Tag Archives: character development

#NaNoPrep101, Creating Societies

Worlds are comprised of plants, animals, and geology, which we touched upon in the first post of this series. But if intelligent life-forms are living on that world, there will also be societies.

WritingCraft_NaNoPrep_101We humans are tribal and like having an overarching power structure because someone has to be the leader, which isn’t a job most people want once they see what is involved. Being the leader means bearing the responsibility when things go wrong, usually more often than basking in the glory when it’s all good.

Proving how tribal we are, all smaller segments within societies, from families to businesses, to churches, to governments – all have organized leadership structures, even if they aren’t formally described as such.

We will be pantsing it (writing stream-of-consciousness) for the month of November, which means we’ll be writing at least 1667 new words every day, connecting the events that we will be storyboarding later in this series. We won’t have time to think about logic once we begin writing the narrative, which is why we’re creating the storyboard.

If your society is set in modern suburbia, that culture and those values will affect your characters’ view of their world.

But perhaps you are writing a sci-fi or fantasy novel. To show a world logically and without contradictions, we must know how things work in the cities and towns, whether set in a medieval world or on a space station. Merchants, scientists, priests, soldiers, teachers, healers, thieves – each occupation has a place in the hierarchy and has its own chain of command.

Dirck_Hals_001Society is always composed of many layers and classes. Below is a list of questions for you to consider when building your fantasy or sci-fi civilization. I admit it’s long, but please bear with me.

These are what I think of as “porch questions.” This is the stage where I sit on the  back porch and consider the world my characters will inhabit. Going somewhere quiet and pondering these questions will make the culture your characters inhabit clearer in your mind. 

How is your society divided? Who has the wealth? (Feel free to copy and paste the list to a page you can print out.)

  • Is there a noble class?
  • Is there a servant class?
  • Is there a merchant class
  • Is there a large middle class?
  • Who makes up the most impoverished class?
  • Who has the power, men, women—or is it a society based on mutual respect?

Ethics and Values: What constitutes morality and how do we treat each other?

  • Is marriage required?
  • How are women treated?
  • How are men treated?
  • How are the different races viewed?
  • Is there a cisgender bias or is there acceptance of different gender identities?
  • How are same-sex relationships viewed?
  • How are unmarried sexual relationships seen in the eyes of society?
  • How important is human life?
  • How is murder punished?
  • How are treachery, hypocrisy, envy, and avarice looked upon?
  • What about drunkenness?
  • How important is the truth?
  • What constitutes immorality?
  • How important is it to be seen as honest and trustworthy?

Power structures are the hierarchies that encompass the leaders, the people with the power. It is an overall system of restraint and control among selected members of a group. Think of it as a pyramid.

Pyramid_of_Power_Structures_09132021LIRF

Religion rarely is a component of sci-fi but often figures prominently in fantasy work. In sci-fi, science and technology take the place of religion, with similar hierarchies and fanatics, just with different job titles.

Archbishop might be replaced with Head of Research and Development.

Cardinal or Pope might be replaced with General, Admiral, or CEO (Chief Executive Officer).

Level of Technology: What tools and amenities are available to them? What about transport?

  1. Hunter/Gatherers?
  2. Agrarian/farming?
  3. Greco-Roman metallurgy and technology?
  4. Medieval metallurgy and technology?
  5. Pre-industrial revolution or late Victorian?
  6. Modern-day?
  7. Or do they have a magic-based technology?
  8. How do we get around, and how do we transport goods? On foot, by horse & wagon, by train, or by space shuttle?

Portrait_of_King_Henry_VIII, Hans Holbein the YoungerGovernment: There will be a government somewhere, even if it is just the local warlord. Someone is always in charge because it’s easier for the rest of us that way:

  1. Is it a monarchy, theocracy, or a democratic form of government?
  2. How does the government fund itself?
  3. How are taxes levied?
  4. Is it a feudal society?
  5. Is it a clan-based society?
  6. How does the government use and share the available wealth?
  7. How do the citizens view the government?

Crime and the Legal System: What constitutes criminal behavior, and how are criminals treated?

Foreign Relations: Does your country coexist well with its neighbors?

  • If not, why? What causes the tension?

Waging War: This is another area where we have to ask what their level of technology is. It is critical for you, as the author, to understand what weapons your characters will bring to the front. You must also know what the enemy will be packing. Do the research and choose weaponry that fits your established level of technology.

  • What kind of weaponry will they use?
  • How are they trained?
  • Who goes to battle? Men, women, or both?
  • How does social status affect your ability to gain rank in the military?

A common trope in fantasy is magic, which brings up the need to train magic-gifted people. Authors use everything from dumb luck and experimentation to apprenticing to sorcerers, to training by religious orders, and in the case of Harry Potter, a school of some sort. (Never fear, we’re going to build believable magic and future-tech systems next week.)

In many real-world historical societies, the Church/Temple is the governing power. The head of the religion is the ruler, and the higher one rises within the religious organization, the more power one has. The same is true of both universities and research facilities.

Power quote John AdamsPower in the hands of only a few people offers many opportunities for mayhem—followers may inadvertently create a situation where the leader believes they are anointed by the Supreme Deity. Even better, they may become the God-Emperor/Empress.

The same sort of God-complex occurs among academicians and scientists. Some people are prone to excess when presented with the opportunity to become all-powerful.

If you were unsure what your plot was before you got to this stage, now you might have a real villain, one presented to you by your society.

SO, in your world, what sort of society do you envision? How will that culture shape your characters?

Up Next: Magic and Future-tech

#NaNoPrep101 series to date:

#NaNoPrep: part 1: What’s the Story?

#NaNoPrep101, Setting: Creating the Big Picture

#NaNoPrep101, Building Characters

#NaNoPrep101, More Character Building


Credits and Attributions:

Image: The Merry Company, Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Dirck Hals 001.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Dirck_Hals_001.jpg&oldid=549782256 (accessed September 13, 2021).

Image: Henry VIII of England, Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Portrait of King Henry VIII.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Portrait_of_King_Henry_VIII.jpg&oldid=250517909 (accessed September 13, 2021).

