Writing Tips: Getting into Character
With this issue of our online newsletter, we’re starting a new feature called “Writing Tips.” If you’ve always dreamed of producing your own novel, read on for suggestions of things to consider—and check back every couple of months for advice on a new topic.
Getting into Character (Part 1)
C. P. Lesley
For someone writing fiction for the first time, this topic may not come to mind straightaway, but we’re using it to kick off our new series because it’s one of the most important. If you, as a writer, can get inside the heads of your characters and view the world as they do, you make it possible for your readers to empathize with your imagined people and their unique approaches to life. Active, well-rounded characters with real problems and unique solutions to those problems go a long way toward making a novel sing.
Achieving that goal is not always easy, even for seasoned writers. Some creations arrive fully formed, badgering their authors night and day for space on the page. Others hide in the shadows and require months or years to coax into the light. But stick with the shy folk, and in the end, they too will emerge as distinct personalities.
Easy to say, but what does that look like? Let me give some examples. Here are three characters from The Golden Lynx, book 1 in my Legends of the Five Directions series, from the same chapter at the same point in time. First we have the series heroine, Nasan, a Tatar princess with aspirations to become a legendary female warrior. While recovering from the death of her younger brother Girei, she seeks refuge in the palace gardens because she can’t sleep, and on her way back to her room, she finds a five-year-old trapped in an empty planter. It takes a while to coax the child into accepting help, but Nasan doesn’t give up easily, and at last she succeeds in extricating the girl.
The child wriggled, so Nasan set her down. The girl scampered across the courtyard. Just as she reached the colonnade on the opposite side, she stopped and waved. Nasan waved back, and the girl disappeared.
Nasan laughed. So much for her heroic rescue.
But she had helped a child in need. Another small good deed to offset Girei’s death.
What do we know about Nasan as a person, even from this short excerpt? That she can laugh at herself even when she’s unhappy, for one thing. She aims high, and this particular rescue doesn’t meet her standards, although she finds a way to count it on the positive side of her moral ledger anyway. Most important, she believes herself responsible for her brother’s death, but rather than sink into despair, she tries to atone for that grave mistake by helping others. These characteristics define her throughout the novel, explaining many of the choices she makes that drive her, in the end, to establish a second identity as the Golden Lynx.
Contrast that with the perspective of the villain, a Russian nobleman recently returned from Kasimov, an autonomous principality east of Moscow where Nasan and her family live.
The soft thud of oak hitting stucco signaled the approach of a possible supervisor. Semyon was standing guard—if only in principle—at the ornate entrance to the royal reception area, the Faceted Palace in the Moscow Kremlin. Priding himself on his quick reactions, he secreted the dice that had turned dull duty into entertainment for himself and his fellow sentry and faked diligence, his back against the wall and a solemn expression on his face.
His companion didn’t react as fast. Slowed by the wine they’d swigged while gambling, the other sentry still sat on the floor when the new arrival turned the corner. With a glare at the inept guardsman, Semyon kicked the wine flask under a nearby footed chest.
He tensed, cursing his bad fortune. Just his luck to draw guard duty with the only man in the Russian army who lacked the wit to cover his tail.
Semyon has a very different approach to life from Nasan. He takes advantage of every opportunity to slack off, even when he’s on guard duty at the center of the Kremlin, charged with ensuring the safety of the royal family. And when things go wrong, his first instincts are to blame someone else and hide the evidence. These traits, too, define him and his choices to the very end of the book.
The character whose views round out the chapter is Ogodai, Nasan’s older brother. He too grieves for Girei, murdered as part of an ongoing family feud. But unlike Nasan, convinced that she must perform good deeds to offset her failure to protect her younger brother, Ogodai sees his role as supporting his father’s determination to avenge Girei’s murder. He backs his Ata (“dad,” in Tatar) even though the planned raid endangers a man Ogodai once considered a close friend.
As if the grandmothers had borne his thoughts on the wind, Ogodai heard his father speak. “What troubles you, son?” Bulat asked. “You’ve said hardly a word since we left Kasimov.”
Ogodai bridled at the question. Did Ata imagine his son brooding like a girl over a broken friendship? “Nothing troubles me. The Kolychevs attacked us. I don’t ask you to spare them.”
In these few sentences, we see Ogodai’s view that men don’t brood over broken friendships and that vengeance is justified. We also have evidence of the strong bond between father and son (Bulat knows something bothers his son even though Ogodai won’t admit it; Ogodai, forced to choose, picks family over friendship) and of the tendency of many men, even today, to repress or conceal emotions that conflict with their social obligations or values. Here, too, we catch a glimpse at another element of the novel, shared by Ogodai and Nasan but definitely not by Semyon: the belief that eternal clan spirits known as grandmothers watch over and influence human behavior—sometimes testing, sometimes aiding, but always hovering in the background. Moreover, as we discover throughout the novel, Nasan and Ogodai believe in these spirits to differing degrees, not least because those loving clan spirits are female.
Even in these short examples from a single book, we can start to see how different characters express themselves on the page. As it happens, this particular series is told in the third person. Each scene reflects one character’s point of view, but that perspective changes from one scene to the next. If we switch to a narrator telling his or her own story, the gap between character and author narrows further. But I’m running out of space, so we’ll explore that question in a later post. Stay tuned for part 2 in a couple of months.
Images purchased from Shutterstock (Tatar bride) and Thinkstock (birch trees); Apollinarii Vasnetsov, In the Moscow Kremlin, public domain via Wikimedia Commons. The Faceted Palace is the building just right of center, with the covered staircase off to its left.