Ask the Authors: Character Development

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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?

DeAnna Knippling: Depends on the story.  I do both.
Jordan Elizabeth: I love multiple POVs.  I get excited being able to explore different minds.
Carol Riggs: I much prefer single points of view. Limited ones, where the reader is locked into one character’s head throughout the novel, and no info is gained except from what that character learns. I love this setup because it’s exactly like our experiences in life—we only know our POV. It adds to a sense of mystery, with that not-knowing. I’ve thought about writing a multiple POV novel a couple of times, but I’ve actually never written one!
Chris Barili: Depends what I’m writing. Short stories are always single POV. Well, almost. I did sell one framed short story that had two POVs, and wrote another like that. Longer works, it depends. The stories in the Hell’s Butcher Series are one POV, either Frank’s for the larger books or someone else’s for t he shorter works. Smothered, my PNR novel (as B.T. Clearwater) has three points of view, one of which is a ghost. And the fantasy novel I sent to an editor this weekend has four POVs. It’s whatever works to advance the plot and make the story complete.
Tim Baker: I prefer multiple POVs. In my books I tend to write different parts of the story from the POV of one character or another. When I do – the reader only knows what that character knows. To me it’s more entertaining to learn the story at the same time the characters learn it.
Cynthia Vespia: As I’m developing a few new series I have found that multiple POV is alot more fun to write in, and it helps create a fuller world.
I think that, as our creations, our writings are a part of us. After all, everything we write has a little bit of ourselves in it. Whether we base your characters on real life people that we know, or invent them in our minds from the depths of our imaginations, they are bound to have traits in common with their creator. Let’s see what our author panel thinks.
Have you created any of your characters based on people who you know in real life?
DeAnna Knippling: All the time 🙂
Jordan Elizabeth:  Oma from Goat Children is the character most closely based on a real person.  She is my maternal grandmother personified.  (Goat Children is about a girl caring for her grandmother, who has dementia.  I based much of it off my real life experiences.)
 
Janet Garber: I take the 5th. Seriously, most characters are a blend or composite of people or I use some characteristic of their lives and take off from there.
I like to start with a person I know slightly or not at all  and make up a fantastic backstory. I did this with the wife of my husband’s work colleague – took a few details from her real life and embellished like crazy. I’ve been praying ever since that she won’t get her hands on this story! More recently after spending time with my 95 year old mother, I turned her into a character who decides to try online dating. At her age. And meets with success of a kind. I took care to describe a young relative in another story and made up a story of the rest of her life. Most often, I use elements of a living person as a starting point.
Carol Riggs: Sure! But not exactly like them. I just borrow a trait, whether a physical look or an attitude or so on. Like I see someone walking down the street with a certain gait, or I notice someone has allergies and is breathing through his mouth because his nose is stuffed up. Even something as simple as someone’s unusual name or my first high school crush’s name as a tribute to him. Real life is great fodder for spicing up my characters and making them more real.
 
Chris DiBella: I tend to use a lot of people I know in real life as references for my characters, and I even use the actual names of those people in the books. My two biggest examples of this are Pat Vigil and Tim Baker. Pat was my best friend in real life. He passed away unexpectedly a few years back and I was having a rough time dealing with losing him. At the time, I didn’t have a partner for my main character, so I just wrote Patrick in as that character. I decided to write him exactly how he was in real life. So every smart-mouthed reply or gesture he makes is how he would act if he was in those circumstances. It’s my way of honoring my friend and keeping him alive in the books. The parts about him always being the person I counted on for anything is also true, and even though he’s a snarky guy with a comeback for everything, he was the one friend I knew would come running no matter what I needed him for.
Chris Barili: Yes, both intentionally and unintentionally.
Art Rosch: Are you kidding?  Of course I have. See my answer on methods of development. I’ve portrayed my family and invented an extra sibling who is something of a composite with my sister’s qualities mixed with traits that are far more malignant.  It wasn’t difficult to turn my mother into a villain.  She was the kind of person who made everyone else miserable.  This is how I define evil: someone who escapes pain by transmitting it to other people.  My poor mom is gone now, so I can write about her with some objectivity.  What writer doesn’t use the human material, the people who populate his or her world?
Have you created characters from archetypes?
DeAnna Knippling: Meh.  I think archetypes are looking at character from a reader/critic’s point of view.  What makes an archetype an archetype and how do you write that?  Far more interesting.
 
