The idea that children’s picture books should contain a strong moral or message seems to be very popular among authors of books for young people. This notion probably emanates from parents and caregivers who are of the view that books are a tool for instructing their young, especially in our modern world of so many more risks to the welfare our children than ever before.
This idea does, however, always bring to my mind the lyrics of the song, A British Nanny sung by David Tomlinson, from the original movie of Mary Poppins:
“A British nanny must be a general!
The future empire lies within her hands
And so the person that we need to mold the breed
Is a nanny who can give commands!
Mr Banks: Are you getting this Winifred?
Mrs Banks: Oh yes dear, every word
A British bank is run with precision
A British home requires nothing less!
Tradition, discipline, and rules must be the tools
Without them – disorder!
Anarchy – In short you have a ghastly mess!”
This is an amusing song and you can listen to it here:
The idea of a story or picture book containing a message is not a bad one. It is very much about how the message is presented in the story that will decide whether the book appeals to children or not. After all, children’s writers want to write books that children want to read again and again, not books that their parents think they should read.
My own children have taught me that children run a mile when they think that a book contains an overt moral or message. With this in mind, how then can a parent or caregiver select a book that both teaches and entertains?
Firstly, what the reader will takeaway from the story should be considered. It is not necessary to write out a moral at the end of a tale in the manner of Aesop’s Fables, the message can be subtle, for example, a polluted river that poisons a river or lake and results in all the fish and water creatures dying and the resolution of that predicament by cleaning up the river and preventing future contamination of the water. Children will understand the message without it being spelled out for them.
Some other tips for choosing books that will entertain as well as teach children are as follows:
- Make sure that the book is character driven with memorable characters that make the reader care about them. For example in Heidi by Johanna Spyri, the author makes the reader really care about Heidi, Clara and even Grandfather as he changes from a grumpy old man into a tender caregiver. I can remember crying when Heidi goes away from Grandfather to live with Clara in the city;
- The language and voice of the story should be suitable for a child and should be interesting and fun. The idea of family members all helping each other and their parents is strongly conveyed in Enid Blyton’s Faraway Tree series of books through the expectations of the parents and the behavior of, and awareness of their family dynamics by, the children;
- Showing and not telling is another essential ingredient to a good children’s story. I think Roald Dahl is a master and demonstrating exactly where unkind and selfish behavior gets you in life, think of the fate of the two aunts in James and the Giant Peach or the Twits from the book of the same name.
What do you think about children’s books that contain messages? Should they be subtle or overt? Let me know in the comments.
About Robbie Cheadle
Hello, my name is Robbie, short for Roberta. I am an author with six published children’s picture books in the Sir Chocolate books series for children aged 2 to 9 years old (co-authored with my son, Michael Cheadle), one published middle grade book in the Silly Willy series and one published preteen/young adult fictionalised biography about my mother’s life as a young girl growing up in an English town in Suffolk during World War II called While the Bombs Fell (co-authored with my mother, Elsie Hancy Eaton). All of my children’s book are written under Robbie Cheadle and are published by TSL Publications.
I have recently branched into adult and young adult horror and supernatural writing and, in order to clearly differential my children’s books from my adult writing, I plan to publish these books under Roberta Eaton Cheadle. My first supernatural book published in that name, Through the Nethergate, is now available.
I have two short stories in the horror/supernatural genre included in Dark Visions, a collection of 34 short stories by 27 different authors and edited by award winning author, Dan Alatorre. I also have three short stories in Death Among Us, a collection of short murder mystery stories by 10 different authors and edited by Stephen Bentley. These short stories are all published under Robbie Cheadle.
I have recently published a book of poetry called Open a new door, with fellow South African poet, Kim Blades.
Find Robbie Cheadle
Goodreads: Robbie Cheadle – Goodreads
Instagram: Robbie Cheadle – Instagram
Facebook: Sir Chocolate Books
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Ask the Author (Round 2)
Today’s topic on Ask the Authors is character development. We’ll talk about what makes a good character and and a bad villian, and how to create characters the reader will care about. Our author panel this week includes Tom Johnson, DeAnna Knippling, Cynthia Vespia, RA Winter, Dan Alatorre, Lilly Rayman, Jordan Elizabeth, Ashley Fontainne and Margareth Stewart. They may each have a different approach to developing their characters, and we might be able to glean some good insights from them.
