Showing posts with label characterization. Show all posts
Showing posts with label characterization. Show all posts

Friday, March 28

Crafting Interesting Characters

Crafting Interesting Characters
As you've probably guessed, no one quality or characteristic can make a character interesting. Jim Butcher puts it like this: While no one characteristic can make a character interesting, there are five qualities that "consistently make a team contribution".

Let's examine each of these qualities in turn.

1. Exaggeration 

Interesting characters are extreme characters. Think of Stephen King's character, Carrie, from the book of the same name. Carry White, a traumatized young girl, is pushed too far, snaps, and kills half her town. Carry isn't just telepathic, she's the most powerful telepath who ever existed! 

That's extreme. 

Or take Lee Child's hero, Jack Reacher. Reacher is 6'5'' tall, has a 50-inch chest, and weighs about 250 pounds. He is a physical wrecking machine. 

That's extreme.

Jim Butcher uses one of my favorite detectives as an example when he writes "Mister Monk is not merely fussy and unstable, he is fussy and unstable to an insane degree". He really is. This is the only character I know who is scared of ... wait for it ... milk.

Rick Gekoski writes:

"The major pleasures of a Reacher book are relatively simple. The ex-army major and MP, a peripatetic loner who leaves no traces except in the hearts of those he has touched, is a one-man wrecking crew, hurling bad guys into the darkness with breathtaking efficiency. In one scene, a fight in a bar, five roughnecks are dispatched within a minute. How cool is that?"[2]

Very cool!

Why does exaggeration work? Two reasons:

i. Wish fulfillment.

Humans crave excitement. Most folks would rather read about a 6'5'' mountain of man-muscle who is a vagabond on a mission than about Joe Milquetoast, a man who makes a good wage, has 1.6 kids, takes a vacation a year; a man for whom a speeding ticket is a major event.

ii. Exaggerated traits are memorable. 

An exaggerated, extreme, over-the-top trait captures one's imagination. 

This quality of being memorable is critical. What, as storytellers, are we trying to do? Among other things, we're trying to recreate a world, our story world, inside our readers' minds. The more readers remember about our characters, the more vivid and appealing this world will be.

2. Exotic Position/Exotic Setting

Exotic position is a kind of exaggeration, but one that is focused on place and occupation. All things being equal it's more interesting for a character to be a wizard or a CEO or even an archaeology professor than to be an ordinary dad or mom with an ordinary job. 

That said, it seems to me that this particular principle is especially true of action heroes and, perhaps, less true of the work-a-day characters that often populate comedies.

3. Introduction

First impressions count. When your character comes onto the page for the first time take the opportunity to do something characteristic, unique and memorable.

Characteristic: We can make a character's introduction characteristic by using tags and traits.[1] Which tags and traits are most important to the telling of the story? Those are the ones you want your readers to remember so those are the ones that should be showcased when introducing the character.

Unique: In order for an action to be characteristic it must be unique to the character. For example, if white-blond hair is one of a character's tags then no other character should have white-blond hair. Similarly, if one of your character's tags is their beaten up leather jacket, then no other character should have a beaten up leather jacket. (That said, your antagonist could have a pristine leather jacket, this would help to compare and contrast the two men, who they are, their characters, their values.)

Memorable: Although just about anything can serve as a tag, it helps if it is memorable (something exaggerated, fun, or linked to a significant event in the character's life). So, for instance, Jim Butcher has made Harry's staff one of his tags, as well as his shield bracelet. He gets bonus points for linking these tags to significant events in the character's backstory.  

Example 1: Indiana Jones in Raider's of the Lost Ark

Although Indiana Jones is on-screen from the movie's beginning, the character is introduced the first time we see his face. In that scene he uses his whip to disarm an associate who is about to shoot him in the back. This scene introduces many of Indy's tags and at least one trait. His whip is a tag, as is his leather jacket and high-crowned, wide-brimmed, sable fedora. Traits that are consistently reinforced in the trailer are his keen sense of hearing, a well-honed survival instinct and a sense of compassion and fair play.

(I find it interesting that in the revised third draft of the script for Raiders that Indy kills his would-be executioner, Barranca, rather than, as happens in the movie, letting him go. I think the writer's final choice was the best; it shows Indy's compassion without taking away his sense of danger.)[5]

Example 2: The sisters in Frozen

One sister, Anna, pushes the other, Elsa, to use her gift and, ultimately, attempt to do things she doesn't have the control to do. At the same time, we see that Elsa has an unusually strong ability to "create and manipulate ice and snow." 

Throughout the movie Elsa struggles to conceal and control her abilities. Elsa's actions throughout most of the story are driven by her fear that she will harm others, especially her younger sister, Anna, who she loves dearly.[3] All this is encapsulated in the scene that introduces Anna and Elsa. We see Anna's naive exuberance as well as Elsa's budding gift and the potential for disaster that lies within it.

Characteristic Action

We've seen that each character should have a few memorable qualities which are depicted using tags and traits. Further, since we're likely to remember the first time we catch a glimpse of the character--and since we're likely to remember it more clearly than any other moment--it's good writing practise to use a character's introduction to indelibly inscribe the essence of that character in our readers' minds. (No pressure or anything! This is why I hate writing openings.) 

All things being equal, the character should be doing something that only they do, something that is exaggerated, over the top. Something that will allow the reader to grasp--and remember!--the essence of their character. Butcher does this with his wizard, Harry Dresdon. 

In the 6th book of his wonderful Dresdon Files series, Blood Rites, Harry Dresdon is in the midst of fighting monkey demons trying to save a litter of ... can you guess? That's right, puppies. I guess he read Blake Snyder's other book, Save The Dog! (I jest, of course) 

But, still, puppies. Can you get cuter than that? A litter of them. Talk about pulling one's heartstrings. It's a terrific read; not a bad one to start the series with.

If you haven't read Butcher's Harry Dresdon novels, think James Bond. If you've never heard of James Bond, the opening sequence of the movie will tell you everything about him you need to know. Curvy young woman (not wearing enough to clothe a toothpick) swoon over him, he is suave, a skilled fighter, and a stone cold killer.

In general, you want the reader to be able to think, afterward, "Yes, that was so them." Like Harry Dresden nuking a huge demon-monkey in the opening pages of Jim Butcher's Blood Rites.

4. True to life

Even though your character is a pseudo-person they need to be true to life. If a character isn't true to life they're not going to be believable and unbelievable characters are boring characters. 

A character has to be believable in their actions, their responses, their thoughts and their dialog. Showing a character's emotions to the reader is a huge part of creating a character that is true to life.

There are two tools of the trade that can help a writer out here: first, what I'm calling mini-sequels and, second, tags and traits.

4a. Mini-sequels

Jim Butcher writes that the best way for giving the reader the sense that your character is "a whole, full person with his own life outside the purview of this particular story" is by showing your character's emotions, reactions and decisions. That is, show how the one leads naturally into the other. Events happen and rounded characters react to these emotions believable in a way unique to them.[1]

If you haven't read Jim Butcher's posts about scenes and sequels and aren't quite sure what they are, I highly recommend them. 

4b. Tags & Traits


Jim Butcher writes:

"TAGS are words you hang upon your character when you describe them. When you're putting things together, for each character, pick a word or two or three to use in describing them. Then, every so often, hit on one of those words in reference to them, and avoid using them elsewhere when possible. By doing this, you'll be creating a psychological link between those words and that strong entry image of your character."

