Tag Archives: character development

The Character Arc part 4 #amwritng

Today in our focus on writing, we’re talking about circumstances (situations) our characters find themselves in and how they are shaped by them. We’re delving a little deeper into our discussion of the Character Arc, which was begun last week.

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

We met Dave, a hapless accountant whose moment of madness in “paying it forward” and purchasing a stranger’s lunch has led to his being taken hostage and forced to become a spy.

What does Dave want more than anything? He wants the Agents who kidnapped him to let him go home.

After the inciting incident, Dave must want nothing more than to achieve that objective.

So how do his circumstances reshape his personality? After all, we have a character arc here, not a flat line.

Let’s look at the plot outline:

On page one, Dave-the-accountant is shown in his ordinary world. He likes who he is and sees nothing wrong with his existence. We see a man who is only sure of himself when numbers are involved and see him in his office where he is working his way up the corporate ladder. The only thing Dave does well is straightening out tangled financial reports, and he is brilliant at that.

People like Dave, as he’s a good listener. However, he rarely volunteers anything conversationally because he has nothing of interest to contribute unless they are discussing accounting. He receives an unexpected bonus for having done well in getting one of their high-profile clients off the hook with the IRS.

Usually, Dave buys a sandwich from the machine in the employee lounge and eats at his desk while he works. But receiving the bonus calls for a little celebration. He tells the receptionist he’s going out for lunch and walks down the street to a café he has passed every day but never entered.

On page three, Dave does a random act of kindness that does not go unpunished. After he’s seated, Dave notices a striking woman. He imagines what it would be like to be a suave man of the world, wishing he were bold enough to introduce himself to her. He pictures her inviting him to dine with her.

Even though he is sure the woman wouldn’t give him the time of day, Dave suddenly chooses to “pay it forward” by purchasing her lunch when he pays for his.

He leaves the café before she finds out what he’s done, mentally berating himself for being such a coward.

5,000 words into the story, Dave-the-accountant has become Dave-the-kidnap-victim. Unbeknownst to Dave, the woman he was so taken with is a well-known double agent. Because he acted on the wild notion to pay for her lunch, he has drawn the attention of the people who were following her.

Two days later, as he walks to work, a white limousine pulls up alongside him. Four men in dark suits hustle him into the backseat. Here, the story can go in several directions, but in all of them, Dave must make choices that will change his life.

The next event happens 10,000 words into the story. Dave’s kidnappers realize he is not a double agent, but decide he is useful anyway. He’s an unremarkable person, a man who doesn’t stand out in a crowd. His ability to see the patterns in financial numbers is just the skill they need to nail a criminal they’ve been trying to get evidence on for years.

What does Dave fear? At first, he fears he’s going to die, but as time goes on, he fears he will lose his job.

15,000 words into the story, Dave agrees to do what the Secret Service wants, on the promise he will be allowed to go home and won’t lose his job over it.

Getting back to the security of his comfortable middle-class life becomes Dave’s primary goal. Every scene and conversation will push him closer to either attaining that goal or discovering a new purpose.

25,000 words into the story, Dave learns that, despite their glib assurances, the government was not “there to help” him. He has lost his job and barely manages to keep his apartment. The agents have one more task for him, and he’s desperate to not have to dig into his retirement funds, so he agrees to it.

45,000 words into the story, Dave is in a tough situation, trying to get evidence on an extremely dangerous person. He has lost faith in himself and the people he trusted but can’t turn back now, as he is in a situation that will get him killed if he’s discovered.

60,000 words to the end – In completing that last task and going back to his old world, Dave finds he is no longer happy as an unassuming accountant. He’s seen what is out there in the world, and no longer fits in his old corporate life.

Each event pushes Dave a little further out of his comfort zone. He has to become an actor, but in doing so, he realizes he’s been acting all his life. How does this new awareness change him?

No one can go through these sometimes traumatic and terrifying events and not be changed by them.

Many different endings are possible, some of which could lead to another book.

This was the scenario for a mystery/thriller of sorts. Still, the principle of events forcing change on the protagonist’s character arc is universal across all genres.

Dave’s character arc is driven by the desire to go back to the comfort of his old life. Nothing evokes such longing in a person as the memory of home, a place where they were happy and secure.

That longing for a time that no longer exists, and which may never have been as wonderful as we recall, is a good theme that fits well into any genre. Trying to achieve the unobtainable opens the story up to myriad possibilities, all of which should force growth or change upon the characters.

When I look back at the books that moved me, the catalyst for my emotional attachment was the characters, way more than the events, the setting, or the genre. What drew me to these imaginary people was the way they were affected by the events they lived through.

I remained invested in them to the very end of the book. That, to me, is the mark of good writing.

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The Character Arc, part 3 #amwriting

Today in our focus on writing, we’re continuing our discussion of the Character Arc, which was begun last week.

Part 1 Posted on Monday July 13, 2020

Part 2 Posted on Wednesday July 15, 2020

Today we’re talking about circumstances (situations) our characters find themselves in, and how their view of “self” is shaped by them.

But first, maybe you’re a writer like me, one who needs a few notes and a loose outline help me get the manuscript started.

Many writers work at a day job, and using the note-taking app on the cellphone during work hours is frowned on. If you are in that category and you are not working from home, you can go old-school with a pocket-sized notebook, and write those ideas down.

That way, you can unobtrusively make notes whenever you have an idea that would work well in your story, and you won’t appear distracted or off-task.

