Showing posts with label tags. Show all posts
Showing posts with label tags. 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


Tags

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]

Traits

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. 

Notes/Links/References

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, April 10

Writing Trilogies & Keeping Track Of Characters

Writing Trilogies & Keeping Track Of Characters

Last year I attended a workshop taught by Anne Perry and I worked up the courage to ask her something I'd been wondering for years: how she keeps track of all her characters across her many series.

Her answer: I remember them.

This is a post for those of us without Anne Perry's prodigious memory.


Laura Moore On How To Write A Successful Trilogy


Author Laura Moore offers writers tips on writing a successful trilogy.

Plan and plot like there's no tomorrow


This advice may lead you to think Laura's a born plotter but not so. Then why does she use a detailed outline? Because she wants to write her books quickly. She writes:
It ... helps if you can already have the first book in your series finished and have started the second when you make your deal with your publisher. ... Obviously, if you’re going to self-publish your series, you have far more autonomy. You can hold back on the first book’s publication until you’re satisfied you can meet your readers’ demands for the next titles.

Make lists of characters


Make a list of characters for each book in the series. Each list should include the character's:

- name
- age
- physical traits
- where he/she lives
- quirks

Laura writes:
It’s fairly easy to keep the characters straight in a four hundred-page [novel]. But a series can contain so many secondary characters, it can be a real headache to remember who a cowboy or shop owner was that you mentioned in Book One when you’re now on Book Three. Since I write a lot about horses, I also have a file for them. You don’t want a character riding a horse in book two that’s a palomino when in the first book he was black with four white stockings. I can only imagine the detailed lists an author like George Martin has to keep!

 

Tags And Traits


Laura Moore's mention of character lists made me think of Jim Butcher and his excellent discussion of tags and traits (I know he's not the first one to discuss this, Dwight Swain did as well).
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.

For example; Thomas Raith's tag words are pale, beautiful, dark hair, grey eyes. I use them when I introduce him for the first time in each book, and then whenever he shows up on stage again, I remind the reader of who he is by using one or more of those words.

This 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.

TRAITS are like tags, except that instead of picking specific words, you pick a number of unique things ranging from a trademark prop to a specific mental attitude. Harry's traits include his black duster, his staff, his blasting rod and his pentacle amulet. These things are decorations hung onto the character for the reader's benefit, so that it's easy to imagine Harry when the story pace is really rolling.

Similarly, Bob the Skull's traits are the skull, its eyelights, his intelligence, his role as a lab assistant, his obsession with sex and his wiseass dialog. It works for the same reason.

Seriously. Before you introduce another character, write some tags and traits down. You'll be surprised how much easier it makes your job. (Jim Butcher, Livejournal)
Question: How do you keep track of your characters? Do you use tags and traits?

Other articles you might like:

- Help Raise Money For David Farland's Injured Son, Ben Wolverton, On Wed April 10
- When Should You Send Your Short Story Out For Critique?
- Alexa.com: Find Out How Much Traffic Your Blog Gets

Photo credit: "Taxi" by Bruno. C. under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Thursday, February 7

Tags, Traits And Tells (Podcast)

Tags, Traits And Tells (Podcast)

Okay folks, I've taken the plunge and put together a podcast!



Please keep in mind this is my FIRST podcast. One's first time doing anything is not going to be anywhere close to polished so please keep that in mind. Also, although I'm getting a proper mic on the weekend, today I made due with the built-in mic on my iPad.

As you can see, I've embedded the sound file at the top of this post. If it doesn't show up for you, please let me know.

For those of you who would much rather read than listen, I've included a written transcript here of what I talked about.


Jim Butcher On Story Craft


Jim Butcher, in his Story Craft blog post writes that stories are about characters attempting to attain goals. The problems, the setbacks, a character encounters makes him or her struggle and creates tension.

But, ultimately, whether we'll be interested in a particular story depends on whether we find the character's interesting.

So, what makes a character interesting?


What makes a character interesting?


I imagine different writers would answer this in different ways. My goal as a story teller is to tell an entertaining story so I seek out the advice of authors who have created stories which have entertained me. Authors like Jim Butcher.

Mr. Butcher has a list of characteristics that make a character interesting--and I want to talk about them all one day soon--but for now the one that interests me is "verisimilitude", verisimilitude being "the quality of appearing to be true or real". A character that has verisimilitude will "have the appearance of being real". In other words, they will act and react believably in whatever world you've set up.

What makes a character act believably?