3 Comments

Filed under writing

#NaNoPrep101, More Character Building

We are still working on creating the characters for our NaNoWriMo 2021 novels. Our plan is to have everything in place on November 1st to begin writing with all the prep work done. We intend to have the first draft of our novel written from beginning to end on November 30th.

WritingCraft_NaNoPrep_101When we commence writing on the 1st of November, we will know what has to happen at each point along the story arc, but we will have the freedom to “pants it” between each plot point. “Pantsing” is writer slang for “flying by the seat of your pants.” Hopefully, we will be able to write 1,667 words every day and meet our goal of a finished novel or 50,000 words at midnight on the 30th.

We are still working on our storyboard, and today we are fleshing out the sidekicks and other characters. To see how I do a storyboard, check out this post: #NaNoPrep: part 1: What’s the Story? | Life in the Realm of Fantasy .

My main character, Ivan, has a complicated life. He is a husband and father, a master armorsmith, and a shaman. A fire-mage, he is a Sword of Aeos, dedicated to serving the people of Neveyah. He is secretly a Hunter of rogue-mages and mindbenders (empathically gifted healers who have gone rogue.)

Lee French, my co-municipal liaison here in the Olympia Region, suggests you identify what your main character wants. She says, “Everybody has goals, and so does your MC. They want things. Some goals are big and world-shaking. Other goals are small and personal. Some goals are easy and quick to achieve, others take months or years, or a 20-book series.

“For your MC, define at least three goals your character has at the start of the story, either knowingly or not. Big, small, easy, or hard, they need or want something, and that’s what will get your story rolling.”

These are some examples of goals that Lee suggests:

  1. Survive
  2. Make a friend
  3. Find love
  4. Kill the bad guy
  5. Escape a bad situation, like prison or an abusive relationship
  6. Find food and/or water
  7. Steal something specific
  8. Admit they have an addiction problem
  9. Take Thing X to Location Y
  10. Learn a specific skill
  11. Get a job
  12. Earn respect from Person A
  13. Acquire $Z
  14. Rescue or protect Person B
  15. Save the world

Any of the above goals can be the main driving force of a story, or they can be secondary goals that help determine how your MC pursues the primary objective (s).

My main character, Ivan, wants to eliminate the rogue-mage, save the people of Tribe Anendale, and get home to his children.

With Ivan’s goals identified, I move on to the others with a part in this story. I will add a little information to my storyboard every day as I think about it.

Who are Ivan’s side characters? As this is a book two, Ivan’s support group is established.

Kai is an earth-mage and a master mason, Ivan’s life-partner. Kai is tall, has brown hair, green eyes. He and Ivan’s father, an earth-mage named Aengus, have a quarry on the outskirts of Weiland. Aengus usually manages large building projects for the tribe, such as canals or fortifications, and Kai runs the quarry and builds the occasional home for community members as needed. They have four children. Ivan’s obligations as a shaman limit his free time, but he and Kai share parenting and homemaking duties.

The rest of Ivan’s family lives in the same row of five rowhouses, joined by a long porch. The family consists of his brother Aldric whose wife Marta is a water-mage and their three children. In the center house is their maternal grandfather, Benn, who cares for the children while the others work. Also living in their row of houses are his father, Aengus, and Jan, a master-smith and Ivan’s business partner (Aldric’s father-in-law). All but Benn are involved with hunting rogue-mages and mindbenders.

Nolin is the high elder of Anendale. He is tall, has dark skin, black curly hair, and dark brown eyes. He wants Ivan’s group to eliminate the rogue-mage and root out the dark god’s disciples.

Neveyah_storyboard_Characters_09112021LIRFEvery side character has hopes and wants something, so that will be noted.

But what of my antagonist? I’m plotting book two, so a new antagonist is required.

Coran Branson: Tribeless fire-mage, turned rogue. Follows Tauron the Bull God. Born into a poor woodcutter’s family in the Sherman Valley. Abusive father, weak mother. Warlord intent on carving his empire. He considers the tribes weak and rich, ripe for the pickings. Sees himself as an all-conquering emperor on a holy mission of pillage and plunder, a Genghis Khan but with fire magic.

Neeve: Tribeless healer, empathically gifted. Kidnapped in a raid on her village at the age of fourteen and forced to become Coran’s wife. Too cowed to disobey him, she never truly accepted the Bull God, but Coran has bound her to serve him with a geas she can’t break. Think Stockholm Syndrome.

Neveyah_storyboard_antagonist_LIRF09052021My antagonist will have trusted captains, who will carry out his orders. I just haven’t met them yet, and probably won’t until I begin plotting the antagonist’s arc of the story.

If you see something in your storyboard that no longer fits, don’t be afraid to modify it. While we are in the planning stage is a perfect time to do so.

I work back and forth, make changes, and adjust things as I go. That way, I’m not wasting writing time in November.

Now that we have a cast of characters, we will go back to looking at the world they inhabit and their place in that setting.

As Lee French regularly tells me, the process of planning involves making changes now, so we’re not making them while writing or in revision.

The #NaNoPrep101 series so far:

#NaNoPrep: part 1: What’s the Story?

#NaNoPrep101, Setting: Creating the Big Picture

#NaNoPrep101, Building Characters

1 Comment

Filed under writing

#NaNoPrep101: Building Characters

If you have been following this series, you know that I rely heavily on a storyboard. If you are curious how I create this thing, you can find the first post here: #NaNoPrep: part 1: What’s the Story? But don’t worry. The list of articles in this series is included at the bottom of this post.

WritingCraft_NaNoPrep_101We have opened the discussion on setting, and we will continue that later in this series. But today we are going to take an hour or so to build our main character. No matter how many primary or POV characters you have, pick the one you consider the most important or the main character. My protagonist is Ivan Aengusson. He is bonded (married) to Kai Ellison.

Who is this person? Start with the basics: race, ethnicity, age, gender, sexuality, appearance/coloration.

Who are youRace: This is a post-apocalypse world. When the survivors were preparing to leave the catacombs, they divided into 50 tribes and blended the various races and ethnicities as evenly as possible to widen the gene pool. Everyone is of mixed-race heritage, regardless of outward coloring and appearance.

