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An important lesson from classic film: go all the way.

Holy shit.  I just happened to watch “The Conversation” last night (1974).  I hardly ever watch broadcast TV, but it was on in the common room, and I caught the opening scene.  Instantly hooked, I watched one of the best movies I’ve ever seen.

These days, a “conspiracy thriller” would consist of:

  1. Hunky or beautiful lead who is clearly on the side of “good,” or thinks he/she is.  Either a weathered, fresh-faced, or beaten-down male, or an impossibly beautiful, strong, and (of course) tough-as-nails female.
  2. Constant jeopardy, such as people breaking through high-rise windows with grenades, snipers with laser targeting, etc.
  3. Clues would have to be pieced together as the lead is constantly on the run, stopping only for Hollywood Sex.

I’m not saying that stuff isn’t entertaining.  I’ve gone to my fair share of American action movies — and to be fair, the “conspiracy thriller” tends to be a lot more story-driven than normal action movies.  But clearly, there’s a formula that works, and people largely go with it.  Even if a movie is adapted from a book, you can tell it’s usually been Hollywoodized (you know it when you see it.)

But The Conversation is different.

Harry Caul, the main character, isn’t hunky or beautiful, but a neurotic and unfashionable middle-aged professional wiretapper.  He’s not threatened by “bad guys;” his problems are all caused by his own character flaws, and there are many.  The director (Coppola) didn’t rely on the easy trick of hiring a good-looking actor to create sympathy for Harry.

Instead, he worked hard at real character design.  And Coppola went all the way with it.  Harry’s character is carried out all the way through to the extreme, even when it makes him unlikeable and unattractive.  For example:

  • Harry is a professional snooper.  The logical extension of this is his constant fear of being bugged, himself, and his inability to trust anyone.  It follows that he is a socially-awkward loner who has trouble with friendships or intimacy.  Here’s the extreme: he wears a plastic raincoat everywhere, even when it’s not raining.
  • His professional code is to not get personally or morally involved, but one of his past assignments led to innocent people being killed; naturally, he can’t help but feel guilty, but it doesn’t stop there.  He is a devout Catholic — extreme guilt!  If I were constructing this character, I would shy away from making him Catholic.  It would just seem like “too much.”  But it’s one of the points that makes this character strong — despite his professional code, I find it perfectly believable that Catholic guilt trumps it.
  • “Another trait of Harry’s that is brilliantly and economically portrayed through sound is his musicianship. At several points in the movie, Harry puts on a jazz record and plays saxophone accompaniment to it. This is a perfect symbol for his willingness to belong to society and inability to commit to it, fearing that his identity will be compromised if it is revealed. Harry is not strictly composing, he is jamming in the jazz tradition–letting the works of others define himself within a group, and not on his own terms. And yet, he isn’t able to jam with other musicians. The closest he wishes to come to humanity is a recording of it.” (from Walter on Everything2.)

What I learned as an adult fiction writer from The Conversation.

If I’d been constructing this character on paper, I would be tempted to scrap it!  The “character rules” would be much too clear and obvious, not realistic enough.  I’d find myself thinking, “a real person would never do that… it’s not believable… it’s too extreme.”  But of course Harry Caul is not realistic — he’s a character, and characters are tidier and more extreme than real people.  Their motivations are supposed to be much clearer than real people’s motivations.

To me, it seems devicey and trite to say, “Oh, he’s haunted by the past,” but that’s because a Tragic Past usually is a transparent device meant to elicit pity for the character.  In this case, Coppola constructed a believable and traumatic event specifically for Harry — something that was convincingly meaningful for him, rather than a generic sympathy-getting dramatic device (such as a lover’s betrayal or child’s death.)  Not only did it gain the audience’s sympathy for an otherwise-repellent character, it served as a good motivating force for Harry.

Why you may not like to write extreme characters.

I know from experience, it can be disturbing to work with an extreme character.  Personality extremes often make people uncomfortable because they’re out of bounds socially: extreme jealousy, extreme passion, extreme attention to detail, etc.  It can make writers uncomfortable to mentally act out a character with extreme traits.

For adult fiction in particular, the leads are supposed to be attractive.  It may be hard to write an extreme trait because that intensity is often unattractive, at least in real life.  It can make you face hard choices, but usually, that’s what makes stories shine.

Going “all the way” might be exactly what you need to do to make your character memorable, and your story more dramatic.  While Harry Caul is an unrealistic, unlikeable character in real life, he integrated perfectly in Coppola’s story world.

But think about the characters you like and remember.  What’s extreme about them?  I have my own examples, but I’d much rather hear from you.

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Tired of the beautiful people.

This is a romance / erotica rant and will be, at best, semi-organized in presentation.

I am tired of all the beautiful people in romance and erotica. Come on. In these genres, everyone’s physically attractive. I get that it’s part of the fantasy, but when I look at real people in the real world, such as a near 60 year-old martial artist with the body of a god, romance characters are often Ken and Barbie. Indistinct and unoriginal.

Characters are supposed to feel real.

