Tag Archives: creating characters

Character Creation: the mentor #amwriting

Wisdom is not about having all the answers. As we experience the sorrows and joys of life, we remain filled with as many questions as answers. Perhaps the questions aren’t intellectual as much as they are emotional—a longing for a lost time of contentment, a time of security and peacefulness that wasn’t appreciated as much as it should have been.

WritingCraftSeries_mentorMaybe that moment in time that we long for didn’t shine with the golden glow that the mirror of memory now gives it. Nevertheless, we hope to feel that innocent happiness that we will never experience again.

Wisdom—a word that represents so many things. In a mentor, it’s an implied knowledge of a fundamental human truth: naïve enjoyment of life is gone forever, and accepting its loss makes us feel old. Experience makes us wiser and can change us in two ways. We can become hardened and callous as a form of self-preservation. Conversely, we can become gentler, more understanding of human frailty.

Tolkien took much of the philosophy for his world of Middle Earth and the character of Aragorn from the 6th-century poem, The Wanderer. As a Professor of Anglo Saxon Studies at Oxford, he had translated it into modern English and had a deep connection to the epic story told in the poem.

In that poem, the speaker reflects upon his life while spending years in exile. He considers what he has lost but goes beyond his personal sorrow. For this reason, some scholars consider The Wanderer a “wisdom poem.” The speaker tells us that the disintegration of earthly glory is inescapable, supporting the medieval Christian view of the underlying theme: salvation through faith in God.

The sense of loss and resulting strength that the protagonist in The Wanderer offers us is reflected most strongly in the way Tolkien portrays Aragorn. He is wise as a mentor, more approachable than Gandalf, and is relatable because he has suffered many losses. Aragorn has spent most of his life wandering and fighting to protect people who look upon him with disdain. Now, as he approaches middle-age, he “looks foul but feels fair.”

An excellent short talk on the original medieval poem can be found on YouTube here: WANDERER | The Profound Anglo-Saxon Poem that Tolkien Used in Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers

The first scene where Aragorn is introduced adds a new character into the mix, a man of mystery and one who feels a little dangerous. Yet, we sense there is more to him than we see in the dark, smoky taproom of the Prancing Pony. Aragorn is only known as Strider, and in that role, he offers them the information they need.

In that chapter, titled “Strider,” Frodo reads Gandalf’s letter. Having read it, Frodo says, “I think one of his (Sauron’s) spies would – well, seem fairer and feel fouler, if you understand.”

“I see,” laughed Strider. “I look foul and feel fair. Is that it? All that is gold does not glitter, not all those who wander are lost.”

Lord_of_the_Rings_-_The_Two_Towers_(2002)In the scene at the Prancing Pony, Aragorn is quoting a poem that is later revealed to reference him as the Heir of Isildur. He is the prophesied king who will once again wield the Blade that was Broken. These are wise words from a poem-within-the-story, a signature literary device Tolkien used regularly.

“All that is gold does not glitter,

Not all those who wander are lost;

The old that is strong does not wither,

Deep roots are not reached by the frost.”

By quoting those words, Strider (Aragorn) cautions Frodo to look beyond the surface and see the strength that lies beneath. He also implies that the converse can be true, that beauty can disguise what is evil.

In Aragorn, we have a mentor who is later revealed to be the heir of Isildur, the last King of Gondor. Yet, he may as well be heir of nothing, for all the good it does him in the first half of his life. He leads the Rangers, the Dúnedain of the North, the descendants of his ancestor’s knights. The respectable landlord of the Prancing Pony looks down on him, seeing Aragorn as little more than a vagrant.

In the guise of Strider, Aragorn is a good mentor from the first moment we meet him. This is because he is shown as having history. While the history is only implied, and Frodo knows nothing about him, he knows Strider is a friend of Gandalf. Frodo senses the knowledge that Strider possesses, the wisdom he has to offer. Frodo feels he can trust Strider’s guidance, even when he disagrees with him.

When we create a mentor character, we must give the reader reasons to believe in them as having wisdom our protagonist needs. Strider arrives in his first scene with the impact of unspoken history, an immediate sense that here is a person who has seen much and survived many things.