Appearance and coloration: Ivan is exceptionally tall, has red hair, brown eyes, and light coloring.

Ethnicity: Both Ivan and Kai were born into tribes that settled in the north.

Age: Ivan is 27, Kai is 29.

Gender/sexuality: This is important, as gender and sexuality play a role in my novel. A broad view of gender/sexuality is a fact of life in their culture. Ivan and Kai are life-partners. The elders of each tribe arrange co-parenting pairings for the purpose of childbearing based on how distantly a man and woman are related. This evolved as a way to prevent inbreeding because they were sprung from so few people. Regardless of who they share children with, people are free to live with the partner of their choice. These co-parenting contracts will be discussed when we get to the next stage of world building.

Lashei indicates those attracted to the same sex. Kai is lashei.

Non, those attracted to the opposite sex.

Bin, those who are both lashei and non. Ivan falls into this category. Non and bin are the most common sexual preferences.

Other-born, souls born into the wrong gender. Also, people with no interest in sex consider themselves other-born.

My co-Municipal Liaison, Lee French, suggests you write once sentence to describe them, and move on. I’m not good at one-sentence descriptions, sorry. A paragraph is more my style. I suggest you write what comes to mind, and you will fill it in later with the details.

Who is your main character in their ordinary life? Think about their job, hobbies, relationships, possessions, or anything else that defines who they are. This is how my storyboard looks:

Neveyah_storyboard_characters_LIRF09052021

I will fill it in with more information: Ivan is a shaman and fire-mage. From 5:00 a.m. to 11:30 a.m., he is a master armor smith. In tribal society, everyone who can lift a weapon is trained to fight and defend the community from predatory animals and tribeless raiders. Ivan’s grandfather cares for the children while Ivan and Kai work at their crafts. After the midday meal, Ivan and the other adults in the family train with their various apprentices and journeymen in weaponry and fighting for one hour. Afterward, Ivan may be called to act as a justicer, truth reading miscreants, usually ale-hounds whose love of ale has gotten out of hand.

Ivan, like all mages, is sworn to use his magic only in his craft and to serve the people of Neveyah, but (plot point) all members of Ivan’s family belong to a sect of sworn mages who secretly hunt rogue mages. He and Kai share four children.

These are the seeds of who my main character is. The page of my storyboard with the characters listed and what I know about them is growing.

powerwordsWordCloudLIRF06192021Next up, we will look closer at our characters and see who their companions are. Some of Ivan’s companions are already established as they were featured in last year’s NaNoWriMo novel. Others are new, and I need to understand who they are and how they fit into Ivan’s story.

#NaNoPrep101 series

#NaNoPrep: part 1: What’s the Story?

#NaNoPrep101, Setting: Creating the Big Picture

7 Comments

Filed under writing

Character Development: Managing the Large Cast of Characters

This has been a productive summer for me. My sister, who kindly gives all my manuscripts a final reading and critique before I send them off to be line edited, is now reading the novel I accidentally began last November. I have inadvertently started a second book featuring these characters, which, only a week ago, I had no intention of writing.

WritingCraftSeries_character-arcI had no intention of writing book one either, but there it is. These characters won’t let go of me, so now I’m storyboarding a new plot.

But enough about that.

Today, we’re continuing our discussion of characters and characterization. Ordinarily, I keep the ensemble narrow, limiting point of view to only one, two, or three characters at most. I keep the supporting cast limited to four or five, as that’s all I personally can keep separate and unique.

Also, I keep my stylesheet/storyboard updated whenever a large change occurs, such as a character’s name being a duplicate. Any number of evolutionary occurrences can happen in the first draft, and for the sake of continuity, the stylesheet is how I keep track of them.

What if your plot is in a setting where the events affect a large group of characters, all of whom must interact with each other? How do you keep the threads straight and generate sympathy for each of them?

First, writers absolutely must acquire and read novels written by best-selling authors and dissect their work. That’s the only way to discover what works for you as a reader and what doesn’t. You also discover what the public is buying in that genre.

I write fantasy novels, but my published short stories are a mix of sci-fi, fantasy, and contemporary women’s fiction. I read in all genres.

What I really want as a reader is a damn good story, and I don’t care about the genre.

Give me a novel that rings my bells and rattles my world. After that first reading, I will sit down and dissect that book line by line, trying to see what hooked me. I may have bought the book for the blurb and the cover, but it was the characters who sucked me into their world.

So, let’s talk about books with large casts of characters. How does one keep them separate, prevent the reader from becoming confused, and ensure the plot rolls forward at a good pace?

Nine_Perfect_Strangers_Liane_MoriartySeveral years ago, I read Nine Perfect Strangers by Australian author Liane Moriarty, and I talked about it on this blog. The book details the experiences of nine people booked into an exclusive Australian health spa and three staff members.

Moriarty’s characters are immediately engaging. They sucked me into their world in the opening pages. I couldn’t set the book down, as I wanted to know everyone’s dark secrets. I was hooked; I had to know what led each person to book themselves into that very unusual health spa.

By the time I reached the truly startling conclusion, I looked forward to the informational epilogues just because I didn’t want to let go of the characters.

Moriarty introduces us to the cast by opening with Yao and his experience as an EMT and introducing us to Masha as she suffers a heart attack.

Ten years later, the story picks up when nine people meet at an exceedingly remote health spa. The brochure advertising it promises to change their guests’ lives, guaranteeing a complete transformation in only ten days.

All the reviews are glowing, but none explain how such a change will be accomplished. Each guest arrives with secrets and personal reasons for wanting to be remade into something better than what they believe they are. Several chapters in, Masha is revealed as the benevolent antagonist, and Yao has become her disciple.

Structurally, the novel is a bit jerky, and the ending is a series of infodumps.

But it works.

Liane Moriarty’s characters are captivating because, at the outset, she establishes each as an individual in physical appearance, personality, history, and endows them with a mystery.

Each character is a “fish out of water.” They are thrust immediately into an unknown and possibly dangerous environment.