Jordan Elizabeth: Not that I can think of.
Chris Barili: No, but after catching a class on that by Rebecca Moesta and Chris Mandeville at Superstars Writing Seminars, I plan to try it.
Tim Baker: I try to avoid this at all costs. I want my characters to ring true as real people. I don’t like clichés.
Art Rosch: Oh.  Again, see my answer on methods of development.  Looks like an archetype.  Feels like an archetype.  Smells like an archetype.  Has the texture of an archetype.  Good thing we didn’t step in it. (this is an old joke, one that I find very funny.  One of the other funniest things I’ve seen is the cartoon of two Indians (native Americans) walking in the desert.  A huge mushroom cloud is growing on the horizon.  One guy looks at the other and says: “It’s for you.”
It looks like archetypes aren’t very popular with these authors. Only Art Rosch admits to using archetypes in character development. In my studies I learned that archetypes are there, even when we don’t purposefully use them. I’ve found that some stories lend themselves to more obvious archetypes. While my Playground for the Gods series is science fantasy, encompassing world mythologies, it lends itself to the obvious use of archetypes. It is non stretch to see Enki as the trickster or to identify Inanna’s hero’s journey. While Delilah‘s hero’s journey may be a little less obvious, it is there, non-the-less. Every story has a hero and a villian, which are both archetypes, but it seems not all authors conciously set out to use them.
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This quote found on “It’s All About the Words. http://pjbraley.com/writers-words/writers-writing/january/

Anything we write which we have passion reflects that passion in the writing, the thoughts and opinions expressed coming from within ourselves. It’s inevitable, unless we’re writing ad copy or technical manuals. How can we expect to not inject at least a little of ourselves into our chacaters?
This post has me thinking about these things, and it occurred to me that Delilah is like my alter-ego. Delilah is tough and gritty and she she never fails to stand up for what she believes is right. She faces down outlaws and lynch mobs without showing the face of fear. She’s all the things I wish I was, but can’t be, at least not in polite society. Let’s see how our panel members see it. 
Do you have traits in common with any of your characters?
DeAnna Knippling: Sometimes.  More often it’s just that I empathize with them.  I have one character that I based on myself, for a series I don’t have out yet.  THAT was a weird writing experience, let me tell you.
Jordan Elizabeth: There is one character in a manuscript not yet published who I based strongly off of me.  Critique partners hated her!  They kept commenting on her flaws and they were things I do.  It was embarrassing! Since then I’ve tried to improve myself by being less like that character.
Janet Garber: 5th again!
Carol Riggs: There’s likely a little bit of me in every one of my characters. Although it’s awfully fun to write characters who are different from me in some way—more bolder, reckless, daring, and adventurous. They do things I wouldn’t have the personality or interest for. I can live vicariously through them. Even so, they still have basics that I value: a caring for others, a willingness to sacrifice for a greater cause, and a spirit that will get back up again and try again even after it’s been broken and stomped on.
Chris DiBella: I keep the answer to this question heavily guarded, and my wife is the only one who knows the answer with all the juicy details, so when you do an “Ask The Authors Wives” segment, perhaps this will be revealed…
(Kaye: You know Chris, that’s not a bad idea. Hmmm….)
Chris Barili: Of course. Anyone who says they don’t is lying. If nothing else, our characters pick up traits from us as writers the instant we put them on paper. I do have a woman with Parkinson’s as a character in a PNR novella I’m currently writing, though.
Tim Baker: People have asked me quite often, “which character in your books is the most like you?” I always give the same answer…”There is a little bit of me in all of my characters. How could there not be?”
Art Rosch: In my autobiographical novel, Confessions of an Honest Man, I have a character whom I love very much.  He is the jazz saxophonist Zoot Prestige.  He is Aaron Kantro’s mentor and  he knows enough about Aaron’s struggles during childhood to anticipate that Aaron is heading for difficult times. He admonishes his young friend.  He tells him “Ask for help when you feel overwhelmed.  You can’t get out of a crisis by yourself.  Remember what I’m telling you, ’cause I don’t like to give advice.  People who give advice are boring.  Just remember…when you feel like you’ve hit bottom, ask for help.” Aaron is a surrogate for myself.  I did ask for help.  And I found it.
Characters, especially your protagonist, must take action in order for the story to move forward. In order to take action, charactors must have some type of motivation. Motivation can come in many forms, usually an obstacle to be overcome. External obstacles such as nature, illness, or the institution must be tackled, but your character still needs to have some sort of inner motivation to take on the job.
The character’s flaws or fears are the basis for all character motivation. I mean think about it, if the character has a secret or a flaw they wish to keep hidden, it can be a motivator. Fear of what might happen may prompt a chacter to take action to avoid a negative outcome, whether that outcome is not being eaten by the monster, avoiding a punishment from the law or their parents or holding on to the love they’re afraid of losing. But, if you get right down to it, it’s not really the secret that motivates the character to action, but the fear of discovery that prompts them to do something about the situation.
What kinds of fears or flaws do you give your characters?
DeAnna Knippling: I love having characters who have blind spots, like the character who has issues due to PTSD remembering exactly who a serial killer was, because he was tortured by same, or the little girl who doesn’t have a lot of empathy until she’s experienced a situation or seen the consequences herself–and ends up hurting her friends.  I used to want to be a psychologist when I grew up, so there’s a wide variety of mental things going on with my characters.
Jordan Elizabeth: I try not to make my characters clumsy.  That feels overdone in YA literature.  I aim for emotional insecurities that they can overcome to be stronger at the end.
Tim Baker: I try to make my characters as “real” as possible. I give them whatever fears and flaws are necessary to fit the story. In other words I won’t disclose that a character has a fear of spiders if it isn’t relevant to the plot. I also trey to do the same thing with their flaws – without getting to cliché…you know, the alcoholic ex-cop bent on revenge…or the egomaniac villain stroking his white cat. Like I said – I try to keep it real!
Margareth Stewart: The main character usually takes the lead in actions, writing tone, and pace of the narrative. I give my characters autonomy to be doing so. This is something I have been trying to work out more and more with – the matching of the narrative and the main voice within the plot. If it´s a young girl in her thirties using slang and never settling down, the pace of the novel should be like that, too. That is in my new thriller Zero Chance. In Open/Pierre´s journey after war, for instance, I have crafted Pierre in slow motion, in pain, also moving slowly in time and space, and the narrative follows that way, too. So actually, it is all about giving the main character: the voice, the narrative, and the POV. I get a little tense if readers are going to understand that, anyway it´s how I have been working work my novels out.
Cynthia Vespia: Again, I like to base my characters in reality. That means giving them flaws and fears. The more rich development you can give to a character, the more the reader can identify with them.
Art Rosch: We all fear the same things.  We fear illness, pain, poverty, failure, loneliness.  Some of us fear death.  I’m not particularly afraid of death but I’m terrified by the processes that will inevitably take me there.  When I passed sixty five years I began a more intense conversation with death.  It changes things.  I transfer these emotions into my characters.  That’s what writers do.  We personify our feelings through the tools of literature.  I’ve noted that it’s much easier to identify with a flawed character.  People with addictions and weaknesses are much more approachable, they give us a warm and cuddly sensation.  Who loves perfect people?  High achievers give me the creeps.  I prefer characters who eat too many cookies in bed….or maybe have an appetite for substances….or maybe talk too much…you know…human beings.  In The Shadow Storm I have a world leader who is afflicted with bi-polar disorder.  It proves to be his un-doing.  The only characters who have no flaws are the villains.  Sometimes a villain can achieve an icy smoothness which is impenetrable.  There’s no way to approach a character like that.

