Thursday, February 14, 2008

What Makes A Hero, Part 3: What do we notice about him?

(Otherwise known as Creating Chemistry).

Now we get to the really fun parts (hopefully).

A while ago I read what I still think is one of the best pieces of writing advice I've ever heard (and if anyone knows where it came from please tell me). I don't recall the exact wording of it, but the essence was this:

Whenever you introduce a character, you must show us something special about them within the first five paragraphs.

Now, that doesn't mean you have to introduce your hero by having him, say, saunter into a bar, where every eye is on him, then immediately get into a fight with a bad guy (and win handily), kiss a baby and impregnate a woman all within those paragraphs. But it does mean you need to show something different, something unusual, about him right away. Something that sets him apart, that causes the reader to take notice. (And we'll do more about this tomorrow, too, specifically about heroic acts and how they may not be what you think.)

Because I'm all about plugging Personal Demons these days, I'm going to copy an introduction from it:

Someone waited on her porch.
Megan froze in the middle of the walkway, her fast-food bag still clutched in her hand, and lowered her shields. Better to have some idea what was in store. Her free hand twisted the little cap on her pepper spray keychain. If he planned to slit her throat and run, at least she’d have a fighting chance.
She opened the shields more. Surely something would come through. She almost always managed to get some glimpse of the other person’s character or motives.
Still nothing. Perhaps she was more drained than she thought.
The figure in the shadows moved. “Hello, Dr. Chase.” A man’s voice, smooth as glass against silk. “I enjoyed your show very much.”

Technically that's six paragraphs, but as one of them is only one word long I don't think it counts. And I didn't actually write it with the above rule in mind, at all. But what have we learned about the man in just those five paragraphs, when he haven't seen his face or even heard his name?

* We know there's something particularly unusual about him, in that our psychic heroine cannot read him as she can just about everyone else. Given that we've already had a little evidence of something spooky going on, we (hopefully!) start wondering if this man is a villain or not, or if he's even human, or what.
* We know his reason for speaking with Megan is important enough that he shows up at her house to do it.
* We know he probably has something of a flair for the dramatic, hiding in the shadows like that.
* We know he's got some kind of juice, because he was able to get her home address.
* We know he's dominant, perhaps (probably) a bit arrogant. He hasn't come to see her through proper channels; he's staged this confrontation at her house. This is obviously someone who likes and usually gets the upper hand, which immediately sets up all sorts of fun possibilities for a romantic plot or subplot.

As the scene continues we get a stronger sense of him and who he is, and of course throughout the rest of the book we come to know him better. But we never learn everything about him, and (again, if I've done my job properly) that lack of knowledge intrigues us.

Now, the "special/unusual" thing in an introduction doesn't even have to be this dramatic or obvious (although hopefully mine isn't terribly obvious). It could simply be that we see him and he makes a joke, or is studying something so industriously we wonder why. But something about him grabs our attention--some action of his grabs our attention--and makes us curious. Intrigues us. And a good hero should intrigue, above all.

The one thing you absolutely don't want to do (ever, but especially here) is tell instead of show. It's very easy to get carried away with a hero, and instantly set him up as the most handsome, most desireable, smartest and bestest at everything, with a paragraph something like this:

Brock Landers (2 points if you get that one) walked into the bar like he owned it. Heads turned to watch. Everyone knew who Brock was, especially after his picture had been all over the papers lately because of the incredible success of his business. Brock was now one of the richest men in the world, and rumor had it he deserved every penny, especially after doing so much charity work and setting up a shelter for battered women, and winning sports and poker tournaments in his free time. The women especially watched Brock, every one of them thinking they'd never seen such a gorgeous man in person. He was six foot two, perfectly muscled, dressed in an expensive but casual suit. The lights hit his emerald eyes and made them almost glow. He smiled at everyone and walked to the bar, pushing his way through the crowd of gawkers.
"I'll have a Grey Goose," he said to the bartender. "And your phone number."
Lissie the bartender giggled, unable to believe her luck. "Wow," she said. "You really are Brock Landers."
And so on and so on.

