What Did You Learn?

August 7, 2011

General Writing: A Shy Character

Filed under: Character — Tags: , , — ax20 @ 8:27 pm

To avoid creating obvious characters, try to be creative with the character traits you assign your characters. Here is a good look at shyness, a fairly common character trait in these days:

Character Trait Entry: Shy

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June 23, 2011

General Writing: Memorable Characters

Filed under: Character, General Writing — Tags: , — ax20 @ 2:28 pm

How do you make your characters memorable? Especially in a world where you create tons of characters, how do you make sure the reader can keep them straight? Check out this post for a really good way to think of it:
Hooking Your Characters

General Writer: Active vs Passive Characters

Filed under: Character, General Writing — Tags: , , , — ax20 @ 1:57 pm

One of the big problems I have noticed in a number of manuscripts that authors submit is they create a story so beyond the main character, that the character becomes a spectator. Perhaps its a civilian caught in a war zone where the soldiers bring him to safety and have him stay there while they take care of things. Or maybe it’s a non-vampire who spends her entire time being protected and rescued by her vampire boyfriend while she does nothing but wait to be captured the next time. Or it’s a teen character whose parents tell them what to do and they always listen. Either way, your character spends the entire story reacting to events instead of taking action.

If your character spends most of their time on the sidelines while things happen around them, it is time to reconsider your story. It’s just boring for the reader and extremely frustrating. You need to find a reason to get your character to take action.

A great example of this is in the latest 39 Clues book I read:
Grace Cahill is a thirteen year old girl who has a message that she needs to take into a war zone. She might have just given this message to someone else but not knowing who to trust, she determines to do it on her own. She gets there, delivers the message, and is told by the adults that things are being taken care of, she can now relax. But while she’s sitting alone and she decodes the message and realizes she had it wrong when she delivered it. She tries to tell the adults but they are all too busy to listen to a kid so she sets off to follow the clues herself.

There were many reasons why Grace might have been relegated to sit on the side. There were adults around to handle things, she might have passed off the responsibility to someone else. But for reasons constructed by the circumstances and by Grace herself, she is taking action, which ultimately places her in danger and into the thick of the story.

This is also the reason why Dumbledore, Sirius Black, and even Harry’s parents had to die in the Harry Potter series. It is the same reason why in the Chronicles of Narnia the Pevensies’ parents had to be elsewhere while they entered Narnia and why Aslan wasn’t around for most of the story. For this same reason, Qui Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi had to die in Star Wars. These are all characters who, were they present, would have taken the action out of the hands of the characters they were mentoring and protecting. By taking their guardians away there is no one to stand between them and the battle that must be fought. (This is one of the main reasons why in kids’ books, even if you spend time wondering why the kids aren’t telling their parents what is happening, you understand the reason: if they told, the kids would be out of the story.)

A story is never as interesting if told by someone who is barely involved. Find reasons to make them part of the action through a combination of circumstances and personality and your story will immediately be more interesting.

June 19, 2011

General Writing: Character Development

I have read hundreds of manuscripts by now and one of the big reasons why they get rejected is that their characters lack personalities and development. There are a lot of ways to work on this, but sometimes the characters in your book are lacking individuality is because you have included so many characters that you don’t have enough time to spend on them all. If you write in the scenes needed to add more characterization, the book will become much too lone.

One suggestion is to cut some of your lesser characters (perhaps condensing a few characters or deleting some of the non-essential ones entirely). By doing this, you make space for your main characters and can add in scenes that will help show who your characters are and what sets them apart from other people.

But how do you side who stays and who goes? Identify your main story (A story), secondary story (B story), etc. How do all of your characters fit in? If they don’t play an important role in the story–cut them. If they play a role that someone more important can play–cut them. Even if you love the character, save them for another book.

You won’t be sorry to have the extra space. Add in scenes where your characters must make choices (stand up to someone or avoid confrontation, apply for something or let an opportunity slip by, give up or keep trying, etc) to show how they behave in different situations. You can show their growth by having a similar situation arise later where they make a different choice.

Of course, this isn’t the only way to develop your characters, but if you find your book is overstuffed and your characters are underdeveloped, this is an easy solution that you might want to consider. (A word of warning though: should you cut a character, make sure you fully remove them from the manuscript. It would be awfully confusing if suddenly in the middle of a scene, someone who has never been mentioned speaks and then suddenly disappears again.)

March 16, 2011

General Writing: Main Character

Filed under: Character, General Writing — Tags: — ax20 @ 6:54 pm

In your book, especially those written in first person, the main character cannot rely on a colorful supporting cast in order to hold the audience’s attention. To capture the readers’ interest and imagination, they must be unique and interesting in their own right. (Which isn’t to say you shouldn’t have quirky friends and acquaintances.)

Some Examples:

  • Katniss in the Hunger Games. She’s strong and able, supports her mother and sister, sacrifices herself for her little sister, mourns for the loss of her father, and ultimately inspires and leads a rebellion. That’s forgetting her inability to choose between two men she cares deeply about.
  • Harry Potter. His parents are killed while trying to protect him, he is famous for being the only person to survive the killing curse, he has some abilities given to him by the wizard who tried to kill him, he is stubborn and determined and goodhearted.
  • Thomas in The Maze Runner. He is the last boy to arrive in the mysterious glades, he has no memory of his past but is accused of being in collaboration with the people who have put the boys in the maze, he can communicate with his mind to the only girl to ever arrive. He is brave and daring and is always willing to fight, for himself and others.
  • Lyra from the Golden Compass. Lyra has been raised basically as an orphan by scholars who do not know how to handle her, she is wild from a lack of education, her parents are both directly involved in the politics and mis-dealings of the land. She ends up being the only one who can read the compass and has a big destiny as laid out in a prophecy. She is innovative and quick-witted and a risk-taker.

These are only a few examples, but notice that each of the characters has a complex backstory and distinctive character traits that impact their behavior. Not everything is under their control, many things they have done nothing to cause. But those events shape them and their understanding of the world. All of these characters are also active. They do not simply allow things to happen to them while they remain passive (which is to say, even when they are thrust in a bad situation, they step up and fight).

Make sure your main character has a fully imagined personality and has a deep enough back story (so that the readers can discover things about the character over time). One of the places where a book tends to fail is when their main character is bland or unrelate-able.

November 19, 2009

General Writing: Revealing Character

Filed under: Character, General Writing — Tags: , — ax20 @ 12:41 am

I’ve talked about character a number of times in different places. While when writing a book you aren’t as limited in amount of pages as you are with a script or play, you still don’t have forever. The average number of words per books varies depending where you look but I’ve seen them estimated as low as 40,000 and as high as 150,000. General advice, unless you really need the 150,000, you probably don’t want to write that much. It’s a real turn off, particularly when you’re a new author. (Notice how Harry Potter started relatively short and grew in size as the series continued.)

So, after all that, the question is, how do you reveal as much about your characters as possible without solely using exposition?

details: how do they dress? what type of body do they have?
dialogue: how do they say things? do they have an accent or weird phrases? what do they like to talk about? what do they avoid talking about?
posture and body language: how do they stand? what do they do with their hands? what facial expressions are they making?
observations: what do they notice about other people? (the things characters notice about other people says something about themselves)
interactions: how do they behave around friends? family? superiors? inferiors?
behavior: what do they do when there is a need to delay gratification? what do they do when they think no one is looking?

These are only a few things to think about. Some of them are even small, easy details to add that don’t require elaborate scenes or paragraphs of exposition. Try to put as much about a character into as little space as possible so the body of the novel doesn’t get pushed aside by the need to make the character real.

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