Once you have assembled your random ideas, and maybe even written a chapter or two, it’s time to think about who the characters are and how they react to their circumstances.

At the outset of the story, we meet our protagonist and see him/her in their normal surroundings.

Once we have met them and seen them in their comfort zone, an event occurs, which is the inciting incident. This is an occurrence that falls in the first chapters of the story, forcing the protagonist out of their usual circumstances. It hooks the reader and is the first point of no return.

The protagonist, in those opening paragraphs, has been shaped by the situation and lifestyle in which they are accustomed to living.

We’re going to plot a mystery with an eye toward how the protagonist is changed by their circumstances. If it seems familiar, it’s because this is a scenario I’ve used before:

The story opens when Dave, an unmarried accountant, has received an unexpected bonus and splurges on lunch in a restaurant. He sees a woman from across the café and develops a small, instant infatuation. He wishes he were brave enough to walk up and introduce himself.

What is the action he would do that falls within his comfort zone? What would he spontaneously do that is unusually bold for him?

Perhaps he chooses to secretly “pay-it-forward,” buying her lunch when he pays for his own on his way out. You must show him as a shy person not given to speaking to women he doesn’t know, much less buying their lunch.

So, this act is a bold one for Dave, and it must change his life.

Because he acted on the wild notion to pay for her lunch, he draws the attention of the people who were following her. These people operate on a level a mere accountant wouldn’t know exists.

To them, that act of buying her lunch was a secret code. They decide that Dave is a spy posing as an accountant. Unbeknownst to Dave, who goes about his life as he always does, regretting only that he didn’t dare to say hello to the woman, his every move is now on their radar.

His habitual routine is now interpreted according to a very different set of rules, by people who live and breathe conspiracy theories.

Buying a stranger lunch was the inciting incident. Everything that happens from here on occurs because of that innocent act.

This is where Dave is thrown out of his comfort zone and into the situation that is the core idea of our plot. For the rest of the novel, his circumstances will transform his way of thinking.

Two days later, as he walks to work, a white limousine pulls up alongside him. Four men in dark suits hustle him into the backseat. He is forced at gunpoint onto a plane bound for Oslo, Norway, handcuffed to a suitcase. The only other key that can remove the handcuffs is at the American Embassy in the custody of a mysterious woman, Lisa Desmond.

This is the new circumstance in which our protagonist finds himself as a result of the inciting incident.

How does Dave react to his kidnapping and what is his physical condition at the moment he is kidnapped?

How does Dave change his situation for better or worse?

How do the antagonistic forces react when they discover he is not a spy but is just an accountant who is now in danger of losing his job?

This is where we discover who the woman in the café really is and what role she will play in Dave’s new life as an unwilling spy.

Everything you will write from the point of the inciting incident to the last page will detail Dave’s quest and how the circumstances he finds himself in as each scene progresses shape his view of himself.

For a writer, winging it in short bursts can be exhilarating. Still, my years of experience with NaNoWriMo has taught me that writing by the seat of my pants for extended lengths of time only works until I run out of ideas for what to do next.

With a simple outline, I don’t become desperate and start writing random bunny trails to nowhere into the plot.

DISCLAIMER: This does NOT apply to anything written during November and National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). By day ten, I will have written an incredible number of events-to-nowhere into the manuscript. These are things that have nothing at all in common with the original story. However, I volunteer as a Municipal Liaison, so during NaNoWriMo, I must get my word-count. I write some crazy things during NaNoWriMo.

But I won’t trash them.

In December, I cut them and paste them into a separate document. I save those outtakes in my ‘idea file.’

Some of the prose will be good, and with a few minor changes (names, places), these outtakes are the seeds from which other stories grow.

I will post the fourth and final installment in The Character Arc series on Wednesday. Through the events that form the arc of the plot, Dave’s character arc becomes more defined. He becomes more decisive and able to act in the open as opposed to remaining hidden.

At first, Dave just wants to get rid of the suitcase and go back to his job. He wants that desperately and believes that somehow it will happen. On Wednesday, we will delve more deeply into Dave’s objectives.

We will explore how setting goals and working to achieve them gives Dave more control over his circumstances and forces him to become a bolder person.


Credits and Attributions

Eye on Flat Panel Monitor,  Image by Royalty-Free/Corbis © 2013

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The Character Arc part 2 #amwriting

I received much of my early education from Ballantine Books’ Adult Fantasy Series. These were readily available through Doubleday’s Science Fiction Book Club (books by mail) or at the drug store in the paperback section.

When I was in the fifth grade, I read The Hobbit for the first time. Bilbo was real to me, and when you ask others who are dedicated fans of Tolkien, they will tell you that it is his characters that make his stories so epic.

While I will read nearly anything you put in front of me, Tolkien got me hooked on high fantasy, and I went out of my way to find it after that.

So, what is high fantasy? Wikipedia says, “High fantasy or epic fantasy is a subgenre of fantasy,[1] defined either by the epic nature of its setting or by the epic stature of its charactersthemes, or plot.[2] The term “high fantasy” was coined by Lloyd Alexander in a 1971 essay, “High Fantasy and Heroic Romance.”

Other than the works of Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, high fantasy wasn’t easy to find back in the early days, and a lot of what was out there was difficult to read.

