Tag Archives: characterization

Facing a Character Uprising: Whip and a Chair, Please.

I told her, "Ain't happening. Not doing that. Not now. Not ever."

I told her, “Ain’t happening. Not doing that. Not now. Not ever.”

We all recognize it. The signs are obvious. Our carefully mapped out story which we worked to meet the three arc story structure is not staying in line. And we all know whose fault it is. It’s not the hard-working writer. No. It is always a cantankerous character determined to forge his own path. How dare he! So we attempt to woo him into line, to no avail of course.

After a bit of head banging – ours not his – we look at our beautifully structured outline and realize the inevitable. This is not truly our story. It may have started in our hands, and we may have molded its beginnings, but the minute the protagonist entered and began relating to other characters we relinquished a degree of control. We still control syntax and diction. We have a say over format and structure. Those chapters and scenes are still somewhat within our purview, but try to tell your character how things will go for the rest of his story and see how quickly he stops talking to you.

Wrestling your character to force him into line with your original vision is a bit like wrangling an alligator. You either wind up an hors d’ oeuvre or you own a pretty but lifeless pair of shoes. It’s always best when a character steps up to the plate and takes over to let them have the wheel. You can step in when you need to and rein in the parts you control but let the character tell his or her story. It is their journey, their path. In the end, we wouldn’t want anyone else telling our story, would we?

How do you handle character rebellions?

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Ripple, Pulse, Flow…

One of my critique buddies, Natasha Hanova, has started a blog chain on the ripple effect. The premise behind the blog chain is for you to write this question at the top of a post, link it back to the person whose blog you read it on, answer the question, and invite others (consider this your formal invitation) to participate. Last, post a link to participant(s) who link back to your blog to complete the chain. For this chain, Natasha asked the following question:

Has your manuscript (WIP or completed) experienced a ripple effect, where one change affected the manuscript from beginning to end? If so, how?

My YA novel is about a girl who discovers she’s genetically engineered. This news sends her on the run from good and bad guys alike with the help of lifelong friends, Toad and Mayo. As I wrote the first draft of the initial scene with Toad, he stunned me by  “rolling into the room” behind Ginny. It wasn’t something I thought about in advance or planned. The character told me he was in a chair. That one small detail caused ripples throughout the rest of the book and has ramifications in the next books as well.

Some were big, leading to ample questions for me like how could genetic engineering be used to help him and how might that impact Ginny’s mixed emotions about her status as a “freak”? Some were smaller, happening within my world building, such as a ramp that her dad built on his back deck for ease of access since Toad was there…a lot. The one simple detail enriched both the character of Toad but also impacted his relationships with Ginny and Mayo, his history (how and when did he end up in a chair?), and complicated his ability to help Mayo rescue their best friend.

Ripples are amazing. They continue to pay dividends long after that initial cause. Check out Writes by Moonlight’s blog on Ripples.

I’m interested in hearing whether you’ve experienced the ripple effect in your work and if so, how? If you decide to participate in this blog chain, please let me know so I can include a link. If you just want to leave your comments below, that works for me, too.

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Sidekicks

I have always had a thing for sidekicks. Everything from Lethal Weapon’s combo to Batman and Robin from my childhood. There is something about the dichotomy of a duo relationship that I enjoy. Unfortunately, it isn’t something writers always do well. We’ve seen duos fall short in books and film, leaving the reader or viewer disappointed. What makes a duo work?

Who’s the leader: While both characters can be strong, one must be the leader. Sometimes, this presents problems as he is usually the more intense of the two, more bound by rules, and irritating to his partner. However, as the writer it provides you chances to expound on what conflict this competition might cause.

Balancing Strengths: The characters should have different strengths. One character’s strength will offset his partner’s weakness, etc. This allows them to balance each other out in the trials you throw their way. It also provides for a funny partner to lighten a serious one, a quiet character contrasted by one who talks all the time. Opposites attract because the differences are where conflict and opportunity meet. Use it to your advantage.