You can have a great story, but if no one cares about the characters, it won’t matter. Characters must be unique, well rounded individuals who readers can relate to on some level, or they won’t even finish the book. Your characters carry the story, so it’s important that we portray in ways that will make readers interested in what happens with them, so that they will keep reading.
What makes a character interesting?
Different people will find different characters interesting, by whatever standard they find other people interesting. Some people want to see everyday people in extraordinary situations. Some people want to see characters worth gossiping about, whose behavior is over the top or otherwise out of bounds (Gone Girl). Some people want to see characters doing what they wish they could do and having what they wish they could have. Most people want to see a mix. And it depends on the context of the story. You wouldn’t want to see the unspeakably evil villain of a superhero comic move into a light romance, most of the time. “Interesting” is kind of a narrow window where a character meets eighty percent of the reader’s expectations, but still has a little bit of surprise to them.
Layers. If a character is too perfect or one dimensional you lose me. There has to be some shades of gray in there. Some imperfections and flaws that are relatable to the reader.
Flaws and dilemmas give a character depth and relatability. Quirks help too.
Different characters are interesting for different reasons. The hero can be somebody who works hard and does things the right way even when it’s difficult. They have to overcome challenges that would have put a lesser person on the sideline. A funny character has to be funny. But what makes them interesting? Why do people want to continue to read about them?
Usually it’s because they demonstrate characteristics we want to emulate. We wish we were the funny person (and everybody enjoys a joke). We wish we were that hard-working. We wish we were that honest. We wish that if our parents died and we were forced to live with our mean uncle in a closet under the stairs, that we wouldn’t become bitter but would rise above it.
A character with a history. One that’s not born just off the first page. When a character has a past, it shapes and moulds them into who the reader first meets. If there is trauma in their history, and they come through stronger then that can also make for an interesting character. A sense of humour can also engage the reader with a character. The most important element of an interesting character is one that is as large as life – there’s no point having a 2d character that the reader can’t relate to.
The voice has to engage the reader. If the voice falls flat, there’s nothing you can do to revive that character.
Strengths, weaknesses and relatability to the reader.
The character needs to be relatable to the reader. They can be anything, but if the read can’t relate to them on some level, then the character seems flat.
We don’t want all the characters to carry the author’s perspective or to all sound like the author’s voice. If they did, it would get pretty boring because everyone would agree and there would be no conflict in our stories.
How do you give your characters unique perspective?
I once read a comic book I picked up and saw that the artist drew every face exactly the same, even the females resembled the males’ facial features. He just couldn’t give individuality to each of his characters. When I create characters, I want them to be completely different from each other. Maybe one limps. Another may laugh a lot. Another problem I found in a recent book I reviewed, where the main character is a female (written by a male), but she comes across as one of the boys. She needed to be more feminine to set her apart.
I try to give them strong opinions about things, a cohesive way of seeing the world that isn’t necessarily accurate, but that lets a reader see where they come from. I write a lot of ordinary people in extraordinary situation characters, though, so I have to ground them in some kind of normal thoughts, attitudes, and behaviors. I like finding out where the character’s point of view is inaccurate, though. For example, I have one character who comes from a very wealthy background and who doesn’t know when she’s being cruel to her friends; another one doesn’t recognize that he’s going through PTSD.
There’s those flaws again. We all have them in real life. Little idiosyncrasies that make us who we are. The best part of first developing a character is finding out what makes them tick. Their back story is what’s going to drive them to do certain things.
My characters are usually very intelligent and witty. As a result, they are unique because they will interrupt each other and disagree with each other and resist each other, even if they are friends. That differentiates them and creates unique perspectives. In Double Blind I have two detectives that are good friends, Carly and Sergio, and Carly is getting a bad vibe about another character. Sergio convinces her that she’s over blowing it – but in fact, he’s wrong. In a scene where they talk about her intuition, he’s very sympathetic and understanding, but he explains it away, and he does it in a very friendly logical manner, thinking he is genuinely helping his friend. Then it turns out he was wrong and she almost gets killed as a result. So the characters care about each other, and they are smart and funny or whatever, but they are also human and make mistakes. Readers like that and want to see more of it.
Having an idea of where my characters life has taken them. If I know the reasons behind what motivates each character, what has shaped them and moulded them into who they are, then I can bring that experience through in their perspective. Of course, the reader doesn’t necessarily know all the backstory that I do, and it’s not always needed for the reader to understand my character, so long as my character has a depth that makes them believable.
I try to base my characters after people I know. Some characters take on a life of their own, but most of them do mirror real life.