But lighter fantasy was beginning to emerge in speculative fiction,

I read Anne McCaffrey’s sci-fi fantasy Dragon Riders of Pern series to the point that I wore out three copies each of her first six books in the series.

What makes a reader purchase and re-read a book to the point that she would wear out several copies of it?

The characters.

Sure, the dragons were great, and the setting was amazing, but the characters became my dearest friends as we moved through the events of their story.

McCaffrey’s characters were strong, brave, romantic—and the protagonists were most often competent women. They had a character arc that took them from a place of weakness to a place of strength.

Another series of books that influenced me as a young adult were Niel Hancock’s Atlanton Earth series. That series opens with “Greyfax Grimwald,” and is an exploration of the Buddhist interpretation of the cycle of life and death. War is the great evil, and the threat of war is a thread that runs throughout the series.

Some critics have trivialized Hancock’s books as “commodified fantasy.” Still, I enjoyed them for the often brilliant prose as much as for the deeper themes. Otter and Bear were endearing characters, people whose thoughts and emotions felt engrossing and real to me.

These were books where the storyline followed the hero’s journey. In each, the protagonists came to a point where they lost their faith or had a crisis of conscience.

This point of personal crisis was where I, as a reader, discovered who they really were as human beings.

In reading these stories, I absorbed one of the basic principles of storytelling: A flawed hero is far more relatable than a perfect hero.

In looking back at my favorite books, a sense of danger, an unavoidable threat, was evident from the opening pages. How the characters reacted to that event felt unpredictable because the authors gave them agency.

As I discussed in my previous post, agency is the ability your character has to surprise you when you are writing them and their reactions. They seem to drive the keyboard, making their own choices.

When our characters are faced with an unavoidable threat that removes the option of going about life as usual, we should give them agency. This leaves them with several consequential choices, many of which will be made in stressful situations.

I have used the word consequential before as relating to the choices your characters must make. I chose that word intentionally. When there are no consequences for bad decisions a character might make, what is the story about?

My roots aren’t only in high fantasy—I love a good cozy mystery as much as anyone. In a cozy mystery, getting to know the main character as a friend is central to the story. The events that ensue are a means to further explore the life of the protagonist.

Why would a random trip to a convenience store interest a reader if something out of the ordinary does not occur? After all—we go out for bread every day, and it’s not too exciting. Frankly, I’m not interested in reading about Amy buying a loaf of bread. But make her the witness to a robbery and things begin to get interesting. Better yet, give her options:

  1. She can hide and wait for the intruders to leave.
  2. She can decide to be a hero.
  3. What other options does Amy have? What does she see when she looks around the store?

Whatever Amy chooses to do, there will be consequences. If things go awry, she could become a hostage. If she goes unnoticed but tells the police what she knows, she and her family could be in danger.

Once she is in the middle of these consequences, Amy will have more crisis points to face, and a lack of bread will only be one of them. She will have many decisions to make, and each choice will drive the plot.

The results of her decisions will change her outlook on life and give her wisdom she wouldn’t have had without those experiences.

At the end of the story, Amy will be more outgoing, surer of herself, and willing to step outside of her usual, rather boring, bubble of security.

The obstacles your characters face and the choices they make in those situations are the story. Giving your characters an active role and allowing them agency is what makes them human.

I recommend that in the first draft, you use all the adverbs and modifiers you need because you must get the idea down before you forget it. The first draft is where we take an idea, a “what if” moment, and give it form on paper.

When it is finished, the first draft is basically made up of sections of brilliance interspersed with a catalog of events: who did what, where they did it, and why. These adverbs and modifiers are your guideposts, prose you will remove and make active later, but getting the raw concept on paper is the crucial thing at this stage.

At the outset, giving my characters agency is challenging. This is because, in the first draft, the protagonist and his motives are still somewhat unformed.

In one of my current works-in-progress, my main character has been put through a personal death of sorts. His world has been shaken to the foundations, and he no longer has faith in himself or the people he once looked up to.

This low point is a crucial part of the hero’s journey.

If you are stuck with a character you can’t figure out, ask yourself what personal revelations come out about the protagonist, or conversely, what does he discover about himself?

How are they emotionally destroyed by the events?

How was their own personal weakness responsible for this turn of events?

How does this cause them to question everything they ever believed in?

What makes them pull themselves together and just keep on going?

How are they different after this personal death and rebirth event?

This is where he is taken down to his component parts emotionally and rebuilds himself to be more than he ever believed he could be.

By the time you finish writing the lowest point of your protagonist’s life, you should have come to know them and how they will react in any given situation.

When your characters are real to you, that feeling will come across in your writing.

I have shown the covers of both halves of the final book in the high fantasy series by Tad Williams that shaped my early style of writing. Tad writes literate fantasy that is both epic and relatable. His characters are brilliantly portrayed–raw, human, and not perfect:

Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn


Credits and Attributions:

Wikipedia contributors, “High fantasy,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=High_fantasy&oldid=967547546 (accessed July 14, 2020).

Front cover art for the book Imaginary Worlds – the Art of Fantasy written by Lin CarterBallantine Books, 1973 Cover artist, Gervasio Gallardo. Fair Use.

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The Character Arc part 1 #amwriting

We who write fiction spend a lot of time plotting the events a character will go through. We may write to an outline, or we might keep it in our head, but most of the action is usually known before we write it.

Even if you don’t plot in the traditional sense of the word, you should give some advance consideration to character development.