I had no trouble following who was who. Every character has an unmistakable surface persona, an outward personality that is different from the others, and their names are unique.

Soon after meeting them, we see glimpses of weaknesses and fears, the sorrows and guilts that drive them.

The nine guests have each signed contracts prior to arriving at the wilderness spa. When it becomes clear that the rules they have agreed to obey are iron-clad and strictly enforced, each guest becomes angry and afraid.

Yet, they are willing to continue because of what they hope to gain on a personal level.

All the characters’ stories combine and connect to make a larger, powerful story of personal transformation.

So, what did I learn from reading that novel?

Neil_Gaiman_QuoteI had a reaffirmation of sorts; the reassurance that no writer can follow every writing group rule and no book that does would be worth reading.

Info-dump-epilogues often follow Moriarty’s endings, but only an experienced writer or another editor would notice (as I did) or care.

This little bunny-trail habit is a trait I’ve observed in all Moriarty’s books. The lingering epilogue is her fingerprint, a style of storytelling that is immediately recognizable as hers. In some ways, the imperfections of her structure add to the flavor.

To keep our imaginary people unique, it’s crucial to reveal snippets of their character arcs with each scene. Then we must blend those secrets into the evolving plot. Moriarty is a master at this.

Her narratives are smooth and easily readable, and for me, the lingering backstory dump at the end of her novels isn’t a deal-breaker.

Plot-exists-to-reveal-characterEvery successful writer has habits that are technical wrongs, habits that don’t fly when offered to a critique group. Yet, these patterns persist in their work over their career because they are part of that author’s creative process.

I love discovering how and where a successful author commits a large technical no-no but doesn’t derail the story. It reinforces my belief that good writing and great characterization require developing a voice and style.

Most readers read for fun and are forgiving of the flaws that we who write and edit for other writers notice. Good prose, compelling storylines, and strong character arcs engage the reader and overcome most writing wrongs.


Previous posts in this series:

Storyboarding character development 

Character Development: Motivation drives the story 

Character Development: Emotions

Character Development: Showing Emotions

This post: Character Development: Managing the Large Cast of Characters

Next up: Character Development: Point of View

11 Comments

Filed under writing

Storyboarding character development #amwriting

Every year, I participate in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). This happens in November and is thirty days of dedicated writing. Authors with an idea for a novel sit down and daily write at least 1,667 words of a first draft.

depth-of-characterThis month of concentrated writing time is meant to help authors get the entire story down while the inspiration and ideas are flowing. At the end of the thirty days, you should have a novel-length story, hopefully with a complete story arc (beginning, middle, and end).

To succeed at completing a project with such an ambitious goal, you should spend some time planning your novel. To that end, I create a stylesheet for each project, a place to storyboard all my ideas.

I have mentioned before that I use a spreadsheet program to outline my projects, but you can use a notebook or anything that works for you. You can do this by drawing columns on paper by hand or using post-it notes on a whiteboard or the wall.

Some people use a dedicated writer’s program like Scrivener.

Everyone thinks differently, so there is no perfect way to create that fits everyone. I just happen to like working with Excel or Google Sheets.

I make this effort when the idea is first in my head. If I become lost or find myself floundering in the writing process, I can remind myself of the original concept of the story. The stylesheet is where I brainstorm ideas.

New authors spend a lot of time plotting the events of a novel, but sometimes neglect to flesh out their characters. Attention must be given to character development. The characters are the story, and the circumstances of the piece exist only to force growth upon them.

The character arcFirst, we want to get to know who we’re writing about.

Who are these people, and why should I care about them? I have a fairly good idea of how my characters look. However, that image can drift as the first draft evolves, and brown eyes are suddenly green (yes, this did happen in one of my current works in progress).

But don’t get too detailed. Readers have their own image of beauty, so don’t force your idea of loveliness on them. General description and the reactions of other characters should convey how they look.

Once I know the basic plot, I make a page in my workbook with a bio of each character, a personnel file. Sometimes I include images of RPG characters or actors who most physically resemble them and who could play them well.

Professor Reina Jacobs

  • Physical description: 5’8′, perceived-time age 55, real-time age 168. Works out daily. Has brown eyes, iron-gray hair worn in a short cut, not military short, but for ease of keeping it neat. Is a cyborg—left leg is a grafted prosthesis.
  • Personality: Competitive, highly organized, ambitious, impatient, highly focused.
  • Occupation:  Colonel, Retired. Experienced 33 years as a Warbird Pilot in the Mirandan Space Corps. Forced into early retirement from the Corps due to prosthetic leg. Leading researcher in the field of biosomes – breeding and adapting plants able to thrive in alien environments. Not too keen on promoting plants that require radical adaptations, but a strong proponent of plants that can easily adapt without destroying the ecosystem. 
  • Hobbies:  hopping up an anti-grav speedster in her garage. Loves flying low and too fast over dangerous ground.

Colonel Brandon Ladeaux, Ret.:

  • Physical Description: Dark hair turning gray, brown eyes, 6’2, works out daily. Lean and muscular. Perceived-time age 57, real-time age 198.
  • Personality: competitive, organized, slightly laid-back approach to life.
  • Occupation: Shuttle pilot. Experienced 40 years as a Warbird Pilot in the Mirandan Space Corps.
  • Hobbies: cooking, hanging around watching Reina work on her speedster. Also enjoys flying low and too fast over dangerous ground.

The personnel file is laid out this way:

Column A: Character Names. I list the important characters by name and the point where they enter the story.

Column B: About: What their role is, a note about that person or place, a brief description of who and what they are.

Column C: The Problem: What is the core conflict?

Column D: What do they want? What does each character desire?

Column E: What will they do to get it? How far will they go to achieve their desire?

storyboard_LIRF_10_31_17Names say a lot about characters. If you give a character a name that begins with a hard consonant, the reader will subconsciously see them as stronger than one whose name begins with a soft sound. It’s a little thing but is something to consider when trying to convey personalities.

