On my college campus in the Writing Center where I will be working this fall, there is a quote that says something about how writers see the world. I think I know it verbatim but since I am a writer, someone who is very particular about quotes and their accuracy as well as grammar, I’m not going to chance it with my best guess. I am however, comfortable with quoting myself from that time I discussed my writing process and the way my mind works.
I think in vivid detail. My mind is a loud, bright, fast paced movie screen of visceral imagery. I think in pictures that I feel responsible to describe well enough for a blind man to see.-Genevieve Rose
That’s what writers do, the good ones anyway. We make it real. We extrapolate a thought or feeling or reaction and give it a second life with the power of pen and paper so someone out there can relive a moment or perhaps experience it for the first time. I don’t know the total of what great writing consists of and I doubt I ever will but to be so pretentious as to quote myself once more; “If I can make people feel something, I’ve done my job.” To me, that is the greatness of writing, to evoke sympathy, relatability and empathy. People are wired for connection and every single one of us needs love. Infuse those genuine elements into any medium of story telling and there will be a draw. Not every book, movie or TV show nails it. If I’m reading or watching something that is just plain slow or uninteresting, it’s because the writing did not hit one or more of these crucial points.
1. What would completely break your character?
2. What was the worst thing in your character’s life?
3. What was the best thing in your character’s life?
4. What seemingly insignificant memories stuck with your character?
5. Does your character work so that can support their hobbies or use their hobbies as a way of filling up the time they aren’t working?
6. What is your character reluctant to tell people?
7. How does your character feel about sex?
8. How many friends does your character have?
9. How many friends does your character want?
10. What would your character make a scene in public about?
11. What would your character give their life for?
12. What are your character’s major flaws?
13. What does your character pretend or try to care about?
14. How does the image your character aims to project differ from the image they actually project?
15. What is your character afraid of?
Starting a book or watching the début season of a show should include answers to the above questions sooner rather than later. If not, the reader/viewer will get frustrated and close the book or stop streaming. Some answers are known only to the writer and not everything has to be shown or written directly but they should be portrayed in the work to some extent. What makes fictional characters as good as they can be is when they feel real. Some are round and some are flat depending on what the focus is. Regardless, the cast, the characters, the ensemble should work together. That’s what the French word ensemble actually means in English, together.
Failing to give the audience a point of connection will result in failure to have an audience. I recently mused about writing a TV show where none of the characters were likable since it can be so fun to hate. Then, I ended up watching a show like that where all the characters were their own shade of misery and no favorable light was ever cast on them. Yeah, not the best show. It’s important to find an anchor or at least a lighthouse. A character we agree with or one who inspires us. Infatuation with a TV show or a novel happens when we as people who are reading or watching feel like we’re meeting actual people. Fully fleshed-out somebodies that we relate to, who entertain us, frustrate or challenge us. People we could see ourselves being. Characters are kind of like mirrors, when we look at them we should be able to see what we are or what we are not against their image.
What makes a show like Orange is the New Black so vibrant and one like Bloodline so vanilla? The characters. This of course is my answer based on my opinions and point of view but I think the majority of an audience would agree that any story is better when it feels real. Be truthful, stay authentic, don’t skirt around honesty. So what if it’s brutal or embarrassing? Although everything may not be good there’s something good in everything. Write as you wish. Write whatever your will is to write, just don’t write it wrong.