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

Monday, March 22

How to Write a Genre Story: Dwight V. Swain and the Dominant Impression

How to Write a Genre Story: Dwight V. Swain and the Dominant Impression


"A tag is a label, but a limited, specialized label. It identifies a character and helps your readers distinguish one story person from another." (Dwight V. Swain, Creating Characters: How To Build Story People) 

Tags or labels are important because they are a practical, concrete way of making a character memorable.  

In my last post I introduced the idea of a character tag or label. In this post I would like to look at this through the lens of what Dwight V. Swain has to say about what he calls a character's Dominant Impression. (In my next post I'll take a look at a character's Dominant Attitude.) In the following I’ve drawn from Dwight V. Swain’s excellent book, Creating Characters as well as Jim Butcher’s Livejournal posts.

(Here’s a link to an index I put together for Butcher’s posts about writing: Jim Butcher On Writing.)

Dominant Impression

One of the most effective ways of using tags or labels is through formulating a dominant impression for each character. In this post I'm going to go over what a dominant impression is and how it achieves its effect.

Swain tells us that a character’s dominant impression is made up of her gender, age, vocation and manner. Since the importance of a character's gender and age are obvious, I will only go over vocation and manner.

Noun of Vocation

The noun of vocation is the one word that best describes either what the character does or how they define themselves. Swain writes that the noun of vocation should communicate the character’s occupation as well as their role in society. For example, “server” or “artist.” 

The noun of vocation isn’t necessarily what a person does for a living. Many people define themselves by their skills AND their passions and not just in terms of what they do to earn a living. For example, a struggling actor who doesn’t yet make enough to pay the rent may pay rent by being a server, but they think about themselves as an actor. Or not. It’s up to you and what you want to say about the character.

A tag is like a shorthand for something else. “His eyes were a shade of blue that made me think of bones bleached by the sun.” In this example, light blue eyes would be a tag. For a tag to be of use, though, it needs to be unique to your character (I’ve written about this in my last post). 

Defining our terms: tags or labels

Before we get too far along I want to talk about how I’m using the word “tag” or “label.”

Each tag--and a character’s gender, age, vocation and manner are all tags--identify a character uniquely. Swain uses Kojak as an example; that character's tags were his ever present lollipop and his shaved head.

A tag as an object or characteristic

A tag can be something like an object that is always--or very nearly always--associated with them. For example, in Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files series, Harry Dresden’s black duster or his rune carved staff. Or, as I just mentioned, it can be the color of a character’s eyes, as long as it is unusual and unique.

A tag as a disposition

A tag can also be something one can’t see, something more like a disposition. Think of love. You can get into an argument with someone you love and want to strangle them. Perhaps you even berate yourself for thinking that going out with them that first time was a good idea! But you haven’t really fallen out of love with them, you’ve just had a spat. Love is a disposition. It is something that is there through the lows as well as the highs. 

Another example: Sherlock Holmes hated to be bored, that was a disposition. We can see instances of him being bored, but we can't see the disposition itself.

Dispositions can be called to mind through the use of tags. For instance, the needle Sherlock Holmes used to inject his seven percent solution of cocaine could be used as a tag. In the beginning of a story we might find Sherlock resting in his favorite chair with a syringe lying on the table next to him. That one image, even though static, would give the reader a lot of information about the current state of the character.

Okay, onward!

Adjective of Manner

Dwight V. Swain writes that the adjective of manner is, “ individual’s personal bearing; his or her habitual stance and style.” For example, if I describe someone (this is Swain’s example) as “loud and pushy” this conveys a lot of information about their personality. This is the sort of character description we want. Yes, it’s important to let the reader know the color of a character’s hair and eyes, and so on, but summing up their essential character quickly and memorably is more important.

Another thing to note is that adjectives of manner are dispositions, which is the second kind of tag I wrote about, above.

Dominant Impression: Summary

Putting this together, let’s combine an adjective of manner with a character’s noun of vocation. 

Adjective of manner: grumpy
Noun of vocation: server

This gives you the thumbnail description: grumpy server. It conjures up an image. Sure, it needs to be filled out--as it is we are dealing with a two-dimensional character--but it gives us a start, it can serve as a kind of summary of a character, a hook to hang other qualities from.

Swain writes,

“Make the surly cop a sloppy cop or a forthright cop or friendly cop or worried cop, and he becomes a totally new person. Frequently such switches can even be parlayed into intriguing, character-defining, contradictory touches that add extra interest. Let happenstance throw the wise-cracking secretary into contiguity with the long-faced undertaker...” (Dwight V. Swain, Creating Characters: How to Build Story People.)

That made me think of the secretary (Janine Melnitz) and the scientist (Dr. Egon Spengler) from Ghostbusters (1984). That combination worked!