Each person sees events from their own limited perspective and react based upon their knowledge base.
In Blake Synder’s Save the Cat, he talks about making characters likeable by having them do something heroic to show readers how good they are; essentially by having them save the cat, because you just have to like someone who would rescue a little kitty, right?
How do you make your characters likeable?
My characters, male or female will not hesitate to put their life at risk to save another, whether a cat or man, woman or child. Jesus said to give your life to save someone else is the greatest thing you can do. I follow those words of wisdom in my writing.
I have a couple of tricks up my sleeve. Whatever the character does that is maybe not so likable, I’ll put it in context so that someone else told them it was the right way to behave or someone’s doing even worse to the character. I’ll have the character notice the unlikable things about themselves and laugh at themselves or admit that it’s not the greatest thing and they’re trying to change. What makes you overlook someone’s flaws in person? Humor, charisma, wittiness? I like to present plusses and minuses to the character, which means I usually have to mitigate the minuses for the reader.
I make them relatable. They don’t always have to be the hero. They can be the good friend or the sidekick. The hero may save the day begrudingly but if they’re pulling cats out of trees like Superman they get a little too vanilla and were back to them being perfect. You simply just have to write them with morality and they become likeable. However, in some of my novels I’ve been told by my readers they liked the badguy more than the hero. That’s where you take a step back and ask why that happened. My answer was exactly what I’m trying to explain here. The hero had too much saccharin…too sweet, too perfect. Give them flaws and a little bit of attitude, it’ll make all the difference.
Likable characters come around by a certain methodology. If somebody is funny and they say funny things, but they are likable, it’s probably because the funny things they are saying aren’t hurting anybody’s feelings or they are taking a certain statement and twisting it so that it’s funny. We may like a hero because the hero usually has characteristics we went to emulate. Then, that likability transfers. If we like the main character and the main character likes the secondary character, then we as readers give the benefit of the doubt to the secondary character and we like them right away. It’s only if they say or do something that interrupts that goodwill that we begin to question it. And of course, if they are the bad guy, we obviously will have enough evidence over the course of time to thoroughly dislike them – as we should.
I give my characters traits that I like in the people around me. Strong independent characters, or meek and mild, they can both be equally likeable if you know they are fiercely loyal and the reader knows that they can be depended upon at all times.
I don’t try to make my characters likable! I try to make them true. The likability comes from realizing that everyone is human. We make mistakes, but we try out best.
Private thoughts or conversations with others regarding simple things each of us face every day. One of my characters from my newest book, Fatal Agreements, rescues a kitten during a storm. Some of the moments between the pair, when the character is speaking to the cat allow the reader to get inside her private thoughts.
You have a literal save the cat scene in Fatal Agreements?
I try to give my characters depth… in one situation they may save the cat, but in another situation they may run it over. Sometimes I don’t want a particular character likeable. My heroes are sometimes not the good guys and so this is a very tough question to answer.
That is so true – developing a strong character so the reader can look up to him or her is one trick of the many carried by writers. I would rather say it is a little more complicated than just saving the cat; the book needs to bring into life not only something heroic as saving a cat but something we-humans have always felt like doing, but had no courage to accomplish it. There should be a link between what the reader deep inside wants to do and what the main character does – this is the strong connection between reader-character. For instance, somebody who is not fond of cats might not enjoy as much that kind of reading as someone crazy about them, and who has got three or four at home. The last one will be into the scene on the verge of a second to save the cat together with the character. It is the same for other situations and books. In my novel Mademoiselle–Seine, the main character Louise is a successful businesswoman – CEO of her own marketing agency in NY. She is in her middle forties, and due to stress she has been having heart problems. in her business life, but on love, sex and emotions, she says she has only got bad luck. Her doctor recommends her to take a break, maybe a month vacation in a place away from the city. So anyone who works lots and feels this lack of passion in person life will go to France with her and find out pleasure with the lessons taught by Madame–Seine – a retired cabaret dancer. This “click” puts us-humans right into the fictional world; and out there, who knows… we can learn with them and change our lives as well?
In that same sense, you must create antagonists that are equally unlikeable, because the more terrible the villain is the harder we cheer when the hero overcomes them.
How do you create a villain that we can love to hate?
Yes, the villain should be as evil as you can make him/her. We’ve tended to blur the vision is the past few decades, where heroes are not always good, and villains are not always bad. But if you want a great villain, give the readers a really evil person who just might kill that cat if your hero doesn’t act fast enough.
