Posts Tagged ‘character’

It’s that time of the year again. I have to write about sex. Contrary to what people think considering my books are always big on sex, I’m not a big fan of writing on the subject. In fact, I positively cringe at the prospect.

It always takes me longer to write one sex/love-making scene than it does to write a whole chapter. This hold-up happens because I can never quite decide how to approach it. Do I describe it as it is happening as in the physical description of the act of making love? Or do I concentrate on feelings?

If I just write about the physical act, do I make it rough and raunchy? Or am I in danger of getting smutty? Should I make it funny? What words should I use various body parts, the biological ones or slang? If slang, then which slang, because there’s a variety of words that can be used, ranging from funny to downright derogatory. Will I be accused of writing porn?

The other argument is that I should just concentrate on feelings. Since my books are not shooting scripts for porn films, I should just concentrate on the situation. A few details in the physical is all I need. The rest is setting the emotional connection between the lovers. I tell myself that writing sex is like writing about any other emotion or situation. That all I need to do is make the reader feel what the characters are feeling at that moment. But then how many ways are there to describe ‘that melting/rippling feeling in the pit of my stomach?’ And if I do take the second approach, will I be guilty of being overly sentimental?

So far I’ve been able to dodge the bullet since my books have been chicklit and a little flippancy is always welcome. But now it’s a genre and the levity will not be appreciated.

Verily ’tis a quandary, I tell you. I guess the art is balancing the lust and intimacy in the writing. Not so easy to write. Perhaps I shall take the easy way out and skim over the whole thing. After all, when in doubt, go back to the rules. And the rules say Less is More.

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Whenever stuck for ideas, the news is your best source. It certainly is my best source. Just recently I was stuck for an idea for a character whose public profile was impeachable but who had a sinister private profile. And then Lt. Col Shrikant Purohit came along.

When the news first came out, it left most of us reeling with shock. A member of the Indian Army, the one institution that still commands respect, engaged in terrorist activities, why the idea was outrageous. Or was it?

Look at it from his point of view.

(Disclaimer: This is pure speculation and is not based on any facts)

He was probably a loyal member of this stellar organization, serving his country without question in inhospitable and downright hostile areas. He was probably engaged in counter insurgency ops in J&K. He was probably freezing his butt off patrolling at Siachen in knee deep snow.

For what?  To protect an openly ungrateful people and a government that doesn’t care. Through unjustified brickbats and unfair pay commissions he remained stoic and his patriotism was unshakable.

They caught several terrorists who were later let off for political or other reasons (prisoners for hostages kinda exchange). And (behold the mother of all ironies) one of these very rascals later went on to become a prominent political figure whom Purohit was forced to salute! It is just too much. And the straw that broke the camel’s back. Is it any wonder that the Mumbai Police openly refused to salute Gawli (or was it protect, or both)?

Of course this is only a general outline. Many people snap under unrelenting stress, and in a variety of ways, not necessarily anarchical. To explain his leanings towards militant Hinduism, you’d have to first concede that he was an Alpha male type personality, and then go back and reconstruct his childhood. To begin with, you’d have to consider that he was probably raised in a middle class Hindu household with allegiance to the Sangh, which was not a terrorist organization.

Even at this stage, to him, religion was private and had no place in his professional life at all. But gradually, he saw the rise of Islamic terrorism and, what seemed to him, a persecution of Hindus. This rhetoric was, no doubt, inculcated by a newly radicalised Sangh. He knew that the Government would not do anything about it, only pander to minorities. And that he had to do something if he had to arrest the inevitable downward slide of his beloved country into chaos. Here he probably saw Israel, with their prompt and retaliatory bombing, as an example. And a religious vigilante was born.

If you undertake this speculative exercise, bam, you’ve got a character. Hell, you’ve got a story.

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Yippee! Advance copies should be out anytime now. From then on it will be another 2-3 weeks before Kkrishnaa’s Konfessions hits bookstores.

Meanwhile I’m stumbling along with my next one, tentatively titled Bindaas Babe goes to Bollywood (BBB) for now. I love doing this. I love alliterations and am constantly on the lookout for new fun ones. I also love metaphors and similes and enjoy inventing them.

Currently I am exploring the characters who will play prominent and cameo parts in BBB. I haven’t yet got a handle on them completely but that’s part of the fun. You discover as you lurch along. Or, if you prefer, get into their skin as I progress. Right now they are still sketches I had outlined on paper.

All I really want from them is to add fun and element of unpredictability. Even though I know how the book ends, someone has to provide the extra layers. Or the stimulus to the protagonist, tentaively christened, Bindu (how imgainative) to reveal hers.

BBB, like Kkrishnaa’s Konfessions, is not the Kite Runner which is a straightforward story, simply told. The writer does not bother to add layers. Perhaps he does not trust that he can handle subtleties of a more complex narrative. In which case it is a good thing. Whenever in doubt follow the K.I.S.S. principle – keep it simple stupid.

So all that I really am looking to do is build characters with traits that have the potential to chafe against Bindu’s (or anyone else’s in the story) and provide conflict. So even if you know right away that a character is lying, you don’t know why? Is he guilty of the crime? Or does he simply hate the person asking him? It is a wonderful tool to keep up the suspense and hold reader interest.

So whenever you begin writing and outline your characters, always think of characteristics that are diametrically opposite to others’. Even simple ones work. For instance, one person could be sloppy and the other, a cleanliness freak. There is potential for explosive conflict there. If left alone together for any length of time they are likely to take a hatchet to each other. Or find a way to make their cohabitation work! You see, that’s the fun of it. You never know what’s going to happen.