Okay, that’s it! Currently I'm publishing a post on Monday and Thursday. On Tuesday I will publish a new interview on my YouTube channel. This week my video will feature poet and prose writer Kevin Gooden. Kevin and I chatted about his experience with the Gotham Writers Workshop, which was overwhelmingly positive, how to write a good cover letter as well as how one's own life experiences can enrich one's writing.

Good writing!

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

Wednesday, September 11

How To Create Strong Characters

How To Create Strong Characters

Let's talk about how to create strong characters. Today, I'm going to focus on creating extreme characters.

In "Making Your Characters Extreme" by Marjorie Reynolds (a guest post over at, she writes: 
"If you want to write a novel that readers will remember decades or even centuries later, learn from the masters and populate it with one or more extreme characters. You’ll find they’ll not only linger in a reader’s mind, but they’ll give your story energy and heighten your own interest in writing it.
Sounds great! But how do we create extreme characters?

1. Your protagonist should have a "deformity, affliction or peculiarity" that is the "driving force in your story".

For example, 
"In The Phantom of the Opera, the phantom’s disfigurement dominates the story. His fear that he will frighten off people, especially the woman he loves, causes him to hide in the bowels of the Paris Opera House and wear a mask." 

2. Use your characters flaw(s) to reveal the kind of person they are

Marjorie Reynolds writes:
"A hero is not a perfect person who conquers all. He makes mistakes. He usually possesses a tragic flaw (hubris or stubbornness, for example) that makes him vulnerable to his enemies. A hero is someone with all the faults of an ordinary person but with the strength of character to struggle to the point of death. He won’t give up.
"To win at the end, he must struggle and push himself beyond what he believes he can do.  He must go beyond the point where we would stop. You don’t have to tell us he’s a hero. We can see he is."
Characters must have faults and they must struggle to overcome them, even if this--especially at first--doesn't seem possible.

3. Show your characters strengths and weaknesses through action. Don't describe them to the reader.

4. Give your character a backstory that explains his/her extreme behavior.

5. Make your character admirable.

Someone once said--I remembered it because it made a lot of sense to me--that your character doesn't have to be nice but they do have to pursue justice.

I think that's what makes anti-hero's possible. An anti-hero isn't a good person; sure, maybe they are underneath it all, but if so we're talking about way underneath. What makes an anti-hero the good guy/gal is his/her cause, his/her goal. He/she is writing a wrong, fighting the good fight.

(Note: I've adapted the checklist, below, from Marjorie Reynolds's article.)

Five ways to gauge whether your character is extreme:

a. Does your character do something--fight vampires, find relics, break out of prison after digging a tunnel with a spoon--that no ordinary person could or would?

b. Does your character have extreme/strong emotions to go along with their extreme behavior?

In order for readers to believe someone would spend years digging a hole with a spoon (Shawshank Redemption), they need a context. They need to understand the character's emotional motivation through that character's actions.

c. Does your character have an extreme goal?

In Lord of the Rings, Frodo--a hobbit who knows nothing of the larger world, or fighting, or the evil machinations of wizards, and certainly nothing of the evil of the ring--ventures out to do what no one else has: destroy the One Ring.

Let me give you a real life example: Jerry Gretzinger and his map. 50 years ago Jerry Gretzinger created a map. The map, and his idea of it, evolved over time and--due to the nature of the map-- there is no clearly defined end state.  In Jerry's words:
“The map began as just a doodle. I just made little rectangles and crosshatched them. Carefully. And I just kept adding rectangles and I put a river in....and some railroad stations. But there was this moment when I came to the edge of that sheet of paper…Got out another sheet of paper and put the two together…and I think I taped them together. That’s when I realized that it kind of had a life of its own.” (Mapping “The Void”)
However, Jerry says his goal is to work on his map till he dies. That's his goal. When the end comes, he wants to expire in his studio, mixing his paints. To work on some one thing for 50 years and to want to keep on for another 20 or 30 ... wow. That's extreme. Also, it's compelling. After I read about Jerry's map I couldn't get it out of my head.

(Perhaps the example of Jerry and his map should be under (a), above, but I think it fits here as well.)

d. Is your character's backstory extreme?

Extreme emotions, extreme goals, extreme behavior all needs a good explanation. Something outstanding, something unusual must have happened to account for, to explain, why your protagonist is how he/she is.

Superheroes often have interesting and extreme backstories to explain the character's behavior. Superman for example.

e. Does your character, at any point, stand alone?

Extraordinary characters will go where ordinary characters won't. Think of Mitch McDeere in The Firm. He has a lot of help from his friends and family, but in the end he stands alone.

Those are just a few of the qualities extreme characters can have. I encourage you to head over to and read Marjorie Reynolds's article for yourself.

Okay, that's it! Good writing.

Photo credit: "Ralfs" by Rolands Lakis under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.