Here is a person who knows what secret Frodo carries but won’t try to steal it. He understands the comfortable life Frodo has sacrificed to take the Ring to Rivendell and knows what the hobbit faces further down the road. Here is a person who genuinely wants to help Frodo escape the Black Riders.

At the outset, when we find Strider in the Prancing Pony observing Frodo making his worst blunder, we feel there is more to this unkempt vagrant than we see on the surface.

Lord_of_the_Rings_-_The_Two_Towers_bookAs I create my mentors, I hope to convey a sense that they have history without beating the reader over the head with it. I want to evoke a feeling of rightness, that this person knows things we don’t, that this person has knowledge our protagonist must gain.

Creating a mentor with depth and a sense of history without dumping info is tricky. This is where getting good insights from my writing group really comes into play. Their thoughts and opinions nudge my creative mind to find solutions for rewriting muddy characterizations and confusing passages.

Hopefully, their insights will guide me to write memorable narratives filled with characters who leave an impact.


Credits and Attributions:

Quote from The Two Towers, by J.R.R. Tolkien, Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; Illustrated edition (February 15, 2012); Fair Use.

Wikipedia contributors, “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=The_Lord_of_the_Rings:_The_Two_Towers&oldid=1018153423 (accessed April 18, 2021).

Images:

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers theatrical release poster. Release Date December 5, 2002.  © 2002 Production Companies New Line Cinema, WingNut Films; Fair use under United States copyright law.

Wikipedia contributors, “The Two Towers” first edition book cover, Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=The_Two_Towers&oldid=1006164402 (accessed April 18, 2021).

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Prepping your Characters #NaNoWriMo2019 #amwriting

November and NaNoWriMo approaches. On November 1st thousands of authors will begin the 30 day challenge. Many will fall out of the game in first few days, but an amazing number of authors will finish their novels in those 30 days.

I see on the boards at www.nanowrimo.org  that a large number of people are drawing up personnel files for their characters. They are finding pictures of actors that might look most like their characters and writing short bios. I have done this in the past, and it worked well, as far as getting the obvious things down.

But I discovered that personnel files only show us the surface of these characters. Thanks to my obsession with learning new things and going to seminars, I do things a bit differently nowadays.

A seminar by Damon Suede triggered a cascade of ideas in my mind, the things I habitually did but didn’t realize I was doing it. These aspects of characterization were in my head but never written down, and as a consequence, things sometimes got muddied up in the writing.

We form our characters out of Action and Reaction. This happens in several ways. I will use the 3 main characters in my forthcoming novel, Julian Lackland, as my examples, as they are most firmly in my mind right now.

First, we  make a simple word picture of each character. The word picture is made of a verb (action) and a noun (person, place, or thing), 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 outset of the story. We also look at sub-nouns and synonyms:

Julian’s Noun is: Chivalry (Gallantry, Bravery, Daring, Courtliness, Valor, Love)

Beau’s Noun is: Bravery (Courage, Loyalty, Daring, Gallantry, Passion)

Lady Mags’s Noun is: Audacity (Daring, Courage)

The way we see ourselves is the face we present to the world. These self-conceptions color how they react but aren’t engraved in stone. By the end of the story, the way they see themselves will change because circumstances will both break and remake them.

Next, we assign a verb that describes their gut reactions, which will guide the way they react to every situation that arises. They might think one thing about themselves, but this verb is the truth and while it may evolve, it does not completely change. Again, we also look at sub-verbs and synonyms:

Julian has 2 Verbs. They are: Defend, Fight, (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)

When I write one of these three characters, I know how they believe they will react in a given situation. Why? Because I have drawn the portrait of their soul in words:

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

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

Lady Mags must Fight for and Defy Audacity. Mags is audacious–she is determined to remain a mercenary knight, no matter what the cost. She’s at war with herself in regard to her desire for a life with Julian and Beau. That war ruins her chance at happiness.

Do you see what happened? Placing the verb before the noun describes their core conflict. It lays bare their flaws and opens the way to building new strengths.

Who they are before we meet them is important, so go ahead and make that personnel file. But their story will be built upon who they think they are and what their gut reactions are.

