We Bloody Murderous Writers

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Many times, we worry about how to make characters as realistic as possible. There is a great deal of advice out there, including some tips I’ve shared with students and readers. Because we are writers, however, we will forever be plagued with doubts about convincing our characters are, among other details. How can you tell your characters are real enough? What are some sure signs they’re alive and kicking–on the page, that is?

You know your character is as real as they come when:

1. You hear their voices in your head. They never stop talking. Sometimes they talk to you, sometimes they talk among themselves. Sometimes they even talk to themselves, but make sure you hear them! It’s so bad you begin to think you are schizophrenic.

2. You carry on conversations with them. You’ll start answering them in your head, but soon enough, you’ll find yourself talking aloud to them. If anyone asks you, you can always claim it’s your imaginary friend or enemy or frenemy. Or you can pretend to be talking into your bluetooth device. Your choice.

3. They argue back. At this point, your characters are becoming more aggressive. They enjoy debating with you. The worst part is that they’re almost as good as you at arguing!

4. They have a mind of their own. They think they’re really smart and can solve their own problems. The problem is, they also create their own problems.

5. They do what they want. Just when you think you’ve got everything wrapped tightly, they’ll go ahead and do something totally unexpected. Sometimes you think they just want to spite you. Of course, they could just be teasing. But you have to remember they do have a mind of their own, so you can’t always control them.

6. They control your story. That’s right. Because you can’t always control them, they often end up controlling your story. They’ll literally pick up that figurative ball and run with it. No kidding. Of course they’ll get into trouble, then you’ll have to fix it for them.

7. They wake you up in the middle of the night. That’s right. It’s not enough that they keep you up late, they’ll wake you up in the middle of the night for the most trivial matter. Naturally, they’ll make sure you have to get up and hunt for that notebook or pad that should have been on your nightstand, but because they always wake you up, you’ve probably taken that pad somewhere else where you could argue with them in private, assuming you still share your bed with someone else.

8. They demand to be written. It’s not enough for them to just exist in your head. They’ll nag you until you write them into a story. Mind you, remember #6.

9. They want to live forever. It’s not enough that you write a story about them. They want you to write more and more stories also about them. This is called the serial temptation, when they haunt you and keep on coming up with all sorts of outrageous situations for you to write them into. Then they force you to solve their problems.

10. You value their opinions. If your characters are truly trustworthy and full of integrity, they might just be able to solve their problems on their own, in which case you are off the hook and all you need to do is let them control your fingers and do the typing or writing.

11. You talk about them as if they were real people. When you find yourself talking with other people about your characters as if they were realy people, then your characters are certifiably real! At this point, other people might even ask you how your characters are, what they’re doing next, what they think of certain things, and so on and so forth.

At a certain point, your characters will permeate your life so much it won’t feel right being without them. On the other hand, they could be taking over your life, in which case you might be drawn to murderous intent. There will always come a time to kill your darlings and we are all guilty, we bloody, murderous tribe of writers!

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How Real Are Your Characters?

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Besides the physical challenges of being a writer and the obvious release it gives any megalomaniac tendencies you might have, writing also challenges the psyche. As a prolific writer, you have written several stories—fiction, of course—with characters you have either modeled on real-life personalities or whom you have created completely out of nothing. Every writer does that. However, you want your characters to be as real as you can make them so you treat them like real people. You give them personalities and let them exercise free will. You develop them, give them words, then give them triumph or defeat. You make them rise to the heights of success of fall to the depths of despair. You are their god, their creator, and you can do whatever you want with them, including kill them, as many a famous writer has adviced. On another level, you might treat them as your contemporaries and hold

On another level, you might treat them as your contemporaries and hold conversation with them—what better way to develop dialogue, after all, than hold a real dialogue with characters? You argue, fight, wheedle, convince, threaten, compromise, order, intimidate, contradict, and defy them. Quite naturally, they will argue, fight, wheedle, convince, threaten, compromise, order, intimidate, contradict, and defy you in return.

You can share secrets with them, confide in them, become their best friend and confidante, even become their lover and share sweet, intimate, sensual discourse with them. You encourage them, motivate them, sometimes even chastise them. In some cases, you will have had enough of your characters after a single book and shut the voices between the covers. In other cases, you will be haunted by the voices. Your characters will not leave you alone. They will keep you awake with endless debates, wake you up in the middle of the night, interrupt your most intimate moments, join you in the shower, argue over every meal, make you miss appointments or your stop so you end up riding the bus farther than you want to or need to. They will distract you and preoccupy your mind so your tv shows go by without your knowing what happened, you completely forget what you went to the grocery for, and people look at you strangely because, yes, the worst has happened, you now talk to your characters aloud in public. In that case, congratulations! Your characters are as real as they can get. Time to break out the champagne. Oh, and don’t forget an extra glass for your favorite character.