For other books, I write more traditional villains. In that case, I try to write antagonists who are the heroes of their own stories. Not just protagonists, but heroes. They put themselves up on some kind of pedestal. If only other people could see how great they are! That’s a satisfying kind of person to see get knocked down. There’s a German word, Backpfeifengesicht, that means, “face in need of fist”. I like to write smart, well-developed villians who have that kind of face.
Villains are fun to write because you take off the gloves. They do what they want with no morals and plenty of malice. But I always say that the best villains have a purpose just as big as the hero’s is. Unless they’re a stark raving madman they need to see what they’re doing as the best route to take for a certain reason, not just because its in the plot. Its important to ask why any of your characters do what they do. A good example is in the Netflix series Daredevil. The infamous Kingpin (played beautifully by the amazing Vincent D’Onofrio) is on a mission to “clean-up” Hell’s Kitchen. He has some unscrupulous methods for doing that but in his mind doing dirty deeds is worth it if he can reach his goal of making the place he grew up that much better.
I like my villains to play on emotions and the insecurities of characters. But, there has to be a goal for each character, even the bad ones, and it has to be something attainable. A good villain brings out the hero in the MC by allowing the MC to overcome their own shortcomings.
If we like the hero because they possess characteristics we wish we had, then it stands to reason we’ll dislike the antagonist because the antagonist possesses characteristics we don’t like. We don’t like that we are sometimes similar to them and the way they behave. There are certain things that are kind of universal. Dropping the tray in the lunch room and having everybody stare at you and being embarrassed, everybody has been in a situation similar to that. By the same token, we recognize when somebody is being mean to us, or teasing us, or pretending to be nice so they can get what they want from us. And then that’s just for openers. Then if we see them kick the dog as they walk down the street, or as soon as someone’s out of earshot they talk bad about them, they reveal their true character. We hate meanness and duplicity. So you give all those characteristics to your bad guy, and reveal them slowly so we are gripping our fists and yelling at the page.
Giving them traits that you find distasteful in people around you. Arrogance can be borderline as a love or hate trait, depending on how that particular trait is balanced. For example, an arrogant hero would be loyal and have traits that make a reader love them despite their arrogance. In a villain, however, you would pair the arrogance with violence and narcissism, giving them many traits that the reader will find unlikeable.
I try to make my villains true to life too. I love switching perspectives in a story so the reader gets a well-rounded view. There are plenty of villains in real life. While everyone does have a sense of good in them, that sense of good can be really small.
I try to make my villains true to life too. I love switching perspectives in a story so the reader gets a well-rounded view. There are plenty of villains in real life. While everyone does have a sense of good in them, that sense of good can be really small.
I created a great villain in Open/ Pierre’s journey after war. He was a contradictory old sir—owner of a second-hand bookshop. At the same time; he was a war-fanatic, perverse and authoritarian who undermines Pierre all the time. But, he speaks great truths – about men finding the meaning of life through war, that killing has always been a method of keeping population balance in the world and that peace is very artificial–men are born to war. Besides all that, he is always suspecting that Pierre might rob him and it is him who robs Pierre. It is a tricky situation just like in real-life situations which unfolhds when there is no more time for action. When Pierre finds out the truth, and how he was completely fooled by the owner, he’d do anything else as he goes back and take on revenge.
In order to act, characters need to be motivated by a goal, which they strive to meet, or to avoid unpleasant consequences. The motivation can be personal, being important to the character, such as loss of one’s life or harm to a loved one, or it can be external, such as avoiding the total destruction of the world.
How do you motivate your characters?
Very good. In 1932 Lester Dent gave his character Doc Savage a motto to live by. I wish I could print it here, but basically Doc and his team would go anywhere to fight evil, and save the world from bad people. They lived by that motto. Doc never took a life, knowingly, though many foes he faced fell into their own traps at the end of the story. My characters have this same motivation as Doc Savage’s men. However, not all my heroes refuse to take lives. When they go up against the underworld, they fight gun against gun, and hoodlums die. In Carnival of Death a Ninja penetrates The Black Ghost’s Central Control and fights Hui Yo Chae in a death match.
Alfred Hitchcock once said a good story is life with the boring bits taken out. So how you motivate your character is you distill their story and their characteristics a bit. You boil down their motivation to something that is large and crystalline in their eyes, and then you have them focus a lot of attention on it so that the reader knows it’s important and big. And then you put things in the way of them achieving that goal, and by seeing they are willing to go through huge lengths to get over those obstacles, it says that goal is really important to them. So we the reader start to buy into it. You put obstacles in their way and show how determined they are to still get to that goal. That how you motivate your characters and that’s how you show they are motivated.