That's a great description. Here's another, this time from Dwight V. Swain and his book, Techniques of the Selling Writer:

"A tag is a label.

"You hang tags on story people so that your reader can tell one character from another. An impression [...] is created by the tags a character bears.

"Black hair is a tag. It helps distinguish the raven-tressed girl from another who’s a blonde.

"A stutter is a tag. It sets apart one character from others who speak without impediment.

"Shuffling your feet is a tag. It keeps people from confusing you with your friend, who strides along.

"Pessimism is a tag. It marks its victim as different from the joker.

"Tags also may translate inner state into external action. Each time the brother in Arsenic and Old Lace shouts “Charge!” and dashes up his imaginary San Juan Hill, we’re reminded that he lives in a private world."

Dwight V. Swain goes on to describe four different categories tags fall into: appearance, speech, mannerism and attitude, but that is outside the scope of this article. 

Jim Butcher writes:

"This [tags] is a really subtle psychological device, and it is far more powerful than it first seems. It's invaluable for both you as the writer, and for the construction of the virtual story for the reader."[1]


So far we've looked at tags. What are traits? Dwight V. Swain calls them tags of attitude and writes:

"Tags of attitude—sometimes called traits—mark the habitually apologetic, fearful, irritable, breezy, vain, or shy. Obsequiousness is an attitude, and so is the habit of command. Here, too, are found the men and women preoccupied with a single subject, whether it be golf or babies, business or yard or stamps or fishing. For all preoccupations, in their way, represent habit of thought or view of life.

"The key thing to remember about tags is that their primary purpose is to distinguish . . . to separate one character from another in your reader’s eyes."

After all, if the reader has trouble telling one character from another--or, worse, can't remember the character--then they can't be very interesting.

5. Empathy

Jim Butcher calls empathy the Holy Grail of character design. He writes:

"If you do your job, you will create a sense of empathy in your reader for your characters. This is what makes people burst out laughing while reading. It's what makes readers cry, or cheer, or run off to take a cold shower.

"Like V-Factor [verisimilitude], empathy takes time to build and it relies heavily upon the skilled use of sequels. But if you can get the reader to this point, as an author, then you WIN. Big time. This is the ENTIRE GOAL of all this character work, because the reader's emotional involvement is the single most important factor in how well your story is going to fly.

"Or put another way, if you can make people love who you want them to love and hate who you want them to hate, you're going to have readers coming back to you over and over again."[1]

That's it! I said, in the beginning, that this post was about characteristics that make a character interesting but, really, I think it's more about avoiding things that could make your character boring. 


1. Jim Butcher, Characters.
2. Why I love Lee Child's Jack Reacher novels. The Guardian, August 2013.
3. Elsa (Disney), Wikipedia.
4. Dwight V. Swain, Techniques of the Selling Writer.
5. Lawrence Kasdan wrote the screenplay for Indiana Jones and Raiders of the Lost Ark while George Lucas and Philip Kaufman created the story. (See the entry for Raiders over at IMDB.)

Wednesday, March 5

Lee Child's Three Tips For Building A Loyal Fan Base

 Lee Child's Three Tips For Building A Loyal Fan Base

According to David Vinjamuri (The Strongest Brand In Publishing Is ...) Lee Child's fans are the most loyal of any bestseller, even Stephen King and John Grisham.

That is, Lee Child has the highest percentage of readers/fans who will buy his next book, sight unseen. 

David Vinjamuri writes that:

"Child carries a higher percentage of his readers with him to each successive book than any other bestselling author.  While just 41% of John Grisham’s fans owned or planned to buy his newest novel Sycamore Row, 70% of Child’s fans wanted a copy of the last Jack Reacher tale “A Wanted Man”."


The question: What's Lee Child's secret? What did he do to generate such reader loyalty?

David Vinjamuri caught up with Child in Manhattan and asked him.

Lee Child: The Three Key Factors In Reader Loyalty

1. Consistency

Lee child said:

"A series is better than a sequence of [unrelated] books in terms of building brand loyalty. There are two components of loyalty: one is the author and the second is the subject.  If you like the author but you’re uncertain of the content of the next book, that’s an obstacle. It runs counter to the literary view of writing that values originality and growth.  Jack Reacher is the same person in every book.  He’s unemotional and focused on detail. There are lots of things that he always does that characterize who he is."

Since all of Child's books are from a single series, and since Jack Reacher is the same person in every book--unemotional and detail oriented--fans can be confident about what the next book will be like ... well, more or less. It's the old dilemma. Readers often want a story just like the last one, only different. (grin)

By the way, an interesting article on Lee Child is: Lee Child debunks the biggest writing myths over at

2. Authenticity

Child holds that in order to inspire reader loyalty one must give one's stories a sense of verisimilitude. Child states:

"Authenticity is not the same thing as accuracy.  I live in New York.  If you know New York then some of the actual reality of [life in] New York might not seem believable to the reader who doesn’t live here."

That it happened in real life is no guarantee your readers will find something believable.

To create a believable story it helps to begin with believable characters; a story is only as good as its characters just as a cake is only as good as its ingredients.

When I create a character I ask myself:

- What would make this character do something they don't want to do?
- What would make this character do something they vowed they would never do (again)?
- What would this character die for?
- What would this character kill for?

3. Uniqueness

Child says:

"I ignored all the other series.  If you start with a laundry list of things then the book won't be organic.  Reacher is not a white knight.  He lies and cheats and steals but because he’s doing it with integrity, people recognize him as a real human being."

There are two things here, and both concern the protagonist: uniqueness and (for lack of a better term) "relatability." Here's how I would cash them out:

a. Make the protagonist unique.

As much as I love Indiana Jones, or Hercule Poirot, I wouldn't want my protagonist to be exactly like them. What would be the fun in that?

Ignore what everyone else is doing and do your own thing, go your own way, but make sure your hero/protagonist has integrity.

b. Make the protagonist relatable.

Give your protagonist integrity, where that cashes out to having a clearly defined personal code and sticking to it, even when that's not comfortable.

Much has been said--and, I'm sure, will be said--about the relative importance, or unimportance, of likability as a character trait. Some swear by it and other's scoff at it. 

We can all think of characters who we loved that were likeable (Harry Dresden, for example), but many aren't: Dexter, Walter White, Frank Underwood.

What attracts us to unlikable characters? In a word: relatability.

It isn't important whether readers/viewers/listeners like your protagonist, what matters is whether they have some sort of personal code that they stick to.

c. Have the protagonist seek justice.

A protagonist can be one bad dude or dudette as long as they are trying to do something just, something noble. For example, a hitman struggling to save a child from being murdered by another hitman.

d. Measure the protagonist against the other characters.

Your character will be measured against the other characters, especially the antagonist and his/her minions.

I've just finished watching the second season of House of Cards (don't worry, no spoilers!) and--wow--Frank Underwood is not a likeable character. But Frank Underwood (his initials: FU) lives in a dystopia where every character is a shark and no one is likeable . When the viewer measures him against the other characters, especially the antagonist and his/her minions, we find that he's not so bad.

He's a shark, but he's a shark swimming with sharks. That's the background against which we evaluate his actions.

e. Have the protagonist be the best.