The term character arc is used to describe the personal growth and transformation of a character throughout a story. In narratives with a strong character arc, the protagonist begins as one sort of person. Through the events they experience, they are transformed. Often the change is for the better, but sometimes they change for the worse.

Great writing contrasts the relative security of the characters’ lives as they were in the opening paragraphs against the hazards of their life when they are in the midst of change.

Give me the book that immerses me in the uncertainty, fear, and anger—let me experience the emotional journey as well as the events of the narrative.

The novels that have the most influence on me as a writer are those that allow the reader to experience the characters’ journey.

These authors introduced me to characters who were multi-dimensional. They were people with a past and a present, and who hoped to survive long enough to enjoy a future.

In the opening act, the characters are introduced, and the scene is set. A great story evolves when the antagonist and protagonist are strong but not omnipotent. Both must have character arcs that show either

  1. Personal growth over the length of the story
  2. Stagnation or the inability to grow

Stagnation is a kind of death. This is a creative ploy to use for an antagonist who is unable to see their fatal flaw.

Each scene is an opportunity to advance the events of the story. But every small arc of action is also an opportunity to illuminate the motives of the characters.

The characters begin to be changed by the events they experience. How you show their emotional state is critical at this point because emotions engage readers. If you want a reader to experience the sense of crisis that you believe your story deserves, you must

  1. Foreshadow or hint at knowledge the characters don’t have, information that affects the outcome of the plot.

Very few people are evil for no reason at all. Sometimes they are likable, people who appear innocuous, even loving. If this is the case in your story, you need to insert small clues for the reader early on about the negative aspect of their personality. This is so that their despicable behavior isn’t seen as unexpected and contrived.

Fleshing out the antagonist and making their motives realistic is essential. They are as central to the story as the protagonist because their actions force change.

It’s important to remember that at no point in the narrative can people be sitting around idly chit-chatting about the changes they have been through in their life unless it affects the action at that moment.

Instead, they should be dealing with the consequences of the decisions they have just made and trying to make better plans.

Consequences are central to the forward momentum of the plot.

If consequences are to have meaning, motivations are crucial. What drives the characters to endure the results of their poor planning? What keeps them focused on achieving their goal?

Just as importantly, what will they NOT do? What is out of character for them? If you know that, you won’t muddy the narrative with look-alike and sound-alike characters.

The obstacles your characters face and the choices they make in those situations are the story.

Sometimes, in the first draft of my manuscripts, the motives of my protagonist haven’t quite come into focus for me. I tend to allow a character’s choices to push their personal growth, and then in a later draft, I have to sort out why they have made that decision.

Agency is the power of an individual to act independently. When we give the characters agency, we allow them to make their own free choices.

Giving your characters an active role and allowing them agency can make writing their story a joy. Remember, we write as much for ourselves as we do for a potential reader.

At times, I have a character I just can’t figure out. I make a character study, a personal history. Once I know their past, I understand what drives them and what triggers their emotions.

I then decide what personal revelations must come out about them in foreshadowing and figure out how to make it emerge organically.

In the character study, I ask the most important question of all: what does the character discover about herself?

When I have the answers about why, I look at the final event, the situation that ends the story to see if it passes the logic test. These people’s personal quirks and characteristics, their moral compass influenced the decisions that led them to that place.

Did I keep those clues distinct to each character, or was there a blurring of personalities within the group?

Most importantly, do my characters have recognizable motivations? Sure, we want to be subtle and not drop a ton of backstory on the reader. However, we can’t be too obscure in trying to keep the air of mystery.

If a beta reader can’t follow our protagonist’s reasoning, we haven’t done our job.

Creating intrigue yet making it believable is a balancing act.

Reading is the key. Every novel that leaves a mark on my heart has unique, individual characters that I can relate to.

When I stumble upon a book that engrosses me, I study that author’s work even if I don’t like one of their characters. I want to see how they fit the backstory into the narrative, ensuring their characters’ motivations made sense.

Their good writing habits help me improve in my own work. In my next post, I’m going to discuss the influence of novels that I once loved, and how they shaped my writing for good and for ill.

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What I learned from my #BeachRead #amwriting

My summer vacation is over; I’m back once again in my little house, sans grandchildren. The rewrite will soon be underway on Julian Lackland, thanks to my intrepid beta readers. This manuscript evolved over ten years, and several old writing habits still embedded in the earlier sections have come to light, little writing crutches long gone unnoticed. They will be dealt with by using a global search, and examining each instance, then either changing it or leaving it.

I also have a wonderful novel on deck for beta reading, written by a fellow Myrddin author, Marilyn Rucker. When I’ve finished with this amazing book, I have one more beta read for a member of my writing group lined up before the end of summer. After that—it’s NaNoWriMo Prep Season!

The novel I took to the beach with me was Nine Perfect Strangers by Australian author, Liane Moriarty. The book details the experiences of nine people booked into an exclusive Australian health spa, and three members of the staff.

Moriarty’s characters are immediately engaging. I was sucked into their world in the opening pages. In fact, I hated setting the book down, wanting to know everyone’s dark secrets, curious as to what led each one to book themselves into that very unusual health spa. Structurally, it’s a bit jerky, and the ending is a series of short infodumps, but it works. By the time I reached the startling conclusion, I looked forward to the informational epilogues just because I didn’t want to let them go.

Moriarty introduces us to The Cast of Characters by opening with Yao and his experience as an EMT and introducing us to Masha as she suffers a heart attack.