One goal: Despite their differences, large and small, the two should share a common goal. If they are cops, it is to protect the people by catching bad guys. If they are doctors, it is to save lives, etc. Whatever they may have going on that pulls them apart, this goal should keep them anchored.

Successful film examples for me: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Doc and Marty, Thelma and Louise, and my favorite, Murtaugh and Riggs of Lethal Weapon fame.

What are your favorite sidekicks from literature, TV, or film?

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Flat Kansas

The stereotype of Kansas is that it’s flat, as in from corner to corner, dreadful to drive across, flat. For those of us who live in the state, it’s debatable where this rumor began but where do most stereotypes begin? They begin with a tiny kernel of truth stretched to become more than it is. Thus, a small truth about Kansas – that parts of it are flat – has somehow become the entirety of our image. The funny thing about this is I’ve traveled all over the United States (Thanks, Mom and Dad) and guess what I found in those travels? There is flat land in nearly every state in our union. Shocked? I didn’t think so.

Our ranch in the southwestern part of the state has some flat land but is also bless with wonderful rolling hills, canyons and ravines, bluffs and buttes, and trees and vegetation. So much for the stereotype. The Flint Hills well-known as a completely NOT flat part of Kansas and our part of Kansas also not flat and the north-eastern part of the state is not flat either. Stereotype. What I love about my state is that I live here in these wonderful rolling hills and canyons and listen to the flat hype, and it’s this wonderful secret Kansas and I keep.

This is how writers need to approach stereotypes in writing. Find that kernel of truth, use it but also know where the kernel of truth butts up against that hype of type. The minute something becomes “everyone knows Kansas is flat” as writers we know we have a job to do. We have to show readers that what “everyone knows” is actually 1/4 of the actuality. As writers you’ve only succeeded if you do your research, and make sure that your cop is more than the stereotype who eats donuts and drinks too much, your librarian is more than a single lady with a bun who only reads classics, or your construction worker is more than a catcalling, macho guy with the intellect of concrete. Turn those stereotypes off. Take the kernel of truth and build characters of true depth with crags and hills and valleys and vegetation.

What tricks do you use to avoid stereotype in characters?

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Character Corral

Where do these people come from? Are they real? Writers get a lot of questions about the characters they create. Of course, the answer, if you are in your right mind, is that you don’t model your characters after one person. I’m not sure what other writers do but mine are a fusion of many people.

I based the main character of The Drought of Sam Dakota on a guy I ran into in the QuikTrip, twice. He intrigued me like a novel with a strong hook. Thank God they didn’t have stalking laws the first time because I followed him around the QT, drooling. He had a little boy with him and that colored the story that later became The Drought of Sam Dakota, but the part that came from that man were my character’s looks and apparent heritage. I don’t know the gentleman I saw that day (or the second time I was lucky enough to run into him) so none of the other aspects of my character came from him. Sam’s exact heritage and some of his traits come from a distant relative of mine. His cases – he’s a child advocate – come from a lifetime in education. I changed names and tweaked the incidents, but all of those things happened in the suburban, middle class area in which I taught. Some of Sam’s idiosyncrasies are traits of friends of mine. Sometimes because I admire them, sometimes because they drive me insane. Sam is not based on one individual. Now when we read him at group, everyone drools and wishes he was one person but that’s really what characters are all about. There will never be an Atticus Finch, but it’s the possibility that there might be that drives us on.

Sam’s sidekick is a guy I met at a birthday picnic. He also fascinated me. He’s Native Samoan, and he barters rather than collects a paycheck. People pay him in goods for work he does. Those two things became the basis for Rami Amato, the private detective who helps Sam search for his own son.

I based Ginny, the main character in my YA novel, on several former students. Her looks and physicality come from one student, her name from another, and her personality from a third. These three young ladies give my genetically engineered character a depth it would have been difficult to make up.