On Writing: How Much Detail Do Characters Need?

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“In displaying the psychology of your characters, minute particulars are essential. God save us from vague generalizations!”
~ Anton Chekhov, Letter to Alexander Chekhov, May 10, 1886

Some of my students have asked me how much detail they needed to include when creating character descriptions or character profiles and I have always told them there is no such thing as too much. In fact, I encourage them to invent as much detail as possible, because those details will make their characters more real. How do you decide what details to include when creating a character profile? I tell my students to look at their characters from different angles: physical, psychological, professional, and biographical.

The physical description is straightforward: What is your character’s physical appearance? You should include everything from gender to height, weight, girth, hair and eye color, skin color, nose, ears, mouth, teeth, hand size, feet size, and so on. While highly detailed physical descriptions do not always play a huge part in stories, they can certainly be part of the main character’s problem, if not the main problem. Otherwise, a character’s physical attributes will affect how that character will interact with other characters or the environment. For instance, an unusually tall character might have to stoop to go through certain doorways, look down when speaking with others, or push back a seat to fit in a car or at the dining table. Physical descriptions should also include any physical defects, abnormalities, or diseases. Not to be overlooked are physical issues or distinctions such as moles, birthmarks, limps, missing fingers, a broken nose.

Character psychology ranges from personality type to personality disorders, phobias, insecurities, likes and dislikes. This would also include habits and mannerisms that distinguish this character, such as nervous habits, tics, stutters, and the sort. Beliefs can also be included in character psychology, as these shape the way people think and act. Our gangly tall character might be uncomfortable with his height and this would show in a slouch or a general discomfort or uneasiness when interacting with shorter people.

I recommend separating professional and biographical characteristics even if a character’s professional description could be included in biography. This helps distinguish a character’s past from present. Biographical details would include information you’d find in a birth certificate: date of birth, place of birth, parents, and birth order. It would also include family history, places lived, educational background, religion, work background, affiliations, achievements, and awards. This is also where knowledge and skills can be described. A character’s professional description would focus on the character’s current job or occupation, skills, and knowledge. This can be significant because a character’s current job could explain a great deal about habits, work hours, milieu, relationships, preferences, economic status, and so on.

Creating characters can be tricky. After all, you are trying to create real people–or beings, as the case may be–on paper through nothing more than words. We know real people are not perfect, so there really is no reason your characters should be perfect. In fact, they will be the most perfect if they are flawed. That is what makes your characters more real, more human. All the best literature in the world, from the age of classics to contemporary times, reveal characters with a particularly fatal flaw which becomes the cause of the character’s downfall. It can’t be just any arbitrary flaw, either, That fatal flaw must be part and parcel of your character’s complex being–just like any human being. The more intimately you know your character, the better you can lead your character through your story. You will also know what your characters will do, how your characters will think, feel, act, and react because you know every little trait and quirk your characters possess. All those details come from a well-written, highly detailed character description. As I also tell my students, whatever you write in your character profiles and character descriptions don’t necessarily have to appear in your story. Your character profiles and descriptions are your guides to how your characters will behave throughout the story, what they think, do, and plan to do. At no time must you feel obliged to dump your whole character description on your readers in one sitting, unless you plan to choke your readers on unnecessary information. Sure, the information might be important, but not all at once. The way to reveal your character to your readers is gradually. We do not get to know any one person we meet in real life in a single sitting. As a matter of fact, it sometimes takes us years to get to know people–and even then, we sometimes never get to really know every little thing there is to know about them. In the same way we reveal the setting in a story as it is encountered by the characters, we should reveal characters in the story as they are encountered, and character traits and details as they would be revealed in real life. Think of it the same way you meet a real person: the first thing you notice are physical details. Their appearance, their dress, their mannerisms. If you are in the same situation, you might discover that person’s professional attributes–what their job is, what skills they have, where they work. As you continue to interact with that person, you discover a little more–maybe a bit of their family, where they live, where they used to work or study. The longer your relationship and interaction, the more you learn about that person. That is just how your readers should encounter and be acquainted with your characters. Of course, there are ways to accelerate the process, for instance, in an interview or a tragedy–nothing reveals character more than a tragic event. This is when people are at their weakest and also when we see just how strong they really are. Regardless of the scenario you create to reveal your character, remember that not everything will be revealed at once. It’s always good to keep some things a mystery. It’s one of the reasons people are interesting.

