Short and Sweet Advice for Writers: Understand the Role of Your Characters

Share only enough character detail to enable your character to play his or her role well. The rest is irrelevant.

Share only enough character detail to enable your character to play his or her role well. The rest is irrelevant.

Characters are not real people. Even characters who are based on real people are not, actually, real people. Characters are carefully crafted facsimiles of real or imagined people, designed to play a particular role in your story. 

I have heard this truth many times before, but episode three of Jessica Abel’s podcast, Out on the Wire, really drove the fact home. (FYI – I gushed about Abel’s podcast in the Mar 20 Shareworthy Reading and Writing Links post.) In Walk In My Shoes, Abel explains how characters are puzzle pieces in a story, and just like any other story element, characters have a functional role to play. For this reason, it’s important not to get lost in all the available details of a character’s life and personality.

As the writer, it’s your job to sort of “sculpt” the character out of all the available material, whether that material is based on real life or dreamed up in your head. You need to carefully pick and choose the right bits and pieces on which to build each character. You need to decide what readers get to see, and what they don’t. What matters, and what doesn’t. Abel uses herself as an example:

“Jessica Abel is a person. She gets up every morning, gets her kids to school, goes to work, draws some stuff, comes home, and goes to bed. I don’t bring her in very often. She doesn’t add much.

Jessica Abel, the character in Out on the Wire? Now, she’s something. She’s an explainer, bold and clear-thinking, who investigates how storytelling works by interviewing the best storytellers on the radio, guiding you through how to tell stories step-by-step with wit and precision.

She’s got great hair, and her shirt is always white and pressed.

Her job is to be curious, to lead you through the elements of storytelling by revealing her own discovery and telling the story of how that discovery changed her.”

Abel is a real person who does real, everyday things. Characters you make up for your stories also have “real” and full lives outside the margins of your story, but the vast majority of those lives are not relevant to your story. They can be there, but they don’t matter in the context of the tale you’re telling. Sharing them with readers will only distract from your story. Don’t dilute the power of your story with irrelevant details. They might be really cool details, but unless they are directly related to the story, leave them out.


 

Exercise:

Take a character from a piece you’re working on and create a “character profile” that’s no more than a few sentences long. Try to capture the essence of the character by compiling only the most critical key back story elements, personality traits, and motivations. Strip away all the extraneous details and see what’s left, then see if you’ve created a character who can fulfill the functional role in your story.
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Jamie Lee Wallace Hi. I’m Jamie. I am a content marketer and branding consultant, columnist, sometime feature writer, prolific blogger, and aspiring fiction writer. I’m a mom, a student of equestrian and aerial arts (not at the same time), and a nature lover. I believe in small kindnesses, daily chocolate, and happy endings. Join me each Saturday for the Weekend Edition – a long-form post on writing and the writing life – and/orintroduce yourself on Facebooktwitter, Instagram, or Pinterest. I don’t bite … usually.
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Photo Credit: Benjamin Disinger via Compfight cc

Friday Fun – Choosing Character Names

Friday Fun is a group post from the writers of the NHWN blog. Each week, we’ll pose and answer a different, get-to-know-us question. We hope you’ll join in by providing your answer in the comments.

QUESTION: How important is a character’s name? How do you choose just the right one? Do you have any particular places you turn to when searching for the perfect moniker?

JME5670V2smCROPJamie Wallace: I think a lot about characters’ names. I like finding names that have historical or mythical meanings, but my choices are also influenced by the way a name sounds as well as my own personal experience (if any) with that name.

I tend to prefer unique names. The main characters in the middle grade fantasy I’ve been dallying with for a few years are named “Wren” and “Finn.” I struggle, however, with fantasy names in general. For the most part, I feel like all the fantasy names I come up with sound super cheesy.

I also love “noun names” that are applied to creatures who are a different kind of being,  for instance: a man called Horse, a cat named Mouse, or a dog named Bear and a Bear named dog.

LisaJJackson_2014Lisa J. Jackson: Names are a challenge at times. Sometimes I’ll start a story with one name for a character and then get stuck and realize the name isn’t “right”. I’ve use the name generator tool at times, but mostly I let the characters tell me what names they want.

