Showing posts with label characters. Show all posts
Showing posts with label characters. Show all posts

Tuesday, April 6

How to Write a Genre Story: Character Introduction: Unusual Position

How to Write a Genre Story: Character Introduction: Unusual Position


Today I continue my series on how to create a memorable character. 

In my last post (How to Write a Genre Story: Character Introduction: Exaggeration) I went over Exaggeration. In this post I would like to chat with you about what Jim Butcher refers to as “Exotic Position,” but I’m going to call, “Unusual Position.” 

a. Put an exceptional character in an exceptional situation.

Jim Butcher writes:

“Locating your character in an unusual location or situation is another way to help create immediate interest. ... A sentence about a young woman sitting in a chair is far more blah than a sentence about the first female shuttle commander maneuvering in her EVA frame in high orbit.”

Here are the first three paragraphs of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Fellowship of the Ring:

“When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton.

“Bilbo was very rich and very peculiar, and had been the wonder of the Shire for sixty years, ever since his remarkable disappearance and unexpected return. The riches he had brought back from his travels had now become a local legend, and it was popularly believed, whatever the old folk might say, that the Hill at Bag End was full of tunnels stuffed with treasure. And if that was not enough for fame, there was also his prolonged vigour to marvel at. Time wore on, but it seemed to have little effect on Mr. Baggins. At ninety he was much the same as at fifty. At ninety-nine they began to call him well-preserved; but unchanged would have been nearer the mark. There were some that shook their heads and thought this was too much of a good thing; it seemed unfair that anyone should possess (apparently) perpetual youth as well as (reputedly) inexhaustible wealth.

“‘It will have to be paid for,’ they said. ‘It isn’t natural, and trouble will come of it!’” (The Fellowship of the Ring, J.R.R. Tolkien)

Everything about Bilbo and his surroundings is unusual. Bilbo Baggins lived longer than was normal for hobbits. And not only that, as his years stretched out, he showed no signs of aging! Also, he was extraordinarily rich as well as adventurous--in fact, his travels abroad had made him a local legend! And of course we’re talking about hobbits, a population of people who are completely unaverage in all sorts of ways, including their diminutive height.

b. Put an exceptional character in an ordinary position.

Jim Butcher writes:

“Naturally there's the inversion of this, too, where you take a very unusual character and put him in an utterly mundane position, like Mister Incredible working in Insurance Cubicle Purgatory.” (Characters, Jim Butcher) 

The movie True Lies with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jamie Lee Curtis springs to mind. 

“Harry Tasker leads a double life: to his wife Helen and his daughter Dana, he is a boring computer salesman often away on business trips, while in actuality he is a secret agent for a U.S. intelligence agency named Omega Sector whose motto is 'The Last Line of Defense.' ” (Wikipedia)

True Lies was a nearly perfect movie! Harry was a spy who had one of the most exciting jobs imaginable who pretended to be in one of the most boring jobs imaginable. 

Subdivisions: social, geographical, intellectual and moral

Butcher doesn’t go into detail about these variants, but here’s my interpretation:

Social position

An unusual social position, so something different from the average. Some of these are tropes, the commoner who is really royalty, the fey child unwittingly raised by human parents, and so on.

Geographical position:

Everything is relative. What would be considered unusual to Americans--a trip to Reykjavik or Honolulu--would be ho-hum to the people who lived there! Visiting Mars or The Moon, today, would be unusual but perhaps in 500 years it will be commonplace.

Intellectual position:

I think that Sherlock Holmes’ intellectual position was quite different. He was a genius. Perhaps he would say that he just noticed things other people didn’t and understood what he noticed. Perhaps it’s the same thing.

Moral position

This one I’m not sure about. Perhaps it would involve taking an extreme moral stand? Someone who cannot, or who refuses to, tell a lie no matter the cost? A monk or a nun who lives in a religious community? Someone who has vowed to never harm another creature?

The Unpredicted

We, as humans, are interested in the unpredictable--or at least the unpredicted--because it can kill us--because, by definition, we can’t prepare for it. We are on the lookout for things that violate our expectations, our understanding of the world. This is true for our story worlds as well.

Think about your life, what memories, events, come to mind? For myself, I remember when I came in third place for the high jump in elementary school. That event stands out because I wasn’t (and this is a charitable way of putting it) a top student in Physical Education. I was definitely more of a nerd than a jock!

Going back over my personal memories--especially my early memories--there is something emotional involved with all, or at least most, of them. For example, receiving an unexpectedly wonderful gift at Christmas or someone breaking their word about something I cared very much about.

As humans, we need to remember the exceptions, the things that aren’t as we would expect. When, in real life, we come across these things we need to understand them and incorporate them into our world view.

Jim Butcher’s character, Mouse

I’ll close with an example.

One of my favorite characters in Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files series is a dog named Mouse. 

Physically, Mouse is impressive. He is a Tibetan Temple Dog (which in The Dresden Files is a rare breed) and is absolutely massive, standing waist high to Harry, and Harry is 6’9’’ tall!

Intellectually, Mouse is exceptional. My impression from reading the series is that he is much more intelligent than the average human. Harry Dresden is the Watson to Mouse’s Holmes--though that’s not quite right because, although Mouse might be smarter, Dresden is a powerful and wiley wizard.

Mouse’s origin is unusual. He is thought to be a descendant of an ancient Foo spirit. In Blood Rights a litter of puppies had been stolen by someone evil and Dresden had been commissioned to get them back. But one, Mouse, chose to stay with Harry and stowed away in his car, the Blue Beetle.

Okay! That’s it for today. I tried to get this post out on Monday but, well, better late than never! :-) Good writing! I’ll talk to you again on Thursday.

