Thursday, March 26, 2009

Getting Sucked In

Being the sparse television viewer that I am and avid channel hopper, I tend to catch a lot of movies in snippets. So the other night, in a post-revision haze, I was flipping around cable and caught “The Brave One” starring Jodie Foster and Terrence Howard about 20 minutes into the film.

I’d read the cable channel’s information summary about the plot before settling on the station and apparently I joined the action after the inciting incident. (Writers, you know, the point at which the story catapults forward.) And though I missed seeing the actual scene that changed the course of Jodie’s character’s life, I didn’t feel like I missed anything at all.

You know how some flicks are: You come in five or ten minutes late, get to the end and say, “Hmmm, I must have missed something” because the ending leaves you less than satisfied. Or confused. Or irritated that you wasted your time watching at all.

Well, I have to say that Jodie’s acting was so on-spot, her character so engaging, that I could sense the depth of what must have happened to her in the minutes I missed just by watching her actions as the movie unfolded. I don’t even feel like I need to try to catch the first 20 minutes of the movie another time.

So, of course, as an author, what does one have to do to make a character that complete? A heroine (or hero) who is so compelling that you feel their emotion, understand their behavior, empathize with their flaws, anticipate their actions? That you want to run your fingers across the type as if feeling their skin beneath your fingers? How does a make-believe person become that real?

Of course, there are many how-to's on developing characters. I use two books in particular: Writers Guide to Character Traits by Linda N. Edelstein, Ph.D., and The Complete Writer's Guide to Heroes & Heroines: Sixteen Master Archetypes by Tami D. Cowden, Caro LaFever and Sue Viders. I also spend a lot of time people watching; looking for the quirks that make for great plot twists and for the humanity that makes us real.

And then there's Jodie, sucking you into the screen.

Duly inspired, I’ve set a new standard for myself: I want my words to rise from their sentences, take shape atop the book, and distract the reader with their all-too-real antics. In deference to the art of my craft, I will write fictional people as if Jodie Foster or Don Cheadle had already breathed life into each line.