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Posts tagged ‘characterization’

Does your protagonist have a life theme or motto?

At the beginning of each year, my writing partner Carly chooses a short phrase or sentence that she uses to remind herself of what she wants to focus on for the coming year.

She says she likes to keep the sentence short so it’s easy to remember and can easily be turned into a daily mantra. For the last several years, she’s developed a personal writing theme.

To read more about her idea, please read her posts, “My 2014 personal writing theme revealed,” and “Short story writing method reveals New Year’s theme.

I noticed while re-reading Neil Gaiman’s “American Gods,” that the main character Shadow has a motto that he lives by. In the first chapter, Shadow is in prison and we learn his survival motto is, “Keep your head down. Do your own time. Speak when you’re spoken to.” In other words, you do your own time in prison. You don’t do anyone else’s time for them. You don’t get mixed up in their dramas. You keep your mouth shut.

Later, after Shadow is let out of prison and he begins working for Mr. Wednesday and is kidnapped by men in black, he repeats his old prison motto to himself:

“He pretended he was back in prison. Do your own time, thought Shadow. Don’t tell them anything they don’t already know. Don’t ask questions.”

By the end of the story—well, I won’t put in any spoilers—but basically his motto gets turned on its head. And this is part of his growth as a character.

Does your character have a motto they live by or a life theme like Carly and Shadow that they can sum up in one or two sentences? Is there a belief that drives them from day to day? Having this theme firmly in mind while writing your scenes will help ground you in your character’s reality.

Exercise: Set a timer for six minutes and free write about what your protagonist’s life theme might be. Do the same for your antagonist and then every major character.

If you’d like, please share your character’s theme in the comments below.



Character development: God is in the details

In her blog post, “Revealing Character Through Details,” Julie Eshbaugh quotes Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969,) who famously said, “God is in the details.”

A German-born, American architect, van der Rohe did not mean the more details the better. He meant it’s the small, subtle details that can give a building (and per Eshbaugh a book) the power to transcend the common.

In other words, look for telling-details that will relay worlds of information about your character to the reader. My character may have red hair, green cat eyes, freckles and a stand-out bosom but what makes her unique and memorable isn’t her outer description it’s the fact that she used to be a kleptomaniac and her eye is still drawn to bright, shiny objects, even when she’s having a serious conversation with somebody. Her eyes are greedy.

Reader Eshbaugh’s post for some fantastic examples and help in finding your character’s telling details.

You may also enjoy Carly’s related post, “Quirks make your characters feel real to readers.”

What telling details have you given your characters?

How to delete B.S. (backstory) from your novel

Artists can be creative, quirky, eccentric, motivated, focused, visionary, delusional, imaginative, paranoid….Ah, the highs and lows of living a creative life. The other day, I caught myself practicing a little delusion.

I’ve been taking an online class this month “Creating Compelling Characters,” taught by author and writing mentor Rhay Christou through the Margie Lawson Writer’s Academy. One section is on managing backstory in your novel. Backstory (aka B.S.) is mostly the stuff that never makes it into your novel but that you have to know in order to understand and flesh out your characters.

If you include any backstory at all, one of the best ways to do so is to drip it in only when needed in small bits—a line or two at most. I know this. I thought I was practicing this. But one of our assignments was to read through our chapters and tag any sections of backstory so we could then analyze how we inserted them into the story.

I discovered I had a three-paragraph section of backstory in chapter one! And, after I tagged this B.S., I began making excuses for having it there—it’s necessary information that the reader needs to know, it’s shorter than it looks, etc.—yes, I was deluding myself.

Fortunately, Rhay called me on my B.S. So now, once I finish my first draft, I’ll go back to this area and employ the “shard and slip” exercise described in Margie Lawson’s post, Write Fab Back Story: Not BS!

Read Margie’s post to learn about some of the best ways to include backstory and eliminate any B.S. that will bog your story down. Then, stay tuned for my next post on backstory.



How to make your characters come alive

In his video “Make Your Characters Come Alive,” author James Scott Bell discusses the wisdom of mixing “plot” and “character.”

He says:

Plot without character bonding = action without engagement

Character without plot = overstaying a welcome

Bells also advises that plot needs to be about death. Physical death, professional death or psychological death. This applies even to comedy. Death is what raises the stakes. It can be death of a career, a job, a reputation, or the death of a way of being.

True character, he says, is revealed only in crisis—where death is on the line.

For more on Bell’s thoughts about creating characters that come alive watch his 8-minute video here:

For more tips on plot, read my earlier post, “Plotting a story is like solving a puzzle.”

Dialogue tips: listening from the inside out

In the short video below, “Telling the Story: Making Your Characters Talk—Writing Great Dialogue,” Irish authors Carlo Gébler, Sinead Moriarty and Declan Hughes, share tips for creating great dialogue.

They suggest to try “putting on your character’s clothes” and really feeling what they feel inside. From that inside-out perspective, pay attention to how they speak. What are their rhythms or accents? And, think snappy dialogue. People don’t usually talk in long monologues or “info dump” blocks.

Before writing your character’s dialogue, you have to hear their voice in your head. And, most importantly, listen to people around you. Listen for the nuances in their speech.

The other night at dinner, we were seated next to a 60ish couple. During the 15-minutes before they paid and left, I listened to the man berate and belittle his date (it was obvious from their conversation that they weren’t married or lived together).

“Look at me, when I speak to you,” he said, his voice hard as the wooden chair supporting his lean, compact frame. “I don’t think you’re really listening to me. How could you be?” He wiped his puckered trout mouth with a napkin, as if the words sent in her direction left a putrid taste on his tongue. “Every time, I know what to expect. Every time. Three hours at your house. I know it’s a minimum of three hours. You’re so predictable. How can you be so predictable?”

I don’t remember the rest of his rant because at some point it was just too painful to listen to. She didn’t speak a single word, not even when they got up to leave, as if she knew any words would only feed his condemnation.

Can I imagine one of my characters speaking this way? Absolutely. I can even see amping it up a bit, making it larger than life. That’s the trick to good dialogue, too—making it sound like real dialogue but without the boring parts.

To watch more “Telling the Story” videos click on the above video’s sidebar.



How to get readers to care about your characters

In the short video below by screenwriter and director, John Truby, he says one of the biggest mistakes writers make is how they create their characters.

Truby says most writers create characters by making them as detailed as possible. We’ve all heard this advice, right? Make your characters detailed, use all five senses, etc.

But Truby says having detailed characters does NOT make your audience care about your characters.

What makes them care is discovering two things:

1) what is the character’s fundamental weakness — their fundamental flaw?

2) what is the character’s story goal?

Truby says the best stories will show the character going after their goal, which will then make them deal with their greatest internal weakness.

To hear what else Truby has to say about creating great characters, watch his video below and check out some of his other videos:

Writing body language that empowers your character’s emotions

Let’s face it, writing body language is hard. In my first drafts, I either try to stay away from writing body language, or I just face the fact that it will be all cliched and awful and I’ll have to rewrite it from the ground up.

Thanks to writing teacher Margie Lawson, I’ve been learning tips for writing better body language and using tools like back-loaded sentences, cadence, and rhetorical devices.

For tips on writing body language with examples and break downs of those examples, read Margie’s latest post here.

Also, check out my earlier post, “Character emotions: two ways to write about the body,” that shows how author Dorothy Allison writes body language.

If you’d like to share some of your experiences or tips about writing about body language, please do so in the comments below.