Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Charisma: Does Your Main Character Have the “It” Factor?

I went to see The Amazing Spiderman last weekend and I really enjoyed it. But why? I mean, I wasn’t expecting to. I already knew the story, had enjoyed the first two movies of the Sam Raimi interpretation so this reboot seemed unnecessary to me. The villain wasn’t especially scary or fascinating to me (a Lizard?? Really?), the special effects were on par with other superhero movies franchises, and the script was just okay (with more than a few moments where belief had to be suspended (genius Peter Parker using Bing as a search engine one of the funnier, minor examples). So, then, what sold this movie for me? Andrew Garfield’s portrayal of Peter Parker. He put the ‘amazing’ in The Amazing Spiderman.

Now, I was a big fan of the first two Spiderman movies (let’s forget the third ever happened) and I thought Toby Maguire did a great job. Until I saw what Andrew Garfield did with the angsty teen character of Peter Parker. He imbued Peter with such emotion, sweetness, and anger I completely forgot about the earlier movie version. It was a pleasure to see an actor so accomplished and still so young (and, yes, the scenes between him and Emma Stone are filled with chemistry). It’s hard to put a finger on exactly what it was but the best word I can use to describe his performance is ‘charismatic’. And it got me wondering about the main character in my current WIP, Jake, and thinking what I can do as a writer to make sure he is as charismatic as possible.

Webster’s dictionary defines charisma as “a special magnetic charm or appeal”. This doesn’t mean every main character in every story has to have this magnetic factor but I argue that your main character should definitely have a special ‘appeal’. Every character who is the star of the show/story needs to be able to have that special something in order to draw people in to them and their problems. Even mean or nasty main characters need that charm. Scarlett O’Hara is a vain, selfish, sometimes mean main character but she has that ‘it’ factor, that charm, that something in the way she sounds that makes her compelling to the reader. Hannibal Lecter is the most disgusting killer yet he is fascinating to the reader because his intelligence, his wit, draws people in like a beautiful, yet deadly, Hemlock flower.

So, then, what are the keys to charisma? Well, if it were as simple to define as all that, everyone would be charismatic and it wouldn’t be ‘special’ would it? But here are some things that make a main character charismatic to me. Others may disagree but charisma is very dependent on the connection between the character who has ‘it’ and the reader who is reading ‘it’. So while these factors may do it for me, they may not do it for you.

  1. Shows Emotion
Like Andrew Garfield’s tearful response when he comes in battered and bruised and his Aunt May embraces him, a character must be able at some point to show his pain, happiness, anger, so the reader can feel what he is feeling. So the reader can sympathize with him. So it shows that your character is not a robot. Don’t be afraid to have your main character laugh or cry.

  1. Shows Humour
Like Spiderman’s snarky jokes to those trying to capture him, a sense of humour shows a characters wit/intelligence. The ability to make a reader/viewer laugh draws someone to a character. I bet comedians have a lot of friends!

  1. Shows Vulnerability
Andrew Garfield perfectly captured the loneliness of Peter Parker’s orphaned, friendless self. His yearning for Gwen Stacy and his wonder at realizing she likes him makes him sweet and creates viewers sympathy and their wanting to protect and help him. Your main character needs vulnerability to draw the reader in. Make sure he isn’t Mr. or Ms. Perfect. Nobody can sympathize with perfection.

  1. Shows Strength of Character
I’m not talking physical strength here but rather the ability to make difficult choices when the world is going one way and your character needs to go another way. Peter Parker eventually chooses to use his powers for good and not selfish reasons. He can walk away from helping others since he gets no reward and more anguish/pain than most but he chooses the right path. Even if your main character makes mistakes, eventually, his strength of character – his ability to make the right choice despite the difficulty of it – that creates a special charisma and appeal for the reader. After all, don’t we wish we all had the strength of character to always do the right thing?

Well, I could probably come up with a few more, but for me, those are the ‘it’ factors for a main character. So, tell me, does your main character have ‘it’?