The story picks up ten years later when nine people meet at an exceedingly remote health spa that promises to change their lives and completely transform them in ten days. The recommendations by their friends and the reviews they have read are glowing, but none explain how the transformation will be accomplished.

Each guest arrives with secrets and personal reasons for wanting to be remade into something better that what they believe they are. Masha is later revealed as the benevolent antagonist, and Yao has become her disciple.

Liane Moriarty’s characters are so compelling because, at the outset, she establishes each as an individual and endows them with a mystery. Immediately the reader is hooked.

  1. Each character is a “fish out of water,” in that they are immediately thrust into an unknown and possibly dangerous environment.
  2. Each character projects an obvious surface persona, but early on, cracks reveal glimpses of weaknesses and fears; the sorrows and guilts that lie beneath their exterior personas.
  3. As the unusual rules become clear, each is angry and afraid, yet willing to continue because of what they hope to gain on a personal level.
  4. Each of the characters’ stories combines and connects to make a larger, powerful story of transformation.

So, what did I learn from reading that novel? I had a reaffirmation of sorts—the reassurance that no writer is able to follow every writing group rule and no book that does would be worth reading.

Moriarty’s novels often end with info-epilogues, showing me that every writer has habits that are technical no-noes, but which are part of their creative process. It reinforces my belief that good writing and great characterization engages the reader and overcomes a few minor defects.

This is not permission to use lazy writing habits. Slapdash writing is jarring and interferes with a reader’s ability to sink into the book.

In the first draft, we spend a lot of time trying to convey our story and characters to a potential reader. Sometimes a shorthand of sorts is necessary for the first draft to help me get the right pacing or the note an insight into a character. But that can backfire if I’m not vigilant in weeding these crutches out in later drafts.

One of my personal habits is the tendency to rely on certain words when a good description eludes my creative mind. Good beta readers help us by spotting when the words and tricks we use consistently become jarring.

Melding character arcs with the action…reaction…action flow of the story is crucial. Moriarty’s narrative was smooth and easily readable. Only an experienced writer or another editor would notice what I did. And, as this little bunny-trail habit is a trait I’ve noticed in all her books, it can be assumed it is part of her style of storytelling.

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Characterization #amwriting

The stories that interest me most have a strong character arc.  The protagonist begins as one sort of person, and through the events they experience, they are transformed. Often they change for the better, but sometimes the change is for the worse.

Each time I open a new book, I want to meet a circle new of friends, each of whom is distinguishable from the other characters. Every one of them must be a unique person with a distinctive thought process. What choices will they make, and how will those decisions affect their life?

Consequences are key to the forward momentum of the plot.

I have used the word consequences before when talking about the choices our protagonist must make. I use that word intentionally. If there are no consequences for bad decisions, what is the story about?

Equally, I want the side-characters and antagonist to be just as singular with their reactions and choices as the protagonist is.

A bit of unpredictability to a character’s nature keeps them interesting. They have an air of mystery—how will they react in a given situation? It must be slightly random, but please, keep it real and in character.

In other peoples’ work, I particularly notice when a protagonist or side-kick’s gut reaction causes them to act out-of-character for the person they have been portrayed as, up to that point. Am I able to see it in my own? I hope so.

Even in a fantasy setting, all the characters must be believable. If the author introduces an elf to me, I want to believe in that elf. I want to see him/her as if they are real throughout the entire story. I want to be invested in them for their entire arc, and I want to care what happens to them.

The motivations are crucial. What drives them and what will they do to achieve their goal. Just as importantly, what will they NOT do? What is out of character for them?

The obstacles your characters face and the choices they make in those situations are the story. Giving your characters an active role and allowing them agency is what drives a great, absorbing story. Agency is the power of an individual to act independently. When we give the protagonist/antagonist agency, we allow them to make their own free choices.

When I am first writing any story, giving my characters agency is difficult to do. This is because, in the first draft of my manuscripts, the motives of my protagonist haven’t quite come into focus for me. I tend to allow a character’s choices to push their personal growth.

At some point in every great novel, the protagonists may lose their faith or have a crisis of conscience. In the second draft, I see this moment as an opportunity to learn who they really are as individuals. The events leading to that point break the character, knocking them down to their lowest emotional state. How do they react? What keeps them pushing on in the face of such despair?

At times, I have a character I simply can’t figure out. I do a character study, and in that short document, one of the questions I ask myself is “What personal revelations come out about them?” Also, I ask, “What does he discover about himself?”

When those questions are answered, I look at the final event, the situation that ends the story. These people’s personal quirks and characteristics, their moral compass influenced the decisions that led them to that place.

Did I keep those clues distinct to that character, or was there a blurring of personalities, making the group all sound and look alike?

Most importantly, those people must have understandable motivations. We can’t be too obscure in trying to keep the air of mystery because if a reader can’t follow our protagonist’s reasoning, we haven’t done our job.

It’s part of the balancing act—creating intrigue yet making it believable. As I have said many times, this is a gig where I never stop learning and trying to grow in the craft. Reading is the key. Every story that leaves a mark on my heart has unique, individual characters that I can relate to. Even if I don’t like them, their motivations make sense because they are in line with how that character would think.

If I can visualize my characters as real people that I know and believe in, hopefully my readers will believe in them too.