There's something to be said for having a protagonist who not only does something well, but does something better than anyone else. Of course then the storyteller has the problem of figuring out how to plausibly put the character in danger, a problem which can be overcome by (among other things) pairing them with someone weaker whom they must take care of.

Part of the reason I care about Frank Underwood is that he is the biggest and baddest and best shark of them all. He will grit his teeth and make painful personal sacrifices where others won't. Further, he is self-aware. He knows his strengths and his weaknesses and this allows him to see other people's strengths and weaknesses, and then exploit them. No, he's not a nice character, but one can still find qualities to admire. He has--if I might put it this way--a twisted semblance of integrity. He values ruthless pragmatism above all else. 

If you haven't already read David Vinjamuri's article The Strongest Brand In Publishing Is ... ( I would encourage you to. And thanks to Michael +Kelberer for sharing the link through his (excellent!) Google+ account.

Until next time, good writing!

Photo credit: "Friends for life" by Joan Sorolla under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Friday, February 14

A Pattern of Character Emotion

Every day I complete a writing exercise to help stretch my writing muscles. Lately, I've been thinking about sharing these exercises with you folks. On YouTube. 

The thought of getting behind both a mic and a camera is scary, but I've decided to experiment, to stretch myself and try it out. At the very least, I might become more comfortable behind a mic! I've embedded the result at the top of this page. What follows is more-or-less a transcript of the video/podcast, above. It is the first time I've tried something quite like this so ... be warned! (grin)

Writing Exercise: A Pattern of Emotion

Today, I decided to try and create an emotionally compelling character in 500 words or less. But that's not all, I wanted to create the character according to the steps Dwight Swain talks about in his book.

So, for better or worse, here are a few of the steps I'm going to use to try and create an emotionally compelling character.

The Pattern of Character Emotion

How do we create an emotionally compelling character? 

1. The stimulus. Something external, observable, happens to a character.

This stimulus should be something external and observable.

Perhaps someone asks your character to marry him or perhaps she's in a car accident or maybe she learns a wildfire is about to engulf her home--and just yesterday she paid off the mortgage! What would she take? What would she leave behind? What would she be glad to leave behind?

Or perhaps someone is going to ask your character for a divorce.

It could be, though, that something nice happens, perhaps your character discovers she's won the lottery! 

2a. This change in your character's state of affairs causes a change in their state of mind.

The main point is that the stimulus doesn't just create a change in the story world, it creates a change in your character. The focal character. 

For example, if the stimulus is a man pointing a gun at your character's chest then focus on how this affects your character. And, initially, your character is going to react emotionally, internally.

Given that your character understands the situation, what would they feel? That will depend on what kind of a person they are. It depends on your character's character. (I wish there were another way of writing that!)

What will her first thought be? Of her child, her pet, of the things she hasn't done. 

2b. External change. The stimulus creates a change in your character's state of affairs.

Continuing my example, folks in real life might have various different reactions depending on the kind of homo fictus they are. A policeman or soldier might attempt to disarm the attacker. A mother with a young child might plead for mercy. A diplomat might try to negotiate.

The important point is that you show a change in the focal character's situation. 

3. Make sure that you show that the character's status quo has been irrevocably changed.

Not all changes in your character throughout the course of the story will be big, life-altering changes. But the change in your character's story world, the change that breaks the character's status quo at the beginning of the story (and here I'm talking specifically about genre stories) should be big, huge, life-shattering. 

Or at least it should be for this exercise!

4. Show the character's status quo before the change and then again after. 

How does one show change? 

A horror movie I watched yesterday showed change in a family's life by showing a child playing with a beloved family pet--a beautiful, friendly, loyal, dog. Something creepy happened that the dog (but none of the humans--silly humans!) reacted to. The dog refused to come into the house that night and was found dead the next morning. We then see the children and their parents reacting to the loss.

It was effective in illustrating a change in the status quo.

Here's another example. Let's say our character is a child waiting in line with her mother at a bank. A man pulls out a handgun, yells for everyone to be quiet and lie on the floor, then he shoots a bullet into the ceiling for emphasis.

That, the man pulling out a gun and shooting it, is the stimulus our character--the child--will react to. Before the man pulled the gun out, the child was bored. Now she's terrified.

Her observable reaction: she hugs her mother, buries her face in the woman's waist, and sobs.

The Exercise

Attempt to create an emotionally compelling character and do this by going through the steps we've just talked about.

1. The stimulus. Have something external, something observable, happen to a character.

2. Show your character react to this stimulus. 

2a. Internal change. Your characters first reaction will be a change of feeling, a change in her state of mind.

2b. External change. The stimulus will also create a change in your character's state of affairs.

3. Make the change a big, irrevocable, change. Make sure your readers know that your character's status quo has been irrevocably changed.

4. Show the character's status quo before the change and then again after. 

Good writing!

Question: What kind of change did you show? 

Wednesday, February 12

Homo Sapiens vs Homo Fictus: What's The Difference?

It is often said that characters are the raw material from which stories are created--and I couldn't agree more--but let's examine this. What, exactly, are these entities who populate our stories and how do they differ from flesh-and-blood people.

Pseudo-Beings, Story People, Homo Fictus

Characters are a pseudo-species of humans that differ from their flesh-and-blood counterparts in (at least) three respects.

1. Characters are fathomable. Understandable. Humans often aren't.

I'm not suggesting that great characters, outstanding characters, don't have contradictory desires or goals. Far from it. 

One of the best characters I've ever come across is Walter White from Breaking Bad. What are his two main cares, his two main drives? To take care of his family and to excel. To take his great big brain out of mothballs and, no matter the consequence, show the world what he can do. To be remembered.

These two desires often come into conflict and it is this conflict that drives the story forward.

When I suggest that humans are often unfathomable I'm talking about people--humans--who want one thing one minute and then the next minute not only want something completely different, but don't even remember having previously wanted anything else. Gah! 

Humans are flaky, their goals can and do change at a whim, they make bad decisions in silly ways that aren't the least interesting. 

I have spent years, years, trying to understand some people, their motivations, what makes them tick, and they're still a mystery. Every time I think I have them pegged they do something unexpected.

How many times have you heard the neighbors of a serial killer say, "He seemed like such a nice man"? 

The key point here is not that characters shouldn't have contradictory drives or desires--they should!--it is that, ultimately--and the sooner the better--we must be able to understand them. As the story continues we'll begin to see more of their layers, and we may--probably will--revise our initial judgements about certain things, but, by the end of the story, we must have the feeling of understanding. We must be satisfied that the kind of choices they made came out of, was a result of, the kind of person they are.

Let's face it, compared with a our favorite characters, the average human is downright boring. Snoozeville.

Love it or hate it, for a character to be interesting and memorable he must be fathomable. Otherwise, as James Frey says, How To Write A Damn Good Novel, the reader will be bored and move on.

2. Characters are exceptional; most humans aren't.

Granted, not all characters are exceptional, but every character I've ever fallen in love with, every character that has lingered with me after the last page, has been exceptional in at least one respect. 

Perhaps it was not how they dressed or acted or, one hopes, smelt, but something about them. This is what Dwight V. Swain calls a tag of attitude. But this has another name as well: a trait. A trait is a behavioural quirk or disposition. Swain writes:

"Tags of attitude--sometimes called traits--mark the habitually apologetic, fearful, irritable, breezy, vain, or shy. Obsequiousness is an attitude, and so is the habit of command. Here, too, are found the men and women preoccupied with a single subject, whether it be golf or babies, business or yard or stamps or fishing. For all preoccupations, in their way, represent habit of thought or view of life.

