnesia and his long-lost twin brother has arrived!!!). They’re merely another part of everyday life as it exists in that ecosystem.

Finally, what makes a character likable? Well, what makes anybody likable? They look out for their friends, they don’t pick fights, they look for ways to be supportive and kind. They’re curious and generous. I have a friend whose LinkedIn profile tagline is “Restoring Human Dignity through Social Innovation.” I mean, if your mission in the world is people’s dignity, then what’s not to like? And because I choose to spend time with likable people, it’s no surprise that my characters are likable. I seek out people who are curious and generous, who respect the dignity of those around them.

Now, here’s a little secret. I never did this on purpose, but I think it actually helps the likability factor. All of my books are about human interaction, so people talk to each other a lot. Not too many car chases or gunfights. And what do likable people often do? They make other people laugh. So I actually show people laughing, quite a lot, because they’re funny people.

There’s a lot of coaching about overwrought dialogue tags. “Stop That!” he emoted wildly. Stuff like that. “S/he said” is thought to be the most invisible tag, a simple identification of the speaker without the intrusiveness of a self-aggrandizing verb. The two most common ways to frame dialogue involve a comma. She said, “I have to go back to the office after dinner.”—or—“I have to go back to the office after dinner,” she said. But we can attribute dialogue, often to great effect, simply by shifting the camera shot. We show that person doing something for half a beat before they speak.

  • She laughed. “Only people who ever call me Coby Rae are women over 70. All of Mom’s old friends.”
  • I cracked open the seal and passed it to her. “First slug for the eldest child.”
  • I thought for a second. “I want Ray to live out her life the way she wants. I want Jay to move on after. I want Walker and April to see what the world is like, so they can make up their minds after they know more.” 
  • I glanced at my watch. “Why don’t you call the house? We should let them know we’re okay, and you can find out how the family reunion went.”

I still use some variant of “said” probably 80 percent of the time, but these kinds of occasional refocusing shots allow us to have a lot more control over how a reader hears that next spoken line. And they let us see people laughing at what someone else has just said, which is at the heart of likability.

There’s been a lot of communications research about the effectiveness of the laugh track in television comedy. Whether pre-taped or from a live audience, laughter is social, and we enjoy being around other people who are having a good time. So I think that the fact that my characters are often laughing is a significant part of their likability.

So that’s the work of the middle of the book. The story’s going to take care of itself once it’s launched; my job in the middle is to help you invest your care in the people, to make you emotionally engaged in their well-being.

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