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.

 

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This quote found on “It’s All About the Words” http://pjbraley.com/writers-words/writers-writing/january/

Do your characters ever do things that surprise you? Can you give an example?
DeAnna Knippling: My characters tend to annoy me.  “Oh my God, would you just stop being so…yourself?!?”  I tend not to remember specific examples because it all works out in the end, I’m just annoyed.  I have a real-life teenaged daughter, and she’s nowhere near as annoying.
 
Jordan Elizabeth: Constantly!  I never know where they will take the story.  An example I can think of is Treasure Darkly.  I didn’t expect Amethyst to play a big a role as she did, but she just kept jumping back into the scenes.
Janet Garber: My character decided to have an affair.  I was shocked. It didn’t fit in with what I knew about her, but as I wrote the scenes, I saw how it perked up the story.
Carol Riggs: Oh yes. In Bottled, my genie main character was supposed to get together with the love of her life after 1000 years of not seeing him. I imagined it in my head as this swoony and touching romantic scene. But when I got her together with her hot guy on a tropical island, they started arguing! It was really annoying. LOL After much frowning and deliberating, I decided to go with the flow and embrace the conflict.
Chris DiBella: Pat Vigil is always doing stuff that surprises me because I don’t even know what I’m going to have him say until I get to that point. I just imagine what he would have said or done in real life, and then I write it down. I’ve always been happy with the results. For example, there’s a scene in Whispering Death where the NESA team has been invited to dinner and they’re seated at a table with Thailand’s Prime Minister. The PM asks Vigil if he liked the lobster bisque, and Vigil blurts out, “Like it? I wanna bathe in it?” The best part about this scene is that it actually happened in real life back in my Executive Chef days. Pat was a server at my restaurant and one of his tables asked him if he liked the lobster bisque I had prepared that night, and that was his reply to the customer. So, there’s always that fun element for me when I’m writing.

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.

 

