Friday, October 16, 2020

When Your Characters Fade from the Page--Tips to Find Out Where and How to Revive Them

Combing for new ideas, insights, and writing exercises to offer in my upcoming characters class on November 7, I found a scratchy list I'd made while working on a client's manuscript some months ago. It had everything to do with fading characters, why they disappear inadvertently and how to bring them back.

This writer was finishing her first memoir. A good writer, a careful one, and her real-life characters were amazingly depicted--people you'd definitely remember, both for good and not.

A recurring challenge she had (one I've seen in my own writing): certain characters kept getting lost. They'd vanish from the story for pages, even chapters. Not because they weren't important or present. But because the writer herself lost track of them.

For instance, her mother. A wicked woman, very vivid in the early chapters, went offstage for about 35 pages in the middle. From her outline, I knew the mother was still around, still making trouble, Why wasn't she more present? As a reader, it bothered me, like a hole or gap in the storyline. When I asked the writer, she figuratively smacked her forehead. "I forgot," she said. "There are so many people to keep track of."

Problem is, the reader does keep track. And when a character vanishes, the reader notices. This noticing and wondering begins to occupy more and more of the reader's attention, until they are distracted from the story.

Good editors or agents are trained to catch these gaps. I remember when my first novel, Qualities of Light, got accepted for publication. My editor noticed I'd done the same thing--a young man named Chad, important in the story, disappeared for a good chunk. It wasn't on purpose. I'd just been so occupied with other aspects of the story, I'd forgotten to write him in.

First, know this is normal. Impossible to keep track of everyone without charts and lists, I've found. I will talk about my cheat sheet in the class on November 7, but here are some pointers you might consider to keep your characters present and real for your readers.

1. Characters vanish for readers if they are too internal. We learn about people by seeing them in action, not just by hearing their thoughts and feelings. Long passages or chapters where a character only thinks, remembers, feels can distance the reader. Make them do something, onstage, in front of us, and they grow in vividness and presence.

2. How do you describe your character's physical appearance, hair color, gestures, movement/gait, height and weight, clothes, how they stand or sit, what their hands do when they're nervous? Write a paragraph or two about this. Then comb your chapters to see where (and if) these details appear. Not usually effective to clump them--that feels like an authorial aside. Better to scatter and repeat. A colleague calls it "plant and return." Readers forget! Remind them often, through a variety of details, what the person looks like onstage so they can visualize and not forget.

3. Let your characters describe other characters. "Leah noticed that John's eyes looked smaller today, his forehead more pinched." "Sherm had changed his hair color. Janice wasn't sure she liked the almost metallic silver-brown but she resolved not to say anything mean." We see characters not only through their own movements and awareness of themselves, but through the other people onstage. It's an effective way of getting details across that might be too self-conscious if a character studied themselves in a mirror ("I notice my brown eyes, too wide set to be pretty, and my limp hair.").

And to put this into practice, along with many more character-writing techniques for memoir and fiction, join me at my class on November 7. Click on the date for more information.

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