Links

Characters, by Jim Butcher

-- --

Other posts in this extended series (I'm blogging a book):
How to Write a Genre Story: The Index

Where you can find me on the web:
Twitter: @WoodwardKaren
Pinterest: @karenjwoodward
Instagram: @KarenWoodwardWriter
YouTube: The Writer's Craft

Blog posts you might like:

Wednesday, March 10

How to Write a Genre Story: Characters: How to Show Not Tell

How to Write a Genre Story: Characters: How to Show Not Tell


 Supporting Characters versus Main Characters

We want some characters to be one-dimensional, characters such as the impatient pizza delivery person or the chatty cabby. They walk on and off the page and are barely noticed. They briefly interact with one of our main characters and then fade from memory. As E.M. Forster writes in Aspects of the Novel:

"We may divide characters into flat and round. Flat characters were called 'humorous' in the seventeenth century, and are sometimes called types, and sometimes caricatures. In their purest form, they are constructed round a single idea or quality...."

Main characters, on the other hand, must be three-dimensional, and memorable. They must seem to live and breathe.

Direct versus Indirect Characterization

There are two ways of characterizing a fictional person: directly and indirectly. Direct characterization involves telling while indirect characterization involves showing.

You might think: But isn’t telling always bad and showing always good? In a word: no. Showing isn’t always preferable to telling, it all depends on context. We can't show all the way through a novel--not only would that be exhausting for the writer and reader but it would make the novel about a million words long! 

Showing is important when we’ve reached a plot point or when a main character does something significant. Then we want to slow down and focus on them and show.

Direct Characterization

If you wish to characterize your fictional person directly simply tell your readers about them. Here are a couple of examples from Stephen King:

"A small boy in a yellow slicker and red galoshes ran cheerfully along beside the newspaper boat." (It, Stephen King)

"She was so pretty, with pink cheeks and bright brown eyes, and her hair the shade of blond you know will darken and get mousey. Sweet is the only word that fits. Sweet and bright and innocent." (Carrie, Stephen King)

Indirect Characterization

As I've mentioned, indirect characterization is showing as opposed to telling. There are roughly four ways of doing this: characterization through action and thoughts, characterization through speech, characterization through looks and, finally, characterization through affect.


Characterization Through Action & Thoughts

Continuing with my Stephen King theme, here's an example drawn from his delightful paperweight of a book, Under the Dome:

"Some newscaster is blabbing away, using words like wonderful and amazing. The second time he says I have never seen anything like this, Martha mutes the sound, thinking Nobody has, you dummocks. She is thinking about getting up and seeing what there might be in the kitchen to snack on (maybe that's wrong with a corpse in the room, but she's hungry, dammit), when the picture goes to a split screen." (Under The Dome by Stephen King)

After reading that passage what do we come away thinking about Martha? She seems to be the kind of person who doesn't suffer fools gladly. She also seems ruthlessly pragmatic. If she wants to watch TV and drink beer and eat snacks then having the corpse of her great uncle in the room isn't going to stop her. What does that say about her? It's possible she's insensitive (an understatement), but she's been living under the dome for the better part of a week and none of these people are quite who they were at the beginning.

Here’s another quotation:

“He [Hodges] gets up and strides around in an unsteady circle on legs like stilts, yanking at his hair so hard his eyes water…” (Mr. Mercedes, Stephen King)

My attention was drawn to that particular quote by Larry M Edwards’ article, “Show, Don’t Tell: A Writing Lesson from Stephen King.” We can SEE the action here. If King had wanted to tell rather than show he might have written something like: “He was upset,” but of course that pales in comparison.

Characterization Through Speech

Here King shows, through a character's speech, just how addicted to alcohol he has become.

"I really need it [alcohol] Johnny. No joke. Just a little, to stop the shakes. I'll make it last. And I won't get up to no dickens. Swear on my mother's name. I'll just go home." (Stephen King, Under The Dome)

What does that passage tell us? Among other things that Johnny is addicted to alcohol. But that's never said. Also, the speech has a certain cadence; when I read it, it had a certain sound. It's pleading, almost whining--like a beaten dog.

Here's another example, this one isn't by Stephen King. Here Edith Wharton uses a narrator to describe a character's speech and, in so doing, describes the essence of the character.

In, “Coming Home,” Edith Warton writes:

"He [Greer] has a voice like thick soup, and speaks with the slovenly drawl of the new generation of Americans, dragging his words along like reluctant dogs on a string..."

"Dragging his words along like reluctant dogs on a string," that lays bare the character's essence.

Characterization Through Looks

How can we use how a character looks, his clothing, his characteristic stances, his expressions, to reveal his essence? In A Game of Thrones, George R.R. Martin writes:

"He [Ser Waymar] wore black leather boots, black woolen pants, black moleskin gloves, and a fine supple coat of gleaming black ringmail over layers of black wool and boiled leather. Ser Waymar had been a Sworn Brother of the Night's Watch for less than half a year, but no one could say he had not prepared for his vocation. At least insofar as his wardrobe was concerned."

In other words, the narrator--Will--sees the knight as being all flash, no substance. He is a leader because of his birth but, in Will's eyes, it takes more than high birth to make one a true leader. These two sentences, then, give us information not only about Ser Waymar (he's vain, proud, young, and entirely unprepared for the challenges he will face), but also about the viewpoint character, Will.

Characterization Through Affect

We can use one character to reveal another character’s essence. Does she greet him warmly, does she sneer, does she cringe away? Here is another example from George R.R. Martin's work, A Game of Thrones:

"Ser Waymar's mouth became a hard line. 'No fire.'

"Gared's hood shadowed his face, but Will could see the hard glitter in his eyes as he stared at the knight. For a moment he was afraid the older man would go for his sword. It was a short, ugly thing, its grip discolored by sweat, its edge nicked from hard use, but Will would not have given an iron bob for the lordling's life if Gared pulled it from its scabbard." 

