Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Character Soup: Attitude

When cooking up a main character, there are a few basic ingredients and everything else is garnish. In general, you want to create someone who is both empathetic and altruistic, someone who most readers would aspire to emulate. Your MC will usually be a hero, but should not be a hero caricature, even if he's Superman. One of the easiest and most critical ingredients in hero creation, and thus one of the easiest to abuse and overuse, is attitude.

Most people, when faced with conflict or adversity, may put a step forward, but ultimately, will shy from even ordinary conflict to maintain a peaceful existence. To push story forward, however, we need conflict, characters who won't back down from danger, from doing what's right or wrong. This requires a strong sense of self, a strong attitude.

Now, we can easily stray into the realm of hyperbole, but think of your favorite books and you'll probably recognize that the MC's attitude is more internal, more what most of us aim for -- the Teddy Roosevelt approach. Similar to plotting, create your  attitude more through action and and less through dialogue and introspection, which is what I call overt or cheap showing (hence that aphorism: actions speak louder than words) - sometimes this is necessary or natural, but action's the meat and potatoes, and your readers aren't on a diet.

PS -  if you're writing an anti-hero, your MC should have a similar attitude quotient, his motivation's just on a different axis.


L. T. Host said...

Totally agree that actions speak louder than words. I'd much rather show my characters doing something and convey their inner turmoil that way than tell the reader what it is. Of course, with my issues with repetition, I have a problem of telling them anyway. Sigh. Someday I'll get it right.

Unknown said...

Example of passive main character who never lifts a finger to solve her own problems: Bella Swan

Susan R. Mills said...

Yes, actions speak louder than words.

Joshua McCune said...

Taryn, an unfortunate, glaring exception :) -- though she did endanger her life in book 2, I believe, to incite action or at least to go on a vamp head trip... a good example to set for all the girls out there, yep (rule #1 about real guys -- we don't dig suicidal or BSC chicks... and if we do, we've got a few screws in the wrong places)...

so I guess I should add the caveat -- unless you're writing a damsel in distress book.

Stephanie Thornton said...


Yes, I was shouting. I love him almost as much as Hatshepsut. I would totally be his groupie. I've been to his house, his grave, and own a letter he signed. Yeah, I'm obsessed.

Oh yeah, we were talking about characters. I like them too.

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

I can't wait to read your MC's, Bane, because attitude is, like, your middle name, dude.

Sorry...been writing teen voice today.


Libbie H. said...

I must gently and respectfully disagree. Whether you show character more through action or more through internal workings depends on what you're writing. If you're going for something that leans toward the commercial end of the spectrum, such as a thriller or a fantasy, definitely choose lots of action to show character. If, however, you're aiming for literary fiction, readers of that genre expect more internal components to the story, and expect a character's development to happen at least partially, if not almost entirely, inside the character's own thoughts.

Also, Teddy Roosevelt rocks.

Joshua McCune said...

Libbie, I considered putting a disclaimer regarding lit fic when originally posting, but decided against it. You're absolutely right -- lit fic definitely allows for/calls for more of the elements you mentioned. I'd still contend that action (of the more subtle variety usually) is the core component to most of it -- the introspection/internalization/etc. is likely more prevalent, but ultimately, I've noticed that they accentuate the dynamic elements (which aren't necessarily obvious, but they tend to be defining, IMO).

And is there something that connects Hatshepsut to Teddy R that I don't know about :)