The motivation depends entirely on the plot line of the story. By knowing my characters as well as I do, I can ensure that regardless of what is happening at any point in a story or plot line, that my characters act according to who they are, being true to themselves and the characters around them. Most of the time that action or motivation comes from love. Love for their partner, family or the world/life as a whole. There’s little point, after all, being a romance writer, if love isn’t the deciding factor in all character motivations.
I come up with a plot first and the characters fall into place. I pick characters who will strive to fulfill the object of the plot. Normally I motivate the characters by putting a loved one in danger. I also tend to put the main character in a perilous situation and they have to find their way to safety.
Throwing a curve ball into their path, forcing them to figure out how to deal with an unexpected obstacle. Sometimes they get it right and sometimes they don’t.
My characters are motivate by love, family and loyalty. When dealing with these three things, all differences can be cast aside and they can work together.
Characters change and grow through the adversaries that they face and the obstacles they overcome. Give us an example of this in your own writing.
Jimmy Malone, The Black Ghost was just a boy when he put on the cape and hood. He grows stronger and more motivated in each succeeding story, and brings aides/agents in to assist him in his fight against the underworld. But he tries to never put his agents in harms way, always attempting to understand the foes next move before he acts. Always anticipating the move on a chessboard, so he doesn’t fail.
In The Navigators, I had a group of post-graduate college students who were kind of pampered. And after they discover a time machine and all the bad things it does to them, they grow up. One in particular was a girl who, at the beginning, everybody would think she was just there to round out the bench. No, she ends up having to overcome many obstacles and she ends up being the lead character, because she didn’t run away when the opportunity to run away appeared. She hung in there. So by the end of story, she’s realized she’s gonna start making her own decision, that she’ll start being in charge for myself. She went from a good person who cared about others but was a little spoiled and naïve, to somebody who was still a good natured and cared about others but who is deciding to be an adult. Before, she was floating along and letting others make her life decisions; now she decided she’s going to be an adult.
One of my characters from my Unexpected series, Quintessa, came from a wolf pack, where her alpha is a mean hate-filled character, and all the unmated she-wolves are basically treated like slaves, domestically and sexually. Quintessa meets her soulmate from another pack and she discovers that there is a different way to live, and that relationships between male wolves and she-wolves can be on a far more equal footing. Now of course, this doesn’t happen overnight, and we see Quintessa’s character grow and change over the series until she comes into her own after a long period of training with another character and learning how to love with her mate. There are other characters from the same pack that undertake a similar transformation, again over a period of time, slowly growing and changing until they all blossom into amazing characters that the reader is invested in.
What tools do you use to help readers get to know your characters?
Most of my characters are married or family men and women, and I want the readers to think of them as their families also. I look for families in all walks of life. The mother might say something your mother would say, or the father.
Dialogue. You can take pages to show somebody demonstrating lots of good actions, or you can have two characters have a chat while they’re doing something else and inadvertently reveal it. A lighthearted conversation can suddenly drop in something really deep, as can two characters having an argument or a romantic moment. I tend to use dialogue to help the reader get to know my characters because it’s easier to see somebody being smart in dialogue than it is to see them being smart by doing something.
I guess the same tools we use to get to know people in real life. My characters talk to each other, they get to know each other by sharing snippets of their life with each other. Sometimes it might not be dialogue that the reader see’s that introduces elements of my characters, but rather their actions, or the clothes they wear, that give away who the character is, for example my main character in An Unexpected Bonding, Livvie, is sat in a bar wearing a pair of dusty jeans, and a worn plaid shirt with a tear from a barb-wire snag. She’s shown as not being bothered by her appearance, being comfortable in her own skin from the simple fact she went for a drink in her work clothes, including her spurs.
I sneak in hints about past trauma. Most of my characters have troubled pasts, but it can be difficult not to start info-dumping. Its a fine balance of information versus too much information.
Memories, conversations with other characters about the past, and sometimes dreams.
Teasers featuring quotes from the book, Q&A sessions in my reader group and character takeovers.
Amy, I think this is a great idea.
Sure… we’ll I think the whole quote and teaser thing is pretty self-explanatory so I’ll just go into the Q&A and character TO’s.
How do you give each of your characters a distinctive voice?