In the prologue to, “A Game of Thrones,” Martin shows how much story can be told in a relatively short space. Martin develops the character of Ser Waymar throughout the prologue and he does this largely by showing how he affects the men under his charge. The passage I gave above is just one instance of that. To put it mildly, he rubs them the wrong way. They think he is soft, young, and ignorant of the dangers of the cold and the forest. They don't trust him. In the above passage Martin shows what Gared, a wise old man of the Night Watch, thinks of one of the knight's orders; an order he is sure will get them all killed.

So! That's it. I hope you have a wonderful day. I'll talk to you again soon. Good writing!

Links and References

These articles are worth a close read:

- Polishing Your Prose, by Larry M Edwards
- Direct vs indirect characterization: 8 tips and examples

Other posts in this extended series (I'm blogging a book):
How to Write a Genre Story: The Index

Where you can find me on the web:
Twitter: @WoodwardKaren
Pinterest: @karenjwoodward

Blog posts you might like:

Tuesday, November 22

Create a Character Readers Can't Help But Care About

Create a Character Readers Can't Help But Care About


What the creator of character needs is not so much knowledge of motives as keen sensibility; the dramatist need not understand people; but he must be exceptionally aware.”—T.S. Elliot

I’ve more or less finished my series on key scenes and would now like to talk about how to create a character readers can’t help but care about. Let’s start with a few common questions. (By the way, pretty much everything I say in this post is inspired by two books: Techniques of The Selling Writer by Dwight V. Swain and Creating Characters: How to Build Story People by Dwight V. Swain.)

How many characters should I have in a story?


As you would expect, the number of characters in a story will depend on the length of your story. Here’s the rule of thumb: use only the bare minimum needed to advance the story. That is, use the minimum necessary to drive the story forward.

How can I tell if a particular character is necessary?


There are two questions you can ask about each character. First, Does this character advance the conflict? In other words, Does it advance the story? Dwight V. Swain writes:

“If a story person isn’t for or against your hero, leave him out. Every character should contribute something: action or information that helps or harms, advances or holds back.”[1]

Second, can two or more characters be combined? If the contribution of two or more story people make can be made by just one character then combine them.

How can I tell if readers will find a particular character interesting?


Your characters need to be stressed. There needs to come a point in the story where a character either overcomes the situation and gets rid of the stress OR it breaks her. Swain writes:

“Let pressure strip away the gloss and reveal them as they really are.” [1]

How much inner growth should my character go through over the course of a story?


What time-span does your story cover? 24 hours? 48 hours? Days? Years? Centuries?!

How much inner growth your character experiences will depend on the timespan of your story. If it takes place over the course of 24 hours then chances are the character won’t change as much as the protagonist of a story that is stretched over a decade.

How can I bring a character to life?


a) The character must be UNIQUE and VIVID.


You want your story, you want what happens to your characters, to hook into a reader’s emotions. Swain writes:

“Liking characters is vital to your reader. So is disliking and feeling pity and contempt and respect and tenderness ... / Why? / Because without such variations of emotional reaction, the reader can’t care what happens to your people. / If he doesn’t care, he can achieve no sense of inner tension when they’re endangered.”

So the 64,000 dollar question is, how do I make a character _unique_ and _vivid_? Here’s how:

i. Each character, even a walk-on, must have a dominant impression.


Here are examples of what Swain means by a dominant impression:

distinguished person
cruel man
sexy woman
flighty girl
rowdy boy

ii. Fit a character’s dominant impression to your character’s role in the story.


One question which comes up here is, should you cast the character to type or against type?

For example, if your protagonist is a hero, do we cast him to type or against type? If we cast him to type then we might make him a “tall, dark, handsome, physically prepossessing man.”[1] In this way we fit the character to match your audience’s preconceptions.

If we decide to cast the protagonist against type Swain suggests that we might make him ugly, gawky and/or awkward. If we do this then we intend the character to clash with your audience’s preconceptions.

Pros and Cons of casting to type:

Pro: When we cast to type the reader will be familiar with the kind of character we’re creating. Familiarity is a powerful thing. As Swain writes, a familiar character “makes for easy reading ... demands no thought, no readjustment.”[1]

Con: When we cast to type the reader will be familiar with the kind of character we’ve created and this increases the chance he will become bored.

Pros and Cons of casting against type:

Pro: Casting against type after adds realism and interest.

Con: Your audience won’t be immediately familiar with your character. Swain writes, “... you must be prepared also to devise ways to get Reader to accept that contradiction.”

iii. Modify the picture.


Is the dominant impression accurate? That is, does the dominant impression give a true impression of the character, of the kind of person she really is?

For example, if the character’s dominant impression is that of a dignified person then we need to ask whether this is a mask she adopts to hide her stupidity or selfishness.

Or say that the character’s dominant impression is that of a cruel person. Is the character truly cruel or is this just an appearance the character uses to mask an overly generous inner nature?

Characters, like flesh-and-blood people, are contradictory. Inconsistent. Capturing this inconsistency is a big part of what makes a character interesting. A word of caution, though. Be selective in your introduction of inconsistencies. If you introduce too many then it might be difficult to maintain the dominant impression.

For instance, think of Quark on Deep Space Nine [link]. In more than one episode we got a peek at Quark’s softer nature, but this didn’t change his dominant impression: greedy alien.

For more on this see: [link to article about conflicting desires. McKee]

iv. Different kinds of tags


An example of a tag is:

black hair
a stutter
shuffling one’s feet

Tags are important for two reasons. First, because they are how a dominant impression is created. Second, tags help readers tell one character from another.