The thing is, it's possible Brock could be a good character. But as he's presented above, he's dull, and the writing is dull. Nobody wants to read long paragraphs of description about the hero's stupid emerald eyes or how wonderful he is. It's not believable; he's not a real person.

And most importantly, he has no secrets, at least not as he's presented here. We have very little in his character to guess about at this point. There's not much to intrigue us. And with Lissie the lovestruck bartender, there's zero chemistry. He crooks his finger, she giggles and squeals. Wow. That's fun. Or, um, not.

Chemistry isn't about fighting, though. I love a good fight as much as the next girl, I really do. I think an argument can be a very effective way to show how well the characters know each other, how they deal with their differences, how they feel about each other (all sorts of things pop out in a fight that never would have come out otherwise), and how they feel about themselves. Fights are always about dominance and self-image, at their heart (at least in my experience.) Who's in charge, and how they feel about it. Which is a great thing to get into. So I'm not putting down fights (I especially love writing angry sex scenes, but that's another series.) But while chemistry is in large part also about dominance and self-image, it needs to be more subtle than that.

More from Personal Demons (I've cut out basically everything but dialogue, as this is part of the larger introduction scene I quoted above):

“My name is Greyson Dante,” he said, reaching into the interior pocket of his suit coat and pulling out a card so white it glowed. He held it out to her. She didn’t step forward.
“And what are you doing here?”
He lowered his hand to his side without a trace of embarrassment. Was he a lawyer? She’d never met anyone who enjoyed being rebuffed as much as attorneys seemed to. “I came to speak to you about your show. I have a client who is very interested in your concept.”
“If it’s about the show, your client should call the station.”
“It’s not an offer for the station. It’s for you, personally.”
She sighed. “Then he or she should call me at my office, not send a lawyer to lie in wait at my home.”
“Did I say I was a lawyer?”
He waited for her to continue, smiling when she remained silent.

“Listen, Mr…?”
“Dante.” His voice was a perfect blank. It wasn’t just a bland accent, it was accentless, as if he’d spent years removing any identifying trace from his speech.
“Yes. This is all very pleasant, but it’s late and I’m hungry and tired. You can leave a message at my office tomorrow if there’s something you need to discuss. I may even have time to call you back.”

“Dr. Chase.” She could almost see him switch gears from “slick and sophisticated” to “your good friend who wants to help you” mode. “I don’t think I’m making myself very clear. My client wants only to aid you and possibly come to a mutually beneficial arrangement. If you would just give me ten minutes of your time, I could explain—”
“I’m sorry, but I have a lot to do this evening. I don’t have time to sit here and talk.”
“We’re standing.”
“I don’t have time to sit or stand with you.” She crossed her arms over her chest. The paper bag full of fries flopped against her stomach.

Now, I'm not saying this dialogue is The Greatest Ever Written, or anything like that. I'm not trying to hold myself up as Master Writer. But if I've done my job properly, again, we should see and feel something between these two people, even if it's just wary attraction or a subconscious sense of ease. We should enjoy reading their dialogue and get the feeling they enjoy saying it. That no matter how they might feel about each other, there's respect there. A sense of familiarity. Which brings me to my favorite, most important guideline for creating chemistry:

The hero should know something about the heroine that nobody else knows, and vice versa.

This doesn't have to be a big dark secret. It doesn't have to be anything important at all; it can be that he's noticed she says she only takes one sugar in her coffee but really she always takes two. It could be that she bites her lip when she's nervous or that when she's particularly happy she wiggles her toes or that she likes her job but it isn't her dream, or any other thing you can come up with. And all of these can be things other people have seen. It can even be a negative trait, something he feels is holding her back from what she could be. But the hero notices them. He comments on it. He notices her in a way no one else has.

