Tag Archives: creating individual characters

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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#amwriting: personality and the fight scene

I am in the process of getting one of my works in progress, Billy Ninefingers, ready for publication. This tale takes place in the world of Waldeyn, and Huw the Bard makes an appearance, although not in the opening chapters.

The book opens on a sunny day, and my characters are wearing armor. Their conversation tells us they’re nervous about the trail they are on. Through their casual comments, we learn that the world they live in is dangerous, and people must hire guards to protect them from more than just highwaymen if they choose to travel. The three paragraphs of that conversation are all the reader needs to know about the work my characters do and the trail they are riding. That scene ends and the next scene takes them and the merchant they are guarding to their destination, the dark, dirty town of Somber Flats.

The second scene is the setup for the inciting incident, the moment we meet the first antagonist, Bastard John. When he enters the scene, it is one of the few times when the Bastard will be in such a place that we can see who he is as a person. The inciting incident makes no sense unless the reader knows that the Bastard is an obnoxious bastard, and proud to be so-named.

At this point, an argument ensues, which turns violent. Scenes involving fighting are controlled chaos—controlled on the part of the author. There must be a reason for the fight, one that goes beyond the need for livening things up. When it comes to fighting, I keep it concise and linear, as drawn-out fight scenes bore me to tears.

Most authors get hung up on the technical side of the fight–how they were dressed, who hit who with what weapon, and so on. These are necessary elements of the scene that good, responsible research and an author’s diligence can resolve.

But there is a larger consideration to your battle: you must have a good reason for the conflict. No one is going to stick with a novel where random, convoluted battles happen for no good reason. They hack, they slash, blood flows, the winner walks away–but why did it happen? What is the purpose of injecting that conflict into the narrative? In Billy Ninefingers, besides the obvious fact that he is seriously injured in the fight, which is the core plot point of the book, I had two other goals with that fight scene:

  1. I needed to show how the Bastard is jealous and acts on any thought that passes through his alcohol-soaked mind.
  2. In the resolution of that scene, my intention was to demonstrate that Billy, even with his life in ruins, has a sense of fair-play.

Each character in the fight is, and must remain, a unique individual. There should be no blurring of personalities, which can happen when an author focuses to intently on the action of the fight scene, writing it as if they lived it. For the author, acting out the action ensures that the moves are reasonable and make sense, but you aren’t done writing that scene just because the hacking, slashing, and gunshots are on paper. You must go back to the first part of that section, and make sure you haven’t lost the individuality of the characters in the chaos. Each character must be portrayed in the actions sequence in such a way the reader doesn’t say, “He wouldn’t do that.”

Consider the people you know. Picture the ones you like to spend time with. What is it about them that captured your interest in the first place? I’m not talking lovers here, so set the irresistible chemistry aside and think about their mannerisms, their habits.

That sense of uniqueness is what we must give our characters through their habitual movements and speech, and it is crucial we maintain those differences when we describe a fight scene.

Our bodies, as well as our faces, are in constant motion. You can show this in small, unobtrusive ways by sitting back and visualizing your scene as if you were the witness rather than a participant, making it real in your mind before you commit it to paper.

In conversation, people miss a few beats when they are speaking. They gather their thoughts and speak in short bursts. They shift in their chair, or stand up, or wave a hand to emphasize a point. They turn, and sometimes mumble.

Every character’s mannerisms are individual, uniquely theirs. You, as the author, visualize them this way, but the difference between success and failure as an author is the ability to commit their personalities to paper. Many authors don’t succeed at this—they either fail to give enough subtle clues to the reader, or they are too specific. The fine line between enough and too much is where the author’s artistry comes in.

Through physical actions and conversational interactions, we make our characters knowable and likable (or not, as the case may be). Their actions as they interact with their environment and each other illustrate the world they exist in. Each scene is your opportunity to convey the setting and the mood of your characters without resorting to an info dump.

Especially when describing a fight scene, the author must give the impression of detail, offering the reader a framework to hang his imagination on. We use our words sparingly and with intention, painting the idea and the atmosphere of the conflict as if painting  the scene in the style of the impressionists.

I love it when I can suspend my disbelief and become immersed in the story, getting wrapped up in the fight because the battle is crucial, and the good people must win.

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