According to Dwight V. Swain there are at least four different kinds of tags: tags of appearance, tags of speech, tags of mannerisms, tags of attitude (also called traits). Let’s look at each of these in turn.

Appearance: 

Examples of tags of appearance: Tall, short, handsome, blue eyes, skin color.

Speech:

University professors talk differently than truck drivers or longshoremen. Sex workers likely have a vocabulary that is different from the average pastor’s wife!

Beyond this, a dialect is a tag, so is an accent as well as habitual expressions (e.g., “well now” “one more thing”). Swain writes:

“We fumble, grope, speak precisely or pedantically or slangily or to the point. Our use of language reflects background, experience, occupation, social status, psychology, and a host of other things.”[1]

Mannerisms:

For example, scowl, flutter, rub hands, tug earlobe, person who dodges eye contact, close talkers, doodlers, nail cleaners, smoker, uses hands when talking—even over the phone!

Attitude/Traits:

Tags of attitude are also called traits. Examples of traits are being habitually apologetic, being fearful, being irritable, being breezy, being vain, being shy, being obsequious, being fearful, being irritable, being breezy.

Also, hobbies can be tags of attitude: being a aficionado of miniature trains, being a collector of Star Wars memorabilia, and so on.

How many tags per character?

How many tags should a character have? This depends on their importance to the story. Are they a walk-on, a minor character or a major character?

Walk-on: If a character is a walk-on they might be the guy who delivers your protagonists pizza never to be seen again. This sort of a character only needs one or two tags.

Minor: If a character is a minor character then perhaps give them one or more tags from each category.

Major: If a character is a major character then give them one key tag from each category. Key tags are tags you’ll mention each time you re-introduced the character.  You’ll probably want to give the character more than four tags, though, because otherwise your descriptions might seem repetitive.

BRING TAGS ON IN ACTION!!!

This point is extremely important. Vital. Don’t make your descriptions static. Swain writes:

“Often, the best trick is to try to find some bit of stage business on which to hang the tag.” 

For example:

For a proud woman: “She stood there for a moment, the violet eyes ever so steady. Only the slightest trace of heightened color showed in the smooth cheeks. / Then, with a quick, deft movement, she snapped the purse shut, turned still without a word and, blonde head high, left the room.”[1]

Irascible character: “Get out!” he roared, jowls purpling.”[1]

Use tags whenever character is re-introduced

I’ve mentioned this already, but it’s important enough to get its own point. Use the tags every time the character has been offstage for a while and needs to be re-introduced. For example:

“If a girl has dark, wavy hair, let her run her fingers through it, smooth it, brush it back, complain how it won’t hold a permanent, or the like, at virtually every turn.” [1]

Summary: Guidelines for using Tags


  • Tags are used to create a dominant impression.
  • Tags are used to reinforce a character’s personality.
  • Tags are used to modify the dominant impression and show how the inner person can differ from the outer.
  • There are various kinds of tags: tags of appearance, speech, mannerism and attitude.
  • We looked at how many tags a character should have depending on their importance to the story. Are they a walk-on, a minor character or a major character.
  • Finally we talked about how to re-introduce a character with their tags.




Every post I pick a book or audiobook I love and recommend it to my readers. This serves two purposes. I want to share what I’ve loved with you, and, if you click the link and buy anything over at Amazon within the next 24 hours, Amazon puts a few cents in my tip jar at no cost to you. So, if you click the link, thank you! If not, that’s okay too. I’m thrilled and honored you’ve visited my blog and read my post. :-)

Today I’m recommending Techniques of The Selling Writer by Dwight V. Swain and Creating Characters: How to Build Story People by Dwight V. Swain. I’ve read these books cover to cover and unreservedly recommend them!



That’s it! I’ll talk to you again tomorrow. Till then, good writing.

Word count so far: 22,454
Word count this post and last: 1,000 + 1639
Total words this month: 25,093

Notes:

1. Techniques of the Selling Writer, Dwight V. Swain [http://amzn.to/2fphS6v].

Wednesday, October 12

How To Write Characters Your Readers Will Love: Character Checklist

How To Write Characters Your Readers Will Love: Character Checklist


I read one of my old short stories yesterday. It’s one of my favorites but it’s far from my best. At the time I wrote it I knew a little about story structure, but I didn’t apply the knowledge I had. Why?!

I can tell you from experience that knowing what to do is a long way from doing what you know. Implementing what you know, weaving that knowledge into the warp and woof of your story, that’s a tricky thing. And, for me, it has been the number one source of massive rewriting.

One of the reasons I’ve gotten better at dreaming up stories, stories that are easier to structure, is that I have a checklist! Never doubt the power and usefulness of checklists. Here's mine:

Character Checklist


I’ve written quite a bit about story structure but character development is just as, if not more, important. In order to get readers excited about what happens in your story you need to get them excited about who it happens to.

(By the way, these points are drawn largely from Jim Butcher’s article on character development.)


Our Goal: We want the reader to identify with the character. We want the reader to cry when the character’s heart is broken and rejoice when it mends.

Here are various traits or techniques that can help nudge the reader toward identifying with your characters.

1. Exaggeration


Sherlock Holmes isn’t just smart, he’s brilliant. He’s possibly the second smartest person in the world—behind his brother Mycroft, of course. In other words, his intelligence is exaggerated.

Exaggerating a trait makes it memorable. Generally speaking, a trait won’t make much of an impression on a reader if they don’t remember it.

2. Exotic Position


Make the setting exotic. Fun. Different.

Jim Butcher mentions four kinds of environments your characters can be in: social, geographic, intellectual, moral. Make sure each of these types of situations is interesting. Memorable.