Also, I’ve said this before, but with the growing popularity of audiobooks, my suggestion is to write names that are easy to pronounce. I learned that lesson when I was having a novella of three short stories, Tales from the Dreamtime, made into an audiobook. My reader was brilliant, and worked with my difficult fantasy names, but since that experience, I only write names my readers can easily pronounce.

A great story evolves when the antagonist and protagonist are powerful but not omnipotent. Both the antagonist and protagonist must have character arcs that show personal growth or inability to grow. For the antagonist to be realistic, this must be clearly shown, so they also get a personnel file.

When you begin writing the first chapters, the characters aren’t fully formed. They will evolve as a result of the experiences you write for them. Note these changes in your personnel file so that descriptions remain consistent.

I like stories featuring characters who are human. They make mistakes, cause themselves more trouble because they are untried and don’t know what they are doing.

The evolution of each character’s personal arc should parallel the events that form the story arc.

How do they handle setbacks? How do they handle success? How do they see their future when we meet them on page one? Has their view of the future changed by the time we arrive at the final page?

The characters must be changed by the events they experience. How you show their emotional state is critical because emotions engage readers. If you want your readers to feel the crisis, your characters must feel it and show their reactions to the reader.

emotion-thesaurus-et-alIf you need ideas for showing a variety of emotions, I highly recommend the Writers Helping Writers Series of textbooks written by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi.

But do us all a favor—show it briefly and move on. Don’t swamp us with detailed shoulder sagging, lips turning down, and face dropping all in one sentence.

We must contrast the relative security of the characters’ lives as they were in the opening paragraphs with the hazards of where they are now. Each person experiences uncertainty, fear, anger, and sense of loss differently. Those differences make them unique characters.

In a good story, bad things have happened, and the protagonists have to get creative and work hard to acquire or accomplish their desired goals.

How they overcome their doubts and make themselves stronger is what makes each character interesting. That internal and emotional journey is the real story.

The events, mighty as they may be, are only the catalysts of personal growth. Next in this series, Character development: Motivations.

 

14 Comments

Filed under writing

Fundamentals of Writing: The Strong Antagonist #amwriting

I gravitate to narratives featuring a strong antagonist, someone who could have been a brilliant hero if only they had made different choices.

depth-of-characterAuthors work hard to create a strong, credible hero. In genre fiction, the hero’s story evolves in a setting of our devising and is defined by their struggle against an antagonist.

Strong emotions characterize what and who we perceive as good or evil. Emotion is a constant force in our lives. When we write, the emotions we show must be credible, shown as real, or they will fail to move the reader.

Consider the forces of antagonism in the story. The antagonist can take many forms. In some stories, it will be a person or people who stand in the way. In other stories, an internal conflict and self-deceptions thwart the hero. When you think about it, we are usually our own worst enemy, constantly telling ourselves negative things that undermine our self-confidence.

When we create an antagonist, we take what is negative about a character and take it one step further: we hide it behind a lie.

First, we assign them a noun that says who the antagonist thinks they are. Good.

Then we assign them the noun that says who the protagonist believes they are. Evil.

So, in an overly simplistic example, the antagonist gets two nouns: Good/Evil. We hide that perception of evil behind a lie, a falsehood. This lie is the antagonist’s belief that they are the hero.

One of my antagonists in a current work in progress is Kellan. He and his younger sister were born into an abusive family. When their parents were murdered, they were adopted by a family who raised them with kindness and understanding. At the age of ten, Kellan’s basic character and gut reactions were already formed.

protagonist-antagonist-06082021LIRFKellan is a complicated character who believes he is the hero. His story begins as a member of the protagonist’s inner circle and ends tragically.

The people who love him describe him this way: Ivan saw Kellan as two people. One lashed out at the people he trusted and loved most, was filled with jealous anger, and the other was sweet, gentle, and mesmerizing. Rage sometimes owned him, a flaw the earth-mage might never overcome.

Life is complicated, and the relationships in a good novel should also be complex. Often, a protagonist faces a second antagonist: themselves. In real life, who is usually our worst enemy?

We are.

It is us, our own fears, the little voice whispering doubt, indecision, and impulsiveness into our subconsciousness.

So, to further complicate life for our hero, we can go two routes when creating the antagonist. One way is to allow one of the characters to make choices that ultimately harm them, which is how I went with Kellan, turning him into the visible antagonist.

Another way is to take the negative that is directed outward and turn it into self-hate, which I have done with Ivan. He has two enemies to fight, one is someone he loves but must reject, and the other is himself.

nebulousIn other stories, there is the nebulous antagonist—the faceless giant of corporate greed, characterized by one or two representatives, who may be portrayed as caricatures. In some cyberpunk tales, the antagonists tend to be thugs-in-suits, and in hard sci-fi, they might be members of the military or scientists. In fantasy, the nebulous antagonist might be a powerful queen/king or sorcerer, or both.

In that case, how the protagonist reacts internally to the threat these formless antagonists pose is the story. Emotion makes the risk feel genuine to the reader, gives it life.

To show great evil in genre fiction, we take the negative to the limit of human experience. And while I do write some dark scenes, I don’t write horror, so I can’t speak to that, exactly.

What I can speak to is the perception of corruption, which sometimes horrifies us.

Perception and imagination are everything. As children, what we infer from the visible evidence in a dark room after mother and father have turned out the lights can be terrifying.

We are frightened of the formless monster that we perceive as lurking in the corner until we discover the truth—it is only something that was piled there and was never put away.

As adults, what we infer from the visible evidence in a dark story can be equally terrifying. Thus, you can write dark scenes but don’t have to be utterly graphic.

War is an evil that is difficult to make sympathetic, and shouldn’t be. Sometimes a faceless blob of evil is the right villain.

However, I seek out stories that delve into the characters as people and show their motivations. Word choices are the key to success in showing the darkness a character embodies without going over the top. Think about the word perversion, a word with many meanings and uses. Its synonyms are: corruption, corruptness, debasement, debauchery, decadence, decadency, degeneracy, distortion.

Coloring an antagonist with a perception of perversion (distortion, corruption) drives home the evil they represent.