And the same goes for her. She may know how he'll react to something, and be right. She may also notice about him any of the things I listed above or any other thing you can think of. But the point is, we have two people who are, without really admitting it, paying a lot of attention to each other. And liking what they see, despite the power struggles and disagreements or whatever. They have a connection, one the reader can see.

And yes, you can create chemistry by having sparks fly when they touch, or whatever. It works. But be careful with it. You don't want warmth seeping and energy leaping about every time they have some sort of physical contact (unless that's the basis of the story or one of the subplots.) It's easy to overdo that sort of thing, and it feels cheap. But of course people who are attracted to each other like touching each other. Just don't forget how many subtle touches there are. Pats on arms, casual hand-holding (I just watched The Village and was totally struck by the use of hand-holding in that film), a hand in the small of the back to guide the lady through a crowd, or the good old Removing of Lint or Eyelashes.

How do you create chemistry? How do you introduce characters? What are your "Rules of Attraction"?


Demon Hunter said...

Thanks for this, December! :*) It's very helpful to me. I'm alomst done with my rewrite and can check for these elements.

BernardL said...

Attraction always starts with something garnering respect. Your example of the lawyer being rebuffed is a great illustration. It takes inner confidence and courage to smoothly move past someone else's rudeness.

Charles Gramlich said...

This is a great series. Good advice here. I need to go back and check my wip against this, especially the five paragraph rule.

December/Stacia said...

Thanks, Tyhitia! I'm glad you're finding it helpful. Like I said, this is stuff I've noticed over the years from reading, it's not me saying "This is how you must do things". It makes me nervous to give writing advice so I really appreciate you saying that.

That's exactly it, Bernard! You know, that bit was important to me but I never could figure out why--now I know. Yes, he is an extremely confident person. :-)

Thanks so much, Charles! But see my reply to Tyhitia too. I don't think it's a RULE rule, but yeah, I try to give readers a reason to care about someone or something to notice about that person right away, especially with a main character like that. And especially with a hero because he needs to be bigger-than-life, you know? Even if he's an ordinary guy, he needs to be the special ordinary guy. :-)

Robyn said...

Great advice. I like it when one little thing makes the hero/heroine take a second look; something that gets to them. One of my heroines is caught by the hero's voice- I describe it as "a voice that had mileage"- and it hooks her.

And a great big DITTO on the Village. The scene where she is trying to get through the wedding party, holding out her hand to find her way; then Joaquin suddenly takes her hand to lead her to safety? SWOON. Loved it.

December/Stacia said...

Thanks Robyn! Oooh, a voice with mileage. Sexy.

*Big huge nod* Yep, that scene TOTALLY got me. Just out of nowhere he's there. And when she's waiting with the door open, and again, there he is--and in the cellar, he's just squeezing he rhand...oh, it was soooo good. I love Shyamalan, I don't care what anybody says. That man could film a milk commercial and I'd watch it.

Anonymous said...

"We know he's got some kind of juice, because he was able to get her home address." Or access to the internet. j/k

Telling vs showing -my inner dialogue is usually something like, "concentrate, stupid, you're telling again".

"a voice that had mileage" See!?!? People that know how to tell a story come up with cool shit like that. Kudos, robyn -V95

Robyn said...

Thanks, V95! I'm totally putting that on a business card- "I make up cool shit."

Bernita said...

This is great stuff, December.
One of my rules of attraction is to have each character intensely curious about the other.
In the hope that the reader will also be curious.

December/Stacia said...

Oooh, that's a good one, Bernita! I love that!

Gabriele C. said...

OK, now I'll have to find out why the readers of my snippet blog keep seing a chemistry between Arminius and Germanicus I never intended to put there. Following your suggestions too well? :)

December/Stacia said...

Lol, Gabriele--but remember, a lot of time I think readers see what they want to see. I mean that in a good way; they want to believe, and so they do (I know I do when reading). But it can lead to a lot of confusion! :-)

Sarai said...

Love this series very helpful and full of information!