Character Types: Dynamic vs Static

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Plot is people. Human emotions and desires founded on the realities of life, working at cross purposes, getting hotter and fiercer as they strike against each other until finally there’s an explosion—that’s Plot.
~Leigh Brackett, WD

 

We’ve been discussing how to make characters more interesting in your writing. One of the best ways to guarantee interesting characters, besides making them ROUND is to make your characters DYNAMIC as opposed to STATIC. Granted, literature needs its share of static characters, because sometimes the stories just need the characters to be the same. People come back to certain writers because their characters are the same, predictable, reliable. Procedural stories, which would be the basis of procedural drama in television, often have static characters. As the term suggests, static characters do not change. They remain the same from beginning to end. They often don’t grow older and they don’t generally have life-shattering experiences. There are hundreds of highly popular static characters in serial books, and there are quite a few I remember and enjoyed reading: Nancy Drew, Perry Mason, James Bond, the Bobbsey Twins, the Dana girls, the Hardy Boys, Miss Marple, and Sherlock Holmes. More recent serial publications with static characters? To some extent, the Bourne series and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoos series. Sometimes, the static characters don’t age, sometimes they do, but in every book, they pretty much think, act, and speak the same way. They do not undergo deep transformations. That’s why they’re suited to adventure and action series. Don’t get me wrong, you can write static characters and they can be very successful, as you can see from the examples I’ve given. They serve a very good purpose, and that is, the series. When the characters grow up, change, achieve their goals and move on, the series either ends or changes. Best example? The Harry Potter series. That’s a limited series because Harry Potter has achieved his goal of seeking revenge on his parents’ killer. Anything else after that time will be a new story. Those characters are prime examples of DYNAMIC characters. You’ve probably surmised by now, that dynamic characters are the opposite of static characters. They develop, change, become different, grow into someone else. They have life-changing and eye-opening experiences that alter their characters so that the way they are when you first encounter them is not who they are by the end of the book. Sometimes, the change is almost indiscernible. It could be a change in attitude or values that show how a character matures. These changes are not always accompanied by life-shattering events or dramatic physical changes. It also depends on the time span of your work. A story that takes place over a longer time is more likely to affect the characters or show how characters change in many different ways. No matter what the situation, your story involves characters with human sentiments, human traits, human foibles. What makes humanity makes your story. What moves humanity will move your readers.

Character Types: Round vs Flat

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We’re past the age of heroes and hero kings. … Most of our lives are basically mundane and dull, and it’s up to the writer to find ways to make them interesting.
~John Updike, WD

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We started talking about character creation and description in our last installment. Creating characters is such an intricate process and I’ve already described how to develop a character profile in “How to Create Memorable Characters” and, more recently, “Writing Realistic Characters.” What many of you might not be familiar with are the different types of characters. Knowing the different types helps you decide how to develop your characters and how much to develop them. I’ve already discussed the most common type, the STOCK character. A stock character is a common type found in literature through the ages. They’re also called stereotypes. Many of these characters came from classical literature and, because they have the same general traits and purpose in a story, they’re easy to integrate in a story. Stock characters are pull-of-the-shelf varieties and if you look at fairy tales, legends, and classical drama, you’ll find a wide variety of stock characters. I remembering describing stock characters in an earlier article, calling to mind Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers, or fairy tale Cinderellas and wicked stepmothers. The next two character types are ROUND vs FLAT characters. Round characters are well-developed characters with complex characteristics. These are the realistic characters I’ve been talking about. They have personalities, quirks, families, histories, and futures. Round characters are like real people because you create them that way. When you include physical, psychological, and biographical information about a character, you have a round character. Your main characters are most interesting when they are round, so you should plan around that. On the other hand, you could have FLAT characters. Flat characters are one-dimensional or, at most, two-dimensional. They are like cartoons on a page, caricatures, because they take the one outstanding trait of a character and you do not see anything else about that character. Flat characters are completely predictable. They always react the same way, they don’t have thoughts, let alone deep ones; they rarely have relationships, deep or complex personalities, histories. You’re probably thinking, why do flat characters exist at all? In short fiction, flat characters are not likely to even exist. In longer fiction, we use flat characters to fill in the role of extras, such as the nosy next-door neighbor, the cranky garbage collector, the crotchety spinster, the 97-pound weakling, the brawny football hero, the dumb blonde. Stock characters can also be flat characters, but don’t have to be. You can take stock characters and give them complex personalities and problems, something you’ll never really find with flat characters. You need flat characters in your stories because your main characters need to interact with those flat characters as they get through their days; you need flat characters to remain flat because they provide your main characters incredible contrast and color; despite their flatness, your flat characters also provide color in your story, albeit background color. Just don’t overdo it. Like a painting, keep your flat characters in the background and your round, three-dimensional characters in the foreground.