Someone—and I don’t remember who—said in a seminar a few years ago that the author is the character’s attorney, not their judge.

approval-f-scott-fitzgerald-quote-LIRF05312021This is an important distinction. Credible villains become evil for sympathetic reasons. They care intensely, obsessively about something, or someone. It is our job to make those deeply held justifications the driving force behind their story.

Therefore, a true villain is motivated, logical in their reasoning. They are creatures of emotion and have a backstory. You as the author and their lawyer, must know what that narrative is if you want to increase the risk for the protagonist. The reader doesn’t need to wade through an info dump, but you, the author, need to know those details.

You need to know why they feel justified in doing the sometimes-heinous things they do.

The greater the risk for the hero, the more interesting the story is. A strong protagonist requires a stronger antagonist if the risk is to be believable.

9 Comments

Filed under writing

Author Interview: Ellen King Rice on characters #amwriting

51v0Z1IolxSOne of the best ways to learn about the craft of writing is to talk with other authors. We all have different ways of creating our work, so hearing how another author works always gives me new ideas.

Ellen King Rice writes mysteries set in the South Puget Sound area of the Pacific Northwest. She is a wildlife biologist and is happiest when out in the woods on a fungi hunt with her camera.

Ellen has a new book out, The Slime Mold Murder, and as one the advance readers, I found it witty and the series of events are well-plotted. The characters are engaging, and their stories emerge as the plot unfolds. She has agreed to talk about her characters in this book, and how she came to know them.


CJJ: Tell us about Dylan. When did he first come into your mind as a protagonist?

EKR: Dylan was in my first book, The EvoAngel, as a precocious eleven-year-old with impulse-control challenges. He channels my own life as someone who speaks boldly and often irritates others.

CJJ: This book has number of credible characters. Which character was most difficult to write, and why?

5EKR06042021LIRFEKR: Mitchell and Mark are a gay couple, but I didn’t want to write them as caricatures. I spent a great deal of time trying out descriptions to come up with two men who are individuals in their own right but collectively a pair who would rattle the conservative county commissioner.

CJJ: Which character do you identify with on a personal level. Why?

EKR: Mari reminds me of myself at eighteen. I was keen to explore romance but terribly inept.

CJJ: Do you create an outline for structuring a character arc, or do you wing it?

EKR: Authors are often divided into the pantser or plotter groups. Some of us are plontsers – a lovely hybrid who think they have a plan but are really making it up as they go along. No kidding. I do start with a plan and then I get distracted with new ideas.

CoralRootEKR06042021LIRFjpgCJJ: Do you think your characters or events drive the plot? How are your characters shaped by the events they live through?

EKR: For me it is the events that drive the plot and the characters respond, hopefully growing as they take action.

CJJ: Are there any final words you would like to say regarding the characters and events of The Slime Mold Murder?

EKR:  The inclusion of the sclerotia in the story is meant to be inspirational. Slime molds can enter a dry phase where they do not grow. This phase can last for years, but when conditions improve, there can be a vibrant response. I so hope that we humans can move past months of a global pandemic to build a better world where more of us thrive.


Ellen, thank you for taking the time to talk about how you approach the craft of writing and creating your wonderful characters.

If you are curious about this book, The Slime Mold Murder is available at Amazon as a paperback, and will be released for the Kindle on June 24th, 2021: The Slime Mold Murder.


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

About Ellen King Rice:

I am a wildlife biologist who suffered a spinal cord injury many years ago. Although my days of field work are over, biology continues to intrigue me.

I am fascinated by sub-cellular level responses to ecosystem changes. I also like the predictability of animal behavior, once it is understood.

A fast-paced story filled with twists is a fun way to stimulate laughs, gasps and understanding. I work to heighten ecological awareness. I want the details and your new insights to remain in your thoughts forever.

You can find me and my books at www.ellenkingrice.com

Please join me on Instagram at:

https://www.instagram.com/mushroom_thrillers.

And on Facebook:

https://www.facebook.com/mushroomthriller/


Credits and Attributions:

All photos copyright 2021 Ellen King Rice. All images used in this post are the work and intellectual property of Ellen King Rice. She has kindly given me permission to use them in this post.

Comments Off on Author Interview: Ellen King Rice on characters #amwriting

Filed under writing

Fundamentals of Writing: Character Depth – who do they think they are? #amwriting

Depth is a vast word, a sea of information created of layers. It is complex, intense, and profound. Characters with depth feel solid, alive, as real as your best friend.

depth-of-characterTo achieve a sense of depth, we begin with simplicity. Each character’s sub-story must be built upon who these characters think they are.

One of the most useful seminars I’ve ever attended was given by a Romance writer. He is a strong proponent of assigning verbs and nouns to each character at the outset as a way to get inside their heads.

If there is one thing Romance authors understand, it is how to create a strong impression of character.

When I plan a character, I make a simple word picture of them. The word picture is made of a verb and a noun, the two words that best describe each person. We want to know the good things about these characters, so we assign nouns that tell us how they see themselves at the story’s outset.

We also look at sub-nouns and synonyms, so put your thesaurus to work. In my book, Julian Lackland, I had four characters with significant roles, so I assigned them nouns that describe their principal defining quality.

This noun is the core characteristic thread that stays with them, is challenged by events, and either wins in the end or is their downfall.

Julian’s Noun is: Chivalry (Gallantry, Bravery, Daring, Courtliness, Valor, Love.) He sees himself as a good knight, a defender of innocence.

Beau’s Noun is: Bravery (Courage, Loyalty, Daring, Gallantry, Passion.) He aspires to chivalry but has a pragmatic side. He sees himself as a good knight but knows that good doesn’t always win.

Lady Mags’s Noun is: Audacity (Daring, Courage.) She is a good knight but is under no illusions about the people she defends. She is chivalrous but practical.

Bold Lora’s Noun is: Bravado (Boldness, Brashness.) She desires fame, is convinced that knights are defined by the celebrity their deeds bring them.

In real life, the way we see ourselves is the face we present to the world. Self-conceptions color how we react to events. We are gradually altered by events as life goes on. Our view of ourselves evolves, and our reactions are changed.

