Tag Archives: Creating depth

The Inferential Layer: Building Characters #amwriting

When a character pops into my head, it’s usually a brief glimpse at first. Sometimes the character arrives unannounced, and I must build a story around them. Other times, sometimes in the same story, the plot demands a character, and I must build them.

In the beginning stages, we see a large picture, and the details are not too clear. We have an overall idea of what the story could be.

Readers always pick up on mushy characterizations. Characters must be as individual as the people we know. Every now and then a manuscript comes to me for editing where the characters talk and sound the same. They ring false, and I know what happened.

The author became so involved with creating the plot and circumstances that characterizations were overlooked.

In your mind, you have the basics:

  • Sex and age
  • Physical description—coloring, clothes
  • Overall personality—light or dark, upbeat or a downer

You can tell me all these things, but unless I see it, I don’t believe it. Good characterization shows those things but also offers me hints of:

  • An individual’s speech habits.
  • An individual with history.
  • An individual’s personal style.
  • An individual with or without boundaries—things they will or will not do.
  • Someone with secrets they believe no one knows.
  • Someone with secrets they will admit to.
  • And someone with secrets they will deny to the grave.

This is a key component of the inferential layer of the Word-Pond we call Story. As the narrative progresses, we offer a few more clues about each character, maintaining the mystery, yet giving the reader a small reward.

We begin to see the details buried in the noise of the larger picture.

In real life, people who accost you and dump their whole life on you in a ten-minute monologue immediately lose your interest. In fact, you avoid them, fearing you will be subjected to more of their history.

Don’t make it too easy for the reader because the sense of reward is a ‘found’ thing. The ‘ah-hah!’ moment of discovery is what we readers want to experience. We enjoy the ‘oh, my god’ moment of shock when a deeply personal secret is hinted at, and only we, the reader, suspect the truth.

In the books I love and refer back to, great characters dominate. They behave and react to the inciting incident the way their established personality would. As each subsequent event unfolds, they continue to behave as individuals. No one acts out of character.

We want to read about characters with secrets because they are a mystery, and we love to work out puzzles.

Certain tricks of plotting work across all genres, from sci-fi to romance, no matter what the setting is:

  • One or more characters is a “fish out of water,” in that they are immediately thrust into an unknown and possibly dangerous environment.
  • Every character projects an obvious surface persona.
  • Early on, the reader sees glimpses of weaknesses and fears; the sorrows and guilts that lie beneath their exterior personas.
  • Each character has emotions and thoughts they conceal from the 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?

Our task is to ensure that each of our characters’ individual stories intersects seamlessly. In order to do that, motivations must be clearly defined.

  • You must know how the person thinks and reacts as an individual.
  • What need drives them?
  • What lengths will they go to in the effort to achieve their goal? Conversely, what will they NOT do?
  • What are their moral boundaries, and what is out of character for them?

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

We know the obstacles our characters face and the choices they make in those situations are the story. In literary terms, agency is the power of an individual character to act independently, to choose their own path. When we give the protagonist/antagonist agency, we allow them to make their own free choices, and they will take the narrative in new directions, surprising even you, the author.

When they have unique personalities, it becomes easy to give our characters an active role. And yet they still harbor secrets that surprise and shock me. We see the smallest details hiding in the background, nearly obscured by the distractions in the foreground.

We see what is hidden in the shadows.

When I am first writing any story, giving my characters agency is difficult to do. At this point 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, so I have to create a personnel file for them. I make each character known to me as an individual, down to their taste in clothing.

I am privy to what secrets they will consent to share with me. Those secrets propel their story-line. But they don’t tell me everything.

Within the plot outline, the individuality of the characters drives the story as a whole. Allowing them agency makes it unexpected. When characters are portrayed as truthfully as possible, they will feel real.

In real life, smart people reveal their secrets only at the right time, or they keep them forever. If they don’t, we will do anything to avoid those people, fearing they will spew too much information, stuff we don’t need or want to know. When they get on the bus, we avoid making eye contact and put our possessions on the seat beside us so they can’t sit there, pretending we don’t see them.

In a gripping story, characters keep their secrets close, revealing them only at the one moment when the protagonist and the reader must have the information.

Now, if only I can write this story that I woke up thinking about. If only I can pry loose who they are, learn their secrets. It’s easy to talk the talk, but walking the talk is the difficult part of writing. This is where writing become work.