Next time: Dynamic vs Static Characters

 

Writing Realistic Characters

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Character creation might seem a daunting task to the unseasoned writer, because it isn’t easy to create literary characters who seem real. It’s like creating people on paper, who are real in every way except physically. In fact, truly realistic characters can sometimes feel so alive they could walk out of the pages of their books. There are several ways to create characters, but my recommended method is to create a character profile. Why is this important? There are several reasons: It helps the writer (1) create different individuals, (2) keep those characters separate and different from each other, (3) keep those characters separate and different from the narrator, (4) keep those characters separate and different from the author, (5) define each character’s story more clearly, (6) ensure character consistency from beginning to end, (7) create a source file from which to pull descriptions and even dialogue. While these might not seem particularly necessary when writing short stories, character profiles become extremely useful when writing novels, and practically essential when writing series. For instance, if a character in the first volume of a series is left handed, you can’t have him picking up a pen and writing with his right hand in the third volume. Or, she could celebrate a birthday in December in one novel, then later on, you might refer to her as a Gemini in a sequel. Your profile can be as detailed or as general as you need it; the longer your work, the more detailed it should be, simply because there are more instances for you to reveal your characters and make them as real as possible for your readers. Simply because when your characters are more, they become more believable, more sympathetic, and easier to identify with.

Writing characters is not easy, but there are ways of getting around the problem of how to develop characters. One way is to do what Shakespeare, Gore Vidal, and, I’m sure, many other prolific writers have done: have a repertory company of stock characters. Your stock characters will be general types you can tweak, change a bit, give different names, set in different situations, and otherwise write different stories about. You probably know more stock characters than you think you do. Besides the bard’s works, stock characters can also be found in fairy tales. Some of the most commonly-used stock characters are: the Cinderella character, the cunning villain, the thief with a golden heart, the wicked stepmother, the cuckold husband, the jester, Prince Charming, the orphan boy, the wicked stepsisters–these are characters common in fairy tales and legends. Shakespeare uses quite a few of these, as well as others we all recognize: the star-crossed lovers, the young lovers with feuding families, the megalomaniac, the cheating wife/husband, the seer. He also borrows characters from classical literature, which has many stock characters, such as the wandering hero, the guilt-ridden son/daughter, the adulterous wife/husband, the adventurer in disguise, the benevolent spirit–these also being characters from mythology. Many modern writers have taken advantage of stock characters and rewritten them in a variety of original and interesting ways, including James Joyce’s Ulysses or Arthur Laurents’s West Side Story. It’s a good thing to know all these characters from older literature because people, after all, are people, no matter what the setting. What makes characters more realistic is what makes humans–their foibles and follies, their loves and losses, their lives and deaths.

*coming soon: How to Create Characters

How to Create Memorable Characters

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[I]t’s not a good idea to try to put your wife into a novel. Not your latest wife, anyway.

~Norman Mailer, quoted in Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews, Third Series, 1967

 

