Monday, June 30, 2008

Getting Past the Speed Bumps

While I do not believe in writer's block, I do believe in writing speed bumps. There are points in the process where you're speeding along, where your fingers can't type fast enough and then all of a sudden, something in the road makes you slow down. Whether it's a plot problem, a character flaw, or the uncertainty of what comes next, there are numerous bumps throughout the journey that cause you to back away from the computer and think.

Every writer I know handles this stage differently. Some take a walk, others do housework, some read or do a crossword, while others simply stay in the chair and stare at the screen. I personally think that stepping back and letting the problem marinate a bit is healthy, but when does it become an excuse rather than a productive break? When are you simply avoiding the problem rather than working towards a solution?

I think the first step is identifying your habits. When you hit a speed bump in your writing, what happens? Do you suddenly remember a phone call you have to make? Do you look around and realize how cluttered the house is? Do you check your e-mail, then your facebook, then you're friend's facebook, then their friend's website, then click on a YouTube link from that website and so on? Knowing your usual attempts to run from a writing problem is the perfect way to avoid them. While I truly believe that taking breaks can be productive, I also am a firm believer in staying in the world of your story and that when you pop out of that world, you are avoiding the problem.

I cannot speak for other writers, so I will use myself as an example. When I hit a point in the writing that I need time to think and brainstorm, I cannot sit at the computer. So I do some laundry, wash the dishes, go for a run or a swim, anything that is quiet and that I can stay in my head. If I surf the web, I'm back in reality. If I read a book, I'm in someone else's fictional world. I strongly believe that, when you're writing, you should stay in the world of your story even if you need to step back from the computer. But our minds wander, it's inevitable. I'll be unloading the dishwasher thinking of how I can kill one character without another character knowing, and I'll see something or hear something that sends me on another train of thought. That's when you have to bring yourself back to your world, to the task at hand. Otherwise, you're not writing, you're just doing dishes.

While it may work for some people, I cannot understand how anyone can read a novel or watch TV as a way to get inspired or fix a problem in their story. Tasks that require lots of thinking and concentration generally don't work either, it takes your mind off your story. Identify things that inspire you without distracting you. Listen to music, take a walk, do some research, something that will keep you thinking about your story while letting new ideas and possibilities enter. Checking in every few minutes to make sure your mind hasn't wandered too far is usually necessary to keep focus.

I understand that this whole concept seems weird and vague, but I really think it's something that every writer struggles with. While we're into the writing and we're on a roll, there's nothing anyone can do to pry us away from the keyboard. But in order to have those spurts, it is necessary to plan and hitting bumps in the road is inevitable. The time spent away from the computer can be just as important as the time spent actually writing. Identifying the common distractions is the first step to avoiding them. That way, when you're significant other comes home to find you doing the crossword, you can honestly tell them that you're writing.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Character Debate

Lately, I've been thinking a lot about character. In my mind, characters are what make or break a book, which is why books like DaVinci Code and Jurassic Park didn't really interest me. All plot, no character.

I was talking with my neighbor yesterday about TV shows, particularly those on HBO and Showtime. He said he could never get into Oz or The Sopranos (two of my favorites) because he couldn't stand any of the characters.

"They're all horrible people," he said. "They're murderers who cheat on their wives and exploit people. I didn't care if they lived or died."

While I disagree that Tony Soprano and the inmates at Oz have no redeeming qualities, it proves my point that characters are the key element in a book's success. Protagonists don't necessarily have to be all good, but they certainly cannot be all bad. In my mind, the characters who are somewhere in between are the ones that are the most interesting. But ultimately, readers have to care about the characters in order to enjoy the book.

So how do you do it? How do you create characters that are memorable, interesting, and most importantly, characters that readers will care about? Let's look at some of crime fiction's most beloved characters (or at least my favorites):

Sam Spade, created by Dashiell Hammett, was good looking, meticulous, and could always get the best of anybody. Granted he was shifty and sometimes cold, but he was charming, cocky and easily captivated readers. In that 007 kind of way, he was always acting in the interest of justice and did it without breaking a sweat.

Jack Reacher, created by Lee Child, could easily be considered one of the most popular series characters in contemporary crime fiction. Reacher is an ex-military cop with no home, no phone, no driver's license, no ties. Although he has killed many and broken a few hearts, Reacher is always working for the greater good. His idea of justice does not always coincide with that of the authorities and he always works on his own. If any man was an island, it would be Reacher. But under the tough, not to mention good-looking, exterior, he cares for people and has a passion for making things right.

Chili Palmer, created by Elmore Leonard, is the perfect example of a bad boy that's easy to root for. Palmer is loan shark and aspiring film producer who rolls with Miami's criminal underground. He's slick and smooth with eyes in the back of his head. Yes, he's a criminal, but he's a criminal with a conscience. The people he's extorting aren't good people; they're not innocent. His charm allows readers to overlook the criminal label and root for him throughout the book.

Harry Bosch, created by Michael Connelly, is a more controversial series character. I find that people either love him or hate him. This LAPD homicide cop is a maverick and sometimes too stereotypical as a detective. He drinks too much, works too much, and to him, each case is personal. But his passion for crime-solving carries over to the reader, and you can't help but root for him. His intelligence and determination make it possible to overlook his flaws.

John Rain, created by Barry Eisler, is another controversial protagonist as he is a Japanese assassin. He is a hit-man who specializes in making his victims appear as if they've died of natural causes. So how can he be a hero if he's a criminal? He has a code: he doesn't kill women or children, he doesn't kill non-principles, etc. Ultimately, this killer has a conscience, and like Reacher, he's smart, smooth and has minimal ties. Rain's code is what allows readers to overlook his hit-man occupation and his personality and charm is what makes them fall in love.

All of these characters are, in a sense, good people. This makes them relatable. They are all flawed, which makes them interesting. They work toward the greater good and want to deliver justice, which makes it easy to root for them. Most of them are charming and good looking, which always helps. Personally, I care about all of these protagonists when I'm reading them. I want them to succeed. If I didn't, I couldn't enjoy the book.

Feel free to comment on your favorite characters or give traits that are necessary for a character to be captivating.