Jeff Savage spoke to us on “Characters and Setting”. Everyone that hears Jeff speak wishes there could be another couple of hours (or days 😀 ) to learn more–He’s the proverbial deep well on all things writing.
Here are some highlights from his presentation.
There are writers that focus on plot and have to work back to characters, and then there are writers that focus on characters and work in plot. Either way, start with simplicity and begin to focus it.
Determine who’s the one protagonist. (Going for multiple protags is not a taboo, it’s just harder and when you’re starting out keep it simple at first.) Once the focus is determined learn about them. What’s their backstory? Why do they do what they do? Hopes? Fears? Desires? Motives?
Characters cannot be surrounded by a bubble. They need jagged edges, scars, and pains. Desires and Motives are key to a readers interpretation of the story. Example: The Hunger Games is about a girl named Katniss that has to kill 23 other kids in order to get the life she wants. Sounds horrific, but with the understanding of Katniss’ motives and desires to provide for her family and especially care for her little sister, we understand why Katniss does what she does. We root for her and these motives/desires don’t go away but help create a theme, heighten the tension, and in time allow the character to grow.
The characters need to be flushed out because we authors are like magicians: Readers want to forget we’re there. They just want to be awed by what’s before them. Just like if a magician stops his trick to explain its history, if the narrator inserts something into the story right in the middle of a characters performance, the experience suffers–readers are pulled out. But when a characters are consistent and acting according to their motives, desires, biases and so forth, consistency helps make them believable. Actions help us get to know the character better than thoughts. (Jeff referenced Nuts and Bolts: “Thought” verbs by Chuck Palahniuk)
Concerning protagonist(s), secondary, tertiary, and walk-in characters . . . The higher the characters is the hierarchy the more details we need. When we focus a lot of description on a character that has no point or impact on the story/characters readers expects to see that character again. When they don’t they feel confused.
Settings should be treated like characters. We should ask ourselves: Why this setting? What will it add to the mood, interactions, etc.? (If the setting doesn’t add anything to the story, mood, etc. it should not be there.) Is the character comfortable here? If so why and how this reveal something more about the character?
Readers draw their own conclusions and we should take advantage of this. i.e. Not everything a reader understands is written. Do we need to specify the color of a parking garage? How many cars are parked in the stalls? How many floors the garage has? Generally No. If the character is going to their car we just need to know they’re in a parking garage and maybe 1 or 2 details that put us in the scene. The smell of exhaust or tires squealing. We let the reader create the rest.
If you ever get the chance to hear Jeff live, do it. You’ll be a better writer afterwards.
Thanks again Jeff from Utah Valley Writers!