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Characters: the Legalities Rant #amwriting

Reality is stranger than anything I could write. This is why I write fiction—I put reality into more palatable chunks so I can digest it better.

Drawing on the real world to help design the unreal is where good world building comes  into play. However, we shouldn’t use the real names and exact situations of people we are acquainted with in our work. Don’t thinly disguise them with a different name—they can sue us.

Consider the late Betty MacDonald, whose first published book was picked up by J.B. Lippincott. The Egg and I is a fictionalized account of Betty’s life as a chicken farmer. It was set in Chimacum, a small community in rural Washington State. The book was a success, selling well over a million copies and spinning off several movie adaptations.

It also spun off several lawsuits for defamation of character. Although the book was a critical and popular success at publication, in the 1970s it fell into disfavor because of the clichéd treatment and lack of understanding of the culture of our local Native people. The book did give rise to a perception of Washington State as a place full of eccentrics.

We are different, but every part of the country has its oddballs.

From Wikipedia:

Post-publication lawsuits

Following the success of the book and film, lawsuits were filed by members of the Chimacum community. They claimed that characters in The Egg and I had been based on them, and that they had been identified in their community as the real-life versions of those characters, subjecting them to ridicule and humiliation. The family of Albert and Susanna Bishop claimed they had been negatively portrayed as the Kettles. Their oldest son Edward and his wife Ilah Bishop filed the first lawsuit, which was settled out of court for an undisclosed amount.

The second lawsuit was filed against MacDonald, publisher J. B. Lippincott Company, and The Bon Marché (a Seattle department store which had promoted and distributed the book) for total damages of $975,000, as sought by nine other members of the Bishop family ($100,000 each) and Raymond H. Johnson ($75,000), who claimed he had been portrayed as the Indian “Crowbar.” The case was heard before a jury in Judge William J. Willkins’ (who was also one of the presiding judges at the Nuremberg Trials) courtroom in King County Superior Court beginning February 6, 1951. MacDonald testified that the characters in her book were composite sketches of various people she had met. The defense produced evidence that the Bishop family had actually been trying to profit from the fame the book and movie had brought them, including testimony that son Walter Bishop had had his father Albert appear onstage at his Belfair, Washington, dance hall with chickens under his arm, introducing him as “Pa Kettle.” On February 10, 1951, the jury decided in favor of the defendants.[3]

Some ideas will come to us from real life, but if we are writing fiction, we must never detail people too closely. If you become a success, some people may see that as their ticket to a little extra money at your expense. This, despite the disclaimer we put on the copyright page:

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or deceased, is entirely coincidental.

We can and will, however, draw impressions from them.

A common “coffee shop” game is a good way to develop characters for your stories and won’t get you sued. When you go to a coffee shop that you don’t normally frequent, sit and watch your fellow patrons. Observe their behavior, their speech habits and unconscious mannerisms. It’s easy to imagine who they might be and build a whole fantasy about them.

That character sketch is the kernel that can be the start of a short story or even a novel–and all of it is fiction.

You don’t actually know a thing about them other than they like a Double Tall Vanilla Soy Latte with cinnamon sprinkles. The idiosyncrasies you see in strangers will give rise to a character you can use without risking your financial security and your reputation.


Credits and Attributions:

Wikipedia contributors, “The Egg and I,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia,https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=The_Egg_and_I&oldid=878829393 (accessed February 20, 2019).

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Character Development #amwriting

I see characters in books as if they were real people living through the events life hands them.

When a character in a book experiences confusion, it’s an opportunity for them to learn new things. If they are frustrated, they must devise a way around that frustration, and if they are tested to the limits of their endurance, they will become stronger. Keep this in mind when you are writing. Don’t make things too easy for your beloved characters—their struggle is the story.

  1. How is she emotionally destroyed by the events?
  2. How was her own personal weakness responsible for this turn of events?
  3. How does this cause the protagonist to question everything she ever believed in?
  4. What makes her pull herself together and just keep on going?
  5. How is she different after this personal death and rebirth event?

We want to write compelling characters who react to events in a realistic, natural way. We want the reader to believe it couldn’t have happened any other way, so we need to know WHO our character is on a personal level.

As we write the first draft, traits will emerge that create our characters, and this information is lodged in our mind. We know how and why they react a certain way, and so we write, write, write.

There are problems with this method. Sometimes I read work where the characters all sound and feel the same. When that is the case, it is the author speaking and not the characters. In a great book, the characters speak for themselves.

A good way to avoid that is to create a short history of each character’s life as it was before we met them in the first sentence of the story.

I do this once all the characters have been introduced.

This way, I know what their personalities are like, there is no blurring of reactions and comments. It’s crucial for me to know what will trigger reactions like anger or joy in each different person as these are things that will come into play as the events of the story unfold.

Knowing my characters makes their actions and reactions natural, and believe me, my trusty beta-readers will let me know when I have failed at that.

But there is a caveat to using this method of writing a history for your characters: Any background we write about a character’s life before the moment of the first meeting on the first page of the novel is for our eyes only. For me, this is my “meet and greet” moment, a chance to flesh them out so that when they appear, they are real in their actions and reactions.

The information you compile in this document must be kept off-scene. One of the main pitfalls of the first draft is the info dump. These boring stretches of background info are for you, the author, and are meant to set the character as a human being in your mind.

You know the rules, and don’t want info-dumps in the finished piece. But they slip into your work in insidious ways, so ask yourself if the information you are about to dispense is relevant to the character’s immediate need.