Years ago, I would use gender-neutral names a lot. For instance, Alex for Alexandra, or Joe for Josephine, as I thought it was important to have the character come across ‘strong’ and ‘masculine’ yet have a small twist be that the character is actually an independent woman.

I do sometimes choose names based on people I knew/know, particularly if I want to use a lot of their traits. I do have favorite names, of course, and sometimes it’s difficult NOT to use them – but it can be confusing to have ‘Dave’ be in multiple stories when he’s not at all the same character. Know what I mean?

When writing childrens’ stories, coming up with names hasn’t generally been a problem. Most are nicknames, or at least simple words that kids can pronounce and relate to. No multisyllable words, or variations of ‘standard’ names — for instance, I would use Jane instead of Jayn or Jayne or Jaayn.

hennrikus-web2Julie Hennrikus: This is such a great question. Names are so much harder than I expected. My Clock Shop Mystery series has a core cast of characters. Then each book has to have their own characters. You would be amazed at how easy it is to write an entire novel without realizing that you have three characters with the same initials. Yeesh. I have one character who bid on naming rights in a Malice Domestic auction. I’ve also used the web to find names with specific meanings. I have a friend who recently lost her mother–I named a character for her. When desperate, I post on Facebook for suggestions.

How I learned to write

Today’s guest post comes from Robert C. Deming, an indie author who writes modern cowboy stories about honest, hard-working, independent, courageous good guys. His first two novels (both mysteries in an on-going series) are set in the beautiful Enchanted Rock State Park in his home state of Texas. We hope you enjoy this post and will make him feel welcome. 

I minored in English in college instead of French because I was something of a slacker; I knew I wouldn’t get past French – Advanced Grammar and Composition, and, anyway, my roommates were all engineers, who make anyone feel like a slacker.  I became a military pilot, a good career for a slacker, and spent a great deal of time waiting beside a big jet for WWIII.  Lots of the guys entertained themselves during those slack times (the Cold War – we won that one!) with “Economics Class,” an all-night poker game. Not me, I read.  We had a great paperback library in the alert facility.  I read Ernest Hemmingway, Edward Abbey, John LeCarre, Robert Heinlein, James Michener.  I was twenty-two years old, and I flew jets around the world, and I wanted to write – but I had no idea what to write about. I had no story in me.

Thirty years later, I took my first creative writing course.  The teacher, a diminutive German immigrant with a sharp eye, a survivor of World War Two, and the Russians, and the partition of Berlin, and the Wall, began with, “Think of an interesting character.”  She gave us a minute to ponder that and said “Now, write a paragraph about that interesting character.”  Half the class got up, left, and asked for their money back.  That’s when I realized there is a lot more angst in not writing than actually writing.  I wrote my paragraph and read it to the survivors, and kept coming back. That first paragrah turned into an unmanageable short story, followed by another, and another.  I took all seven of the ten week classes she offered, and the more I wrote, the better my stories got.

One of my (published!) writer friends told me that her characters told her the story.  I thought she was nuts.  She is, as it turns out, but just a little bit, and no more than I.  One day, while driving my car, an image popped into my head: I was in the back seat of a T-38 jet trainer again, upside down at 20,000 feet, at the top of a loop, with a solo student 500 feet behind me.  I had spent a lot of time in that seat as an instructor pilot, and I knew that place.  When I got home, I put that on paper, and before long I had a chapter.  I had no idea whatsoever what the story was, I just knew that it was about a twenty-five year old T-38 instructor pilot named Tom.  The story came to me one scene at a time, but come it did.  The story POPS, and I will publish Awol 21 later this year.

The most fundamental concept in writing fiction is this – stories are about people.  Stories are character-driven.  Put an interesting character in an interesting place and the story will come.  I have written two more novels now, Enchanted Rock Red and Enchanted Rock Blue(s), and I have a start on Enchanted Rock White(tail) and Fort Davis Rocks.  So far, I have had no idea what the story was when I started, and haven’t been completely sure until I finished.  A year and some ago I was at my kitchen table writing Red while my wife was fixing supper, with teenager chaos all around me.  My Texas Ranger character was talking to a group of peace officers in the story.  When I finished writing that scene, I pushed back from my laptop and said, “Where the heck did that come from?”  This happened over and over.  Two characters even inserted themselves into the story without my permission!  (Maybe I’m the one who is nuts?)  So, here’s my advice:

Forget everything you have read or been told about how to write a story.   You can worry with that later. Think of an interesting character, and write a short paragraph about that interesting character.  You don’t need a week of vacation, or even an hour; or to have your laptop; or to have your pencils all sharpened and lined up on your desk.  Even if you are standing on a commuter bus just one stop away, but you know who that character is, and all you have to write on is the back of an envelope from an overdue bill in your pocket, and a cheap pen from Joe’s Tires on it, scratch it down!  You will get off the bus with a smirk on your face, because, by God, you’re a writer, and you have a story to tell!