I think through their background. Using The Black Ghost again: George Freeman is a newspaper reporter, but he is also a retired Army Ranger, and still keeps his hair cut short, and uses Army life as a conversation starter; Paula Marsh owns a small boutique; Lamont Rogers is a professor with a lab and does scientific studies; Hui Yo Chae is of Korean descent, master of taekwondo and electronics, and monitors Central Control, The Black Ghost’s network of computers and telephone communications. None are alike. Believe me, George Freeman can tell you how to prepare desert snakes and scorpions for a tasty meal.
Giving each character is distinctive voice is really fun. One of the highest compliments I can pay to a writer is to say we know which character is speaking even if you don’t identify them to us, because you had made them all so distinctive and unique. Without writing cliché characters, what you do is you make somebody not neutral. Think about the seven dwarves. I’m sure they were all good workers and I’m sure they were all good managers and I’m sure they were all good friends, but give each one a nickname then make sure that Sleepy yawns a lot and that Dopey acts silly. Grumpy might act silly on occasion, too, but Grumpy always needs to let you know how grumpy he is. So you start out with that core, and then you add some other elements to the core so that they’re not two dimensional cardboard characters. They need to be distinct, so they have to always come from their core. Don’t make them two-dimensional, but make sure their core shows in everything they do. When I was reading Game of Thrones, Circe’s bitterness and ugliness and venom came through every time she opened her mouth – but because her scenes were spread over a 1000 page book, it wasn’t overwhelming. The right amount of salt for the soup. If you took all her scenes and put them one after another, it would’ve been too much and she’d have been cartoonish. Blend them into the proper scenes at the proper time for it not to be overkill. Balancing that is fun, and it’s really fun to see somebody else do it as well.
Knowing who each character is, and understanding their traits helps to create a distinctive voice for each character.
I base my characters off of real life. Everyone is a unique person to me, and therefore they grow their own voices.
I do my best to delve into each one, good and bad, and allow their essence to flow from my mind to the keyboard.
Lady Jacqueline, Duchess of Wolvarden from Red Wolf was the most fun for me to write. She is a very strong and independent character, but you also see a softness to her and moments of weakness that makes her human. She also has an innocence that tempers the strength of her character giving her a femineity that her aggressive nature would otherwise dominate.
Ripper – do I really need to answer that? (LOL) Everyone knows that Jack the Ripper was never caught, nobody knew who he was or what happened to him. Nobody knows why he murdered. Getting into his head and making him the Ripper that I wanted was empowering. He took me down the streets of Whitechapel. He was my guide into his world.
Amethyst Treasure! She is outrageous. Nothing was too much for her. She had me laughing so many times. I started off thinking she would be a typical rich girl, but as I wrote, she developed into something much more than that. (TREASURE DARKLY)
I don’t have a favourite antagonist. I can’t help but hate each one I’ve written. None of them have any redeeming traits to allow a reader (or the writer!) to feel any connection to them. You find yourself cheering for everything they get in the end.
Elizabeth Clifford (ESCAPE FROM WITCHWOOD HOLLOW). She’s the bad guy – hurting people, ruining families, killing. However, there’s a dark past to her and she’s really just an injured young woman. It was fun writing about her from the POVs of her victims and from her. She’s more than just a bad guy.
In real life, even the best, most saintly people have flaws which may make them unlikeable.
How do you balance the traits of your subjects to make them relatable to readers? Do you gloss over their negative aspects and emphasize the positive? Or?
No, I write a balanced portrayal of my subjects, good, bad and ugly. For instance, in The Reporter Who Knew Too Much and the upcoming Denial of Justice, I point out Dorothy having had two affairs, one of which resulted in the birth of her youngest son, Kerry.
So it seems that interesting characters are full of surprises, and kind of quirky aith an engaging voice and intriguing history. They are not two demensional, but well rounded with many layers and they are flawed or imperfect in some way.
In nonfiction, you start by choosing a compelling subject for your story, but still the characters must be balanced and true to life. This is accomplished through thorough research and interviews to capture their voice.
Characters which catch the reader’s interest may emulate qualities we would like to have ourselves, but above all else a characters must be relatable for the reader in some way. They have a distinctive voice Readers must be able to like and relate to our characters and they must be able to hate our villians in order for the story to work.
There also must be conflicts for the character to face. The hero’s goodness must be balanced out by the evilness of the villians. The greater inner fears they must face and the bigger the external obstacles he must overcome, the better the hero.
