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Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Character Clinic: Vianne Lawson and "Save the Cat"

Today's character on the couch is Vianne, the brainchild of J Elayne. Vianne is the 15-year-old adopted daughter of the governor of Alabama. She's a bit antisocial, has had suicidal ideation and mood swings, and doesn't have any friends. She's never been able to do anything "right." She likes this boy at school, yet she also wants to have a friendship with his girlfriend.

J Elayne wants to know: Are there any more ways to make her come across as more sympathetic? How do I get in her head without confusing the reader or turning the reader off?

Vianne -

Since it does make you seem a bit sleazy to like the girl's boyfriend but yet want a relationship with them both, your author will have to work hard to make you likable from the get-go in order for the reader to want to follow you through your internal transformation or maturation.

I've been reading this book called Save the Cat: The Last Book on Screenwriting You'll Ever Need. I think that you'll find this little "save the cat" nugget helpful in figuring out how to make yourself likable and relatable. Read on.

Cause here's the skinny: there is actually a relatively small amount of the population who is antisocial. There are people all over the continuum of antisocial, for sure, but just the characteristics of antisocial personality disorder (APD) would make writing a likable character daunting for even a master novelist. (Oh, a 15-year-old can't have APD diagnosed until they are 18. Just FYI.)

What Blake Snyder says in Save the Cat is really helpful. He was writing this for screenplay writers, but the same is true for novelists. In every movie or book, there needs to be a scene where the main character "saves the cat," or does something that makes the audience/reader like them. This means within chapter one for a novel.

It could be something simple like helping a kid pick up their textbooks after being bullied or stooping to pick up some trash in the cafeteria so that the custodian doesn't have to. The reader just needs a little something to sit up and say, "Hey, that was really nice." It makes reading about your character in less-than-shining lights easier and more palatable.

As for how you can get in her head without turning the reader off (I assume because of the darker nature of her struggles), I'd suggest to go with humor. Bonnie Grove's Talking to the Dead was an amazing read about a very trying mental disturbance one woman goes through after the death of her husband. The humor helped soften the darkness.

I hope you've enjoyed your time on the couch, Vianne. If you want to take it deeper, you know where to find me.

6 comments:

Shilpa said...

Very helpful. I have heard a lot about the book "save the cat" and hoping to pick up soon. But it makes so much sense to get your reader like the main character from the very beginning.

Jaleh D said...

Save the Cat has been on my to-read/to-buy list for a long time. (My library doesn't have it. sigh) Lydia Sharp over at The Sharp Angle praises that book often.

Aside from the suicidal bit, Vianne sounds a little like I'd been in school. I had a hard time making friends. My problems stemmed from being a little shy and then getting subtly bullied after moving to a new school during my preteen years. Maybe Vianne had a key event that provided the catalyst to her current behavior and difficulties. It could have happened whenever, doesn't even have to be anything huge. Just something that started the downward chain. Now she wants to make changes because of this boy she likes now, but it's hard to overcome habits and attitudes. It's taken me years to overcome my reserve. (I used to imagine it like a brick wall, and every time I did something against that wall, something more bold, I imagined it beginning to crumble.) But the decision to change is the first step.

If you have some sort of reference to this past event or chain of events, that'll help her come across more sympathetic. Understanding motivations helps me like even tarnished characters in stories I've read. Some of them are even among my favorites.

Good luck with your story. I hope I'll get to read it someday. It sounds interesting. :D

Jeff King said...

I love your insight... it helps me see what my chars need.

Jeannie Campbell, LMFT said...

thanks for that jeff!

and thanks for sharing your insight and experience, jaleh. i think that an inciting event that prompted her to act this way would definitely aid in reader empathy for her. great suggestion.

shilpa - i'd recommend the book. it's about screen writing, and he has an interesting perspective on genres of movies, but a lot applies to books.

Jehhillenberg (J Elayne) said...

THANK YOU. Great information.

girlseeksplace said...

Thanks for posting this one, Jeannie. I'm so excited to get my character on the couch. :)

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Both comments and questions are welcome. I hope you enjoyed your time on the couch today.