"The key thing to remember about tags is that their primary purpose is to distinguish . . . to separate one character from another in your reader’s eyes." (Techniques of the Selling Writer)

For example, Mr. Monk (played by Tony Shalhoub) is a former police detective with an obsessive-compulsive disorder whose main goals in life are to find his wife's killer and to get back on the police force. As a character, Mr. Monk is mostly unexceptional. His wardrobe is bland, his culinary tastes do not lean toward the adventurous--just the opposite. And he most decidedly does not have a charismatic personality. 

But Mr. Monk is fanatical about cleanliness and he is an exceptionally--even inhumanly--good detective. His core skill (or trait)--he notices absolutely everything in his environment regardless of whether it's important--is both (and this is his catchphrase) a gift and a curse.

That's interesting. That's a character you can build a series around. Captain Leland Stottlemeyer (played by the talented Ted Levine) often complains that the only thing exceptional about him is that he knows how to get hold of Monk! Ted Levine is a terrific actor, but the character of Captain Stottlemeyer couldn't support a TV series.  He's just not extreme enough.

3. Humans are infinitely complex, characters aren't.

Fictional human beings are simpler and more goal-oriented than ordinary flesh-and-blood people. 

One of the things I like about my friend Michael is that we have the same taste in movies. When we watch a movie I can generally tell which parts he'll find funny, which parts he'll roll his eyes at, which parts will make him cry, and so on. 

But he surprises me. Perhaps he's had a bad day and he's grouchy so he doesn't laugh at things I thought were hilarious or he thinks the hero who sacrificed it all for his true love was an idiot, or ... well, you get the idea. No matter how well we feel we know someone, they surprise us. But, more than that, they surprise us in ways that don't make sense.

I watched The Dark Knight Rises yesterday and ... I don't want to give away any spoilers, but if you've watched that movie you know there's an interesting twist at the end regarding one of the characters. (If you haven't seen it, what are you waiting for? Watch it!) 

That surprise made sense. Like the surprise at the end of The Usual Suspects. After you learned the truth about the character you could look back through the movie and then you'd realize that you'd missed--or misinterpreted--a few things. Fundamentally, it made sense. It was (and this is the important bit) satisfying.

Humans do unexpected things with unsatisfying results in ways that make little or no sense. That's boring. Or maddening. Often both. Characters are blessedly simple. They have fewer desires, fewer goals. And the needs they have are more exaggerated, intense, than the ones had by ordinary humans. 

Question: What is your favorite character? Does he, or she, have an extreme trait? 

Photo credits: "Sister Of Chucky" by peasap under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Monday, November 4

Creating Vivid Characters For NaNoWriMo, Part Two

Creating Vivid Characters For NaNoWriMo, Part Two
This continues my post from Friday on how to create vivid characters.

How does your hero fulfill his/her need? What's his/her solution

Dexter's problem is that he wants to kill people. Anyone. Doesn't matter who they are or what they've done. His solution, his way of living with this urge and being a productive member of society, is to kill people that not only deserve to be killed but which, by their absence, make society a better, safer, place. (As I've mentioned, Chuck Wendig doesn't agree.)

Sherlock Holmes hates boredom. He needs problems and puzzles. Interesting ones. He provides himself with this needed stimulation by being a consulting detective.

Walter White
Walter is a brilliant chemist who is dying and wants to leave his family provided for. His solution is to make high quality meth and sell it.

Harry Potter
Harry's need, his deepest need, is to find, or create, a family. A home. I know what I said last week, but his deep internal need is to find or forge a connection with others.

Harry's solution is to reach out and find friends, and new family, at Hogwarts. This leads to a strong desire to protect the place.


A limitation is anything INTERNAL to a character that gets in the way of them meeting their need.

Limitations have a way of tripping up a character when they least expect it.

Chuck Wendig uses Buffy as an example:
"Limitations are traits of the character’s that get in her way — they might be flaws or frailties but they can just as easily be positive traits that make trouble for the character and the plot. You might say that Buffy’s limitations were her age, her immaturity, and her emotional entanglements with problematic boyfriends (seriously, Buffy, what’s with the choice in dudes?)."
Excellent point.

CW argues that Dexter's moral code was a limitation placed on his serial killer nature. I can see it that way, but, for me (as I've said) his moral code is a part of the solution to his problem, his problem being the urge, the need, to kill. For me, that's what makes Dexter a tragic figure.

I would say that Dexter's limitations were the feeling of attachment he often developed for those he needed to kill. For instance, his AA mentor, stalker and occasional girlfriend Lila Tournay.

Sherlock's major limitation was his ego. 

In my opinion one of THE BEST episodes of Sherlock was A Scandal in Belgravia. He botches an important anti-terrorist plan of the British government because of his love of solving puzzles, because he wanted to show off.

Here's a quotation from the end of the show (SPOILER ALERT):
"Mycroft: The terrorist cells have been informed that we know about the bomb. We can't fool them now. We've lost everything. One fragment of one email. And months and years of planning. Finished.
Sherlock: Your MOD man.
Mycroft: That's all it takes. One lonely naive man, desperate to show off. And a woman clever enough to make him feel special.
Sherlock: You need to screen your defence people more carefully.
Mycroft: I'm not talking about the MOD man, Sherlock, I'm talking about you!"

Captain Malcolm 'Mal' Renolds
Although Mal can make hard calls--he is by no means a softie--he does have a heart of gold and a penchant for doing the right thing even when the result promises to be disastrous.

Harry Potter
In the muggle world Harry's magical abilities severely limit his ability to bond with the Dursleys.

In the magical world Harry's heritage, that he is the boy who lived, prevent him from just fitting in and having a normal school life. People either hate him or want him to save the world.

Greatest Fear

What does your character most fear? (This information will help you ramp up the stakes.)

Letting down those who depend on him. Not being what those he cares about think he is. Costing them their lives.

Being outed as a serial killer. Having his sister find out.

Not being smart enough to figure a case out. The criminal besting him.
Having those he cares about come to harm.

Walter White
Dying without having lived.
Dying without leaving his family provided for.

Harry Potter
Living with the Dursley family forever. (Which would also be the Dursley family nightmare.)

Part of J.K. Rowling's genius was figuring out plausible ways to pack so much conflict in to the story early on.


We're almost done!

Chuck Wendig wants us to do two more things. First, write a 100 word character description. He writes:

"Write a description. Keep it to 100 words. Less if you can manage ... Do not hit all the bases. Do not try to stat them up like a [...] baseball player. Listen, when you look at someone, you take away a visual thumbprint of that person — it’s pushed hard into the clay of your memory. You don’t remember every little detail or aspect."

For example: "... that woman shaped like a butternut squash with the frock that smelled like cigarettes and old terriers."

Also, here's Chuck's tip:

"... writers are best describing things that break the status quo, that violate our expectations. In other words, find the things that make the character visually unique, interesting, odd, curious – different. Cleave to those."

Describe things that violate your readers' expectations. Yes! That one's going on my wall.