Examples:

- Social: Your team is training to win an important tournament this fall. Or perhaps you are part of a team preparing to climb Devil’s Mountain.
-  Geographic: A far flung region of the globe. That is, far flung for your readers!
- Intellectual: I think of Sherlock Holmes and Mycroft's club. What does the smartest person in the world do for companionship? He creates a club and then makes sure there’s a strict no talking policy!
- Moral: A couple goes on what they think is a retreat to discover they’ve joined a cult!

3. Active Introduction


Communicate the essence of your character, through action, in a memorable way.

Jim Butcher calls a "characteristic entry action" an action that can communicate the essence of your character. For instance, take Mr. Monk from the TV Series of the same name. The beginning of every episode reestablishes the essence of the character.

Recall that Mr. Monk mourns the loss of his late wife, Trudy, and that he is a bundle of phobias and neuroses which all stem from his acute observational abilities combined with his fear of germs. He even has a saying: It’s a gift ... and a curse. One of his characteristic entry actions is straightening something—a pillow for instance—that is just a wee bit tilted. Once he had a cold and put his used kleenex in plastic baggies before he threw them out. Why? So that they wouldn't contaminate anything else.

The TV Show, Archer, is especially good at communicating the essence of the characters through action. At the beginning of every episode their tags and traits (for an explanation of tags and traits, see below) are reintroduced. Also, often, there is a humorous ending where the tags and traits are reinforced again. And it works beautifully!

4. Verisimilitude: Make your characters believable.


In order for a character to be interesting they must act believably. A big part of acting believably is acting consistently.

Butcher writes that:

“The single most important technique for doing that is through showing your character's: 1. EMOTIONS 2. REACTIONS and 3. DECISIONS. When something happens in your story, a character with a decent V-factor [verisimilitude] will react to it. The reader will see his emotional reaction played out, will gain a sense of the logic of a question or problem, and will recognize that the character took a believable, appropriate course of action in response.”

Butcher notes that most of this work, making your character act believably, is going to take place in sequels.

Tags and traits ... so much could, and has, been written about them. Briefly, a tag is a very short description of one concrete aspect of a character. Blue eyes, uses a whip, wears a cool hat. Jim Butcher advises having about one to three tags per character. For example, when I think of Indiana Jones I think of his whip, his hat and his leather jacket. When I think of Neo I think of his leather jacket and his sunglasses. A tag or trait can also be a mental attitude, for instance if someone is always glum or always chipper. Basically, anything that will make your character stand out from the rest, anything that will make them memorable.

A terrific book on tags and traits is “Techniques of the Selling Writer”. I’ve written about it here: Dwight V Swain On How To Write A Novel.

5. Empathy. Get readers to identify with your characters.


Jim Butcher writes, “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.”

Sure, but how? One way is through shared experience. Chances are, what makes you angry (or sad or happy or ...) makes your readers angry (or sad or happy or ...). Give those kinds of experiences to your characters and they will become real to your readers.

Dramatic experiences

- What angers you? Think of a time when you were angry.

- What saddens you? Think of a time of deep loss.

- What irritates or frustrates you? Think of a specific instance. What happened? What did you react to?

- What makes you joyful? Giddy? What has made you grin from ear to ear? What sort of things have made your day?

When we see other people behave in ways we can relate to—when we watch them experience deep loss, transcendence, happiness, and so on—we identify with them. We begin to care about them. This is true for characters as well.

But it doesn’t have to be BIG things. Even the little, small, events in life will do as long as they’re more-or-less universal. For example ...

- You’re driving to work on a day when you ABSOLUTELY can’t be late and, of course, you’re a stuck behind a slow driver.

- It’s late, you’ve had a grueling day, you walk to where you parked your car in the parking lot but it’s not there. You stand in the middle of the vacant parking spot and look around like maybe it’s still there and you’re just not seeing it.

A couple more ways to make your character more interesting:

A) Persecution. Have the protagonist be unfairly treated and lose something achingly important to him.

B) Big Challenge. Have the protagonist take on something that takes him so far out of his comfort zone that he's on a different planet. Most folks won’t be able to keep from wanting the guy or gal to succeed. Also, humans being the curious types we are, we won’t be able to help wanting to know if the character will succeed or whether he will be a spectacular failure.

For example:

- A character trying to protect something of great value puts herself in jeopardy by fleeing down a dark, dangerous, alley.

- A character on a mission to find a great treasure ignores grievous bodily peril while using his experience and intellect to defeat the traps between himself and his prize.

Does My POV Character Have to be Nice? 


Before I end this post, let me address one often asked question about characterization:

Does a character have to be nice for a reader to empathize with them?

I don’t think so. There are many characters who, though while not at all nice, are easy to identify with, empathize with.

I love Sherlock, the TV Series. Benedict Cumberbatch portrays Sherlock as brilliant, egotistical and definitely not nice. But we can relate to both Sherlock and to his ‘everyman’ Watson. We can understand Sherlock’s occasional bouts of boredom as well as John’s impatience with them.

 That's it! I apologize for the long post. And for skipping Monday. Truth is, I'm working on a non-fiction ebook and I'm hoping (* cross fingers *) to get it out this weekend.

I'm sponsoring this post with an affiliate link to Stephen King's marvelous exploration of good writing: On Writing. If you click that link my blog will get a tiny percentage of anything you buy on Amazon for the next 24 hours.

Cheers! Talk to you Friday. :-)

Wednesday, May 14

Preparing To Write A Story: Characters

Preparing To Write A Story: Characters


Today I continue writing about science fiction and fantasy author Michael Moorcock and his guidelines for writing a 45,000 to 60,000 word novel in three days.

Last time (see: How Michael Moorcock Wrote A Novel In Three Days) I wrote about how to begin setting things up, how to prepare for this literary marathon. Today I'm going to continue that discussion by talking about characters.