Do your characters talk to you? What kinds of things do your characters say?
DeAnna Knippling: Yes, although it depends on the character.  Often a very strong character will make observations about the real world.  I have one guy I’m writing who doesn’t like to eat all that much, and mainly eats sandwiches.  He looks upon some of the things I eat with suspicion.  I mean, the guy doesn’t even particularly care for cheese.  “It’s fuel.”
Jordan Elizabeth:  They don’t literally talk, but as I’m writing, I can see them acting out the parts.
Chris DiBella: I don’t know that they talk to me. I just try to write dialogue and plot as it comes naturally to me. I do, however, feel like I have a strong emotional bond and connection to my characters. Every time I start writing a new book, it’s like seeing some old friends after an extended timeframe and I can’t wait to see what they’re up to next.
Chris Barili: No. I don’t exist in their world. They talk to each other sometimes and I overhear…
Tim Baker: I would have to say no to this one.
And now for the fun question.
If your book was made into a film, who would you like to play the lead? Why would they be a good choice?  
Jordan Elizabeth: Megan Fox would be perfect to play Krieg in Kistishi Island.  She has Krieg’s attitude and looks.
Janet Garber: Dream Job, Wacky Adventures of an HR Manager’s protagonist, Melie Kohl, should be played by actress Mary Elizabeth Winstead because she can be goofy, smart and appealing.
Chris DiBella: I’ve been thinking a lot about this one lately, because I’m hoping my books will one day be on the big screen. When I began writing my first novel in 2001, I had a vision in my head of which actor looked most like my main character. That actor was Matthew McConaughey. Of course, Clive Cussler’s novel, Sahara, came out in 2005 and dashed my hopes of that ever happening…fyi: Cussler is my favorite author, so I wouldn’t want to steal his Dirk Pitt….but ya never know. If there was anyone more recent, I might have to say Jeffrey Donovan (Burn Notice). He’s got the charming personality and bad ass moves to get the job done….but only if he brings Fiona with him!
Margareth Stewart: Open/ Pierre´s journey after war has Pierre as the central character – I can easily portrait either Jeremy Irons or Clint Eastwood playing the main role in a film. They both have similarities with Pierre – tall, charming, with profound eyes – gentlemen. They have an inch of outsiders, a little bit like Pierre, too. It would be lovely to see them acting as Pierre.
Tim Baker: The lead character in most of my books is an ex-Navy SEAL named Ike. The prototype for him was originally the character of Wade Garret in the movie Road House (played by Sam Elliot). Since Sam is getting a bit old, I think the next actor best for the role is Anson Mount (from Hell on Wheels).
Cynthia Vespia: My latest Silke Butters Superhero Series was written with an Indian protagonist to showcase more diversity. While I was writing her I used actress Priyanka Chopra as inspiration so it would be a dream come true to have her play my lead Silke aka Karma.
It seems that we may all be different in our process, but our characters all come from the same place: within us. Everyone who answered it, said they use real people that they know to develop their characters and it seems our characters can’t help but have a little bit of us in them. Our stories and our characters are drawn from our own experiences, even if they are fictional, and our characters seem more real to readers when our writing comes from the heart. Be sure to drop by next Monday, when we will Ask the Authors about action and dialog.

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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Monthly Writing Memo: 5 types of Heroes

Welcome to the first Monthly Writing Memo! So for my own blog, Author the World, I’ve been thinking about doing a post about villains. As those of you who have been following know, I’ve been studying horror as I work on my horror film script. During this process, I’ve been wondering about the different types of villains, which in turn made me wonder about the different types of heroes in stories. So for this Month’s Writing Memo, I thought I’d do a post about heroes, and then later this week my post on villains will be up on Author the World.

In general, I think all heroes can really be broken down into a few main types, and every hero in a story usually falls into one of them. The way I’ve divided them up is by what motivates them rather than what they specifically do, or how they go about being a hero.

  1. The Savior –

The Savior is someone who actively tries to be a hero. They want to help people and save the day, so they seek out ways they can do this. The most obvious example of this is many superhero stories where characters like Superman or Spiderman actively seek out those in danger to help them. These characters do it solely because they want to help people and be a hero. Some want recognition, some want the satisfaction of saving people, but either way the thing that drives them is the need to be the hero. It’s a compulsion almost, and when they don’t just help when they see someone in danger, they actively seek the danger (and the victims) out.

  1. The Soldier –

The Soldier is similar to the Savior in that they feel the desire to help people, but the soldier does it out of a sense of duty and honor. That’s not to say they don’t have other motivations as well, but this character type is driven by the sense that it is their responsibility to help people, and they must take action. I think if you look at the movie “Die Hard” you’ll see John McClane fits into this character type. Yeah, he’s in the wrong place at the wrong time, but he is also a police officer and when he sees the problem he feels it is his duty to take action. Many of these character types are those military or police type characters, or have other positions that are focused on helping people in some way. Some other example jobs that a character can have to fit this role include teacher, doctor, or even counselor/therapist.

The goal of this character is to do their “job” and help people because they think it is their responsibility and duty. Maybe it can cross over into the Savior role of feeling driven to help people, but the slight distinction is where the Savior would say “I helped because they were in trouble,” the Soldier would say “I helped because it was my job/responsibility to help.”

  1. The Mercenary –

The Mercenary Hero doesn’t necessarily have to be getting paid, though some form of payment is generally the motivation for them to be the hero. They are a hero because they get something out of it. An example of this is are characters like Nicholas Cage’s character in National Treasure. That is a personal mission for him and he doesn’t do it for anyone else, he does it for largely selfish reasons—he desperately wants the truth and the excitement of discovering the treasure.

The Mercenary is driven by what he/she personally gets out of being the hero. They can be paid to do the job, they can be on a personal mission of love or vengeance or profit, but whatever it is they are being the hero because it serves them, not because they want to serve the people they are saving.

