“The character that lasts is an ordinary guy with some extraordinary qualities.”
The sublime and the ridiculous, all worthy of your consideration:
- You’ve been wanting to make a quilt someday. How about a mini-quilt? Lots of pretty, free patterns.
- Especially for the rubber stamp afficiandos.
- A zentangle challenge.
- Because married people need to laugh more.
- Watercolor and sharpie step by step.
- For white writers trying to write diverse characters.
- A visit to the Salvador Dali Museum.
- How to draw lips.
- Making faces from sticks.
- Goats as I’ve never seen them before.
- Pumpkin-related crafts.
- A photographer critiques an iconic photograph.
What’s the best way to initiate a solid protagonist character?
“You take people, you put them on a journey, you give them peril, then you find out who they really are.” – Joss Whedon
Recently, it has become a running theme in the Under the Microscope series where I think a lot about how to create a rapid connection between the reader and the characters. I often find that it takes a chunk of time (sometimes a chapter or more) for the reader to get hooked onto the plot; even setting can take a handful of pages. I find that a compelling character is the quickest way to connect to a reader.
“Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations.” -Ray Bradbury
I’ve talked a bit about what not to do in first chapters, but in this post, I’d like to focus on one area of what to do. Of course, there are exceptions to every rule. There are books that have stunning settings and immediate plot twists, but even in those, I personally connect with the character the most. For every page that I don’t feel some sort of connection with the protagonist, the chances increase that I put the book down.
So, what is connecting to the character? What does that mean exactly? A lot of writing advice blogs will tout that sort of power phrase, leaving it up to you to figure out what it means. With this blog, I strive to give as many examples and concrete illustrations as I can. As a new writer, it frustrated me when vague terms were used without anything to back it up.
My only disclaimer before continuing is that none of this is an exhaustive list, in case someone was keeping track of something else I may have missed. There’s always a something else, which is the beauty of writing stories. There’s never one definitive list for anything.
“There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.” – W. Somerset Maugham
I believe most aspects of a reader connecting with a character comes down to four things: empathy, relatability, idolization, and intrigue. Some of these blend together a little, and still others are difficult to establish immediately, but in my opinion, these are the different tools in your character toolbox. When I start a story, my goal is to introduce at least one of these elements as soon as possible. Let’s take a look at each.
To continue reading, click here.
Thank you to author Kimberly Brock and to Writers in the Storm for this marvelous article about characterization.
[Subtitle:] And You Shouldn’t Even Bother Me with Your Stable Characters
Lately, I’ve been watching a lot of Netflix with my husband – particularly British crime shows. Well, actually, anything British. I don’t know why. But this blog is not about that. What it is about is the fact that I am always, always, always most interested in the trashiest, quirkiest, strangest, darkest, most unstable characters. Liars, cheats, addicts. Personally, I would rather eat cold, overcooked oatmeal than read about a good character who does good things in a good world where everybody is on time and well-groomed, consuming a healthy diet, getting enough sleep, living life in tastefully decorated rooms with Barry Manilow piped in to set the mood. My husband pointed this out to me a few weeks ago when we were talking about my girl crush on actress Nicola Walker’s character in “Last Tango in Halifax,” which then led to binge watching another of her series, “River.” I actually sank back into the sofa and sighed and said, “Oh, she is so screwed up. I love her.”
My husband was perplexed. But he wasn’t really worried until a few weeks ago when we finished our nightly romp through the “Luther” series. In the final episode, my favorite character, a narcissistic psychopathic serial killer who saves the hero, uttered the most fabulous line to his little wisp of a girlfriend. It was the best line of all time, delivered with steely eyes and a smirk. If you hurt him, I will kill you. (INSERT DELISCIOUS PAUSE) And eat you.
OH, YES! I jumped off the couch, cheering and laughing. I made my husband rewind it. (Do you rewind anything anymore?) Twice. I said the lines with her, dramatically. Gleefully! And my husband, who is a brave man, rolled his eyes. The same way he rolled his eyes later in the week when he caught me making a Pinterest board dedicated to these characters. If you make fun of my Pinterest Board of Psycho Characters, I will kill you. And eat you.
Now, really. I don’t want to kill anyone, much less eat them. But, man! It got a reaction out of me – this character saying those perfect words at that perfect moment and what it meant to the person hearing them. Even though, obviously, the character is quite the psycho, I loved her.
So, why am I confessing all of this to you at risk of sounding like a sicko and losing your readership forever? Because I’ve been trying to work out my fascination with the most unstable characters and why I love them best when I’m a reader. And – here’s the twist – why I’m always so afraid to write them.
Don’t get me wrong! I DO write them. I ALWAYS write them. I write them cloaked in what THEY believe is noble, but they’re screw ups, heroes and villains, alike. Listen, I’ve been to the conferences and the panels and the workshops. Dammit, I teach them! I know what they SAY about how your characters are supposed to be three-dimensional and flawed. I know what they SAY about how a good story is only a good story because there’s CONFLICT. I know how books like Gone Girl have flown off the shelf and been made into blockbuster movies and caused us all to despise Ben Affleck and get our own secret badass undercut bobbed haircuts. Girl Reading This Blog, I know!