Does that background information advance the story?

  1. Resist the urge to include character bios and random local history with the introduction of each new face or place—let that information come out only if needed. Dispense background info in small packets and only as needed.
  2. Resist the urge to explain every move, every thought your character has. This is probably the most annoying thing an author can do.
  3. Is a flashback a scene or a recollection? Recollections are boring info dumps. Scenes take the reader back in time and make them a part of a defining moment. Write scenes, not recollections.

I write stories about people who might have existed, and who have their own views of morality. When writing, my characters stories don’t always follow the outline I had in mind for them. They sometimes go in directions I never planned for them to go, which throws my whole story-arc into disarray until I figure out how this new development fits.

In one of my current works in progress, a rewriting of my first novel, I never intended for my protagonist and a companion to fall in love. They did though, and that took the story in a direction that was a surprise to me back in 2010 when I first wrote it—and I think it’s one of my favorite side-plots. In the rewriting process, I have been able to use that relationship to great advantage.

In each story I write, I try to get into the characters’ heads, to understand why they make the frequently terrible choices that change their lives so profoundly.

In my work, I sometimes stretch the bounds of accepted morality, not for the shock value, but because the story demands it. And when I do this, I need to make sure that each individual character is a separate entity with unique emotional responses. They must be like real people, each one an individual who does NOT react to an event the same way their companions do.

Some people naturally work well under stress, and others don’t. Growth is essential to creating great character arcs. How characters grow and change under these events is the real story. Who they were on the first page should be an unfinished version of the person they are on the last.

My greatest trouble is in keeping the backstory off the page, so by having a file where it is documented, I don’t feel compelled to dump it into my narrative.

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Character description: too much or not enough? #amwriting

I love eBooks for the simple reason I have over 800 books, and I don’t have to dust them. I do buy paper books, but only those on writing craft or research for my work.

I have managed to get nearly every book I ever loved as an eBook. Every week I add at least two more books to my library. I have become a fan of hundreds of new authors, most of them indies.

Every now and then I read a book that is traditionally published, sometimes taking a dip into general fiction. I did that this week, reading a book I saw advertised on twitter. I picked it up, knowing I might hate it because the critics loved it.

I can live without a happy ending, and even with no ending at all. Not every story ends happily. But please, make the pages that come before that lack of ending something more than self-indulgent hero worship of your protagonist. I get that you’re in love with your characters. I’m in love with mine too.

Just don’t wax poetic about their magnetic beauty on every third page, please.

Unfortunate phrasings that yank me out of a book:

“She lay there staring with her creamy blue eyes, water pooling in the corners.”

“Her eyes were the same color as the deep purple velvet drapes.”

Meh. Enough about their eyes already. Some authors go to incredible (and at times, awkward) lengths to force their personal creative vision of what a character looks like on the reader.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be told what to think when I am reading a book. What I consider beautiful is not necessarily attractive to someone else.

But this brings us to a dilemma that many authors seem to face. How do you describe a character in such a way that the reader will find them as attractive as you want them to be?

You must give the reader enough of a general description that they can fill in the blanks with their imagination.

Generally, you want to show a character’s coloring, hair style/color, eye color, general physical description. Especially, you must somehow mention anything that is unique about their appearance. If they are not too fastidious, mention it, and the same goes for if they are obsessively fastidious.

Actions can reveal physical characteristics and mannerisms. Consider how they fix their hair, what style of clothes they gravitate to, even how they move and interact with both the environment and other characters. What are their habitual facial expressions?

Offer this information up in bits over a period of time rather than dumping it in a police-blotter style of delivery. Just don’t go on and on giving minute, unimportant details.

In my Tower of Bones series, the men in Edwin’s family have this sort of cachet that makes them irresistible to all women. It is the Goddess Aeos’s way of ensuring that the girl she has selected for them falls in love with them, and their bloodline is continued.

But what do Edwin and his father (and grandfather) look like? Edwin and his family are a lot like my uncles were as young men, tall, blondish, blue-eyed, and physically strong from working on their farm. They’re rather average, nothing spectacular. They’re good-looking, but aren’t overly handsome. However, there is something about them that causes trouble in a certain strata of female society that has a rather free approach to life.

So what is this charisma these men have? (And that my uncles did not have.)

Here is where I romanticize them. To most men, they seem no more intriguing than any other person, but to women, they are an irresistible banquet of masculine pheromones. Since they do a lot of traveling, this creates opportunities for mayhem. While writing the Tower of Bones series, I’ve had a lot of fun with that plot-line, especially when it came to Wynn Farmer in Mountains of the Moon.

For my other characters in various books, again we write what we know. In my mind, all my characters are exceedingly good-looking in their own different ways. I am of British Isles stock as is most of my family, but I live in a town filled with people of all races and origins. Throughout my life, my neighbors have been from such diverse places as Japan, Mexico, Alabama, Norway, Cambodia, Nigeria, India, and Minneapolis.

Thus, in my head, my characters are of all races, and all are attractive to me.

Huw the Bard is darkly handsome, blue-eyed with black curling hair, and has a roguish charm that women find irresistible. An incurable romantic and on the run, he loves many, but gives his heart only to a few.

Billy Ninefingers is exceptionally tall and strong, sandy-haired, with a boyish face. He’s competent and a strong leader with a firm sense of justice. He is in love with only one woman, but there are complications.