Our characters’ preconceptions color their experience of events, which color the readers’ view. They are unreliable witnesses. It shades their reactions when they fail to live up to their own standards. These are the watershed moments when they must honestly examine their motives.

It adds to a scene where they triumph despite their flaws, succeeding against the odds.

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

Julian Lackland: Obsession and Honor

Beau Baker: Steadfast Loyalty

Lady Mags De Leon: Stubbornness and Fear

So, when you sit down to make a personnel file for your characters, you need more than a picture of your favorite actor and bio. You also need to decide the verb (action word) and the noun (object of the action) that best represents your characters.

For me, knowing these two words about my characters make writing the story easier. Their actions and reactions unfold as if the story writes itself.

I am in the process of assigning verbs and nouns to the characters in my own projected NaNoWriMo novel. Some of my characters are difficult to get a grip on, so this exercise will help me on November 1st when I begin to write their story.

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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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#amwriting: Drawing on Life Experience

Writers, even dedicated, passionate ones, have lives outside the confines of their craft, and while it frequently derails our ability to write, it is also where we find the realism we need to inject into our work. Life must come before writing because writing doesn’t pay the bills unless you are one of the fortunate few.

I have several family members with serious health issues. Sometimes, I must step away from the keyboard and be the wife, niece, mother, or grandmother they need and you know what? My writing is better for it.

I nursed my mother, with whom I had a complicated relationship, through the last year of her life. She had smoked until the age of 42, and was addicted to perfumes and air-fresheners. She was a self-described clothes-horse who loved expensive cologne and used it liberally.

Even after her death, after they had been laundered and dry cleaned, her clothes still smelled strongly of her brand of Estee Lauder’s cologne.  In her home, she had a Glade plug-in in every outlet, and the spray bottle of Febreze in her hand at all times.

She died of lung cancer.

During her last year, we spent four days a week at the cancer center, and the rest of our time with me caring for my frail mother as if she were my baby. It was difficult mostly because watching someone you love slowly die is the worst. My sanity during that difficult year was made possible because of writing. I wrote 260,000 words during that year, some of it good, some of it off the rails. Much of the experiences of that year are unconsciously referenced in my current writing. It is the part of me that goes into each tale.

It was a devastating year made more difficult by my brother’s mental illness and drug addiction. Yet, that same year was made richer by the strange friendship that developed between me and my mother. All the many things that had stood between us and which had seemed so important were set aside and never addressed. This was because, in the face of her final battle, the hurts of the past just did not seem that important to me. We began to enjoy being in each others’ company, enjoy the quiet of an afternoon, or the bustle of a Starbucks. The ‘F’ word that some of us find so hard to say, forgiveness, became such an easy thing, and when she died, I had lost a friend as well as a mother.

On this blog, I’ve discussed the way epilepsy has affected my two of my adult children, and how our lives are affected by witnessing their struggle. Many hours have been spent writing in hospitals, and this last weekend was no different. I am there when they need me, and when they are ready to stand on their own, I allow them the space they need to do just that.

I have also mentioned how having an eccentric father with battle related PTSD forged my need to escape into books and inspired my writing. Some of us have survived the alcoholic parents who did their best, but dealt with an addiction they denied having. Every writer deals with family issues and experiences, both good and bad, and we are a composite of all of them.

Every time our heart is broken, every time we feel that glorious rush of infatuation, and every time we stick our foot in our mouth or must eat humble pie—these moments should find their way into our work and emerge as characters with real emotions, people who live and breathe and feel real to the reader.

Life in all its glorious beauty and ugliness fuels my writing, and I am not alone. We authors take what we know and reformulate it into something we can live with. In some ways, hope drives my writing. The fact I have hope allows me to write about things that are painful. I find that the fullness of life and the occasional emptiness of despair are easier written about when I set them in an alternate universe, and wrap it in a story that embraces the emotions, even though the story doesn’t parallel my life directly.

I’m like the character in a long, brilliant and sometimes bad, novel. My life is a mix of great joy, romance, helpless sorrow, extreme anger, and faith in the future. I hope your life is balanced as well as mine is, with the good outweighing the bad. This maelstrom of life experience is the well we draw from when we are creating our characters.

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