But it’s a challenge to actually do it. And I often fail at it before I succeed. Why? When I first sit down to create characters I love they come out fabulously twisted and depraved and socially awkward. But inevitably, I start to lose all confidence that readers will stick with them. I’ll invest tons of energy second-guessing their morality and editing their language. I will smooth out their rough edges and bad habits and cover up their body art. I will make them better parents. I will sweeten up their motives and switch out the shots of whiskey in their hands to a tall glasses of sweet tea. All in an effort to convince my readers they can safely embrace my paper people. They can love us (because, the truth is all of my characters are an extension of me.) We’re perfectly acceptable, if you just don’t notice that little bit of psychopath sticking out from beneath our neatly pressed collars.
Before I know it, my characters turn out like a whole new cast of the Mickey Mouse Club, chilled out on anti-depressants. They turn into cold oatmeal and nobody, not even me, wants to read about them. I’m perplexed. I loved all those super freaks when I started. What went wrong? It’s a common lament and I think I know the answer, but it might not be what you think.
To continue reading this article, click here.
Thank you to Lucy V. Hay and to Bang2write for these insights on effective characterization.
Caring About Characters?
So, you’ve been given this feedback: “We need to care more about your characters.”
Immediate RED FLAG!!!
This is a useless piece of feedback. Put whomever gave it to you on the naughty step RIGHT NOW and join me children in examining why this feedback sucks BIG TIME. (Okay, okay, the feedback-giver *means* well. And yes, just like “Show It, Don’t Tell It”, this advice probably started off good stuff).
BUT I put it to you “we need to care more about your characters” creates waaaay more problems in drafts than it solves. Why? Because writers end up spending SO LONG trying to make us “care” (WTF does that really mean anyway?), they end up shooting themselves in the foot story-wise.
Great characters are part of great STORIES. This means the two are inextricably linked. So when writers get that ubiquitous, but crappy note “we need to care more about your characters”, they inevitably start focusing on character AT THE EXPENSE of plotting and story. YARGH!
How Writers Screw Up Their Characters
5) … They introduce their characters badly
Whether screenplay or novel, your character needs to be introduced in an interesting and dramatic way. When we meet your character for the first time – especially your protagonist – s/he should be preferably DOING something that:
a) Tells us *something* about him/her in terms of personality
b) Gives us a sense of the storyworld/the tone
c) Gives us *some clue* or indicator about the situation at hand
Yet too often we meet characters waking up, getting ready for the day ahead and/or eating breakfast; coming down the stairs or from another room (usually when someone yells for them); sitting in cafes or restaurants musing; or sitting in their bedrooms doing the same. LE YAWN.
This is nearly always because writers mistakenly believe that seeing a character in their home environment (or similar) makes us “care” about them. IT DOESN’T. It’s just dull!
Remember, readers make all kinds of assumptions not only from your very first page, but from your opening image too! Make sure you introduce your characters in ways we don’t see all the time to stand your best chances in the marketplace. Read more: How To Introduce A Character.
4) … They put too much tragic back story for characters “up front”
This is an issue that seems primarily a screenwriting-related problem. I loved the following dialogue in the brilliant WRECK-IT RALPH, which I watched recently with my Wee Girls:
FIX-IT FELIX: Jeez, she’s kinda intense, huh?
SOLDIER: It’s not her fault. She’s programmed with the most tragic backstory EVER.
In comparison to WRECK IT RALPH then, scribes DON’T play the notion of a tragic back story up front for laughs. Instead, the reader will have to wade through stories of child abuse; adoption/rejection; rape; bereavement; self harm and recriminations – all before the actual main story gets going. More often than not, this will mean going through an acre of flashback before the situation in hand kicks off, though sometimes there will be various arguments and/or a funeral, or even ALL OF THIS (yikes!).
Yet these huuuuuuuuge adverse life events are massive; to make them blithely “character building” feels like a slap in the face for the characters. Not convinced? Think about it:
“Oh my character has to deal with being held hostage in the bank where she works – BUT IT’S OKAY BECAUSE IN THE PAST SHE WAS ABUSED AS A CHILD, SO SHE CAN HANDLE THIS” — WTF???
Yeah, yeah ***of course*** writers don’t mean it this way; they’re trying to give their characters “layers” and make us “care” about them. I totally get that. But seriously, overly tragic back stories played up front are not the way. Characters’ reactions and the way they deal with what’s happening to them in the “here and now” tells us SO MUCH more than acres of flashbacks or expositional dialogue about their traumatic childhoods.
To continue reading this article, click here.
Who doesn’t want to be a fiction author? You get to create your own worlds and the people who live there. Then you dream up plots that push them to their limits. It’s like being a benign (or maybe evil) despot.