Robert Deming is a Texan who aspires to be a national best-selling author.  Samples of his wit can be found on www.robertcdeming.me.  The two aforementioned novels are for sale on Amazon and Kindle.

Children do not want nice stories

Many adults who want to write for children make the mistake of assuming that children want nice stories. Our mature perspective distorts our memories and deceives us into believing that only unicorns, fluffy bunnies, and fairy godmothers populated our childhood fantasies. We have forgotten our own dark natures. We assume that because, as adults, we find children to be “cute” and endearing, they must see themselves that way, too.

Nothing could be farther from the truth.

Little girls are cute and small only to adults.  To one another they are not cute.  They are life-sized.  ~Margaret Atwood

Earlier this year, I attended Grub Street Writers’ annual Muse conference. Author Tayari Jones expanded on Atwood’s observation, “Kids are not cute,” she told us, “They are not cruel, innocent, the future, or closer to nature. To each other, they are life-sized. They convey and inhabit the full range of their experience and emotions – which are as complicated as yours and mine.”

Try to remember what it felt like to be a kid.

Did you ever feel “cute?” Did you feel like your feelings were less intense or less important because you were a kid? I bet you thought your feelings were more intense and more important because you were a kid. Children, from the first spark of self-knowledge through the tumultuous teen years, experience the world in a much more visceral way than most adults. Their perception has not been dulled by deeply ingrained assumptions or painted by the opinions of others. Children live more fully in the “real” world than we do. They trust their senses and their instincts.

“I’d felt something move. I’d felt the knocker twist under my hand as I’d banged that grinning imp down on the door. I was not so old that I would deny my own senses.” – Neil Gaiman from the short story Closing Time

But children also have the advantage of living simultaneously and fully in a world of their own making. In his fascinating book, The Storytelling Animal – How Stories Make Us Human, Jonathan Gottschall dedicates a lengthy section to the nature of children’s make believe:

“Grownups have a tendency to remember the land of make-believe as a heavenly, sun-kissed, bunny land. But the land of make-believe is less like heaven and more like hell. Children’s play is not escapist. It confronts the problems of the human condition head-on.”

He goes on to call pretend play “deadly serious fun.”

Gottschall’s words, along with the examples of stories made up by children, reminded me of just how frightening and often violent my own childhood dreams and fantasies were. My nighttime visions were full of ghosts and monsters, being lost, being chased, falling, and other nightmarish things. My games were full of adventure, crisis, and trouble. I played at being an Amazon warrior, a dragon tamer, and a magical priestess of the forest. I enacted the invasion of Earth by alien species. I handed down death sentences to traitors and slew my enemies on the battlefield.

This isn’t to say I didn’t also search for unicorns and admire bluebirds. I did.

I invented an entire subgenus called White Deer. They were wise and noble creatures with a complex hierarchy, jeweled antlers, and a traveling court that disappeared into the mist at sunrise. My point is, most of my preferred play – my most memorable play – revolved around things that weren’t nice – kidnappings and war and beasts of every description.

Think about the stories that captivated you as a child.

Were they nothing but rainbows and lullabies, or were they inhabited by trolls, evil queens, and haunted houses? Think about the stories that have taken young minds by storm in recent years. A few that come to mind immediately for me are Harry Potter, A Series of Unfortunate Events, The Hunger Games (which, technically is young adult), and Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book. Each involves its fair share of tragedy, violence, and death. Even seemingly tame stories like Roald Dahl’s Matilda include their share of bad people and terrible happenings. Enduring classics like C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series and J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy are built around great conflicts, wars, and a deep, unflinching look into the eyes of evil.