Credits and Attributions:

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:George Henry Durrie – Winter Scene in New Haven, Connecticut – Google Art Project.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:George_Henry_Durrie_-_Winter_Scene_in_New_Haven,_Connecticut_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg&oldid=249454341  (accessed December 14, 2017).

Details sections from Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:George Henry Durrie – Winter Scene in New Haven, Connecticut – Google Art Project.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:George_Henry_Durrie_-_Winter_Scene_in_New_Haven,_Connecticut_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg&oldid=249454341  (accessed December 14, 2017).

Don Quijote de La Mancha and Sancho Panza, 1863, Gustave Doré [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons (Accessed October 22, 2017).

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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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A sense of time and place #amwriting

Clementine’s Astoria Bed & Breakfast Street View

Last week my husband and I had an opportunity to stay at a B&B in Astoria, one of our favorite towns. We were unsure what to think when we arrived at the curb before Clementine’s Bed and Breakfast. I was a tad surprised to find that the stairs to the front door appear to rise as vertically as a ladder. This first photograph was taken at street level, so you can see how steep the climb to the front door is.

Grandma had trouble climbing them. Yes, the steep steps were daunting for us old folks, but once we were registered, we were shown the gentler way in through the pleasant, lush garden, which completely bypasses the two-story climb out front.

Our room was a soothing, pleasant retreat called the Garden Room.

Yvonne, the innkeeper, and her spouse, Stephen, were absolutely wonderful hosts. Generous with wine, Perrier, and snacks, these two go out of their way to make sure their guests feel like members of the family.

While I sat in the comfortable front parlor, listening to Stephen perform his incredible and original compositions on the baby-grand piano, I realized the owner had gone to a lot of trouble to create a sense of place, a certain ambiance of Old Time Comfort.

I looked around, seeing a relaxing Victorian home that feels as if it’s being lived in by many generations of a single family. Established in 1993, Clementine’s looks as if it evolved gradually over many generations—although it did not.

White Hydrangea

In the early 90s, the house was in danger of being torn down. It was built in 1888 By William Ross and is one of the oldest houses in Astoria. The original owners were long since gone, and it had fallen into disrepair. The new owners put a lot of work and thought into the restoration of the old mansion, and it really paid off. They named the inn after the original owner’s wife, Clementine Ross.

That is a case of using the appropriate name to give the visitor a sense of time and place. I stumbled across the name when searching for places to stay in Astoria, and immediately it evoked a Victorian aura and made me curious.

This is a lesson writers should learn. When we name our characters, we have the opportunity to convey a great deal of information without resorting to explanations. (But please, keep the names pronounceable.)

The owner/decorator achieved a feeling of tradition and continuity the same way we achieve a sense of place and familiarity in our writing. She used layers, small, deft touches. She had a good sense of what is too much detail, as she stopped adding to it once the atmosphere was established, quitting well before it turned into a Victorian parody.

The front parlor is a quiet, restful room. Victorian-era style transitions to Edwardian in terms of furniture; and both eras coexist well with pieces from more recent times, the nineteen-forties, and later. This offers the visual feeling of being a guest in someone’s old family home.

Again, the atmosphere is created on the surface level, with the large comfortable settees and the huge, gentle cat named Bruno, a Maine Coon, who belongs to the inn.

But it is also created in subliminal ways.

Smaller visuals, things that guests subconsciously absorb in the first glance set the scene. A few old-fashioned doilies placed here or there protect the antique tables; not too many doilies, but just enough. The front parlor is decorated with carefully placed objects, many that seem to hail from the far-east, impressing the maritime history of Astoria upon the visitor.

The walls are hung with antique framed pictures and hand-embroidered samplers, their homey simplicity lending truth to the atmosphere of a seafaring family’s long-established prosperity and comfort.

It was easy to believe we were visiting the family home of a long-lost relative, sharing an evening of music and conversation. Yvonne’s talent for making her guests feel both welcome and cared for is without peer.

Clementine’s Dahlia Garden

She and Stephen served a wonderful multi course family-style breakfast, providing well for six sets of guests and going far out of their way to serve me—the vegan who has become a little cynical about dining away from home. I felt as if my company was wanted at the breakfast table, instead of the usual “oh, dear God—she thinks she’s a vegan” attitude that is usually directed my way.

Greg and I like to stay at bed and breakfasts for the same reasons we select certain books. Sometimes we’re looking for something different from the usual chain hotels; something outside established genres. We want to visit a place with a story and have a little adventure. We also want good food and a friendly welcome from people who feel like they could be close friends. Clementine’s more than satisfied us on all accounts.

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