I've been focusing a lot on characters recently because I'm doing a one-hour workshop for the Pennwriters' conference this weekend. And, as happens a lot, when I'm practicing my workshop, timing it to make sure I get all the good stuff in, I surprised myself.
Love/hate when that happens. First, there's the are-you-nuts factor. How can you surprise yourself? LOL Then there's the...well, after-sixty-books-shouldn't-you-have-known-that-already?
Hum...I'll think about that one later.
The thrust of the workshop is turning out to be connecting character to story.
What started me thinking along these lines was the total failure of Tom Cruise to bring the Jack Reacher character to life. I'd never read any of the Lee Child's Jack Reacher books, but as I sat in the theater, watching the movie, I kept thinking...why does this feel off to me?
I could not connect to that character.
Afterward, when I mentioned it to friends, a few told me that in the books Jack Reacher is a big, intimidating guy. Try as he might, Cruise isn't intimidating -- at least not to me. He can be angry. He can be scary. But he isn't "naturally" intimidating. So though he had the same tough-guy lines that made the book (and character) so great for my friends who read the books...he didn't quite bring the character to life the way the character blossomed in the books. (At least for me.)
Which just goes to prove that you can't arbitrarily "lose" a piece of a character and still have the same character.
Whew. That sounded like double talk, but I think you're still with me.
The important point here isn't for you to begin thinking about casting your book as a movie. LOL It's for you to think your character through and look for those disconnects.
I used to call them character inconsistencies. And some are. A woman who is terrified of her ex-boyfriend who accepts his invitation to have supper with him, alone, at his house, is asking to be tied up in duct tape and held prisoner in his basement. Yet we see this all the time in romance novels. Pundits call it too stupid to live. Ranking right up there with the woman who goes into the basement knowing there's a serial killer on the loose in her neighborhood. Authors who have their characters do things like this defend it by saying that "deep down" the heroine knew she could trust the hero...Yeah, maybe. But it's just easier to have characters act consistently so readers don't find themselves saying, "Huh?"
But the other kind of disconnect is bigger than that. It's what I call character fail. It's a man of diminutive stature who can't quite pull off the tough guy lines of a six-foot-eight, three-hundred-pound former Army Ranger.
Writing a truly great book is all about the connection of character to story. If your story needs a rough and tumble tomboy heroine, she can have a girly habit or two she does in secret...but if you give her much more than that...aren't you muddying the waters in readers' heads? Confusing them about who she is? Maybe even giving the character such a dichotomy that she isn't much of a character at all, but a mishmash of confusing parts?
Your job might be to create someone interesting, but you also have to create someone readers believe in the role you're creating. And you also have to create someone who flows naturally, organically (if you will) into the story. If your attempts at creating someone unique constantly create bumps in the road for readers, you will lose them...or your story will suffer.
You don't have to do crazy, nutty, oxymoronish things to create a great character. You don't have to think outside the box. The box is the box because what's in it works.
Character consistency is one of the ways a smart author not only draws in readers, but also guides them along on the trail of her story.
So don't confuse readers. Don't muddy the waters. Think smart.