Test Drive Your Character

Second, before you plunk them down into your story take your newly christened character for a test drive. Chuck Wendig writes:

"Take ‘em for a test drive. Said it before, will say it again: write a thousand-word piece of flash fiction with Your Brand New Shiny Character in the starring role. Drive him around. Ding him up. Challenge him! Force him to talk to other characters: an obstinate cab driver, a belligerent cop, a drunken orangutan. Give him a new problem or one related to the character explicitly.

"Let ‘em speak. Let ‘em act. See what they do when you get behind the wheel.

"Inhabit the character."

Wonderful advice.

Once again, here's the challenge:
- Give your character a problem to solve, something that can be wrapped up in 1,000 or so words. The problem can be one that's related to your character, or something completely different.
- Force your character to talk to other characters. I know these were only suggestions, but, well, why not? Get them to talk to an obstinant cap driver. How would your character handle that? Then throw in a beligerant cop. Or choose other characters entirely. It's up to you.
After you've written the story, your next and final step (yes, we're done!) will be to write, or rewrite, your character's logline.

Good writing!


As I mentioned Friday, I'm doing #NaNoWriMo and, as part of that, accepted a challenge issued by a bunch of lovely lunatics to write 10,000 words over the weekend. 

Well ... I did it! 

It was close though. I've caught a bad cold and am squirting all sorts of fluids from all sorts of places.

Yes. It's gross. 

Now, thankfully, gleefully, I'm going back to 2,000 words a day. 

Photo credit: "Falknerei Schmidt" by Ben Fredericson under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Friday, November 1

Creating Vivid Characters For NaNoWriMo

Creating Vivid Characters For NaNoWriMo
Chuck Wendig has outdone himself this time. 

I know I've said this before--often--but this is one of the best posts on character development I've read (adult language warning -->): Plot & Character.

I need to work on my characterizations, I need to make them more vivid. My goal--and I think most writers share this in common--is to create characters readers not only can picture and understand--characters that seem real--but to create characters readers empathize with.

So. I'm going to interrupt my series on Dan Wells' 7-Point System to talk about, first, what constitutes a well-defined character, a rounded character, a character that feels so real your readers cry when he almost dies and grin like kids at Christmas when he achieves his goal. In short, characters your readers can identify with. Second, I'll talk about how you can begin crafting such a character.

Let's get started!

The Character Logline

Chuck Wendig points out that, just like screenplays and novels (and pretty much any kind of story) characters can have loglines. That is, they can have a short--usually one sentence--summary/description.

Recall that a logline attempts to capture the essence of a story.

So, let's attempt to craft a logline that captures the essence of a character. Chuck Wendig gives us a fabulous example of the sort of thing he's looking for. He writes:

“Dexter Morgan is a serial killer with a code of honor hiding in plain sight among the officers of the Miami Police Department.”

Right there, bam! Look at all the contradictions, the conflict waiting to happen.

Dexter's a serial killer with a code of honor (right there I'm interested) and he's working in a police department! The bird is surrounded by cats, hiding in plain sight.

That's a heck of a character concept. Further, you can see immediately that the whole series, all the stories, naturally grow from the main character, who he is.

A Character IS Something

When I read Chuck Wendig's description of Dexter Morgan one thing struck me like a runaway Mack Truck: A character IS something.

Clear as mud? Let me throw out a few examples and you'll see what I mean.

Neo (The Matrix) is The One.
Dexter Morgan (Dexter) is a serial killer.
Walter White (Breaking Bad) is a drug manufacturer and dealer.
Sherlock Holmes is a detective.
Tony Soprano (The Sopranos) is a mob boss.
Captain Malcolm 'Mal' Reynolds (Firefly) is a captain.
Dr. House (House) is a diagnostician.
Orphan Black is a hustler and a clone.
Harry Potter is a wizard.

Each character contains within themselves--by their nature, their occupation, or both--the seeds of both their deep desire (/their goal/the story goal) and the opposition to that goal.

Neo is something. He is The One, the one who transcended the matrix and could manipulate it. It was like his very own holodeck! But he didn't start out knowing this. Neo's journey was from (among other things) ignorance to wisdom. Who Neo was set the endpoint and implied the challenges he would have to face.

Dexter is the best example, or at least my favorite.

"Serial killer," that phrase, is packed with emotion. It is provocative. Thick. Shocking.

When I first saw the promo's for Dexter I thought, "Really? A hero who is a serial killer, they'll never pull it off." Ha! Good thing I'm not a producer.

One of the reasons the show worked--and I'll talk about this throughout the post--everything that happens in that show happens because of who Dexter is: a person compelled to kill. That, by itself, wouldn't have been very interesting--not to me at least--but this is a monster with a code of honor. That is unique. That is interesting. That's a concept you can build a novel around. (Dexter was based on a series of novels by Jeff Lindsay.) More on this later.

Now, let's don our white lab coat, pull the irritatingly bright examination light closer, clutch the rusty scalpel in our shaking hand, and take a closer look at a few well done characters most of you are familiar with. (I was going to go with a dissection metaphor but decided that, even for the day after halloween, it was a tad grizzly.)

1. What does your character want?

Dexter wants to kill people. No, that's not right. Dexter needs to kill people. It is a drive, a craving, one that he's helpless to resist.

Dexter's need, his deep dark desire, is the engine that drove each episode of the show forward. Can you imagine what an episode of Dexter would have been like if the lead character woke up and realized, "Huh. I don't want to kill anymore."

I believe that Dexter's code of honor--basically, that he only kills those who deserve it; other murderers--is also a deep need, one not borne of compulsion. I believe it comes from his humanity and, really, is why the character is interesting. Without this balancing need Dexter (to my way of thinking) would just be a monster. His desire to be normal is what makes him a tragic figure.

Chuck Wendig, on the other hand, believes Dexter's code of honor is a limitation (we'll talk more about limitations later). That's a valid, perfectly fine, way of looking at it. Wouldn't the world be dull if we all agreed?

Walter White
Walter White IS a brilliant chemist with a terminal disease and a baby on the way.

Walter's need: To ensure his family is provided for.

How Walter chooses to meet this need: make high quality meth and sell it.

You see the pattern? What the character IS implies/contains the seed of their deep need and, thus, their problem: how to meet their need (/how to quench their desire, /how to achieve their goal). If a story can be compared to a car the main character's need, his goal, is the internal combustion engine.

Without Walter's need to provide for his family, without him being a brilliant, desperate, chemist, there would have been no story, no show.

This is what writers mean when they say that character is plot. Plot should flow naturally out of the main character.

Sherlock Holmes
Sherlock's need is to be amused. Interested. Not bored. "The game," as he so often says in the original stories, must "be afoot!"

He is a natural detective, compulsively unravelling mysteries.

Sherlock's need to stave off boredom drives him to put himself, as well as those he cares about, in harms way if a sufficiently interesting puzzle/mystery presents itself.

One more example:

Harry Potter
a. Harry Potter IS the boy who lived.

He is the boy who the evil wizard Voldemort could not kill.

Harry Potter wants Voldemort to go away and for him just to be a normal wizard. Harry Potter being the boy who lived--the boy who nearly killed the dark lord--makes him a symbol of hope for those allied against the dark lord. On a personal level, this works against him. It makes folks expect ridiculous things of him (saving them from he-who-must-not-be-named) and it makes Voldemort's followers loathe him.

