Building a Character (From the Inside, Out)

Today, during my excrutiating 5 hour rehearsal of the kick butt musical Fame (I *heart* the 80s), I developed a wonderful understanding of what it takes to build a character.

I donned my fishnets, my off the shoulder red sweater, my capris and my character shoes. I was ready, or so I thought. My experience today taught me that it would take so much more than a costume to bring my character to life. Especially when she’s so removed from who I am. Carmen Diaz is in many ways, my polar opposite.

Let me give you a little background: She starts out as a spunky dance student, set on making it big, willing to do whatever it takes. She’s hungry for it. Eager. Too eager. She drops out of high school and runs off to L.A. with some big shot ‘agent’ who promises her the world. When she comes back, all of her friends are graduating, moving on to bigger and better things, and she’s strung out on crack, struggling to scrounge up a few bucks, and get her broken life back together.

This is a tough transition to make as an actor because you have to display her change physically, but also in her demeanor, her broken spirit, her emotional baggage. This is a hard thing to portray to the audience. It takes much more than a few rips in my fishnets and some runny mascara.

Which made me think. Our characters, the people we create in our books, are more than the cookie cutter people they start off as when they first come to being in our minds. They grow into complex individuals. And when we write them, we want the readers to feel as though they are “real” people. To see bits and pieces of them in their friends, family, themselves. There has to be that connection in order to build that sympathy.

I thought about that notion of the “tragic flaw” from Greek literature. There’s a lot of truth to that. There is always some aspect of our character, some flaw, that causes us as humans (and in extension our characters), to make stupid decisions. Even the most likable ones. Otherwise, why tell their story? There has to be some form of internal conflict in order to make them interesting.

During the scene where my character comes back from L.A., I was having a really hard time portraying the utter sense of hopelessness she must have been feeling. I mean, she commits suicide in the end and the audience can’t just look at it and say, where did that come from? It has to make sense. Getting it to come across was hard. The director kept telling me to let it out, to pull from deep inside, to let these troubled thoughts show on my face.

And let me tell you, it’s not an easy thing to let yourself mentally get to that place, but once you do, the character just comes to life and does what it needs to do, on its own. With writing, it’s the same thing. During a particularly difficult scene, you have to give it your everything, cry with the characters, feel their anger, in order to sell it to your audience. Readers.

In the end, I found myself in tears, singing as if my very life depended on it. I was still struggling to pull myself out of that place (mentally/emotionally) nearly a half hour later. But I realized that the characters I write on the page should be that real. Should feel that real. And that if I’m not moved, then the reader won’t be either.

This probably seems like common sense. But the impact it had on me was amazing. I know what it’s supposed to feel like now.

4 responses to “Building a Character (From the Inside, Out)

  1. I was thinking about the flaws this weekend and characterization. I got a little revising done on a story on my computer. I have the heroine worried she’s a little fluffy and loves chocolate and then she was trying to quit smoking. I deleted those few paragraphs about the smoking, and left her with the tragic flaw of loving chocolate. Not that loving chocolate is tragic! 😉 Really I just decided I didn’t need her to be an ex-smoker because it didn’t accomplish anything in this particular story.

  2. That’s a good point, Annalee, about the taking the smoking part out. That’s a good example about stripping down to bare essentials to make a story flow. I get attached to some scenes – gods only know why – and I am reluctant to cut them. But sometimes paring things down works for the benefit of the story. Great posts here!

  3. One of the things that first attracted me to the characters of Anita Blake and Kasey Michaels’s Maggie was this heroines had flaws. I love a good flawed heroine. 🙂

  4. Here, here guys. Annalee, that was a great point about the smoking. The characters really end up complicating things on their own. No need to give them an extra something they don’t really need and that doesn’t further along the story, you now? I get attached to scenes too Cora. *sigh* Unfortunately. I try not to. I try to hate each and everyone of them. But instead, I smother them with love and kisses. TK, I love a good flawed heroine too. They’re my fave kind. 😉

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