Reina Jacobs is a middle-aged woman, a retired pilot who has been conscripted back into active duty. She has short iron-grey hair and is a cyborg. She is attracted to Ladeaux, a pilot of her age, but while they are working together, she won’t fall into a romance.

Personally, I don’t find Prosperine as painted by Dante Gabriel Rossetti to my taste, although as a painting it is flawlessly executed. But millions of people find her beautiful, and he certainly did. His model, Jane Morris, was considered a great beauty in her day.

Yet the images of her, both painted and photographed, portray her as sulky-looking, which is not attractive to me at all.

I choose not to beat the reader over the head with my personal vision, other than the general description for the reader to hang their imagination on. I want the reader to see beauty and magnetism in the way that is most appealing to them. I hope that mannerisms, conversations, and other characters’ opinions convey the image the reader wants to see in a protagonist.

And this is the way it is for every author. We are painters who use words to show an image. We want to the reader to see what they believe is beauty.

Your vision of beauty is not what your readers see, and to force too many details on them ruins the flow of the tale.

A good general description, with hints or comments about their beauty or lack thereof, is all that is needed. If you provide the framework, the reader’s mind will supply the rest.

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Character Development: The Trickster #amwriting

In previous posts, I have discussed the hero and his/her journey in detail. Their arc is critical, but the hero must have friends and enemies, people who help or hinder him. Each of them has an arc, some large, and some small.

My lead characters always have companions. I am a great fan of both Joseph Campbell and Christopher Vogler, and the hero’s journey is central to much of my work. In his book, The Hero With a Thousand Faces, Campbell discusses his theory of the journey of the archetypal hero found in world mythologies. Quote from Wikipedia, the fount of all knowledge:

In his 1949 work, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell described the basic narrative pattern as follows:

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered, and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.

Even better for our purposes, in his 2007 book, The Writer’s Journey, Mythic Structure for Writers, Christopher Vogler takes Campbell’s concept of the monomyth and applies it to storytelling.  His book offers insights into character development and takes the mythical aspects of the hero’s journey and places it into pop culture, from movies to television, to books. I am on my third copy of this book.

It occurred to me that the father of one of my main characters is the archetype known as “the Trickster.” This is the wise friend who can sometimes work against you, but whose presence adds an important layer to the narrative.

Tricksters:

  • Cross Boundaries
  • Break rules
  • Disrupt ordinary life
  • Charm us with their wit and charisma

Wikipedia also tells us:

All cultures have tales of the trickster, a crafty creature who uses cunning to get food, steal precious possessions, or simply cause mischief. In some Greek myths, Hermes plays the trickster. He is the patron of thieves and the inventor of lying, a gift he passed on to Autolycus, who in turn passed it on to Odysseus. In Slavic folktales, the trickster and the culture hero are often combined.

Often in mythology, the bending/breaking of rules takes the form of tricks or thievery.  When I need a thief, I automatically think of Loki—the consummate trickster of Norse mythology. Loki sometimes helps the gods and other times behaves in a malevolent manner towards them. He is also a shapeshifter and can change gender at will.

When I realized the trickster was emerging in the character of Elgar, I was thrilled. He is a good father, a widower. The son of the shaman, Elgar would be the first to tell you he isn’t fit for that task. His younger son has been chosen instead, and this book revolves around his son’s vision quest and his path to becoming his clan’s next shaman.

Elgar is a bit of a player in some ways, yet he has scruples. He takes chances but has great personal charm, so he is the clan’s speaker. His greatest weakness is that he gets bored easily, and trouble always ensues.

What I love about having the trickster emerging in this tale is the way he livens things up. He is the ray of sunshine in what could be an unremitting tale of gloom and doom.

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

  • Hero: someone who is willing to sacrifice his own needs on behalf of others

  • Mentor: all the characters who teach and protect heroes and give them gifts

  • Threshold Guardian: a menacing face to the hero, but if understood, they can be overcome

  • Herald: a force that brings a new challenge to the hero

  • Shapeshifter: characters who constantly change from the hero’s point of view

  • Shadow: character who represents the energy of the dark side

  • Ally: someone who travels with the hero through the journey, serving variety of functions

  • Trickster: embodies the energies of mischief and desire for change

I think the rogue is an important component of any epic tale. He lends a touch of fallible humanity to the cast that can be otherwise too perfect. His influence on the hero also offers us moments of hilarity and pathos.

When I recognized my trickster, I began looking at my other characters, to see what role they represent in this cast. This gave me a reason to go back to The Writer’s Journey, and look again at my other characters and their archetypes to make sure I am using them to their best advantage.

I highly recommend The Writer’s Journey, Mythic Structure for Writers, by Christopher Vogler. It is one of the foundation books in my reference library, and I refer back to it often, especially in the early stages of a manuscript, when I am trying to decide how to maximize a side character’s potential.

 


Credits and Attributions:

Renard the Fox, drawn by Ernest Griset, from a children’s book published in 1869 PD|100 via Wikimedia Commons.

Wikipedia contributors, “The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=The_Writer%27s_Journey:_Mythic_Structure_for_Writers&oldid=804454608 (accessed December 5, 2017).

Wikipedia contributors, “Trickster,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Trickster&oldid=811022016 (accessed December 5, 2017).

By scan from an unknown publication by an anonymous poster, in a thread, gave permission to use it. Re-drawn by User:Slashme [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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