There are plenty of favorites on my shelf that are “nicer” than these fantasy and adventure stories – The Wind in the Willows, Winne-the-Pooh, and Tales of Brambley Hedge , just to name a few. But I find that the books my daughter wants to read are either rife with danger or full of gut-busting belly laughs. She does not find “nice” appealing and is easily bored by sweet tales of idyllic childhoods. She is, of course, only a focus group of one, but I’d be willing to bet – based on bestseller charts – that she’s not alone in her tastes.

When writing for children, do not rein in the full range of human experience and emotion. Do not soften the blows or dilute the nature of evil. Children use stories to learn about themselves, each other, and the world. They are naturally drawn to stories that give them a deep, truthful picture of these things. It does not matter if the story takes place on familiar city streets, in a fantasy land full of dragons, or out in darkest space. What matters is the veracity of the human element …

… and we grownups know that human nature is not always nice.

Do you write for children or young adults? What kinds of themes do your stories explore? Have you ever found yourself holding back in a subconscious effort to protect your reader? What inspires you to write for these age groups?

Jamie Lee Wallace is a writer who also happens to be a marketer. She helps her Suddenly Marketing clients discover their voice, connect with their audience, and find their marketing groove. She is also a mom, a prolific blogger, and a student of voice and trapeze (not at the same time). Introduce yourself on facebook or twitter. She doesn’t bite … usually.

Image Credit: Wesley Fryer

The secret to creating perfect characters

Whether your writing is plot-driven or character-driven, there’s no arguing that strong characters are a critical element of any story. But how does one craft the kind of characters that draw readers in and inspire an emotional connection?

The secret ingredient for a perfect character

I’ve been on a bit of a self-study kick lately – reading all kinds of books, articles, and magazines on the craft of writing. I’m easily enthralled by essays on the origin of story, fascinated by discourse on the merits of one fiction structure over another, and find myself staying up late to read about the finer points of manuscript submissions, publishing platforms, and book promotion. I am a humble student, hungry to know more.

One of my recent impulse purchases was a slim Kindle book called The Screenwriter’s Fairytale: The Universal Story Within All Movie Stories by screenwriter and producer, Todd Klick. I’m slightly embarrassed to admit this, but it wasn’t until I read his quirky “story template” that I grasped the importance of the character flaw.

That’s right. The thing that makes a character perfect is her flaw.

Seven circles of hell – three types of character flaws

According to the all-knowing Wikipedia, there are three types of character flaws:

  • Minor: Surface flaws that provide texture but don’t influence the story. These might be things like a scar, a lisp, a nail-biting habit, or a propensity to re-tell movie scenes word-for-word after having had one too many glasses of chardonnay.
  • Major: Core personality flaws define a character and drive the story forward. Major flaws are not only an important part of character development, they are an important element of the story itself. Overcoming major flaws is a crucial part of each characters journey.
  • Tragic: Think classic Greek myths – these are the flaws that eventually lead to a character’s untimely demise.

Interestingly, a character is often blissfully unaware of her major flaw. Even though those around her might see it instantly, she doesn’t realize what it is that’s holding her back. She’s oblivious to the obvious. Before she can overcome her flaw, she needs to acknowledge that it exists and be able to recognize it.

Why character flaws are so important

Why, you might ask, would I want to give my wonderful character a flaw – minor, major, or otherwise?

Oh, dear writer, let me count the ways:

  1. Flaws make your character more realistic. Nobody is perfect. Nobody. Even that cute barista you’ve been crushing on has imperfections that would, eventually, show themselves in the light of day. The Real World isn’t perfect and glossy like an air-brushed spread in a fashion magazine. The Real World is full of pock marks and speed bumps and skeleton-filled closets. Character flaws help bring that level of reality to your story, making suspension of disbelief easier for your readers.
  2. Flaws make your character more human. Remember that girl from school – the one whose outfit was always perfectly put together, whose hair was always perfectly in place? She got perfect attendance and perfect grades and had absolutely perfect teeth. You didn’t like her very much, did you? As a rule, we don’t like perfect people. We can’t relate to them. We don’t trust them. Think about those creepy Stepford wives. When you give your characters flaws, they become more likeable. Readers can step more easily into the shoes of a flawed character, and when a reader puts herself in your character’s mind, she feels empathy and you’ve got her.
  3. Flaws add dimension to your character. Characters that are perfectly good (or, perfectly bad) are boring. Boring is the death of your story. Adding flaws allows you to build the “layers” of your character – physical, emotional, philosophical, etc. Flaws add interest. They give two-dimensional characters some meat.
  4. Flaws help create story tension. Even if you don’t spell out your character’s flaw, your reader will know instinctively what it is. Your reader will also have a sense of how that flaw might tip the scales for the character – help or hinder or doom her. Your character’s flaw is like a time bomb – your reader can hear it ticking quietly in the background, but never knows exactly when it will go off. Flaws keep us from assuming we know how things will turn out.
  5. Flaws increase reader investment in your story. Bottom line – because of all the aforementioned reasons, character flaws increase reader interest in finding out what happens next.