  1. The Reluctant Hero –

The Reluctant Hero is one of my favorite types of heroes to write because they don’t try to be perfect, and often try to extricate themselves from the drama, but they morally feel the urge to help when they see a situation. Unlike the Savior they won’t seek out the conflict, and unlike the Mercenary they don’t want anything for themselves, but similarly to the Soldier they feel a sense of duty.

The Reluctant Hero is someone who doesn’t want to be a hero, and they aren’t doing it because it’s their job like the Soldier. They are a person who just happens to be in the wrong place at the right time, and they morally can’t bring themselves to turn away from those in need. If asked why they helped, they would respond “I couldn’t turn my back on it, and it was the right thing to do.” They don’t feel like it’s their duty, they just feel like they were the only one there at the time who could do it, so they did.

I think the one thing that is often interesting about the Reluctant Hero is that, if someone else was around who could successfully do the saving, the Reluctant Hero would let them, but often they are put in situations where either they have to try, or all is lost.

  1. The Anti-Hero –

The final type of hero isn’t quite a hero at all – the Anti-Hero. The Anti-Hero is not someone who is trying to help anyone, and they’re most often not a good person. There are slight varying definitions of this, but in my opinion, the Anti-Hero is a character who ultimately has their own larger goal, but they do kind, heroic things along the way in pursuit of their goal. I think this falls into a lot of gangster characters who do wonderful things for the “little people” but who aren’t really good characters at all, and whose larger goals are really something quite unhero-like.

Another version of the Anti-Hero is someone who does dark, violent things in order to achieve something good. This kind of character is like Batman at times (The Dark Knight is the obvious example). Batman kills and commits crimes in order to make Gotham a better place, going from loved hero to wanted criminal.

Either way, the main thing about the Anti-hero is that they don’t follow the same rules as the normal hero, and that they will often commit villain-like acts in the pursuit of their goal. These sorts of acts will stand in stark contrast with the heroic elements, and it will make the audience question whether the character is hero or villain.

Final Notes:

I’m sure there are some more minor variations of heroes, but in general, I think most heroes in stories can be divided up into one of the five categories above. If you aren’t sure about which your character is, ask yourself what motivates them to be a hero? What motivates them to commit heroic acts? If you have that answer, you should be able to pinpoint what type of hero they are.

For my blog post on the various types of villains, stop by Author the World on Friday. Until next month, happy writing!


Weekly Writing Memo: Horror Inspiration

Weekly Writing MemoOne question I hear asked a lot to writers is, “where do you find your stories?” This question is sort of silly to me because stories are everywhere around you if you look. Every item you come across in your day has a story for how it became what it is, and got where it is. If you ask enough questions, eventually you’ll find some interesting element that you can turn into a compelling story if you try. I could go on for a long time about ways to find a story, so instead I decide, in honor of Halloween, to narrow the focus this week and discuss where to find inspiration for horror stories in particular.

For me, I really think horror stories have to either start with the protagonist or the “monster.” By monster, I mean whatever villain is in your story, be it a literal monster, a ghost, a serial killer, a psychological monster, a location, etc. I say this because the core of most horror stories is the conflict between these two entities — the protagonist and the monster — and I think starting with one of them can be the easiest way to start a horror story. If you start with the monster, you can ask yourself who would it go after and find your protagonist. If you start with the protagonist, you can ask yourself what type of monster would they encounter and go from there. Immediately either one can give you your story, but where do you find the protagonist or the monster?

Protagonists

If you want to start your horror story by coming up with your protagonist and you have no ideas in mind, you can go several directions:

  • Pick someone you know and turn them into a character by changing some of their traits to make them slightly different.
  • Pick a stranger on the street and create a character from them based on what you can infer from their appearance and behavior.
  • Pick a stereotype character and then do a free write or character sheet to turn them into something more and give them depth.
  • Pick an occupation and then create a character that fills that job role.

There are a ton of other ways to come up with a character, but these are a few of my favorite simple ones. Once you have a character in mind you can find your monster by asking yourself where would this character go to find trouble? Does it find them, or do they seek it out by going somewhere they shouldn’t? Do they have a friend that takes them to a haunted forest? Do they live near a mental asylum where a killer can escape? Do they work in a hospital where people die every day and ghosts may linger? Do they go swimming or camping in a secluded area where monsters could lurk in the shadows?

Think about all the places your character may go on a daily or weekly basis and think about what kinds of monsters they could encounter there. If none of these places is suitable, then think about what kind of friends your character has, and what kind of trouble those characters could get the protagonist into. Do they have a reckless friend who likes going into abandoned buildings? A crazy friend who sees things? A friend who picks up shady drifters and brings them home? Once you have the monster your character would most likely meet, you can start creating the plot between the monster and the protagonist and find your story.