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Why is it easier to write straight screen stories about straightforward guys? Well, for one a movie is a story told in pictures. The main ingredient in a screenplay is character (s). And you have to tell a story about this character, as much as possible, through pictures.

Dialogue is just to supplement your character and should be kept at a minimum. In any case your character is what (s)he does, not says. If a man verbally professes to respect women yet, when no one is looking, he slyly pinches a woman’s bottom, what kind of a man is he? What he does or what he says?

If you rely too much on dialogue your screenplay will be slow and plodding. That’s what the problem was with ‘Cheeni Kum’ (Amitabh Bachchan and Tabu go on and on and on…yawn) and U Me Aur Hum ( remember the unending scene on the deck with the camera panning back and forth endlessly from Ajay Devgan to Kajol?)

There are other ways to build chemistry – A look, a sudden tensing of posture when another character enters the room etc. Wherever possible you have to find a way to ‘show’ and not ‘tell’. Don’t tell me that a character loves/hates another. Let me figure that out for myself.

Actually this holds true even for novels. For example there are two ways to write the following:
“I don’t have time for this,” John said. And then John turned and started walking away.
“I don’t have time for this,” John said, turning and walking away.

Isn’t the second one more evocative, not to mention economical?

And that is why it is so difficult to adapt complex novels. Or, for that matter, write original screenplays about such characters.

In complex novels characters often have multiple and conflicting motives. They are morally ambiguous and wonderfully unpredictable. And just when the audience is staring to get a handle on the character, the character goes and does something diametrically opposite.

It’s easy to write about her motivation in a novel because it’s all happening in her head. But how the devil do you show it on screen without resorting to too much dialogue or a voice over?
A good writer can find ways of doing that, even for screen. But she usually needs the support of a deft director and a sublime cast. Just think, would Taxi Driver have been half as effective without Martin Scorcese and Robert de Niro?

And before I’m accused me of contradicting myself, let me point out that in Taxi Driver the voice over tool is not used as a convenient tool to progress the story but to show the Travis Bickle’s dissonance with the rest of the world.

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How do you distinguish between good and bad writing (after the standard quality of language test of course)?

I would think how the narrative is structured, i.e., the setup of conflicts and how they’ve been handled/ resolved. And since conflict emanates from human beings, reality which is in direct dissonance their wants and needs, another test of good writing is the depth/complexity of its characters.

You’ll notice that in most pulp or pop fiction the characters are clear cut. They are either or good or bad. There are the usual deviations like the good cop who used to be a drunk or the prostitute with a heart of gold. But before the movie/novel ends they usually redeem themselves. Even the self serving money minded Private Eye in B grade detective fiction usually does something to merit deliverance.

In literary fiction characters tend to veer towards shades of grey. They tend to be have both goodness and evil in them. And often we as readers/viewers don’t necessarily know who to root for.  You like one guy at a particular moment in the story and hate him at the next.

What kind of stories do you want to write? The question is best answered by answering another one – what do you want out of it? If you want obscene amounts of money via film rights, the answer if go for the former. If, however, a booker is what you’re aiming for, go for the latter.

Most books that get adapted for films have clear cut distinctions between the good and the bad guys.  On the other hand, complex stories of complex characters, where everyone has significant failings, rarely make it to the screen. Lately someone was brave enough to attempt Atonement and it even did well commercially. But not as well as The Lord of the Rings.

As one of my readers mentioned, most human beings are “promiscuous” creatures. Yet we (or at least a large majority of us, myself included) as consumers tend story gravitate towards movies with tangible “heroes”. Which brings me to the point I raised in my previous post – Is cinema escapist?

Yes, that is one reason for sure. But I think there is another more significant reason. Complex stories with murky characters are notoriously difficult to adapt for screen. If they are not handled adeptly viewers can end up hating everybody, or worse, confused.

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So you’ve gone out and bought a bunch of books, devoured them and now you’re ready to write your screenplay. And when you do, you want to write to wow! You want to blow the people over with your characterization. And so you cram as much detail and information as you can about your characters (all then while moving the story forward, of course).

If  You’ve done the above, you’ve done what I did when I began, what every writer does in the beginning. So, I must have wowed them, right? Wrong.

All it did was make the script detail heavy and unwieldy. You might get away with it a novel. Or maybe not even there. These days people want to read racy stuff. They don’t want to be bogged down by details.

It’s wonderful that you’ve imagined a character that is so complex and has so many facets. But ask yourself this – is it really relevant to the story? You have imagined a character who’s young, ambitious, streetsmart, good sportsman, a charmer and suffers from hydrophobia. (It’s obviously a hero. How boring to have all these in the bad guy. In fact how’s he a bad guy if he is all these?) The reason is that he failed while trying to save someone very dear from drowning.

And supposing you’re writing a political thriller. Is it really important to show the guy as a good sportsman? Does this quality of his, or a dynamic of this quality get a chance to get manifested later on in the story? Does it directly or indirectly have a bearing on the story? If not, throw it out.

Next, you have to ask yourself, do people really need to know about it now? Vis-à-vis the hydrophobia, do people really need to know the how and why right in the beginning? In the beginning you can just show that the character is hydrophobic and avoids water at every instance he can. Won’t it be much more fun if the reason is revealed later on when the character is placed in a similar situation? Having said that there is no said format. For instance, in Cliffhanger and Vertical Limit the protagonists’ fears and the reasons whereof are shown in the very beginning.

The two most important aspects of detail are relevance and timing.

It is not necessary to give all the information in one go. If you time your revelations, not only will it quicken the story, it will add elements of intrigue and hold your audience’s interest even more. It gets them thinking, why is the character behaving like this? And later, when that particular characteristic or its dynamic plays itself out, the audience goes ah! So that’s why he/she was behaving like this earlier!

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