By the end of the story, the way our characters see themselves should have evolved. The circumstances you put them through must affect and remake them.

Once I know their nouns, I assign my characters a verb that describes their gut reactions. This word will shape the way they react to every situation that arises.

unreliable-narratorThey might think one thing about themselves, but this verb is the truth.

Julian has 2 Verbs. They are: Defend, Fight. Again, we also look at sub-verbs and synonyms: (Preserve, Uphold, Protect.)

Beau’s 2 Verbs are: Protect, Fight (Defend, Shield, Combat, Dare.)

Lady Mags’s 2 Verbs are: Fight, Defy (Compete, Combat, Resist.)

Bold Lora’s 2 Verbs are: Desire, Acquire (Own, Control, Imprison.)

When I wrote these characters, I knew how they believed they would react in a given situation and that knowledge drove the plot. Why was it so clear to me? Because I had drawn their portraits in a few descriptive words.

Julian must Fight for and Defend Chivalry. Julian’s commitment to defending innocents against inhumanity breaks his mind.

Beau must Fight for and Protect Bravery. Beau’s commitment to protecting Julian and concealing his madness breaks his health.

Lady Mags must Fight for and Defy Audacity. She’s at war with herself regarding her desire for a life with Julian and Beau. That war ruins her chance at happiness.

Bold Lora must Acquire Fame and Control Chivalry. Her thirst for notoriety destroys her.

When we uncover the nouns and verbs that describe who our characters think they are, we have a grip on creating characters who are alive to the reader.

How we phrase this when describing them in our outline is essential. Placing the verb before the noun describes a character’s core conflict. It lays bare their flaws and opens the way to building new strengths.

Knowing who our characters are before we meet them is important. Go ahead and make that personnel file detailing their backstory if you need to. Set that infodump aside because the real story will be built upon who they think they are on page one of this story.

Our characters’ preconceptions color their experience of events, which colors the readers’ view.

The characters we write are unreliable witnesses to the events that shape them. Their self-perception shades their reactions when they fail to live up to their own standards.

These are the watershed moments when our characters must examine their motives, and either face them or gloss over their failings.

Depth is instilled into to a scene where the characters prevail despite their flaws, succeeding against the odds. Or conversely, depth can be added when character flaws cause them to fail miserably at a point where they could have triumphed.

What two words describe the primary weaknesses of your characters, the factor that could be their ultimate ruin?

Julian Lackland: Obsession and Honor.

Beau Baker: Steadfast Loyalty.

Lady Mags De Leon: Stubbornness and Fear (of Entrapment).

Who are youKnowing the verb (action word) and the noun (object of the action) that best represented my characters made writing Julian Lackland easier. Their actions and reactions unfolded, and it was as if the story wrote itself.

So how do we get to know our characters and how they see themselves? Just as in real life, we meet and come to know them through conversations.

Conversations give shape to the story, turning what could be a wall of words into something personal.

Our next installment in this series will focus on revealing character through conversations.

17 Comments

Filed under writing

Character Creation: The Character Arc #amwriting

We’ve discussed the many different aspects of our characters and the roles they have within the story. Some will be the hero, others a sidekick, and still others will be the villain. 

WritingCraftSeries_character-arcEach character should have an arc of growth and change as the story progresses. Heroes that arrive fully formed on page one are boring. For me, the characters are the story, and the events of the piece exist only to force growth upon them.

How people are changed by their experiences is what makes the story compelling.

Many times, the protagonist begins in a place of comfort. They’re a little naïve about the rougher aspects of life. Consider Bilbo Baggins, Tolkien’s protagonist in The Hobbit.

Bilbo begins in a middle-class place of comfort. He lives in his family’s home, a comfortable, well-kept place. Bilbo has inherited a private income and has no need to work, so he devotes his time to writing and entertaining his close friends. He’s a little bored with his existence, but he’s a sensible hobbit and refuses to admit to it.

This is our hero in his comfort zone. He’s not unhappy and could have lived to the end of his days going along as he was. But he would never have developed any further as a person. He was stagnating and didn’t know it.

One sunny day, he’s just enjoying himself when along comes “the inciting incident”—Gandalf, a character who plays multiple roles within the Lord of the Rings story arc. In his first guise, Gandalf has the archetypal role of Herald. He is the bringer of change and unwanted dinner guests.

(The list of archetypes is shown in a picture at the bottom of this page—feel free to right-click and save it for your own files.)

the hobbitBilbo resents both the intrusion and being made aware of how bored he is. Secretly, he fears going into the unknown and resists Gandalf’s insistence that he must go with the dwarves. However, at the last minute, Bilbo realizes that if he doesn’t go now, he will always wonder what would have happened if he had.

Bilbo’s sudden irrational decision to accept the task of Burglar sets him on a path that becomes a personal pilgrimage, a search for the courage he always possessed but had never needed.

Fear of stagnation has overcome Bilbo’s fear of the unknown.

This begins the journey and events that shape Bilbo’s character arc. By the end of the novel, he has recognized and embraced the romantic, fanciful, and adventurous aspects of his nature. In the process, he discovers that he is competent and capable of bravery, winning respect by applying his wits and common sense to every problem.

People undertake pilgrimages for many reasons, often in search of moral or spiritual wisdom. Sometimes they will go to a location that has significance to their beliefs and faith. Other times, it will be an inner, symbolic journey, a delving into their own principles and values. One is always changed by the journey.

Events in themselves don’t change us. We are changed by what we learn as human beings, by experiencing how incidents and occurrences affect our emotions and challenge our values. Everyone perceives things in a unique way and is affected differently from their companions.

Each person grows and develops in a way that is distinctively them. Some people become hardened, world-weary. Others become more compassionate, forgiving.

the hobbit movie posterOver the next year, Bilbo experiences many things. Where once he was a little xenophobic and slightly disdainful of anything not of The Shire, he discovers that other cultures are as valuable as his, meeting people of different races whom he comes to love and trust. He experiences the loss of friends and gains compassion. By the time Bilbo returns to the Shire, he is a different person than he was when he ran out his front door without even a handkerchief.