I want to thank our panel members for sharing from their own works and offering us their insights. I invite you all to join us here on Ask the Authors next week, when our author panel will discuss world building, sensory details and effective dialog.
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Let’s talk about developing characters. What makes them tick? What motivates them? Are they based on real people or achetypes or created from the gray matter in the writer’s head? What are they afraid of? And how do we as authors know these things? And how do we give our characters depth? Readers need to walk away from the story feeling as if the characters are whole, complex human beings, complete with personality and history. Let’s Ask the Authors about their methods for creating character, and feel free to share what works for you in the comments if you’re so inclined.
There are many methods we can use to create rich, in-depth characters, with backgrounds and histories, and belief systems ingrained from childhood. Some authors people watch and build from their observations. Others use the Proust Questionaire or similar tools to develop charaters and give them depth. A popular practice these days for bloggers to promote new releases is to interview the protagonist of the book instead of the author. I’ve never employed this practice here on Writing to be Read, but I have entertained the idea thinking it might be fun.
What methods do you use to develop your characters?
DeAnna Knippling: I copy real people, or amalgamate real people, into a single character. I’m trying to strip them down to one identifying “verb.” My favorite example of a character who’s been simplified into delightfulness is Ash Williams from the Evil Dead franchise…his “verb” is “DO THE WORST POSSIBLE THING, BABY.” Another good one is Heath Ledger’s Joker, whose “verb” might be something like, “do the thing that makes the situation not funny anymore.” Like I said, still working on that.
Jordan Elizabeth: I’m not sure how to answer this one. I write the first draft as the characters guide me. Usually advanced character development happens in the editing phase.
Chris DiBella: I try to make my good guys likeable and I try to make my bad guys complete jerks. All my books have the same cast of main characters (good guys), so I want the reader to enjoy them enough to want to keep coming back for the next thirty novels I put out. I try to make them bad-asses, but also believable with how I project their characters. I also try to inject a lot of humor in my dialogue so that they appear like normal everyday folks. On the flip side, I want people to hate my antagonist so much that they actually scream out in cheer when Mercer kills them. I even get excited when I think about how I want to write their demise. It’s all just a fun part of the process.
Chris Barili: I start with a basic character triangle. What the character wants, what she needs, and her fears/faults. For shorter works, that’s all I do. For novellas or novels I’ll do a biography sheet on each major character. That bio is four pages long when blank, and can be as long as 15 filled out. It has everything from their looks (which I often fashion after famous people) to their inner workings.
Tim Baker: My one and only method of character development is the story itself. At the beginning of the story each character (with the exception of recurring characters like Ike and Brewski) are strangers to me. I might know their basic personality but I learn about them as I write because I use their interactions with other characters, as well as their role in the story to bring out their individual personalities.
Cynthia Vespia: No matter the genre I build my characters with realistic qualities so they are more relatable to the readers.
Art Rosch: If a writer is not a psychologist (I mean one who studies human nature and matters of heart and mind, not a certified this-or-that) I’m likely to put down the book or story by said writer. Psychology is fundamental to writing. Where to start? With yourself, of course. You, in your mind/body system, are a living laboratory of human nature. Extend your field of observation to your family, your friends, and then keep going. We are more the same than we are different. I’ve been helped immensely by reading psychology books. I’m a Jungian and a great fan of James Hillman. Jung gives us the archetypes. We write in archetypes and flesh out our characters with individual quirks and traits.
It’s not only the protagonists that needs to be developed into a deep, rich character, but also our supporting characters. Like real people, experiences affect how the character relates to the world around them and to the other characters in the story. Characters have to have relationships and the backgrounds and histories of the minor characters plays into how these relationships function within the story. The nature of a relationship may also affect the protagonist’s actions and it need to be clear to readers why this releationship has such an effect.
Although characters with minor roles my not need to be developed as deeply as your main players, and their roles may be so minute that there’s not room to share their background with readers, we as the authors should at least have a vague idea of where each character is coming from. Backgrounds should be more detailed for the more major characters, with more of where they each are coming from being exposed to viewers.
Different methods of doing this may be dependent on the point of view(s) with which the author choses to tell the story. A Point of View (POV) offers the reader a window into a story which allows them to see a certain angle or perspective. When using a single POV, one of the drawbacks is that it is limiting, in that the reader will only know what the protagonist knows or experiences, and nothing more, which can make it difficult if you need to let readers know what the antagonist is up to. Multiple POVs, on the other hand, remedy that particular problem, but you risk getting the reader confused if you don’t make it clear who’s head we are in at all times. Let’s see if one is more popular than the other among our author panel members.