Yes, I know that characters aren’t real life, but they’re supposed to feel real. And romance people are like fairy tale princes and princesses (sometimes literally.) They are beautiful, but unreal, action figures made to depict the same story, over and over, with slight variations.

The romance story can’t change that much. Overall, you know what generally happens. So, in order for the story to be fresh, it means the characters need to be fresh. Real-feeling characters give an element of reality to the story, and readers will be more willing to bond with a character that is convincingly human.

For example…

I often run into real people who spark my sexual imagination, such as T, the 19 year old Radio Shack employee who helped me with my video game setup. I noticed him when I walked into the store and was delighted to find him a true gaming soul-brother. As he enthusiastically recommended games, I noticed his black-lashed and slightly tilted eyes, and the sharp intelligence of his look.

Of course, I idly wondered what it would be like to have sex with him. The thing is, I could have crushed him. He was so thin, so small. Compared to my stocky farmgirl frame, he was probably at least 20 pounds lighter than me, and considerably younger. I wondered what his sexual philosophy was… if he was a good lover… if he had a small penis to match his build.

Then, there’s a waitress in a restaurant I always go to. She has long, brassy-brown, straight hair done in kind of a warrior princess or elf style. Most of it’s hanging down, but a little of it’s pulled back away from her face in braids. She’s in between pretty and cute — small, soft, and healthy-looking — but she has a slight hawk’s nose, giving her a rather fierce appearance.

I keep wondering how she isn’t cold; she wears barely-there black pleated skirts in all kinds of Chicagoland weather. Does she come in jeans and change for her shift?

Are your characters interesting outside of the genre?

Characters like these make me interested in their stories, both sexually and nonsexually. (And remember, you’re writing a story first, not a “romance story.”) If the reader is interested in your character first, your story will be more powerful for it, no matter if you’re writing mystery, erotica, romance, or high fantasy.

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Missing: Character History

So, I just read an 80-page novella in which the VPC is human, but has to infiltrate a vampire’s club in order to get some blood.  He’s not happy about the idea, but for survival’s sake, he has to go on despite whatever trouble lies ahead.

The author started the story in the right spot: the hero got in the bar and immediately ran into trouble.  “Great,” I thought, “here’s someone who knows how to work character history into the story, not give it all at once in an info-dump.”  I trusted the writer to tell a good story and read on with confidence.

The problem is, the expected history never came!

I never learned the character’s background after his immediate survival need was fulfilled; the author never told us anything about his background until the end of the story.  As a result, the character didn’t read as a unique person with a unique history — he was just a guy in a life-or-death situation with a tendency to make jokes under pressure.

Since this was a romance, the story had him fall in love with the vampire leader and happen to be the vampire’s fated mate.  Fine, but since I knew nothing about the character, his history, or his attitudes about life, I couldn’t really bond with him and get into the story, through him.  When something significant happened, I had to wonder: What does this mean to him?  What was his life experience prior to the beginning of the story that would influence his decisions?  Without that stuff, the character felt like a construct that was “born on the first page,” as the saying goes.

A character’s life experience and direction shouldn’t be a mystery.

History makes a character real to the reader.  Personal history — our memory — is an essential part of being human and colors our every thought and action.  We are creatures of time, such that no adult can look at an object without thinking of its past, present, and future, even if it’s just a paperclip or crumpled-up Pepsi can.  History — life experience — gives our actions meaning.  In a story, a character’s motivation and attitude comes out of his history.

If a character has no attitude born of his fictional life experience, or his “reason why” remains a mystery, we will never be able to feel like we really “know” him.  We won’t be able to lock onto his rules and know what’s meaningful to him, what he’ll do in certain situations, what he’ll choose.  If we know how to root for the character because of his past experiences, we can bond more with the character, which gives us a more vivid story experience.

History doesn’t mean flashbacks or info-dumps.

In novellas, writers rightfully avoid any mass info-dumps or the dreaded backstory.  Most of the writers in my group are rigorous about trimming the backstory and info-dump fat because they’re mostly short story writers.  There just isn’t enough time when you only got 80 pages.  But you don’t have to devote whole blocks of text to explain a character’s timeline.

History is more than a story that happened in a character’s past — it touches a character’s current thoughts and actions.  For example, let’s say your character was arrested for theft when she were 12 and got sent to a youth correction facility, where she was psychologically tortured by the sadistic, warped social workers.  Even years later, she’d be jumping every time you saw anyone in uniform.  Unless she had amnesia or repressed memories, her time in the kiddie clink would contribute something to what she thinks about and does.  It contributes significantly to the way she views her world — becomes part of her information filtration system.

In the novella that spawned this post, there is a good reason why the character needs to drink blood, and there was no good reason for the author to hide it.  The way he didn’t think of the traumatic event (subject in an experiment) that significantly changed his life was unnatural — there was a hole where his life experience should be!

I thought it was a decent story that could have been solidly good.  The character history’s absence was conspicuous, and because the writer didn’t want to think about it, a lot of opportunities got lost for deepening the bond with the character and giving the reader a better story experience.