A character arc should encompass several stages of personal growth. What those stages are is up to you and depend on the story you are telling.

In one of my current works in progress, my protagonist is a soldier of the Bull God’s world of Serende, an enemy sworn to conquer the goddess’s world of Neveyah. He has a religious conversion, and his story takes him on a journey that is both physical and spiritual.

Whether we write fantasy, literary fiction, comedy, sci-fi, or romance—our characters must be changed by their experiences. How they are changed is up to you, but stories and series where the protagonists are unaffected by what they have experienced fail to excite me.

The works that endure are those in which the events are the catalysts of personal growth for the reader as well as the protagonist.

Personal growth creates unforgettable characters. Great characters are why certain novels are considered classics despite having been written more than one or two centuries ago.

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte – Wikipedia

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens – Wikipedia

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien – Wikipedia

ListOf ArchetypesVoglerLIRF04272021


Credits and Attributions:

Dustcover of the first edition of The Hobbit, taken from a design by the author, J.R.R. Tolkien.

The Hobbit – An Unexpected Journey, Theatrical release poster © 2012 New Line Cinema, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, WingNut Films, Distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures, Fair Use.

5 Comments

Filed under writing

Character Creation: The Ally #amwriting

An archetype is an ancient pattern describing a type of character that exists across different cultures and eras of human history. In ancient times, we had no communication with other cultures. Yet, our myths and legends share these familiar, recognizable characters we call archetypes.

WritersjourneysmallThe Writer’s Journey, Mythic Structure for Writers, by Christopher Vogler, details the various traditional archetypes that form the basis of most characters in our modern mythology (or literary canon). I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in learning more about archetypes and how they fit into the story.

The following is the list of character archetypes as described by Vogler:

  1. Hero: someone who is willing to sacrifice his own needs on behalf of others
  2. Mentor: all the characters who teach and protect heroes and give them gifts.
  3. Threshold Guardian: a menacing face to the hero, but if understood, they can be overcome.
  4. Herald: a force that brings a new challenge to the hero.
  5. Shapeshifter: characters who constantly change from the hero’s point of view.
  6. Shadow: a character who represents the energy of the dark side
  7. Ally: someone who travels with the hero through the journey, serving a variety of functions.
  8. Trickster: embodies the energies of mischief and desire for change.

Last week we discussed the Mentor. We also looked at one of the many aspects of a hero-character, the Sacrificial Lamb.

Now let’s look at Allies, friends and supporters, side characters who enable the protagonist to achieve their goal. Side characters are essential, especially characters with secrets, because they are a mystery. Readers love to work out puzzles.

f scott fitzgerald quoteOne thing I do recommend is that you keep the number of allies limited. Too many named characters can lead to confusion in the reader.

It’s sometimes challenging to decide who should go and who should stay. What is the optimal number of primary characters for a book? Be kind to the reader. Introduce however many characters it takes to tell the story but use common sense.

When you give a character a name, you imply they are a memorable part of the story instead of a walk-on. Even if a walk-on character offers information the protagonist and reader must know, it doesn’t necessarily mean they need to be named.

Does the character return later in the story? When you introduce a named character, ask yourself if it is someone the reader should remember. Also, never name two characters in the same narrative so that the first and last letters of their names are the same.

For instance, having a Darnell and a Darrell with prominent roles in the same book could be confusing.

Make their names unique and give them a name only if they have a memorable role later. Also, as audiobooks come more and more into the publishing rainbow, spelling and ease of pronounceability are critical.

callMeGeorgeLIRF04252021How easy is it to read, and how will that name be pronounced when it is read aloud?

Certain tricks of plotting function well across all genres, from sci-fi to romance, no matter the setting. In most novels, one or more characters is a “fish out of water,” in that they are immediately thrust into an unknown and possibly dangerous environment.

Every core character that the protagonists are surrounded by should project an unmistakable surface persona, characteristics that are identifiably “them” from the outset.

From the moment they enter the story, we should see glimpses of weaknesses and fears. We should see hints of the sorrows and guilts that lie beneath their exterior personas. Remember, they aren’t the protagonist, so their story must emerge as a side note, a justification for their inclusion in the core group.

Old friends have long histories, and the protagonist knows most of their secrets at the outset. We don’t engage in info-dumping. Their backstory should emerge only at critical points, if and when it provides the reader with information they must know.

If these friends are new to the protagonist, their stories should emerge in the form of information the protagonist must have to complete their quest. However, it should come out only when the reader must know it too.

Twilight_Confidences_by_Cecilia_BeauxIn real life, everyone has emotions and thoughts they conceal from others. Perhaps they are angry and afraid, or jealous, or any number of emotions we are embarrassed to acknowledge. Maybe they hope to gain something on a personal level—if so, what? Small hints revealing those unspoken motives are crucial to raising the tension in the narrative.

As writers, our task is to ensure that each character’s individual story intersects smoothly and doesn’t jar the reader out of the story.

To do that, the motivations of the side characters must be clearly defined. You must know how the person thinks and reacts as an individual.

Ask yourself what desires push this character? What lengths will they go to in the effort to achieve their goal? Conversely, what will they NOT do?

Just as you have done with the hero of your story, ask yourself what the side characters’ moral boundaries are and what actions would be out of character for them?

Mood is a large word serving several purposes. It is created by the setting (atmosphere), by the exchanges of dialogue (conversation), and the tone of the narrative (word choices, descriptions). It is also affected by (and refers to) the emotional state of all the characters—their personal mood.

ICountMyself-FriendsDialogue gives shape to the story, turning what could be a wall of words into something personal. We meet and get to know our protagonists and the people they will travel with through the conversations they engage in.

Write nothing that seems out of character unless there is a good, justified reason for that behavior or comment.

We want to create empathy in the reader for the group as a whole, but the pacing of the story remains central.

For all characters, whether they are the protagonist or their allies, personal revelations should only come out when they are necessary to propel the plot to its conclusion.


CREDITS AND ATTRIBUTIONS:

Twilight Confidences, Cecilia Beaux, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

 

3 Comments

Filed under writing