Sunday, May 29, 2011

Characterization Help From Dexter And A Crappy Movie

Sorry for the looonnnggg break between posts. My house is ready to roll and should be on the market this week. Hopefully that’ll mean more time to write and catch up. I’ve lost my blog traffic, and I want it back.
Anyway, I want to talk a bit about character development. I don’t want to get technical ’cause I’m not an expert, and I’m sure someone smarter than me will scoff and roll their eyes at one of the amateurish comments I’m bound to make. What I want to focus on is two examples: one TV show that I love and one stupid movie that completely sucked.
If you haven’t seen Dexter, I’ll try not to ruin anything for you and be as general as I can. I’m squeamish when it comes to blood and body parts that are . . . removed. (gags) It took me two times to get through the first scene but once I did, I couldn’t get enough of the show. It isn’t so much the plot that has me swallowing each episode as quick as I can get it, although it is good, but it’s the main character who has me right where he wants me. He’s a fantastic example of creating a likable character, one with a gigantic flaw (he’s a serial killer), and making us love him. So what if he only kills bad guys—he’s still a murderer. I root for him, cheer him on to get the bad guy. Hell, I’d even let this serial killer into my house and watch my children. Not my real children, but my metaphorical children.
We see a glimmer of a conscience here and there, possibilities of real love and family, and we see the threat of getting caught. The conflict is always ratcheting up too, sending Dexter scrambling to find ways out of pending trouble. He works for Miami Metro PD as a forensics blood guy, his sister is a detective, his brother is . . .I’m not going to tell you that one, and his girlfriend thinks he’s the best boyfriend she’s ever had. Yikes.
One of my favorite scenes is when a hard-nose Sergeant finds out that Dexter isn’t just a lab geek. He knows Dexter has secrets—dark secrets. During a confrontation at the police station, this happens:

The next example could just be bad acting or irritation on my part, but I watched a Hilary Duff movie the other night. Why you ask? Hell if I know. Beauty and The Briefcase is about a writer wanting to get a gig with Cosmo (yes, she’s a blond fashion snob). She convinces the editor (yes, the editor is a bitchy man-eater) to take a chance on her with a story about going into the business world and only dating men in suits. No other men allowed. So the idiot, I mean MC, lands a job using a overinflated resume and becomes an assistant to an average looking guy in need of style. She decorates her desk area with pink crap and beads and starts flirting with all the men in the office.
I don’t buy Hilary Duff in this copycat type role what’s-her-name did in Sex in the City. Hilary is still Disney to me. The story is littered with stupid people, pretending to be smart or clever. So after she gets duped by a normal dude she wasn’t supposed to date, she realizes who her true love is and runs into his arms at the end( after saving the day with some glammed up presentation, of course). Bet you can’t guess who she falls in love with? Yep, her boss. I knew from the beginning they would fall in love, not because of chemistry but because the story was following the cliche highway to Crapville.
Don’t believe me . . . watch, rubberneckers. Watch this disaster unfold.

So why do I love Dexter and not Lane? Let's start with the basics:
1) The name. Dexter fits his personality. He is a lab geek and funny thing about the meaning of his name (dyer of cloth) he is often seen splattering blood in the lab to determine spray patterns, and then there's the whole killer thing.  Lane is a great name. Not a common one for a girl. But it came off cliched to me--forced. The whole premise road the trendy/cutsey angle so much that it bugged me. So my advice is to pick a name that fits who your character is without forcing it or being too unique or cliched. 
2) I mentioned the cliches before with Beauty and the Briefcase. Beautiful blond fashionista manipulating men to get what she wants. *groan* Whereas Dexter is deeper. He watched his mother being killed with a chainsaw and now he struggles to suppress his own killer instinct. We hear him say one thing, but his action show us another--he does have a conscience.
3)Secondary Characters. I think in order to have a great MC, you need to have strong secondary ones surrounding him/her. They can't overshadow, but they need to add to who the MC is. Do the relationships strengthen the character? Show something the MC just can't? Lane's pals seem fabricated and transparent, whereas Dexter's need him. They need him for strength and reassurance. They rely on him to save the day, to write wrongs, and protect them, yet he repeatedly calls himself evil, unfeeling, a monster.

I could go on, but this is one long post. These are two different genres with different themes, but to me it doesn't matter. Just because one has deeper content doesn't mean the writer should skimp on making a rich, believable, and well rounded character.

What’s in your character toolbox? Do you outline? Cute pics out of magazines and write a bio? Or do you go with the flow? There is no right answer as long as we create compelling characters who are believable and, lord help me, likable. There are some famous examples of horrible MCs who win over the hearts of readers. I won’t name names (BELLA SWAN), but it happens.

I don’t outline, plot, graph, do pics, nothing. I have a general idea and go for it, but I find that in two of my books the MC lacks something. She’s likable, but I’m not sure if she is enough. So I will keep playing around with my characters. Perhaps I’ll give them another Tarot reading. Who knows? 
Here are some tips from some of my followers. Please share yours as well.

L. Diane Wolf uses Florrence Littauer's "Personality Plus" and her four basic personality types as a starting point for developing characters.  I have taken personality tests for my characters as well as part of a writing exercise. It was helpful and gave me great insight.

Sarah McCabe says: "I don't really have a process for character development. But I find that if I can put a voice to a character, perhaps a voice I've heard in a movie or game, then that character tends to come more alive for me. I can hear them in my head every time they say something and it just flows onto the page."  This is how I roll for the most part too.

Shallee says: "In a nutshell, I ask who they are, who they're becoming, and what stands in their way. Then I find out how the character is like any of us, and why we want to be like them. Then, I define their flaws, handicaps, strengths, quirks, and motivation. This process gives me a great complex character to start with. I even do it for my minor characters so they're more fleshed out."  Sounds great to me!

Rosemary Gemmell says: "I always start with my heroine and hero, then I put them into situations and let them play. The story develops from their characters, but their characters also develop as I write the story. You can tell I'm not a plotter!"  I am not a plotter either. 

Leslie Rose says: "I like to put my characters through the filters of visual design. I examine their line, texture, and color to clarify them in my mind."

Madeline says: "I use pictures from magazines and draw from people I've known and then amalgamate all the information into the person I want to portray."  


Anonymous said...

When I creat a character I decide whether I am going to love or hate them at the end. Then I add in characteristics that I love or hate in people I have seen, met or family and friends. When I can visualize that character in my minds eye I know they have now become real.
As for Dexter... One of the best freakin series out there. I don't know if you have watched them all yet or not but if not keep watching. Phil's so mad about the last season he is debating whether or not to watch the next one that comes out haha. Again...(I know I keep saying this and you haven't taken me up on it yet...) if you need help with anything let me know. I've done the move on my own thing several times and it sucks.

Regina said...

My characters come from all areas of my life and imagination. Some are modeled after true people I know and some of them are people showing their true colors and are not covering things up. I like the brutal truth of my characters.

Rosemary Gemmell said...

Thanks for such a great post - I think your analysis of the two programmes is an excellent (and interesting) way to show what works and what doesn't with characterisation!

Elisabeth Hirsch said...

Very insightful post. This makes me want to watch Dexter.