I think consistency is a big part of believability. (It can be that a character consistently seems to behave randomly). A part of consistency is just something simple like don't give a character blond hair in one scene and red hair in another, at least without some sort of explanation.

There are two parts to creating believable characters:

a) Being clear about what your character is like, their traits, quirks and mannerisms.


If this isn't clear then it will be impossible to predict their behavior.

b) Assigning different characteristics to each character.


These characteristics should be markedly different so that it's easy to tell characters apart. Also, if, say, "grey eyes" are being used as a tag for one character then try to avoid using that as a tag for another character.


Tags, Traits and Tells


Tags, traits and tells are concepts writers can use to help create interesting, unique, characters.

The first time I came across the concept of tags and traits was courtesy of Jim Butcher so he's the one I quote from, below, although writers such as Dwight V. Swain have talked about the concept as well.

Tags


Tags are physical characteristics that define individual characters and differentiate them from the rest.

Here's what Jim Butcher wrote about them in his LiveJournal blog:
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.

For example; Thomas Raith's tag words are pale, beautiful, dark hair, grey eyes. I use them when I introduce him for the first time in each book, and then whenever he shows up on stage again, I remind the reader of who he is by using one or more of those words. (Characters)

An example of a tag is blond hair, a peg leg, or stunning beauty. Tags are physical characteristics that can help differentiate one character from another. Since tags differentiate one character from another they need to be unique to each character.

Traits


There are a couple of different ways of thinking about traits. Jim Butcher views traits as "decorations hung onto the character for the reader's benefit."

For instance, Harry Dresden's black duster, his staff, his blasting rod and his pentacle amulet are traits. Bob's traits are the skull, how his eyes light up, his intelligence, and so on.

That's one way of thinking of traits. Here's another:

Traits as dispositions


A trait is a disposition. Examples: Being ambitious, or anxious, or bossy.

On this view--and this is how I look at it--there are tags, traits and tells, a tell being how a trait/disposition is manifested.

For instance, if a character is anxious she might bite her lower lip, jump at small sounds and gnaw her fingernails.

I call how traits manifest--nail biting and the like--tells because a tell means "to make known; reveal." It reveals a character's traits/dispositions.

To sum up, we have tags--physical characteristics like blond hair and freckles that don't have anything to do with the character's psychological makeup. Then we have character traits which are internal dispositions (e.g., anxiety) and tells (e.g., nail biting) which are how a character's traits manifest.

The importance of being different


Tags, traits and tells should be unique to a character since one reason for coming up with these markers is to quickly differentiate one character from another.

For instance, let's say we have a character, Pam. Pam has blond hair, a voluptous figure and loves mathematics. Although she fits the stereotype of the blond bombshell she is smarter than just about everyone else.

Pam's tags:
- blond
- voluptuous

Pam's traits:
- brilliant
- outgoing

Pam's tells:
- Can do math problems in her head quicker than a calculator.
- A favorite lecturer at the university.
- Chairs a number of committies.

When a character is introduced also introduce their tags, traits and tells. Repeat each two or three times to fix them in the readers mind.

For instance, the way technology malfunctions around Jim Butcher's character Harry Dresden is a manifestation of the trait of being a wizard/magic user. The blue beetle, Harry's low tech car, is perfect for Harry because of this trait even though the car is falling apart.Harry's icebox--he doesn't have an electric fridge--is, again, a concession to his shorting out anyting technological within arms reach.

You see how tells can help not only define a character but can suggest plot elements.

Other articles you might like:

- Podcasting
- Good Writing: Using The Senses
- Dwight V Swain On How To Write A Novel

Photo credit: "Untitled" by thejbird under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Friday, May 13

How to help make your book an Amazon bestseller: the Importance of Tags


Amazon uses tags to determine which books to recommend, as well as their placement in bestseller lists. As such, tags can help a book climb to bestseller status or condemn it to languish in obscurity.

Nick Daws, in his article How to Use Tags to Help Sell Books or E-Books on Amazon, gives the following advise on which tags to use:

1. Use your own name. This will make it easier for fans to find all your books.
2. Be specific. If you wrote about birds don't just use the tag "Birds," also use what type of birds, "Bluebird" and "Crow", for example.
3. Use the town/city where the novel took place as a tag.
4. "Use tags that have been applied to popular titles similar to yours." Looking at other books, especially popular ones similar to yours, is a good way to get ideas for tags.

I encourage anyone who wants to learn more about tagging on Amazon and its importance to sales to read Nick Daws's article.