Getting Into Character

A questiony one today.

Characters need to have voice, otherwise the story falls flat. I’m pretty sure I’m not saying anything particularly controversial there – voice is how the author conveys character through things like dialogue and action, rather than just telling the audience how they’re supposed to feel about a cardboard cutout. Voice is like acting for writers.

It’s also one of the most difficult, at least for me. And I get the feeling it’s a bit of a thing for other people as well, given the number of authors I hear talking about their characters taking control of the story and doing things on their own. I definitely think that stems from a character’s voice: When the author tries to do something ‘out of character’ they lose the voice and it just feels wrong. It also makes it very hard for people to describe how to write character – you end up trailing off into nebulous terms like “Well, you just kind of get to know them and then you understand what’s in character and what isn’t …” I, personally, fall prey to this quite a lot. I have a lot of trouble explaining how I write characters, but I know when it’s not working.

All of which means it can be very difficult to figure out what to do when a character just isn’t working. Because authors tend to think of characters in these nebulous terms, we can’t pinpoint problems like we can for other things. If our prose isn’t ‘flowing’, we can troubleshoot by looking for problems like repeated words or sentence structures, or not enough variance in sentence length. If we have problems in plot holes, it’s usually pretty obvious to spot those, though figuring out the solution can often be a bit trickier. You can spot slow pacing or a tension plot that’s too linear. But when a character just seems stuck, we don’t have the tools to point to the technical issue.

I’m always sort of reminded of the pigeons in the Skinner box experiment – when the treats weren’t always on a ‘push button once to receive one treat’ schedule, they started developing superstition, trying to figure out what combination of actions made the button give treats on specific occasions. Of course, the button was on a random schedule, but the pigeons had no concept of that, so they’d develop odd rituals like flapping and spinning around before pushing the button, hoping that it would make the button gods obey them. It can feel pretty similar with authors sometimes. Character is stuck? Time to go for a walk, drink a specific type of tea, and take a shower BUT NEVER IN THAT ORDER.

Personally, I like to go for walks (sometimes trying to adopt the character’s body-language as I go, which can generate some very odd looks for my stranger characters), or write smaller stories revolving around that character to try and work my way through it. Imagining or writing conversations with the character is especially helpful. Critique Circle has a forum section where you can post a brief character bio and people will ask them questions, which is very helpful for getting into character. I’ve heard of people who use music to put them in a particular character’s ‘mood’, and who create playlists for characters. Writing groups or friends are good for talking through characters and their motivations.

Everyone has their own method, so I’m putting this one out as a question – what do you folks do to get in the headspace of a particular character? What 100% effective, to-die-for methods have I overlooked?

Guillermo Del Toro on the Brain

So, I only kind of knew who Guillermo del Toro was until a few weeks ago.  I had seen Pan’s Labyinth, and both the Hellboy movies (which I still enjoy and usually watch while studying.  Yes, I acknowledge they’re not great cinema.  No, I don’t really care.  Even about the second one).

And you should also know that Monster, by Naoki Urasawa is one of my favourite manga and anime of all time.  Tied for favourite, with one or two other series depending on my mood at the time.

Now, it’s really difficult to find a copy of Monster on DVD, mainly because a DVD version was only ever released for the first 15 episodes (this may be only in English, I’m not sure about Japanese).  And then Siren Visual bought it, and will be distributing it in Australia at the end of the year.  When I discovered this, the noises I made cannot be described either with letters or with most parts of the human vocal range.  I bounced around my friend’s lounge room squeaking for a full ten minutes.  I’m not proud.  I’m also not particularly ashamed.

With that news (which I found here: http://www.sirenvisual.com.au/News/201305/345.php#comments) , came the link to the fact that there will be an HBO series released.  And it will be directed by Guillermo Del Toro.

Great, I thought.  I liked his work.  But reading more, he seems like the kind of person I should watch more of.  Let’s check what else he’s done.

And then I found ‘Don’t be Afraid of the Dark’ for hire on iTunes.  I watched it quite late at night.  People who know the movie (or the movie it is a remake of) will probably be laughing at me right now, because that was possibly the silliest thing a girl who’s not particularly well-versed in horror films could do.

But what else can you do in this day and age but blog about it (apart from freak out on Facebook, which I assure you I did).

Let me begin by saying that I really loved the movie.  In actuality, it wasn’t as bad as I’m making it out to be.  I can actually sleep in a dark room, for one thing.

So, into the overanalysis.  The structure really intrigued me. As I said, I’m not that much of a horror fan, but still, I could pick out every cliché in it (the child who believes she’s unloved, so falls prey to the creatures, the groundskeeper who knows all about it, but refuses to tell the family more than ‘it’s dangerous’, the fact that anyone in a bath in a horror film is about to have their shit ruined).  But the movie still kept me in.  I attribute this to the characters.  Sure, I was kind of left wondering how many darkened rooms a kid can walk into before she realises it’s a really awful idea to walk into another one, but she was still believable.  Her father, at the beginning, was slightly neglectful and clueless while never really being unsympathetic, because you could see why he thinks the things he does.  You can tell he’s trying to do the best he can, but the girl is just not having any of it.  He’s under a lot of pressure from his job because he’s in an unstable financial situation, so you can see why he’s distracted by that.  Later on, he gets a little more towards the unthinking idiot side of the equation, but for the most part, well done.  The girl, too, had an amazing actor (Bailee Madison), who I’m seriously hoping goes far in her career, because she’s got so much talent for it.  She sold the little girl better than many adult actors.  So, even when I could see what was coming, I still cared about the characters enough to not be completely thrown out of the story.

It’s not really surprising that I could see a lot of del Toro in the cinematography, either.  Part of what I adore about his films is the rich mythology in them, and you can certainly see it here, from the history of the homunculi to the description of the koi fish, to the ring of fairy mushrooms the groundskeeper kicks away.  For a while, I admit, I played spot-the-film – the Tooth Fairies also make an appearance in Hellboy II, in an early scene where they’ve devoured everyone at an auction.  Same thing – small, many of them, they eat teeth.  There are some differences (like DBAotD’s tooth fairies being confined to one place, having more explanation, and eating exclusively teeth), but the concept is the same.  Also, the hedge maze with a water feature in the middle, which appears again in Pan’s Labyrinth.  I find this actually quite cool, because it gives me a better idea of how he uses each of these motifs to flesh out a story, by seeing the role they play in different narratives.  Plus, it’s fun.

However, I did find that, once the homunculi were revealed, they suddenly became far less scary to me.  They were still threatening, but no longer terrifying like they had been at the beginning.  There is something about not being able to see the monster that is far more awful than not being able to see it.  So, once they were visible, the fear had to come from elsewhere.  Del Toro pulled this off excellently (oh god, why do they have access to sharp objects??), because this was quite close to the final scene, so the movie’s tension carried the fear the rest of the way.
On the topic of things not being as scary as they should have been, I must admit being very ambivalent over the deep-voiced homunculus.  Most of them spoke in a very high-pitched, breathy voice that just made me want to mute the television because nope, nope, all the no. But one of them (implied to be the old man from the first scene) spoke with a far deeper voice.  And this really threw me.  It wasn’t comical coming from the small creature, but it wasn’t intimidating like the breathy whisper on the edge of hearing was.  It was just kind of a voice.

Other than that, the first and final scenes were just marvellously done, and there was a lot to love in the middle.  These are just the things that really stood out for me.

Currently waiting with glee for the live action Monster series, because it’s going to be absolutely marvellous.