Monsters

As I said earlier, when I use the term “monster” I don’t necessarily mean a literal monster, but rather I mean any type of antagonist your character will come up against in the story. Monsters can be anywhere, and if you’re prone to writing horror it’s a good idea to keep a list somewhere of various monster ideas whenever you come up with one. A few places that I generally find monster ideas include:

  • Reading about urban legends and mythical creatures. Those cheap tabloid papers have some great ones of these, as do those random lists of legends, myths, and creatures that are all over the internet. Pick one and make it your own, give it a setting, and see where it takes you.
  • Phobias. These are a great source for monster inspiration because once you pick a phobia you can use it to build your monster. Think of phobia that you like, or look up a list and pick one, and then ask yourself if your character has that fear what kind of monster would trigger it? Do they have a fear of being alone? Then how about you forget them in the middle of the ocean after a deep sea diving expedition (Open Water). Do they have a fear of the dark, well how about a monster that only appears in the darkness and can make the lights go out (Lights Out, Darkness Falls)? Whatever phobia you choose, ask yourself where or how your character can be forced to face it, and what kind of monster could cause them to. Sometimes it’s even the monster that has the fear (Lights Out) and it can be used as part of how the protagonist defeats them, so you can also try to create a monster from that angle as well.
  • True unsolved mysteries or famous oddities. These are a great source for horror because they’re true, unexplained, and usually, have just the right amount of creepiness to them that they can be twisted even further for the perfect horror story.

Any of the options above can work for finding a monster to create your horror story around, but they aren’t the only way. At the heart, the monster comes from the twisting of something that is somewhat normal to something threatening. Think about it. Cujo was a dog, a ghost is just a (dead) person, water is just water, etc, but all can be turned and twisted to become a monster. So if you can’t find some kind of monster from the ideas above, then try taking something random and asking how could it be dangerous? How could it be scary?

Once you have the “monster,” then ask yourself what kind of character would they either go after or accidentally encounter? Is the monster in a lake at a teen summer camp? Are they in a house that a nice young family has just moved into? Are they in a school where kids just want to go to prom? Once you know who your monster’s victims are, and where the monster hunts, then you have your story.


“Wrinkles” – A Diverse Story of True Love, Friendship and Faith

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While representing his company at the expo, Xavier meets the woman in the next booth, Anna, and before you know it, he believes he’s fallen in love with her. Xavier doesn’t know why Anna is keeping him at a distance, never allowing him to get too close, but he is relentless in his pursuit of her and enlists his mother’s advice and the help of his friends to win her heart.

I had trouble buying into some of the occurrences in Wrinkles: A True Love Story, by Mian Mohsin Zia, but I realize a lot of this can be attributed to the fact that the culture in the story is very different from mine. Because I’ve never been to Africa, where the story is set, many of the events and customs portrayed in this book were foreign to me, making it seem strange. I may not have understood it all, but the story was compelling and touching, and I just may have learned a few things about other cultures and religions which I wasn’t previously aware of. I loved that it carried the underlying theme of integration, racial and religious tolerance.

Xavier’s relationship for his mother goes way beyond parental respect, but there are glimpses of an insecure little boy residing in the big man. This is his fatal flaw. Xavier’s biggest fear is that of losing his mother, whom he refers to as his “Lifeline”. His respect for his mother makes him a more endearing, as the doting son.

Descriptions are vivid, but they relate too many unnecessary details. We don’t need to know all the colors of clothing, color of pacifier, what materials their clothes are made from, etc… The story is repetitive and states the obvious quite a bit. Everything is spelled out for us, not giving the reader credit for being able to follow along.

There were other problems with Wrinkles, concerning formatting, punctuation, and grammar. The dialog is very stiff and formal, with dialog tags which are either missing or misplaced, there are subtle switches in point of view, a slight case of adverbitis, and a passive voice. I have put down books in cases where problems such as these, but the characters are likable enough for me to overlook them and keep reading.

What really sticks out the most for me though, was the fact that the last piece of dialog from Faith, Xavier’s mother, doesn’t ring true to her character. Throughout the whole story, she has always taught honesty, through verbal lessons and through example, and here she promises the young boy that they all be with him forever, when he asks questions about aging. Of course, we all know it would be impossible for the adults in the family to remain with him forever. The point is it isn’t true and it comes from a major character, who has been pillar of honesty thus far.

Overall, I saw some problems with this book, but the uplifting theme, heart touching story, likable characters, and compelling romance plot still make it an enjoyable read. I give Wrinkles: A True Love Story three quills.

 Three Quills3

Kaye Lynne Booth does honest book reviews on Writing to be Read, and she never charges for them. Have a book you’d like reviewed? Contact Kaye at kayebooth(at)yahoo(dot)com.


Weekly Writing Memo: To Cliche, or not to Cliche

Weekly Writing MemoA writing friend and I got in a heated discussion the other day as to whether clichés in writing can ever be a good thing. He is an adamant believer that clichés should be actively hunted down and eliminated from all dialogue, as well as most other areas of writing when possible. I, on the other hand, have a more lenient approach. I think clichés can be useful in specific circumstances, and sometimes they’re the best choice for the job. So when are clichés a good thing?

