Thursday, June 21, 2007

Guaranteed Best-seller – The Split Personality, Characters & Writing

So, should I mention I’m a Gemini in my bio when I’m shopping work?

Your chances of writing a best-selling novel are doubled if your star sign is Gemini, according to research.

Book chain Borders studied the birth dates of more than 150 leading authors.

Geminis accounted for the highest number of literary greats. Twenty-seven of the authors were born under the sign of the twins, including Geoffrey Chaucer, Leo Tolstoy, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Bond creator Ian Fleming and Salman Rushdie. Even glamour girl Jordan, who recently published her second novel, Crystal, is a Gemini.

It’s funny, because I have thought a lot about characterization (obviously, as a reader, writer and reviewer) and I see few people who actually endorse my convictions about character in books. Now, maybe plenty of people actually do share my views but just don’t talk about it this way – I don’t know.

One of the things I’m mindful of is that I want characters to read like real people. I always hoped people would feel that Lara and Farraday were the kind of people who could live next door. Whether or not I succeeded is up to the individual reader, but that’s the aim. Of course, with certain storylines and types of characters it’s harder to achieve that. I mean, I’d rather not think about most of the people from Allan Guthrie’s splendid Hard Man living beside me (although some of them might actually be an improvement).

The truth is, people are filled with contradictions, and what generally happens when darker aspects of a person are revealed through their actions is that someone will cry foul. It’s a contradiction, it’s out of character.


I mean, just look at me, as though you need proof. I am a study in contradictions. I can be the life of the party, and I can also be the quietest person in the room. I talk about all manner of stuff on my blog that I’d probably never have an actual conversation about with most people who read here. People have the impression I’m very open, when in reality I can be extremely shy.

I’ve read, or discussed, some books recently where the protagonist has been pushed to the edge in some manner, done something that was shocking. In the three books in question, in only one book did the actions bother me, but even then they didn’t surprise me. And when I say ‘bother’ I don’t mean that I was okay with what all these characters did. But I could understand it. The one that bothered me a bit was where I thought the character went way overboard for what was warranted… but that’s just my personal opinion.

However, one person I was talking to couldn’t get past what one protagonist did when pushed to the limit. They were left uncertain they’d want to spend more time with that character.

As a reader I enjoy the ongoing sense of discovery with characters. I mean, I should always feel like there’s room for growth, or why am I still spending time with them? And that carries over to me as a writer. Particularly for a planned series, what goes in the book should be what’s relevant to the story being told. As much as I love character, if you’re writing a police procedural I don’t think the story should take a complete detour through ten years of personal history to bring you up to speed on the life of everyone in the book unless it’s relevant to the case.

However, there’s a time and place for that as well.

I’m actually of the opinion that the manner in which a story is told is a method of communication as well. By this, I mean that certain stories should be told as slow burns, and other stories should be told with riveting pace. That’s neither an endorsement or a criticism of either. However, the style used communicates things to the reader. I wrote What Burns Within with a certain pace and speed to it because that represented the real challenges the authors were facing. Things are happening fast. They’re under time pressures. A slow burn doesn’t fit the bill for me. You’re thrown in feet first, and you get to breathe later. As my friend Marsha (who works in publishing and used to work in film) always told me, “You hit them on the nose.” That’s how you get their attention, and then the way to hold it is to keep smacking them. What Burns Within isn’t an example of creating a stew, adding one ingredient as a time and bringing it to a boil. It’s an example of weaving, pulling threads together until you have the full picture.

Suspicious Circumstances, however, has a build-to-boil style working with it. A comment I’ve had from a lot of readers is that once they read the first few chapters, they couldn’t put it down. And I’m very happy with that assessment, because it’s exactly what I aimed for.

In a weird way, it makes me feel like I have a split personality that extends even to my writing. And when I shifted back to writing The Frailty of Flesh it felt weird. More narrative again. And then I started this stand-alone and it’s unlike anything I’ve ever tried, so much so I wonder if I can publish it under the same name.

Of course, being one of those people who actually can do two + books per year, having a pseudonym might not be a bad thing. Perhaps I should let both sides of my personality have a career, but heaven help you all if I take the restraints off my sarcastic, sassy side.