A few examples of character flaws

Taylor Lindstrom wrote a great post for the Men With Pens blog (one of my favorites) in which she asked readers to consider the role of the character flaw for Batman and Superman. In a nutshell, she contends that Superman didn’t have a true flaw, while Batman (aka Bruce Wayne) had plenty of them, making him the more interesting and human. I’d add that Catwoman is a deeply flawed character whom I happen to love. Her “broken” quality draws me in and keeps me rooting for her no matter what happens.

The protagonist in the movie Brave (which I loved) is young Merida – a princess who is anything but perfect. Her stubborn streak is the driving force behind the story – providing the impetus for the conflict between Merida and her mother, and ultimately leading Merida to make the choices that result in loads of trouble and a great story.

I recently finished reading A Song of Fire and Ice. Eddard Stark, a central character in this first book of the Game of Thrones series has a serious issue with honor. They say too much of a good thing can be bad. That certainly seems to be the case for this character.

Think of any movie or book character. Think of the television series you watch – what keeps you interested week after week? Is it the perfection of the characters? I doubt it. It’s their quirks and foibles, their flawed humanity, and the hope that one of these days they’ll overcome their flaw and rise triumphant.

 

The character flaw is a concept worth exploring. Are you putting it to work in your fiction? Do your characters have flaws? What kinds? How do those flaws influence your story?

Can characters live in different stories?

I have a new favorite show – Longmire (a new series on A&E). It popped up on Hulu one day, so I checked it out. Wyoming, cowboys, detective work…what’s not to love, right?

In watching the first episode, I saw a familiar face – Katee Sackhoff. Lou Diamond Phillips is also on the show, but he’s not who prompted this post.

Katee plays a main character on Longmire. A few years ago, she portrayed a main character in another TV series I like – Battlestar Galactica. She’s an actor, so she has a lot of credits in her career, but the one that brought this post to fruition is that she made an appearance on The Big Bang Theory as herself, but dressed as her character from Battlestar Galactica.

So, in chronological order: I enjoyed Sackhoff on Battlestar Galactica, then found it amusing when she was on The Big Bang Theory as herself but in her BG character’s uniform, and now I see her as a weekly character on Longmire.

Of course everything comes back to writing for me, so I’ve been thinking about characters I’ve created and what would happen if I picked one out of a story and randomly dropped her in another story. I couldn’t change her name (well, I could, but then the reader wouldn’t recognize her). Would I have to keep her in the same time period? Could she be living in 2012 in one novel and 1760 in another? Would a reader pick up on it? Would it matter?The Time Traveler's Wife cover

I just (finally) read The Time Traveler’s Wife and so have time travel on my mind (I love the concept).

I know crossover novels exist, where the author purposely works with another author and their main characters meet over a shared interest of some kind, but I’m going a little deeper here.

Actors take on new roles all the time. Can a character on a written page have the same opportunities?

Do you ever take one of your characters and drop him/her into a totally new story? Has a reader ever noticed?

Since character names aren’t copyrighted, wouldn’t it be fun to do a search on all published works for a character name and see how many novels the character appears in? Then see if any of the character descriptions match?

Lisa J. Jackson sometimes forgets her characters only live on the page and not in the real world. She is a New England region journalist and a year-round chocolate and iced coffee lover. She writes fiction as Lisa Haselton, has an award-winning blog for book reviews and author interviews, and is on the staff of The Writer’s Chatroom. Connect with her on Facebook or Twitter