How are characters created? In non-fiction, characters are clearly real people as described by the writer. In fiction, however, characters are supposed to be completely fictitious, a.k.a., unreal, made-up, invented, created, imaginary. And yet, the best writers are the most notorious borrowers, copiers, and imitators, mainly of life. How else would they be able to create surrealistically real scenarios and characters if they did not borrow, copy, or imitate from real life? The best writers are excellent students of life in that they observe life keenly and everything they see becomes a potential source for something they write. They might describe a restaurant, but if they had never sat in a restaurant and observed every little detail about it, from the cutlery to the cuisine, from the service to the servers, from the entrance to the ambience, they would not be able to create a restaurant in words that places the reader exactly where the characters are. The same thing goes for characters. Writers need to observe people closely, watching every movement and pose, from the twitch of the fingers to the facial tics, from the strands of hair to the creases and folds of their clothes, from the twinkling in the eyes to the faintest blue or red capillaries weaving delicate networks on a papery-skinned cheek—such is what brings characters to life. As well, not a single little mannerism should escape them, from how a coffee mug is grasped to how hair is brushed from the face, or how fingers tap or twirl and feet jiggle to the slant of shoulders, the tilt of the head, the curvature of the spine, the way ankles or knees or arms cross—all these make characters more human. To complete that image, characters have voices, different tones, different expressions and ejaculations, different accents, different kinds of laughs. It’s not surprising, therefore, if a writer’s characters resemble the people around them, the people they live with, the people close to them, or even the people they detest and abhor the most. Of course, only those who know both the writer and the people in the writer’s life will know who a writer has modelled a character after. In fact, if you are a writer looking for a character, you need look no farther than your family, friends, and acquaintances. In most cases, writers will pick and blend characteristics so that their fictitious characters are a mish-mash of traits from several real people. Depending on how realistic the fiction is, writers can take all the good traits from several real people and put them in the protagonist, then take all the bad traits from those same people or others and put them in the antagonist. While that may not sound realistic, that would certainly make a great caricature for a cautionary tale, a humorous tale, or a fantasy. Certainly, the more unrealistic characters are, the more impossible it is that they are real people. Of course, that is not to say that there are real people out there who are real characters—which is where our expression comes from for calling people “characters”—the fact that they seem so unreal, it’s almost as if they’ve been made up.

When I give workshops that teach writers how to develop characters, I usually provide participants with a character sheet, not unlike character sheets you might find for role-playing games, because they are, essentially, character creation sheets. Writers can develop their own or look for them in a variety of online writing resources. Basically, a character sheet has three major aspects: (1) the physical features of the character; (2) the biographical-historical background, and (3) the emotional-psychological features of the character.

As the categories suggest, the physical features tell us how tall, heavy, the color and length of hair, the eye color and shape, the shape of the body, identifying marks, hand and foot size, what fingers and toes look like, clothing size, teeth condition, nose and nostril type, neck, etc. It helps to have a picture of someone real, or to create analogies: swan-like neck, flared nostrils, chunky fingers and toes, spade fingernails, etc.

When describing biographical-historical background, we decide how old the character is, birthdate, place of birth, race, nationality, residence, family, relatives, languages, education, skills, places lived, their work, religion, memberships, training, jobs held, and all other types of things you might find in the most comprehensive biodata and curriculum vitae ever.

Third, and probably the most difficult, is establishing the emotional-psychological profile of the character. This includes quirks, beliefs, superstitions, attitudes, intellect, viewpoint on various topics from politics to art and culture to family, personality type, phobias, preferences, desires, weaknesses, dreams, and anything else that reflects their psyches. Finally, every character must have that fatal or tragic flaw. That one thing that is the character’s Achilles heel, the one thing that will affect the character’s success. It can be one or more of the character’s phobias or weaknesses that prevent success, but definitely one thing that within the character that works against overcoming the problem they face in the story. This is the humanizing factor that makes readers more sympathetic towards fictional characters, because we all know that nobody is perfect.

While I have presented a great deal of details that can go into the creation of a character, that is not to say every single detail must be present. As an aid to determining how much detail to include when creating a character, let me just say that the detail should be commensurate to the length of the story. The shorter the story, the less detail; longer, epic stories will need greater detail, because then, characters are exposed to the reader’s scrutiny in a greater variety of situations. They meet more characters, do more things, have more to accomplish or overcome; hence, they need to be more well-thought out, more fleshed-out, more real to account for every possibility along the way. This also makes them more realistic and, ultimately, more sympathetic. Readers will admire heroes but they adore heroes who succeed despite their flaws. In fact, the more flawed the hero, the more sympathetic and, in the end, the more sweet the triumph.

I still want to get a shirt that says: “Beware. Novelist. I’m watching you. I just might write you into my next novel.” Novelists do write people they know into their novels, because it’s the people they know best who provide them with the best fodder to humanize a character. If you want to paint them as the antagonists, however, heed Norman Mailer’s advice: don’t make your characters too much like the people you live with, because then, you’d have to live with them and they’d never let you live it down. They can make your life unbearable, so be careful what you write about them or how you write them into your novel. Especially if it’s your spouse. Unless they don’t read your novels at all, then you’ll be perfectly fine. Still and all, I think it one of the most fun and entertaining things to do as a writer, to include bits and pieces of real people into my characters. I’m sure every great writer has picked traits from people they have encountered to make their characters more interesting and real. The trick is to change the physical characteristics and biography so the real people aren’t easily recognizable. Try it on some character sketches and have fun!