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Sunday, May 09, 2010

Guest Blogger: Kait Nolan - Establishing Character Rapport

Please welcome my guest blogger for the day, Kait Nolan. Kait writes paranormal action romance, too, and her latest release, Forsaken By Shadow came out this month!

Establishing Character Rapport

First off, I want to say a great big THANK YOU! to Patti for letting me stop by today. I’m thrilled to be here.

Anybody who’s hung around Patti’s blog for a while knows that she talks and thinks a lot about character. As do most of us who write. Or should. Some people are able to dive immediately into the heads of their characters and let ‘er rip on a new project. The characters are in the driver’s seat. Anybody who falls in that camp is probably not going to understand this post. For others, :waves hand:, it is a slower process of Get To Know You. You see, I’m a very plot driven writer, and while, yes, the characters do dictate the plot (to a point), I usually have an overall goal in mind for what I want to happen, which sometimes makes it difficult to get to know my characters. Sometimes characters come along that remind me that they aren’t merely figments of my imagination on the page, they are people, with their own wants, desires, and motivations.

My training is in clinical psychology, and whenever I am faced with difficult or unresponsive characters, my brain automatically turns to the same tactics I used with difficult clients. See, many people don’t like spilling their guts to total strangers. Who can blame them? So an essential part of the therapeutic process is establishing rapport with them and creating a safe emotional environment. The same applies to characters. Except that it’s harder with characters since we as writers ultimately hold their fates in our hands. And there’s that habit we have of putting them through hell before we give them their happily ever after…

As tempting as it may be to hold that HEA over their heads in a bid to blackmail them into submission, this is hardly the best tactic for establishing trust between writer and character. That’s tantamount to telling someone who comes to you for treatment, “I’m not going to sign off on your release until you tell me what I want to know.”

Initially, I find it handy to get a case history. You’d probably think of these as character worksheets—the place where you write down all their vital stats, family history, employment, and the like. You can get as detailed as you like here. You never know when it might come in handy to know that your hero got that scar on his chin from taking a header into home base during pee wee baseball. I do this to some degree on all my major characters: hero, heroine, villain, and any minor characters who play an important role in any of my major character’s lives. For example, in the book I wrote last year, my heroine’s backstory was very tied up with her best friend (who’s gone missing in the book), so I had a lot of details to get down there. But these are generally just dry facts. They’re part of the whole, but they don’t make up your character’s personality.

Once I document a thorough case history, I like to ask them about their presenting problem. Quite simply, why did they come to see me? While you might think that this is the real story problem (i.e. the inciting incident), often whatever brings a person into see a therapist isn’t really what’s bothering them. For example, you might have someone show up complaining of insomnia. Clearly this is a problem for the person who can’t sleep, but more than likely, that’s just a symptom of a larger issue. Or it may be that the character comes in for one problem and during the course of therapy something happens. It might be big. Might be small. But this thing changes the character’s circumstances (the first plot point, see The Most Important Moment In Your Story: The First Plot Point), gives him a new problem (the main story problem). This is the thing you’re trying to get at with your questions. Until you know what this problem is and how your character reacts to it, you have no story. If you’re lucky, he trusts you enough to tell you about it in detail, and in a series of successive interviews, you’ll wind up with the remainder of your plot. But what if he’s still not talking?

The heroine I mentioned with the missing friend (we’ll call her Micah to protect her privacy), assured me that she didn’t have a problem herself. She only came in because she was hoping I could profile her missing friend and offer some additional suggestions on where to look for her. Never mind the fact that the police had been unsuccessfully looking for a year. It was obvious by her vehemence that there was something more to this than grief over the loss of her friend.

So I explained that I don’t profile anymore—not since I stopped writing romantic suspense thrillers involving serial killers a couple of years ago.

Micah was not pleased with this news. She insisted that if I just heard Anna’s story, something was bound to click for me.

Okay, fine. Tell me about Anna.

It became very quickly apparent that this woman was more than a lifelong friend to Micah. She was family. When I asked a few questions about Micah’s own family, she got annoyed and redirected the discussion to Anna. When I gently suggested that maybe the police were right and Anna wasn’t coming back and asked how she felt about that, Micah clammed right up.

Even not talking tells you something. I can actually tell a great deal about how a character reacts to being in therapy. The ones who are resistant always have a reason. Sometimes it’s a pretty obvious reason. One of my past heroes spent some time involuntarily committed to a mental hospital because he was seeing ghosts, so he didn’t trust me any further than he could spit—which was a pretty big problem for him considering the woman he was in love with was a shrink. Other times it takes some serious digging and analysis of what the character isn’t saying. People often talk around problems, and characters are no different. When I analyzed the transcripts of my interviews with Micah (and of course I wrote all this down) I noticed that every time the issue of family came up, she would talk about Anna’s mother and Anna, but never anything specific about her own family. This was a pretty good indication she had issues on that front. Several intensive sessions later, and it turned out she was a foster kid, abandoned by her mother at the age of two. Backstory. One that turned out to be very important to the plot.

But of course it isn’t all about backstory. One if the most important aspects of these character therapy sessions is exploring their value systems and beliefs. Very often we write about people who are not at all like us. They have completely different value systems and beliefs about the world. It is imperative that you notice the differences and similarities between theirs and your own. Emphasize the similarities—if you agree with them on something, it will be easier to write more authentically about it. And when their values differ, ask lots of follow up questions. Find out why they believe whatever they believe. Get them to expand on it. The more in depth you can go, the better. Knowledge about your characters and their world is key to authenticity. And authenticity is key to hooking your readers.

Ultimately it comes down to being a good listener. That’s not always easy for plotters who think the story should go a certain way, but it’s definitely beneficial to listen to your characters’ reasons for saying “No, no, this is what happened!” Sometimes they just want to come in and steal the show and must be cut like any other little darlings who don’t add to the plot. But sometimes they offer up information that takes the story in a whole other direction you hadn’t considered, one that makes for a far more engaging and authentic story. In that event, you’ll be glad you listened.

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For those who are interested, my debut paranormal romance novella, Forsaken By Shadow, is available at Scribd, Smashwords, Amazon, and the iBookstore. It is the first in the Mirus series.

Banished from their world with his memory wiped, Cade Shepherd doesn’t remember his life as Gage Dempsey, nor the woman he nearly died for. But when Embry Hollister’s father is kidnapped by military scientists, the only one she can turn to is the love from her past. Will Gage remember the Shadow Walker skills he learned from her father? If they survive, will Embry be able to walk away again?

Kait’s writing blog Shadow and Fang
Kait’s cooking blog Pots and Plots
Kait on Twitter
Kait on Facebook
Kait on Goodreads