Avoiding Awkward

Sometimes if you can’t find a simple way to reword or rework a scene to avoid the cliché, then you can end up making the writing convoluted and awkward, which is worse than just using the cliché. A cliché can be invisible in the story and the audience may not even notice it, but awkward writing will interrupt the flow and stand out to an audience. It can also become obvious that you’re trying to avoid the cliché, and that can be distracting as well.

A really easy example is the phrase “that’s classified.” If you wanted to you could avoid it in a lot of ways, but there has to be a limit to how far you’ll go to avoid a cliché, and how much space you want to use to do so. If you try to avoid “that’s classified,” you could end up with something convoluted like, “I can’t tell you that because you are not qualified to access that information.” Just reading it makes me roll my eyes because it’s incredibly obvious I’m avoiding the cliché. In fact, it reads like a convoluted way of saying “that’s above your pay grade.” Which is another cliché.

The point is, avoiding the cliché in this case is turning out awkward, and it’s becoming obvious to the audience that it is what I’m doing. You don’t want your audience to stop and think about the writing when they’re enjoying the story – unless they stop to go “DAMN, that was good!” That is always acceptable! You want the audience involved, and in a situation like this it’s easier to throw in the cliché to get the message across and keep the story moving, rather than finding some roundabout way to avoid it.

Simplicity

Sometimes the decision for me to use the cliché comes down to one thing – simplicity. Sure, there are a lot of ways to word things that may let me avoid a cliché, but sometimes the cliché is the easiest, clearest way to get whatever message I want across to the audience. If I can use a cliché and it only takes 2 words instead of 20, then I better have some big motivation as to why those 20 words are needed. I’m a firm believer that every word has to count in a story, and as I said above, sometimes the cliché is just the simplest way to go. Will there be better ways to say things, probably, but does that mean you need to change your wording? No.

Cliches aren’t inherently bad. They can be overused, and they can be used at bad times, but sometimes they’re the best way to go for the sake of keeping the story moving forward. So always consider how complicated the route to avoid the cliché is. Ask yourself, if I avoid this cliché, will I slow the story down? Will it waste space on the page? Does the cliché add or take away anything from the scene? If the answers to these don’t give you a reason to take out the cliché, then I say go with the simplest method of keeping it in.

Character Culture

The biggest argument I think there is for keeping a cliché is that in some character cultures, clichés are ingrained in the system. By character cultures I mean communities like police officers, military personnel, doctors, politicians, etc. These kind of cultures that are part of large organizations have certain things that are ingrained in them.

For example, cliché language is often used by the higher ups in these organizations because clichés are something that a huge group of people will all understand in the same way. Clichés also become ingrained in these organizations because they relay on training being passed down, and the clichés carry through. For example, police officers and military personnel are more likely to use phrases that they have been trained to use. Military men use things like “need to know” because it’s an easy way for higher ups to dismiss lower level employees without actually giving them any information, and those lower level employees generally have to listen because they don’t outrank anyone.

In these sorts of settings, clichés can be used by the higher ups as a very easy way to create a separation between those of different ranks. Think of all the cliché phrases you can for military and even police personnel and think of their purpose: Need to know, that’s classified, that’s above your pay grade, etc. They all serve to protect information, and to put someone lower down in their place. In politics, there is a similar thing going on. The cliché phrases are more about delivering a message without delivering specifics. They say “I will bring change” or “I have the experience to do [blah]” and so on without every really specific what their plan is or how they are qualified.

Similarly, in medical fields clichés exist to keep information vague or to deliver a clear message without getting into specifics. In medical fields you sometimes don’t have time to lay out all the information because of the life and death situation, so abbreviated phrases are used to get a message across to everyone in the room quickly.

In general, these kids of systemized or structural cultures have clichés ingrained in them because they help create structure, they are universally understood, they deliver information and meaning without specifics as needed, and these cultures often have similar situations happen over and over again which can lead to certain sequences of events becoming cliché. The point is, you don’t need these characters to use clichés all the time, but having them in these instances is more acceptable because the clichés are part of the culture and the training almost everyone goes through in these professions, so they are almost expected by an audience.

When to Cut the Cliché?

Now clearly clichés should be cut whenever you can cut them in a way that doesn’t involve the things I’ve mentioned above, but sometimes it can be hard to decide. If there is an easy way to avoid the cliché, then always use it. If the cliché makes the scene cheesy or eye-roll worthy, then definitely cut it. If your entire plot hinges on a cliché, again, think about changing it. The important thing is that the clichés you do use don’t interrupt the flow or come off as lazy. Use them because they’re the best tool for the job (cliché!), and use them because they serve the story. Don’t use them because you’re too lazy to think of something else.

