Thursday, August 20, 2009

Raiders of the Deer Hunter

A couple of things made me feel so sunny and happy this morning, I could have skipped if I weren't driving at 75 mph down I-25. Why? First I saw the best number plate on minivan: "GO READ." I wanted to pass it and roll down my window to yell something encouraging, but you know, 75 mph and all. And then, the radio station played Michael Buble's Home, followed by Earth, Wind, Fire singing Let's Groove. (Feel free to make fun of my taste in pop music.)

All right, some days It doesn't take much to make me happy. Even hearing the word "aeroplane" in Home provided a pleasant little skip to my heart. Maybe it's because I haven't heard that word since moving to the US where we use the shorter and possibly more efficient "airplane." Or maybe Michael Buble can sing any word and I'd think it was dreamy.

Wait, Buble's voice isn't the point.

The point is that people like unusual combinations of things. A classically trained musician can love Prokofiev and Dvorak as well as R.E.M and E.L.O. (Yes, the offer to make fun still stands.)

A woman can be a nerdy bookworm who cannot stand being too girly-girly, and still once dreamed of being a fashion designer. She can love her very practical Saturn Vue with a Honda Pilot engine, perfect for where she lives, and still wish for a Mazda Miata or a VW GTI manual. She can love depressing movies as well as Raiders of the Lost Ark.

As writers, we strive to avoid cliched characters, but it's not easy to convince our readers that a character can possibly possess all these seemingly incompatible traits and interests. "Wait, but Sienna is a cheerleader type who would never dream of getting her hands dirty by working at the co-op farm!"

The problem, I think, is that we tend to sort people into categories almost as soon as w
e meet them. And unfortunately, this sorting ends up coloring every new bit of information we get subsequently. If the first time you meet me, I am working at the co-op farm wearing running clothes and then I fixed you a healthy, non-fat, all-vegetable lunch, I may have trouble
convincing you that I am as sedentary as they come and I love butter. Yet, people do and often come in unusual combinations of flavors, and if it's so difficult to accept a multi-dimensioned person in real life, how much harder it is to create them in our stories.

Have you found characters you've read recently whose traits don't seem to jive? And if you're a writer, how do you overcome this problem?


Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Very interesting post. I think what makes humans fascinating and unpredictable is how diverse each of us really is. And the trick as writers is that we must make it believable if a character does something unexpected. It would work if motivation was there, right?
psst...I drive a Mazda Miata. It's still going after 18 years.

T. Anne said...

I've been reading a great novel and I love the way the author creates unusual character traits and family dynamics. It's really got me thinking outside the box.

'go read' I love that.

Yat-Yee said...

Tricia: 18 years! I didn't realize they last that long. We had a Camry that refused to die, even after 20 years. But back to your thought: yes, motivation, if shown clearly, can make any unexpected actions believable.

T Anne: so what is this novel?

MG Higgins said...

I can't think of any characters I've read lately who fit that description, but I love them when I do! The most fascinating characters are the ones who have unexpected qualities.

(Tricia, I LOVE Miata's! I keep promising myself that's my next car.)

Solvang Sherrie said...

What a great thing to remember...throw in some of the real, unexpected quirks of our characters as we write. What's a book that you've read that does that?

Davin Malasarn said...

Yat-Yee, This is a great post, and something that I think about a lot. I'm not sure how to do it yet, but I agree with you that early impressions are important. I think if you want to have the versatile character, you have to set up the possibility of that versatility early on. My ideas on this aren't developed yet, though. It's just something that runs through my mind.

Lady Glamis said...

I have characters that are a combination of strange things, but I usually set this up right in the beginning. For instance, my young architect book-worm poetry loving character is also a dangerous criminal who steals jewelry. Yeah. And my chocolate-loving women-using hardcore spy also has a tender heart. I love creating characters that seem like one thing but are something else, so I've found that I have to establish these combinations very early if I'm going to pull the off as believable.

The other thing that I think is really important is having a reason for all of the combinations. Sometimes people are just that way, but there's usually always a great story behind things, and it's often good to either hint at that or tell it through dialogue or some other way. No flashbacks, though, unless it moves the story forward. Hah.

Great post! And you inspired Davin. That's always a plus.