It’s also one of the hardest jobs there is. Sometimes the words on the page fall short of the scene you envision. Sometimes you get stuck in the middle without any clue how to get your characters to the end of the story—even if you know how your story ends.
Luckily, you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Here are some ideas from some of the most creative writers on the internet. (Click on the links to see the articles.)
- Give them awesome names.
- Give them unique voices.
- Make them interesting.
- Let them tell the story.
- Make them great lovers.
- Dress them and give them cars.
- Give them three-dimensional supporting characters.
- Drive them to exhaustion.
- Give them props.
- Injure them.
Thank you to guest author Victoria Griffin for this unique strategy for characterization:
At the most recent Knoxville Writers’ Guild meeting, I had the pleasure of hearing screenwriter Lisa Solandspeak about “What the Playwright Can Teach the Writer.” Lisa is fantastic, and I learned a lot from her. She had good tips—about writing and about life. One idea that stuck with me, though, came during her discussion of conveying meaning without explicitly saying the thing.
In other words, show don’t tell.
The example she used was from a play, in which the characters were discussing the garden, while actually discussing a miscarriage. (Sorry, I didn’t note the title.) Of course, as a fiction writer, my mind went to Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants.” If you haven’t read it, I seriously suggest it.
Lisa argued for providing information this way, rather than spelling it out. “We don’t say things,” she said. “That’s why we have therapists.”
I’m playing with two different aspects of writing, here:
- Show, don’t tell. Give your reader information organically, without spelling everything out, allowing the natural flow of your characters’ dialogue to illuminate the situation.
- Know your characters. Know everything about your characters—not just hair/eye color. Know how they think, how they work, how they would respond in different situations, what drives them.
As a writer, doing a good job with #2 makes #1 simpler. If we truly know our characters, we have a much easier time expressing the situation without outright saying what’s happening. With a deep understand of our characters, it becomes simpler to write from our characters’ perspectives—rather than from the author’s perspective, or the reader’s. I’m not talking about formal perspective, here—1st person, 3rd person. I’m talking about getting inside your characters’ heads to the point that you don’t have to run everything through your own filters. Sort of like the difference between translating French word-by-word into English and simply hearing something in French and understanding. It’s a fine distinction, but an important one. When this extra “filter” is gone, we feel like we’re in the zone. The words just flow, almost as though we’re transcribing rather than creating. And we don’t feel the need to explain everything.
Be someone your character can talk to, can vent to. Sit down with a computer, a notebook, a tape recorder—whatever does the job—and ask your character the stereotypical questions. What was your childhood like? What would it take to make you feel happier and more satisfied? How does that make you feel?
Write the questions down beforehand, or just let them come. Ask your character about backstory and about plot points. Ask them why they reacted certain ways. Ask them what they’re afraid of.
And don’t forget to ask them the big question, the giant question, the blimp over a ballfield question:
What do you want?
Because as we all know from movies, motivation is incredibly important to an actor’s portrayal of characters. Of course, a writer would need to know characters’ motivations! And don’t just say, “to defeat so-and-so” or “to fulfill my destiny.” Those answers are cliched, and your readers will see right through them. If your characters doesn’t know why they are doing what they do, your readers won’t care whether or not they’re successful.
So here’s the challenge:
Hold therapy sessions for your characters.
Record them, write them down, chisel them in stone. Whatever. Just use them to inform your narrative. And please, share snippets in the comments below! I would love to see how you’re able to develop your characters using this method.
It’s all the Magic Violinist‘s fault–if I hadn’t read her post, I would never have know about Beautiful People for Writers. It’s a challenge to answer 10 questions about one of your fictional characters, to help to get him/her better.
I will be answering these about Hillary Noone, the protagonist of my work-in-progress, The Unicornologist.
- How did you come up with this character? Hillary is loosely based on myself as a teenager.
- Have they ever been starving? No, but she will come close in the book. Why? She camps deep in the woods for a week, and doesn’t bring enough food along. And what did they eat to break the fast? The book ends shortly after she returns home and before she gets to eat.
- Do they have a talent or skill that they’re proud of? Hillary is an brilliant student.
- List 3 things that would make them lose their temper. A. Being asked to do something by her step-mother. B. Being asked by her father to be respectful to her step-mother. C. Anyone attempting to harm the unicorn she is charged with protecting.
- What is their favourite type of weather? Warm and sunny. Least favorite? Cold and rainy.
- What is their Hogwarts house and/or MBTI personality? Hillary’s Myers-Briggs type is melancholic. She’s artistic, detail-oriented, patient, idealistic, perfectionist, moody, and introverted.
- Are they more likely to worry about present problems, or freak out about the unknown future? Both.
- What is their favourite thing to drink? Coke.
- What is their favourite color? Green. Least favorite? Black.
- What is a book that changed their life? The Lore of the Unicorn. When she first became obsessed with unicorns, she borrowed this book from the library and studied it extensively.