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Five Do’s and Don’t’s of Good Critique

Every time I agree to judge a writer’s contest (like I'm doing now) I get very mixed feelings about it. Part of me is thrilled to do it as it gives me an opportunity to give back to writers since, when I was starting out and entering contests, I received valuable, thoughtful advice and words of encouragement when I really needed it. Part of me is also terrified that I might write something that is too critical and will end up wounding what can be a very fragile writer’s ego. That’s happened to me too. Where the critique felt not so much as advice/guidance but more like little cuts to my skin, exposing all my weaknesses, feeding my doubts and telling me I wasn’t good enough. 

That is the power of giving critique: the power to help elevate a writer’s craft and grow his/her confidence and the power to tear down that confidence with one or two comments that might seem innocent to you, the one giving the critique, but actually slicing a writer’s confidence in himself or his writing down to the quick. Since I’m in the middle of judging …argh. hate that word so I’ll substitute critiquing. Since I’m in the middle of critiquing a contest right now, I thought I would jot down some key things to remember when giving good critique.

            1. Do Start with the Positive
I don’t care if you have to dig through every page six times but, like most everything in life, there is always something good to be found in it. Find something you like about the piece, whether it is the endearing character, the lush descriptions, the snappy dialogue. Make sure the writer knows that there is something to celebrate in his/her writing. Those are the comments that feed the ego which is just as important as feeding the craft.

2.   Don’t Be Afraid to Point Out the Negative
Well, of course, you say. What’s the point of critique if you don’t point out what’s wrong with the piece? But not everyone is comfortable pointing out the negative. I always say that I prefer getting a critique filled with things to improve rather than a gushing “Everything is just perfect!!”. I once had a critique partner who was so sweet and supportive and never had a bad thing to say about my writing (great for the ego, for sure!) but I stopped sending her stuff because I wasn’t getting what I needed – I needed to hear what I had to do to improve. Every writer does. That’s why good friends and family usually should not be your critique partners because they will care about your ego more than your writing. 3.

3.  Don’t Re-Write the Work
It’s very tempting to suggest alternative dialogue or a change in style when you see an awkward turn of phrase or dialogue. I’ve been guilty of doing this myself. You think you’re helping the writer by offering another option to how he/she has written that scene. But, really, what you’re doing is injecting your own voice/personality/style. Don’t do this! Point out the awkward turn of phrase. Ask a question. Suggest that the dialogue perhaps sounds more mature than what a fourteen-year-old girl might sound like and the writer might want to read it over to see if they agree. Your job as a critiquer is to note the things that make you stop reading and your reactions to it. Their job as the writer is to re-write that phrase or scene (if they want to).

4.  Do Be Aware of Your Biases
We all know that reading fiction is a subjective experience. I’ve read stuff in contests that I would never pick up on a bookshelf because it’s just not my thing but, sometimes, there were so many entries in one genre that I was asked to step in to help the overloaded judges. So I know it can be difficult to review something and provide useful commentary when you aren’t into high fantasy or murder/mystery or whatever. But sometimes you are reading things that aren’t your preference and you have to put that aside so you can critique the writing. You can still make comments on whether you think a pace is too fast or too slow, or whether a character is sympathetic or not. Try not to be overly critical because you don’t like the genre. It’s like a good teacher who must teach to 30 different personalities – we expect the same professionalism/treatment from her for each child – no matter their behaviour.

5. Do Remember that Each Writer is At A Different Stage
You might be reading the first draft of the very first story a person has put to paper. You might be reading the ‘polished for the 100th time’ work of a veteran writer. Each critique you give must adapt to the level you can see the person is writing at. That beginner writer may need more commentary and encouragement but don’t assume that the polished work of the veteran just needs a “Great job!”. They too need to be told that the main character is working for whatever reasons (funny, sympathetic, driven, etc.), they need to know whether the pace is going well. Point out what stands out as exceptional if there is nothing really negative to critique.

Those are just some of the main things I think about as I go through a critique exercise. What I also need to point out is that doing critique helps me with my writing in a thousand different ways. It makes me think about what I’m doing right and what I need to improve on. I think giving critique is absolutely essential to ensure a writer develops in his/her own writing.

How about you? What things do you think about if/when you critique?