Harry's need: when Harry's at Hogwarts he wants to be a normal, completely unexceptional, wizard.

b. Harry Potter IS a wizard.

When Harry's not at school he must stay with the magic-hating Dursleys. Put a boy who can't control his magic, a boy who doesn't even know he's magical, with relatives who have a fanatical hate of magic and you've got a tinderbox of conflict just begging for a match.

That's it for today! I thought I'd be able to get through all this material in one day, but I guess not.

Until next time, good writing!


I'm going through NaNoWriMo again this year.

I'm part of a great Google+ Community, the Writer's Discussion Group, and we're getting together using the hashtag #wdgnano. Come and hang out with us whenever you like. This weekend a bunch of us are doing a 10,000 word weekend. I'll let you know how it went. (grin)

My word count so far is zero for NaNo, though I did write about 2,600 words so far, but that's just been for this blog post (and the one on Monday). So, only 3,300 more words to go! lol

Photo credit: "hello." by 55Laney69 under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Monday, September 23

Thee Ways To Create Strong Characters

Thee Ways To Create Strong Characters

I don't want terrible, gut-wrenching, things to happen to my characters. I've spent many hours crafting them and I know them inside and out. They're my friends, my creations. My babies.

Nice Writer Syndrome

Janice Hardy has an apt name for this reluctance to bring one's characters low: Nice Writer Syndrome. In her article, Do You Suffer From NWS?, she writes:
"Stories are fun when readers get to watch the struggle. They want to see someone overcome a terrible problem and win. To do that, you have to put your characters in terrible situations. You have to be mean, be evil, be cruel. If it breaks your heart to do it to them, then you're on the right track."
If you think you suffer from NWS head over to Janice Hardy's blog (the link is above) and take her quirky quiz.

A Recipe for Creating Characters Readers Care About

1. Be merciless.

I've just mentioned Janice Hardy's advice, but I want to say one more thing. As Robert Wiersema says, don't flinch. Fiction writing is finding the truth within the lie. And truth hurts, so writers must be courageous and not flinch in the telling of it.

2. Make your character interesting.

This comes from David Farland's article, A Recipe for Great Characters.

How can we make our characters more interesting? David has a few suggestions:

a. Use mystery/concealment

Everyone loves a mystery. We want to figure people out, why they do what they do, 'how they tick'. Give your character

- a secret from his/her past
- a hidden agenda, or even
- "a secret about himself/herself that even the character doesn’t know"

The last suggestion is my favorite! I love writing stories that employ this as well as reading them (changelings, etc.).

b. Make your character conflicted.

Incorporate opposing traits in your character. For instance, Indiana Jones was brave, extraordinarily so, but he was also deathly scared of snakes.

David Farland's advice is right on target, so much so I feel like highlighting it with red and making it blink. He writes:
"Give your character a major internal conflict. By that I mean, pick a word that describes your character. For example: He’s compassionate. Then find another word that can also describe your character, but make it a polar opposite—terrorist. Now, look for ways to reveal both sides of your character. For example, your protagonist might be at a French Restaurant. He sees a mother and a baby, and tries desperately to drag them away from the restaurant—just before it blows up. He saves them! But how did he know that the restaurant would explode? Because he set the bomb. Giving a character a dual nature creates an instability, a lack of balance, that probably can’t stay forever."
Let's try this out.

I'm starting on a new story today (Yes! I'm very excited) and I haven't completely nailed down the main character, but I do know she loves her (somewhat obnoxious) best friend--the one who, more often than not, gets her to do something she's not comfortable with and then toddles off leaving my main character to deal with the consequences.

Here's a word that describes my character: Caring.

The opposite of caring: Neglectful.

(Tip: can help you find antonyms.)

The problem: How could a caring person be neglectful?

My protagonist could have an important, time-consuming, job. She could be a doctor, nurse, judge, lawyer, etc. In general, I could give her a career which forces her to choose between being a person who cares for her friends and family and a person who, despite what she wants to do, must neglect those she cares for the most.

Yes! I like that.

c. Give your character a special ability or skill.

I've heard a number of successful writers give this same advice. Give your protagonist (and perhaps each of your characters) a special skill, something that only he/she can do.

This doesn't always have to be a useful skill--it could be something trivial like being able to tie cherry stems in a bow with one's tongue or making one's eyes roll backward in one's head. The point is they can do something, and do it well, that no other character can.

That's it for today. This is my second post about the nuts and bolts of characterization, the first is here: How To Create Extreme Characters.

Photo credit: "Say hello to Spike (aka "Butch" and "Killer") from the Tom & Jerry cartoon series" by JD Hancock under Creative Commons License 2.0.

Monday, June 24

How To Create Memorable Characters: Be Merciless

How To Create Memorable Characters: Be Merciless

When Bad Things Need To Happen To Good Characters

The following advice comes from Rick Mofina, a former journalist whose "crime thrillers have been published in 21 countries."
Always launch your story with a conflict confronting your protagonist. It should be a problem that mounts. For example, a lost wallet leads to identity theft, which leads to mistaken identity and something far worse. The conflict you give your hero could threaten their way of life, their community, or someone they love. (Seven deadly writing tips)

Truth Hurts But Writers Must Not Flinch

Some of the best advice on what it means not to flinch was given by Robert Wiersema at the Surrey International Writer's Conference a couple of years ago: SiWC 2011 Day One, Part Two: Don't Flinch: Robert Wiersema.


You have, at most, two pages to grab a reader. You have to grab them in the first scene, in the first sentence. How do you do this? You create a question in the readers mind. The reader must answer the question to understand the sentence. This is like foreshadowing, but it is less obvious. A hook is implicit foreshadowing.


How does the plot build suspense? Imagine you're driving down the road and you see a car in the ditch. What is going to happen? Everyone will slow down to look at the car and they'll wonder: What happened? It is part of our nature.


Frustrate your character. Which newspaper headline would grab your attention: "Man on the run" or "Man captured"?

- Have reversals. Characters should be frustrated at most turns. Here's the trick: the plot should be inevitable but not predictable. The plot should not be the same thing you and your readers have seen dozens of times. How do you avoid this?

THE KEY: The reader should always know slightly more than the character. Let the reader know an event is coming before the character does.

- In order to create suspense, the readers' expectations must be both met and undermined. What we are talking about here is shameless manipulation. You are telling people lies in order to get the response you want.
I constantly have to remind myself not to flinch. I want my characters lives to be effortlessly wonderful but that wouldn't make for an interesting story.

Photo credit.

Friday, April 19

How To See Through Your Character's Eyes

How To See Through Your Character's Eyes

When we're using a point-of-view character we know what they know. We see what they see. We hear what they hear.

But what a character notices will depend on what kind of person they are.

As a result, what a character pays attention to will give us a wealth of information about them. For instance, what sounds irritate her, what scents tantalize? When she walks through a park what will she notice first, the beautiful scenery (is she a photographer?) or the children running around (does she desperately want kids?).

As Kami McArthur writes in David Farland’s Daily Kick in the Pants—Tightening Your Focus:
When you’re writing a tale, it almost always turns out better if you get deep into the head of your protagonist and tell the story from that person’s point of view.
But how do we get inside a characters head? Kami has a few pointers.

1. Determine your characters dominant sense

I've heard that each of us has a dominant sense that they use when learning. For example it's said this is how it breaks down:
25-30% visual
25-30% auditory
15% tactile/kinesthetic
25-30% mixed modalities
How does your character learn? Through seeing? Hearing? Touch?