If you aren’t sure, then get a second opinion and see if your beta reader finds it distracting. Ultimately, like anything else in writing it all depends on the specific situation. Clichés exist for a reason, just use them wisely!

 


Inside the Writing Process: Listening to Your Characters

Rest and relaxation: that was the agenda for the day. After two intense weeks of me attending classes, while Greg sat in a dorm without even one working cable hook-up, and then a five-day work week, while we simultaneously tried to catch up on everything that had fallen behind while we were gone, we were due for some recreational activities. We were heading up the old stage road that runs on the north side of the Arkansas, from just east of Howard, all the way to Wellsville. We had chosen this route because a portion of this road is four-wheel drive, and we wanted to give our Jeep a little workout.
So, here we are, bumping along a particularly rocky patch, and I find myself thinking about the area terrain and how it might be worked into the western story that I began for class three weeks ago. It occurs to me that one of the changes that I made to the story last night is going to cause me a major plot flaw. Where an act of nature is my protagonist’s saving grace, it seems that, were it real, it would also cause her horse to kill her. I’m trying to work it out in my head, but I just can’t find any way around it. If lightning strikes, the horse is going to get scared and take off, dragging my character, Delilah, along by the noose around her neck, which happens to be attached to his saddle horn, and she will be helpless to stop it. I hardly notice the roughness of the terrain, as I am bumped and jostled, my thoughts overshadowing the external world.
The scene I’m trying to hash out follows the brutal beating and rape of my protagonist. After reading my first draft, my instructor felt a hesitation in my writing of this scene, and he was right. I was hesitant to write this scene. I knew that it was risky, and I might turn some readers off with it, but I felt that it is a crucial part of the story, which sets up everything that follows, so I had chosen to try to write it anyway. “If you are going to write it, don’t do it half-way,” he said, meaning that I should depict the horrendousness of the scene fully and not let my own hesitation show through in my writing. I thought about and decided that this scene really is integral to my story, so I must hurdle my own hesitancy, and write the scene, so my readers can buy into it.
My current dilemma is that I’ve chosen to scrap the scene that follows and start over, so I have to figure out a way for Delilah to survive the horrendous scene and go on, without the handsome stranger riding in to save her, (after all, it is a western, not a romance), because I wrote him out when I scrapped it, so he no longer exists. From out of nowhere, I hear a voice, “Why do I have ta be so damn passive?”
It startles me out of my thoughts about the book. I look around to see where the voice had come from, but we are still rocking and bouncing along, and even if we weren’t, there’s not a soul for miles along this little used trail. Greg didn’t appear to have heard anything unusual, and I wasn’t about to say anything. After living with me for thirty years, he knows I’m a little crazy, but I don’t see the need to remind him of this.
“Do ya really think I’m just gonna lie down and take it? Yer instructor told you that I was too passive, and yer peers agreed, so why won’t ya listen to ‘em?” The voice piped up again. It is a distinctly female voice, and now I recognize it. It is the voice of Delilah.
Another one of my instructors had talked about letting your characters speak to you, because they’re the only ones that know what is supposed to happen in the story. You see, it’s not really your story. She said that it’s their story, and if you listen, the characters will tell you what is supposed to happen next, because they know, even when you don’t. I had never created a character that was real enough to talk to me, so I don’t think I really got it at the time. Now, here is Delilah, talking in my head, telling me how to fix what’s not right in my story! I can really hear her, even if my husband doesn’t. Now, I get it!
“Okay.” I say in my head, (again, no need to alarm my poor husband). “But what can you do? Your hands are tied behind your back, and the noose is around your neck. Can you really do anything but be passive at this point?”
“What if my hands weren’t tied?” she asks.
“But, your hands are tied,” I say.
“What if they weren’t?” she counters.
I sigh. “Okay. If your hands weren’t tied, you might be able to save yourself, assuming the impact of the fall doesn’t knock you out cold.” I had assumed that it would, but perhaps Delilah is tougher than I had, at first, believed.
“So I’ll ask ya again. Why are ya making me so damn passive?”
“Well you certainly aren’t passive when it comes to giving me advice on the story,” I reply, with more than a little indignity. “But if your hands weren’t tied, you wouldn’t be in this situation in the first place. You are only passive because you have no choice, given the situation.”
“Exactly!” she says. “So, allow me to change the situation.”
By now, my mind is shifting gears. If her hands were freed somehow, at the end of the scene, she might still be dragged by her horse, but she might be able to prevent him strangling her to death. “So, you’re saying that your character wouldn’t just lie there passively? That you would be working to free yourself, even as he is beating you?”
“Now yer using yer head,” she says and, I swear, I felt her wink at me. Then, she was gone. Her exit left a vacuum of space where my mind had been focused. She had only come and stayed long enough to get me back on track, so the story could go where it was supposed to.
“Where do you want to stop?” Greg asked, bringing me back to the rocky trail of reality.
I smile. When we do stop, I will have my pen and paper ready, because now I know what happens in my story. My character told me. Now, all I have to do is write it down.