Do you prefer single or multiple POVs?
Some authors claim that their characters come alive and not only talk to them, but take control of pen or keyboard and guide the scene in directions the author never expected. I personally experienced this while writing Delilah. Whenever I’d get stuck and not know where the story was supposed to go, I’d close my eyes and ask her, and she would make the scene unfold in my mind. And yes, there were times when the results surprised me, but the story was better for it. So, let’s ask our author panel what they think.
Then there’s Tim Baker (yes, the same Tim Baker who’s part of this panel). I met Tim when I was 13 and he became a great friend and mentor to me after my dad died two years later. His friendship was much needed and appreciated, and that friendship is now going on over 30 years. He’s another person who’s character is close to how he is in real life, and I portray his book character in the same way as I just did here. I always try to interject him in the book one way or another, whether it’s just a friendly phone call to ask for advice, or as in my most recent novel, Blood Dawn, he actually has a role in the book. I didn’t make it too big of a role though, as I fear this would cause his head and ego to inflate to levels we wouldn’t be able to control…
Chris Barili: Sure they do, but of course I can’t think of one right now. Usually, it’s the bad guys who do it. But in Guilty (Prequel to the Hell’s Butcher Series), Frank Butcher surprised me with how he ended the book and settled whether he’d go to heaven or hell. Totally was not planned. (No spoilers…read the book.)
Tim Baker: I would have to say that almost everything they do is a surprise, since I am basically learning about them the whole time I’m writing. I won’t give a specific example, but in my first novel, Living the Dream, one of the main characters is a perpetual loser named Kurt. His exploits surprised me so much that sometimes, as I was writing, I would literally laugh out loud at some of the situations he got himself into!
Art Rosch: My characters surprise me all the time. Especially as I like to give them numinous powers and skills that are pure fantasy and wish-fulfillment. I wish I could be more like Aaron Kantro. Or more like Garuvel Zimrin, a man who has ultimate power but declines to use it any more than is absolutely necessary. My characters talk to me and they appear in dreams. They say things like “Go left”. Or, “That spoon is funky”. You know what the shrinks say: you are the main character in all of your dreams. And this one from Jung: “Your pathology isn’t about what your parents did to you. It’s about your fantasy of what your parents did to you.”
I was very surprised when Aaron Kantro went to Afghanistan and fell in with the Mujahiddin. He was trying to buy and smuggle opium into the U.S. He had sunk that low; become a criminal drug dealer and addict. I was surprised by the way he was able to use his experience to change and heal his addiction. I had to go through fifteen years of therapy. Aaron found his healing in the cauldron of a Russian attack. The friendships and bonds with Afghan warriors brought out the warrior in himself. Surprise is pretty much continual in writing. I ‘m surprised I can write anything, much less finish so bold a project as a fantasy trilogy. I’m surprised that I’m even conscious.
In more recent work I’ve created a world and a political situation that is based on the breakup of the former Yugoslavia. This is my trilogy, The Shadow Storm. I’m pleased with the first book. The characters are from a completely different milieu than the one in which we live. I have nothing in common with them except my membership in the human race. This is a project that involved huge amounts of research. I read everything I could get my hands on with regard to Balkan history. In school I studied Russian for four years. That helped me build a world with a strongly Slavic flavor. World building is a great pleasure for me. Creating new and bizarre religions, mapping out geographical features, the entire endeavor is one that challenges both my imagination and my erudition. I have the additional satisfaction of avoiding the High Fantasy genre, the medieval world of dragons, knights, the whole kaboodle of Game Of Thrones lore. I love the stuff, but it takes masterful writers like Jack Vance to hold my interest. If you’ve never read Jack Vance, start now! He passed recently, at the age of 96. He left behind a body of sci fi and fantasy that must add up to nearly a hundred books. I read them and re-read them every few years. Vance is a better writer, technically, than Philip K. Dick. The late and sadly lamented Phil Dick is more widely known, has sold more movie scripts than Jack Vance. Between the two of them, I’ve learned almost everything I know, which amounts to about a bowl of split pea soup.
If you have a question you’ve always wanted answered, but it’s not covered in the post on that topic, or if our panel’s answers have stirred new questions within you, pose your query in the comments. Make note if it is directed toward a specific author. Questions will be directed to the general panel unless otherwise specified. Then, in the final post for the series, I will present your questions and the responses I recieved from panel members.
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