How many characters should you have?


I've heard it said that, "You should have as many characters as the story calls for." That's true but not terribly useful, especially for a beginning writer.  

While there is no clear-cut answer to this question, I would advise someone setting out to write their first book to let the adage "Less is more" be their guide. In other words, as long as each character has an arc that ties in with the main character's goal, that's fine. But if a character doesn't advance the story then one needs to think long and hard about whether that character should be in the story.[1] 

Also, in general, you likely don't want two or more characters filling the same role. For instance, if you're writing a 60,000 word novel and you have two vixen characters, ask yourself whether you really need them. What is each of them doing for the plot? Can you combine them?

Main Characters: Protagonist & Antagonist


You'll have a main character/hero/protagonist (of course!); this is the character the story is about. Their arc is the story arc. You'll also have an antagonist/villain, someone to oppose the hero's efforts to achieve his goal. That's the bare minimum.[2] 

Secondary Characters


Secondary characters are sometimes called minor characters. Whatever you call them, these are characters who have their own arcs, their own wants and fears, their own goals and dilemmas. In this way they're just like the protagonist and antagonist. The only difference is that the arcs of secondary characters are, well, secondary to those of the main characters. Being secondary doesn't mean being unimportant, it just means that their arc will, in some way shape or form, tie in with the protagonist's arc.[3]

Some secondary characters may have their own scenes, scenes in which they are the viewpoint characters. If you want to keep things simple--and the first time you write a book I'd say that's a great idea--have your protagonist be your only viewpoint character. But, like everything about writing, that's up to you and the demands of your story. Generally speaking, though, viewpoint characters will have more robust arcs than non-viewpoint characters.

K.M. Weiland advises that writers should add a relationship character to the mix since they will represent "the moral absolute within the story, against which the protagonist and antagonist will both be measured."

Best friend. In the movie Shrek the relationship character was Donkey. Clearly, Donkey was a force of change in Shrek's life, Donkey was Shrek's moral/ethical compass; Donkey never felt shy about telling Shrek how he should be doing things. 

Shrek provides us with just one example, but if you think about the stories you've read/watched/listened to I'm sure you will think of dozens of others since helper characters are in practically every story. 

Romantic interest. If the relationship character is the protagonist's love interest then it often happens that this character can see a potential in the protagonist that they themselves are blind to, perhaps that they (at times) actively resist. The love interest often tries to get the protagonist to change in ways that, though painful in the short term, would allow the protagonist to fulfill their potential. For example, in The Matrix Trinity helped Neo realize he was The One.

Minor antagonist. More colorfully referred to as an Evil Minion, Black Shirt, Punch Clock Villain, Renfield, or Sycophantic Servant this is the antagonist's special helper. Sometimes the antagonist is a Big Bad in which case the helper might be the protagonist's Nemesis.

Protagonist's mentor. There are all sorts of mentors. The wise old man/wizard/knight, the trickster, a teacher/guide/watcher, big brother, and so on. The mentor often gives the protagonist gifts as well as wise advice. If the hero--as often happens--initially rejects the Call to Adventure the mentor often convinces the hero to take up the challenge.

Chameleon. Often there is what I think of as a chameleon character, someone who seems as though they might be playing both sides, but one can't tell. Severus Snape, from J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series, was a chameleon character. He seemed to be working for the dark side but he turned out to be a red herring. The chameleon could be any of the characters--best friend, love interest, mentor or even the antagonist's minion.

Helper. What I just said about the chameleon being a role more than a character type/trope is also true for the protagonist's helper. This role could be filled with either the best friend, the love interest, the mentor or any of the many tropes which exist

So far we have:

Main character/Protagonist/Hero
Main character's conscience
- Best friend
- Love interest
- Mentor
Antagonist
Antagonist's minion

If you're trying to keep things as simple as possible, it's a good idea to try and keep the number of major characters--character's whose arcs are the most significant and who might be viewpoint characters--down to two or three.

We didn't talk very much about Michael Moorcock's method/formula for writing a novel in three days, but we do at least have a better idea of the kind of characters we'll be using. In the next episode in this series I'll talk more about the hero/protagonist and whether there are any qualities in particular the protagonist should have.

Good writing!

Links/References/Comments


1. "Each [character] takes extra words, extra space, extra effort. Throw in too many, and you may even lose or confuse your reader." (Dwight V. Swain, Techniques of the Selling Writer)

2. The antagonist doesn't have to be a person; it can be, for example, a force of nature such as a tornado. But that is less common in genre stories and those are the kind I have in mind. Also, I think it is harder to use a non-sentient force (such as a tornado) as an antagonist and I write these blog posts with new writers in mind. Finishing a novel is difficult enough; let's make everything else as easy as we can the first time round!

3. The arcs of secondary characters don't always tie in with the arc of the protagonist. Some stories will have (for example) four characters whose stories are given equal weight and who don't interact, whose stories don't overlap. These stories-within-a-story are, from what I've seen, generally unified either by a person, a place or an idea. (Examples: Pulp Fiction and Short Cuts.) I didn't mention this within the body of my article because I'm focusing on writing a very simple story.

Links to interesting articles on characters and character creation:

Photo credit: "bike" by Greg Westfall 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.

Tuesday, December 10

How To Create Distinct Characters: An Exercise



Have you ever had trouble telling two characters apart? Either in your own work or others? I know I have, which is why I was thrilled to find this exercise: Guest Author Bryan Cohen: 60 Seconds of Hell: An Improv Character Exercise Adapted for Writers.

How to improvise your way into creating distinct character voices


This writing exercise started off as an acting drill, a brutal one guaranteed to turn your brain into mush in 30 seconds flat!