One of the things I’m finding when I read is that when characters remain perfectly consistent -as though the writer has made a list of their values, beliefs, interests and they never deviate beyond certain actions – I find them flat. Yesterday, I was commenting in private communication about why I’d stopped reading one author after 20+ books. (I was a real fan, and I think I have actually 26 books by the author, so nobody should consider themselves ‘safe’.) The reason I stopped was that I felt I was just reading the same book over and over again. The characters were all black or white. To be honest, I can’t relate to that. I can’t relate to someone who doesn’t face the temptation to blur the lines when a person rapes a child or butchers a family member. My dark side can completely relate to the temptation to seek justice on your own terms.

And maybe that’s what makes me connect to characters on a deeper level. A Question of Blood is probably still my favourite Rebus book, and part of the reason is the ‘did he, didn’t he’ question playing out with Rebus’s injuries.

Then again, Rankin’s known for being influenced by Jekyll & Hyde and the duality of Edinburgh. In one of the books Rebus is referred to as a ‘knight in tarnished armor’ and I think that about sums it up.

And maybe it’s the depths of darkness within him that contribute to why I find him such a fascinating character.

TRUE CHARACTER is revealed in the choices a human being makes under pressure--the greater the pressure, the deeper the revelation, the truer the choice to the character's essential nature.
--Robert Mckee

(Yeah, I like it so much I’m going to keep harping on it.)


Evil Kev said...

It's true. Every afternoon when I come home from work, I ask Sandra which of her personalities will be waiting for me when I get home. It is much safer that way

Sandra Ruttan said...

Although being a woman, by the time you get home I've probably switched personalities again. Especially when you go shopping and don't tell me. :I#

Vincent said...

Doesn't a # on an emoticon denote a beard? You haven't suddenly joined the reviled ranks of bearded crime writers, have you? And I thought you were above the evils of facial hair, Sandra.

On topic, I can't think of an example where I've questioned a character's actions in a story. In books, as in life, I take the view that people do what they do. If they do something irrational and unexpected, you have to change your view of them to accommodate the fact they acted that way. After all, how often are serial killers the nice, quiet next neighbour? (Okay, not very often, but you get my point)

Big Brother is plaguing TV over here at the moment and so often commentators and contestants go on about 'true selves'. "If he/she could only relax, we'd get to see her true self." It's bollocks. Like you say, personality isn't something set in stone, it's fluid, changing from moment to moment, depending on mood, on company, on whether that dinner disagreed with you or not.

I don't believe there's any such thing as 'out of character', just characters stepping outside our preconceptions of them. It seems to be a bit arrogant to suggest that it's my preconceptions that are right and the fact of this character doing this or that is wrong.

Vincent said...

Actually, I'll qualify that. If you give a reader an insight into the thought processes of a character, then, like any other piece of plot, the narrative should progress toward them suddenly flipping out. As Aristotle says (via Robert McKee), an ending must be both inevitable and unexpected. Unexpected, because who knew our hero would go loopy in the middle of that Italian restaurant? Inevitable, because we'd been following his thoughts about his frustrating marriage for 192 pages and wasn't there that aside about his abject fear of pepperoni pizza toppings?

Another character for whom the reader is not privy to their private thoughts, on the other hand, can do pretty much whatever they like.

Sandra Ruttan said...

"Doesn't a # on an emoticon denote a beard? "

I don't know. To me, that's not what it is, but then I have a lot of people who use it with me who don't have beards. Maybe there's a secret meaning (like having a copy of Black and Blue in your handbag). And you never know, maybe that's Evil Kev's face I was making.

I think the 'out of character' comments come up more for cops and "good guys" in books. When beloved protagonist deliberately kills a man or sets them up to be beaten or frames them on a charge suddenly they can't be so loved anymore. I guess it comes in when you can't keep the protag up on that pedestal.

Christa Faust said...

>>Your chances of writing a best-selling novel are doubled if your star sign is Gemini, according to research. <<

Really? I'm a gemini. In fact, today's my birthday. So where's that sparkly bestseller contract with a big bow on it? The Birthday Girl is waiting with her tiara on.

Happy Birthday to you too, Sandra.

- Christa

Sandra Ruttan said...

Christa, happy birthday! Maybe we're just best-sellers in waiting.

Either that, or we're really defying the odds, aren't we? I'd rather beat the odds at the lottery though.

Can't wait to get my hands on the new Out of the Gutter so I can read your story, btw.