Her cohorts, Toad and Mayo, are also from former students. In Toad’s case, three former students and in Mayo’s case, two. It doesn’t take a lot to pull from real life. In Mayo’s case, I had a student who could not eat enough food. Every time he entered my class he had a bag of chips, a banana, those nasty fruit treats or anything edible in his hand. I had him lunch hour, and he didn’t so much eat as graze all hour. The character of Mayo became a foodie. I crossed this with a hacker I had. This kid could do anything with computers. Which was good because the technology in my room was always broken, and he fixed things faster and better than the district. I based Toad on a kid who was into extreme sports before they coined that phrase. I added in a student I had later who plays lacrosse. The two boys became Toad this hot young man with a daredevil attitude. I also had a young man with a disability one year. He smiled every day. I never saw him grumpy or sad. He never had a “why me” attitude. Toad needed this kid’s outlook.

I love pulling traits from real people to imbue life into my characters.

What inspires your characters?

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Memory

        My husband took me to see The Vow on Valentine’s Day.  It’s gotten me thinking a lot about memory and about that computer in our heads. Our lives are basically one long film, a storyboard of our lives from beginning to end. Each part of our journey broken down on the celluloid in our memory cells for our use as we make it through life. It is what prevents us from sticking our fingers in an open flame more than once. Oops, remember that hurt the last time. It is a file cabinet of everything we’ve learned from the mundane to the extraordinary. It’s a keepsake box full of memorabilia from the smell of our first corsage to the feeling of butterflies before our first kiss. Housed there are the hopes and the dreams some of which we’ll realize and some which will remain just sweet possibilities. What makes memories so important to us? They are the sum of who we were, who we are, and who we can be. Without those memories, we become a blank slate devoid of possibilities.
 
      A lot like that computer screen or that sheet of paper that a writer begins with. It is important in writing to remember that before the story can exist, characters must exist, characters with memories. Their lives  existed long before the story began and will exist after the story ends. It is up to the writer to bring those pieces of the character out of the dark recesses of a character’s mind and into the light for the reader to see and understand.
 
   How do you build memories for your characters?

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Home of the Brave

We live in an age of heroism. It’s in our films (seen a comic book based film lately?) and our novels and our news reports. Unlike the sixties, we have revered our troops for their bravery in the field. We take these boys (for the most part) from their video games and attempts to nail pretty girls and place them in the worst that hell here on earth has to offer. From deep within the human psyche, they find the courage to do things most of us could not even conceive. When we think of bravery, there’s a common list: police officers, firemen, soldiers,  people who risk the ultimate daily for the rest of us.

When we think of bravery, it’s easy to think of the obvious. I don’t want to diminish that, but it’s not the type I want to talk about here. If you look at those comic heroes, Peter Parker?  A nobody until a lab accident makes him Spiderman. Bruce Wayne? A rich orphan whose psychopathy turns him into the elusive crime fighter in an attempt to right the type of wrong that robbed him of his parents. What’s the point? Bravery is a trait inherent in all of us. It is circumstances that awaken it.

When I place my character in the right set of circumstances, it doesn’t matter who he was before. It doesn’t matter what traits he exhibited or how he manifested himself in life. In the right set of circumstances, he can find that gut entrenched trait that will cause him to rise against the largest of foes. David didn’t take on Goliath because of who he was, but because of what he had within him.

When you place your protagonist in the right circumstances, he or she will display the type of heroic behavior one would expect. We see it everyday. I have a friend battling breast cancer. Her courage amazes me. I know single mothers struggling to raise families with no help. I couldn’t do that, I say. In the right circumstances, maybe I could. Until the circumstances are right, we don’t know. Until you give your character the opportunity, you won’t know either.

Brace yourself though. Once you give them the chance to shine, the book is all theirs. You’ve lost control to a certain degree. Feel good about it.

What circumstances do you provide for your characters that require the inner reserve and strength we call bravery?

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