Why put yourself through this creative torture?

Because, just as this helps actors portray distinct characters on the stage, so it will make it easier for you to craft unique, fresh, lively, characters upon the page.

Here's the improv version:

"The coach of the improv team would hold a stopwatch and send one of the performers to the stage. The performer takes a one-word suggestion and starts a scene as a certain character. After 10 seconds, the coach says, "Switch!" and the performer must start a new scene as a completely different character. The goal is to create six distinct characters that speak different, move differently and are only connected by the fact that it's the same improviser performing all the roles.

"Most of the time, a performer will have no problem with the first two or three characters. By the third or fourth character, there will be a pause or a similar character to the first couple will rear his or her head. While the first few characters are triumphant, the last couple are often a stumble. (60 Seconds of Hell)"

5 Ways To Make A Character's Voice Distinct


1. Pace


Is your character's speech hummingbird fast, sloth slow, or somewhere in-between?

2. Dialect


Does this character use standard English? Are they educated? Where were they educated? Do they have an English accent? Cockney? Or perhaps their accent is American? Where are they from? Boston? Does this character use contractions?

3. Movement


Does your character move quickly? Are her movements jerky? Sudden? 

Often a person's movements are indicative of what he or she wants. For example, if your character is a femme fatale she'll move one way, if she's a single mother of five young children just home from her second minimum wage job, she'll move in quite another. Or think of the cautious, stealthy, precise, movements of a burglar.

4. Emotion


Is your character happy? Sad? Worried? Angry? Scared? Despairing? Think of how to communicate each of these emotions through dialogue (remember: show don't tell.)

Here is a list of emotions.

5. Pitch


Everyone's vocal range is different.

In her article, "The Human Voice--Pitch," Tonya Reiman writes that:

"Everyone has a distinct voice, different from all others; almost like a fingerprint, one's voice is unique and can act as an identifier. The human voice is composed of a multitude of different components, making each voice different; namely, pitch, tone, and rate."

Recall the character of Moaning Myrtle, played brilliantly by Shirley Henderson, from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Shirley Henderson's voice is distinctive and was a significant part of what made Myrtle unforgettable.

60 Seconds of Hell: The Writing Exercise


What you'll need:

- A piece of paper (or electronic file) divided into six sections.

- A timer set to mark six increments of ten seconds each. If you don't have such a timer, a friend with a stop watch would come in handy!

I did this exercise without the aid of a timekeeping friend by using a stopwatch app on my iPad and then hitting the 'lap' button every ten seconds. It was awkward but doable. That said, if anyone out there knows of a timer/counter/doodad that can be set to emit a beep every X seconds, please let me know! :-)

What you'll do:


Write a dialogue for six characters, switching to a new character every ten seconds.

Your goal is to make each character distinct by making each character's voice distinct. Remember, this is dialogue only.

Bryan Cohen encourages writers to experiment with this exercise. Try varying the amount of time or characters. Stipulate that one of your characters has to use a British accent. Be creative!

Cohen writes:

"Don't worry, this exercise is meant to make your brain feel like jelly. With enough practice, it should help you to differentiate your characters to keep them from sounding alike. By going through six characters at a time, you may also find a new person you want to spend time with in your next story. So try going to hell and back. You might return with a lot more than you bargained for. (60 Seconds of Hell)"

An excellent exercise! Good writing.

Article links:
- The Human Voice - Pitch, by Tonya Reiman

Photo credit: "Los Habaneros #10" by Thomas Leuthard under Creative Commons Attribution.

Thursday, December 5

How To Build Vivid Characters

How To Build Vivid Characters


Deborah Chester, in her latest blog post, "Writing with Flair" argues that we should not attempt to make our characters true to life. Instead our characters need to be:

Sharp
Vivid
Bold
Exaggerated
Unpredictable

No real-life individual could possibly exemplify all those traits. Nevertheless, our characters--especially our main characters--need to.

DC writes:

"When I sit down to read fiction, I don’t want characters that are modeled closely on real life. Real life is boring, mundane, filled with endless banal tasks, the drudgery of chores, and meaningless small talk."

The task of the writer is to craft characters that make an impact on readers. She writes:

"How does one of your characters enter the story? How does she exit a scene? What does she do while she’s [...] on the page, involved in the story’s action?

"Is she making ANY impression on readers?

"If not, why not?

"One of my favorite old-movie actresses is Bette Davis. You may or may not have seen any of her films, but you’ve probably heard of her.

"Even in her earliest films, when she was just a studio player and miscast in little roles of flighty society girls, she carried a presence with her. She knew how to walk, how to carry herself, how to move about so that she held the audience’s eye. That’s stagecraft, and she learned her acting from the stage before she ever went to Hollywood.

"All actors of that era were trained to do that. They weren’t trying to be natural or realistic. They were driving the story action forward and doing their best to make you remember them.

"One of my favorite film entrances of a character is in the William Wyler film, THE LETTER, based on a short story by Somerset Maugham. The audience is shown the moonlight shining down on a peaceful rubber plantation. All is quiet. The workers are sleeping in hammocks under thatched sheds. Then a pistol shot rings out. A man bursts from the bungalow and staggers down the porch steps. Bette Davis follows him.

"She’s wearing an evening gown. She holds a pistol in one hand. Her arm is extended and rigid. She fires into his back. And fires again, emptying the revolver into his dying body. As she shoots, she descends a porch step, then another, until she’s standing over him.

"The camera zooms in on her face. She’s intent, cold-blooded, lethal. There’s no hesitation in her, no fear, no regret. She knows exactly what she’s just done, and it was precisely what she intended to do. She has shot this man down the way I might destroy a rabid dog.