If they are a visual learner then when you use this character's point of view the visual properties of the environment should dominate. If auditory then the auditory properties, and so on. (Apparently some folks learn most by smell. Who knew?!)

This also provides yet another way to differentiate characters.

Kami gives a terrific example:
... I had a companion who remembered people’s cars. If someone had a red 72 Chevy, he’d see the car in a parking lot and say, “Hey, there’s John Thomas!” Then I would look up, and John was nowhere to be seen. I recall vividly one day how he began naming off people and saying, “There’s John, and the Metzgers, and the Sally Day, and . . .” I looked up eagerly, and there wasn’t a single person on the street. He named a dozen people just by looking at their cars.

2. A characters profession will affect what they notice

For instance, Kami writes:
As a corrections officer, I always made note of unlocked gates or doors left open when I was driving through town. I’d watch strangers to see how they moved, where they put their hands. I’d be careful when walking into restaurants, making sure to place my back to a wall and give myself a clear field of view to see who had enter.

3. Your character will have certain criteria for judging others

Your character may not be self-aware enough to know they have criteria, but we all do, even when we try not to. Does your character focus on:

social-economic status,
what a person does for a living,
how much money they make,
what kind of car they drive,
who they know,
whether they're good at their job,
speech patterns,
whether someone is environmentally conscious, and so on.

Kami writes:
A young woman may judge a new girl by her designer labels, or her hair, rather than her friendliness and her smile. A young man may only be interested in befriending another boy if he thinks that the boy would be an asset to the football team. A third person may avoid people who are wealthy, while a fourth might gravitate toward people who have a strong sense of humor.

4. What specific knowledge does your character have?

What can your character do well? What are they an expert in? Kami gives the example of a young parent.

These are the kinds of things a young parent would be able to tell you:

- Where the baby is
- How many diapers they have and where they are
- When the baby wakes, when they sleep, when they want to play
- What they liked to eat

The same sort of thing applies to a chef, or a hunter, or a police person. They would each pay attention to different things, notice different things, so if you described the same scene from four different perspectives you would learn something different each time.

I've only skimmed the wealth of information in Kami McArthur's article, I encourage all of you to head over to David Farland's site and read it.

#  #  #

I don't usually dedicate my blog posts to anyone, but I'm dedicating this one to the people of Boston. My heart goes out to them and to the families and friends of those injured or dead. They have become a brilliant example for all of us on how to handle a crisis.

Other articles you might like:

- 50 Shades Of Grey: The Most Profitable Books Of All Time?
- 5 Rules For Writing A Murder Mystery: Keeping the Murderer Secret Until The End
- Publish Your Own Magazine On Flipboard!

Photo credit: "Chris 02 ©" by Vincent Boiteau under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Thursday, February 14

How To Write Short Stories

How To Write Short Stories

I've been reading How To Write Short Stories for Magazines--and Get Published! by Sophie King. She gives wonderful tips on how to develop characters so I thought I'd share my notes.

Thumbnail sketch of a character

Goal: give each character a unique voice, something that will make that character stand out in a reader's mind.

In a couple of paragraphs we need to communicate how a character
- thinks
- talks
- behaves
- interacts with other characters

First Layer: Behavioral Quirk

In real life you know people you'd describe as a "character", people who you might not like but who you can't stop thinking about.

Make a list of these people and one quirk that stands out in your mind. For instance:

- A woman who looks in the mirror every time she passes one.
- A person who has a strange voice, either too high and squeaky or too deep.
- A person who is always dropping names.
- Someone who is always telling stories, jokes.

Second Layer: Dialogue: Trademark phrase

Have one or more of your characters overuse a figure of speech. For instance, a character who says "know what I mean?" after each sentence.

Third Layer: Characteristic Mood

For instance, one character might be a worrywart, another might be kind to a fault, and so on. (This is also known as a Trait. See: Tags, Traits and Tells.)

For a list of mood words, click here: Mood Words.

Fourth Layer: Helping Characters

For instance, your main character might take her dog everywhere she goes. It could be small and yappy or huge and friendly (or vice versa). This also creates opportunities for conflict with a character who hates animals.

The helping character doesn't have to be a pet, it could be a child or a needy neighbor, or a moody teen, the possibilities are endless

Number Of Characters

Sophie King advises that in a story of 2,000 words or under to try and keep the number of characters to three or four.

Make sure every character is essential to develop the story

Here's an exercise to help determine if a character is essential to the story:
- List all the characters in the story.
- Beside each character list their role in the story.
- If you took this character out of the story what would you lose? If the answer is 'not much' then cut them or combine them with another character.


Something significant should happen every three or four paragraphs.

- A change of scene
- A character makes a discovery
- Character talks with someone new

Other articles you might like:

- Fate Core And The Creation Of Magical Worlds
- Roleplaying Games, Writing, And The Creation Of Magical Systems
- Analyzing Story Structure

Photo credit: "رقص گلبرگ" by seyed mostafa zamani under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Monday, January 21

Fleshing Out Your Protagonist: Creating An Awesome Character

I know I've said this before, but Elizabeth S. Craig has a great Twitter feed for writers (@elizabethscraig). Whenever I want to read a helpful article on the art and craft of writing I just browse Elizabeth's tweets. (Her mystery novels are great too!)

I wanted to remember to say that because I found the article I'm discussing today through Elizabeth's tweets: She's No Mary Sue: Creating Characters People Care About.

Chuck Wendig, Flash Fiction And A Horror Story

Yesterday I wrote my first horror story! I've been wanting to write one for ages but never had an idea that grabbed me, that made me think: that'd be a fun story to write.

The Power Of Writing Exercises

Honestly, I don't do a lot of writing exercises. I'd rather spend my time on my work-in-progress or developing a new story. But, as I say, I'd been wanting to write a horror story for some time but something was holding me back. It was difficult getting into the right head-space.

Recently I discovered Chuck Wendig's flash fiction challenges. I haven't completed one, but it's fun plugging Chuck's categories into a random number generator and seeing what kind of story idea would pop out. Chuck gives 10 different subgenres, 10 different settings and 10 different things your story mush feature, then you either choose one thing from each category on your own or use a random number generator to do it for you.

Here are some of the writing prompts I came up with:

 Flash Fiction Challenge: The Wheel, Part Two (Part one is here.)
[Subgenre] in [conflict] [featuring ...]
- Bad girls in prison need to hide a body featuring a vengeful god.
- Lovecraftian revenge and a suitcase full of money.
- Alien abduction, a character being hunted and a mysterious stranger.

And, last but certainly not least, Chuck Wendig's latest flash fiction challenge features photos of places that look impossible but are actual landmarks. The challenge: Write 1,000 words inspired by one of the photos.

I decided to combine Chuck's last two challenges and write a horror story involving an alien abduction, a character being hunted and a mysterious stranger. Further, I decided it would take place here: The Crystal Cave in Skaftafell Iceland.

I also decided that the story would take me two hours to write and come in at just under 1,000 words.

Are you laughing? You should be! It took me around four hours and I blew way past the 1,000 word mark--I ended up writing about 3,000 words!