"Then, as the plantation workers wake up and run toward her in alarm, the predator in Bette vanishes. She pulls on a mask of teary weakness and begins to lie about what just happened and why.

"But the audience has seen the truth and can settle in to watch what she does next in trying to trick the police and the prosecutors.

"'Realistic?' Not at all. Vivid and effective? You bet!"

Deborah Chester writes that "Characters have to be exaggerated in order to ignite readers' imaginations."

. . . .

"The desire to avoid the bold, seemingly unnatural character is understandable. It’s also fatal to a story’s success."

. . . .

"Stories–particularly genre fiction–are not realistic. They are entertainment, and they are structured in certain ways to fulfill that function.

"That’s why fictional characters need to be exaggerated into creatures that are weird or wild or zany or colorful or predatory or just more darned courageous than anyone else."

. . . .

"Just ask Janet Evanovich, who creates old ladies who carry Glocks strapped to their walkers and monkeys that escape research laboratories wearing little hats made from aluminum foil.

"Silly? You bet.
"And she laughs all the way to the bank."

Writing with Flair is a terrific article, and just what I needed to read at this point in my WIP. Cheers! Good writing.

Photo credit: "Breaking through..." by Vinoth Chandar under Creative Commons Attribution.

Thursday, November 14

How To Create Characters That Evoke Emotion

How To Create Characters That Evoke Emotion
One of my favorite books on writing is Dwight V. Swain's Techniques of the Selling Writer because there he discusses, in depth, how to construct characters that evoke emotion in readers. 

The following information is contained in chapter three of Mr. Swain's book, these are my notes. I'm sharing them with you because no one ever laid out the whys and wherefores of how to elicit emotion in readers the way Mr. Swain does here.

As I've said before and I'll no doubt say again, everyone's different. If what Mr. Swain says works for you, if it helps you, then great! Use it. If not, ignore it. Different strokes.

How To Create Characters That Evoke Emotion


Dwight V. Swain writes,

"Feeling is a thing you build through manipulation of motivation and reaction."

Specifically, feeling is built through the manipulation of motivation-reaction units.

Motivation And Reaction Units


First off, what's a motivation and reaction unit? Before I--or, rather, Dwight V. Swain--lay it all out, let's look at an example:
"Now, with a roar, the red Jag picked up speed, careening recklessly as it hurtled down the drive and out into the highway. Stiff-lipped, Brad turned from the window and ground out his cigarette."
Not bad. There's definitely emotion there. I'd be interested in reading on. Let's sweep the curtain aside and look at how Mr. Swain did this.

First, though, some terminology.

The anatomy of a motivation-reaction unit:


1. Motivating stimulus
2. Character reaction
2.a: Feeling
2.b: Action
2.c: Speech

How to construct a motivation-reaction unit:


At it's simplest, a motivation-reaction unit consists of just two sentences. The first sentence contains the motivating stimulus and the second sentence contains your character's reaction.

So, for instance, in the above example:

Motivating stimulus:
"Now, with a roar, the red Jag picked up speed, careening recklessly as it hurtled down the drive and out into the highway."

Character reaction:
"Stiff-lipped, Brad turned from the window and ground out his cigarette."

How to write a motivation-reaction unit:


a. "Write a sentence without your character."
b. "Follow it with a sentence about your character."

Let's unpack that.

a. Write a sentence that doesn't mention your character.

The motivating sentence has nothing to do with how the character sees the world, it describes how the world is. Dwight V. Swain notes that this is important because, if you mention the character in the motivating sentence, that mention could be enough to turn what is supposed to be a motivation into a reaction.

b. Write a sentence about the character's reactions.

While the motivation sentence was about the world, the reaction sentence is about the character. "It describes how he behaves in consequence of the action that takes place" in the first sentence.

For instance, in DS's example:

Second sentence:
"Stiff-lipped, Brad turned from the window and ground out his cigarette."

Stiff-lipped --> indicates Brad's state of mind.
Grinds out his cigarette --> indicates Brad's state of mind.

Note: You don't have to limit yourself to one sentence. "Often two, or three, or even more sentences may be needed in order to present a given motivation or reaction with proper impact."

That said, if you're a beginning writer, Mr. Swain advises you to keep to one sentence each for motivation and reaction, at least until you feel you've gotten the hang of it.

Now let's look at the motivating stimulus and character response in more detail.

The motivating stimulus & character response


What is the motivating stimulus? It's "anything outside your character to which he reacts."

A good motivating stimulus will have great significance to your character, it will be pertinent to your story and it will be motive. That is, it will act to push the events in your story forward.

A good character reaction will show--or at least imply--the character's feeling, his action and his speech.

Why does this work? In a word context


To a "considerable degree, your readers will draw their conclusions as to the meaning of the focal character's reaction on the basis of context". In this case the context is "the stimulus or motivation that provokes it".

This works especially well if this reaction is in response to an "objectively written, non-introspective, physical reaction".

"Thus, a film editor may place a close-up of an actor's face directly after a shot of an actress lying dead in a coffin. Invariably, the audience will thereupon interpret the actor's expression, however blank, as one of grief."

So, if "you want a particular reaction pick a stimulus that will evoke it. A good external motivation makes your character's consequent behavior completely logical to your reader."

Two tips:
- Link motivation and reaction tightly.
- See each motivating stimulus as your character sees it. See it with her background, her attitudes, her dynamics and insights. THEN let her react in character.

That's it! I hope something about this discussion was helpful to you. This information represents only a fraction of what Dwight V. Swain writes about in chapter three of Techniques of the Selling Writer.

Photo credit: "Sunset Bliss..." by Vinoth Chandar 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
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
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.

Limitations


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.

Buffy
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.

Dexter
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
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.)

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

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

Sherlock
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.

Description


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!

NaNoWriMo


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.