But that's okay. I now have the first draft of a story I'd like to read. And, for me, that's what it's all about. Sure, selling one's work is nice--we all need to eat--but a big reason why I started to write was that I wanted to create (or discover) the kind of stories I loved to read.

But now I'm at the stage where I need to develop my protagonist.

Fleshing Out Your Characters

At the moment my protagonist has a few bones, a more-or-less complete skeleton, but very little skin (metaphorically speaking, of course!).

Today, before I start work on the second draft, I need to put some meat on her bones and I do that by asking questions. A great resource I use regularly is Donald Maass' The Breakout Novelist Workbook as well as my notes from his workshops (see here, here and here).

Recently, though, I came across the blog post, She's No Mary Sue: Creating Characters People Care About, by Susan J. Morris. Susan points out that all stories are about a character with a problem and how that character solves, or fails to solve, that problem.

Give your readers a glimpse, early on, of your hero's eventual greatness

Also, and I thought this was a brilliant way of looking at it, Susan points out that, at the end of your story, chances are your character (unless it's a tragedy) will become kinda awesome. And that's good because they'll need to be awesome to conquer the villain and achieve their goal.

But at the beginning of the story your character is a long way from being awesome. This is both good and bad. It's good because every character--especially your main character--needs an arc. It's bad because characters who aren't good at something tend to be boring; and that's VERY bad, especially at the beginning of a story when you're trying to convince people your story would be all kinds of interesting fun to read.

The solution: give your readers a glimpse, early on, of your protagonist's eventual greatness. Susan writes:
Your character is going to be awesome. Once they get to page 275. Heroes rarely start out heroes. But generally speaking, the unformed hero has about as much dynamicism as a lump of clay. Even if you are writing an origin story for your hero, you have to figure out what defines your character, what makes them awesome, and give us a glimpse of it early so that we’ll stick around to page 275.
That sounds great, doesn't it? There is a problem. At the beginning of your story you probably don't know exactly how the story is going to end and your grasp of those traits which make your character the heroine they were born to be is going to be limited at best.

The solution? Write a scene where your character is awesome, ignoring whether the scene would fit in your story. This is about discovering who your character is and what she can do. Susan writes:
One way to figure all that out is to write your character’s quintessential scene—the scene that defines them as a character. Don't worry about whether it even belongs in the book! Just writing the scene will help you work through their character. The first scene in Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark is quintessential Jones. You learn he’s an adventuresome archeologist who is afraid of snakes, that he has a mean arm with a whip and a near-constant smirk, neither of which help him against his constant antagonist, and that he always recovers his hat.

Character Questions

As I wrote earlier, I love using character questions to help me flesh out my protagonist. I don't have a cut-and-dried method, but I find if I know the answers to these sorts of questions before I begin editing my first draft that the writing, and re-writing, goes much quicker.
1. What does your character want more than anything and what is stopping them from getting it?

2. What is the one thing they wouldn’t do to get it?

3. What does your character fear more than anything, and what would make it even worse?

4. What unexpected thing are they really good at?

5. What assumptions do people make about them that always make them angry?

6. What event has changed the way they look at life and why?

7. What is hardest for them to forgive?

8. What are three positive and three negative adjectives you could use to describe them?

9. If your character had a facebook, what embarrassing secrets could we dig up on them?

10. When your character goes to a party, do they under-dress or over-dress? Do they come and leave on-time, early, or late? Are they a wallflower or the center of attention? Are they excited or filled with anxiety? (She's No Mary Sue: Creating Characters People Care About)
How do you put flesh on your character's bones? Do  you ask questions? Freewrite? Do a character interview? Something else?

Other articles you might like:

- Dean Koontz And 5 Things Every Genre Story Needs
- How Plotting Can Build A Better Story
- Building Character: The Importance Of Imperfection

Photo credit: "Army Photography Contest - 2007 - FMWRC - Arts and Crafts - I Can See You Now"by familymwr under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Friday, January 18

Building Character: The Importance Of Imperfection

Building Character: Fear And The Importance Of Imperfection

Your Characters And The Importance Of Imperfection

Perfect characters are boring. They need flaws, but not just any flaws.

In her article Push Your Character Into Interesting, Kathy Steffen writes:
Build the flaw from your character’s fears and desires and make it so important, if it were to be pulled out of your character, there would be no story.
Here's how I think of it: your character has fears and his fears lead him to make mistakes, big mistakes. As Frank Herbert wrote in Dune:
I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain. (The Bene Gesserit litany against fear, Wikiquote)

Examples Of Great Character Flaws And How They Drive Plot

Your character's fears will ruin them, if left unchecked they will prevent your protagonist from reaching her goal. Your characters must learn to face their fears, whatever they may be. Kathy Steffen gives a couple of great examples of this:
In White Oleander Astrid Magnussen needs to grow away from her mother’s influence and become who she really is, not the imitation that her mother has tried to make her. As Astrid journeys through various foster homes, we see her make mistakes by following what she’s learned from her mother. As the story progresses she begins to see her mother for what she is and finally decides to forge her own way in the world, all the better for having the confidence to leave her mother’s ways behind. The reader is rewarded when Astrid begins to understand her own true nature and follows her heart.
.  .  .  .
In What the Night Knows by Dean Koontz, the lead character, John Calvino carries a dark secret. When he was a boy, John’s family was murdered. As an adult he keeps this secret to protect his children, but the reader sees keeping the secret as his inability to face the past. Calvino’s fear takes center stage in the form of the malevolent family-murdering spirit and drives the action of the book until the end. The story is inseparable from the lead character, which makes for a tightly woven external and internal plot. (Character Flaw: Make it Count)

How To Create Flaws That Drive Your Story Forward

1. The fear is tied to the protagonist's external goal

In order for the protagonist to get what he wants, John Calvino must overcome his fear, confront his past and defeat the malevolent spirit. If he didn't have this fear we wouldn't have the same book.

2. How the protagonist's fear affects other characters

Show how your protagonist's fear harms the other characters in your story. Show how the hero, because of her fear, is responsible for bad things happening to the people she loves.

3. A strength, carried too far, can also be a weakness

We have been looking at how fear creates flaws, how it gives a character much needed weaknesses, but a strength can do the same thing if taken to extreme.

Kathy Steffen mentions Harry Dresden here and he is the perfect example. His protectiveness of women and children--particularly outrageiously attractive women who do all sorts of interesting things to his hormone levels--constantly allows him to be lindly manipulated by the bad guys and creates conflict.

And conflict drives story. Interesting story. Kathy Steffen writes:
Go even further and push a positive trait to the dark side to create an antagonist or villain. A character who is strong-willed and reliable (good trait) also needs to be in control or becomes pushy (uh-oh, getting grey-area) and can also insist on his own way, becoming cold-hearted and abusive (ah, the dark side) to get what he wants. Take a principled, idealistic character with a strong sense of right and wrong and look closer. Is he relentless and obsessed? Judgmental, condemning, self-righteous?
I didn't use this article for my blog post today, but I wanted to recommend it: Better Plotting: 7 Ways Your Characters Can Screw up Their Decisions. Lots of great, specific, advice.

Other articles you might like:

- Ernest Hemingway And The Purpose Of Writing
- Revising Your Manuscript And Building Suspense: Making Your Character's Stakes Both Clear And High
- The Starburst Method: Summarizing Your Story In One Sentence

Photo credit: "James Dean" by zbdh12 under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.