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!

Writing Short Stories: Beginning with Character

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In my short story writing classes this year, I started a new approach that’s working wonders. We started with creating the main character, the protagonist and giving that character a problem. I’m going out on a limb and saying that’s all you really need: a character and a problem. You might wonder how that becomes a story. The story comes from how that character reacts to the problem. Usually, you’d think a character with a problem would want to solve the problem. Not all the time. Sometimes, characters will try to avoid the problem or ignore it. Or they will try to get rid of the problem–not necessarily solving it–but hiding, disguising, or pawning it off on someone else. Does that sound familiar? That’s because that is exactly what people do when they’re faced with problems: they try to solve them, avoid them, or get rid of them. There is a requirement before you can even write how your character approaches the problem: you need to know your character intimately–possibly even more than you know yourself. You need to know your character’s traits, which I identify as physical, psychological, and professional. Remember, not all traits are ideal–just because nobody is perfect. All human beings are complex and have one or more shortcomings, flaws, or faults, and this reality should reflect in your characters. Physical traits include all physical characteristics, down to crooked yellowing teeth and a mole on the left elbow. Psychological traits include personality, emotional profile, even personality types. An easy way to get general psychological traits is using zodiac personality traits or look at personality profiles based on different tests (Enneagram or Myers-Briggs are easy to find). You can also include habits and preferences, similar to a slumbook — favorite color, favorite song, favorite clothes, favorite movie, favorite food, and all other favorites as well as any particular dislikes. Professional traits don’t necessarily mean your character is a professional. This is just a way of describing what a character does–and professional can simply be a housewife or househusband, student, or retired navy captain. After identifying your character’s traits, you need to create a biographical history, a background, family, friends, associates, milieu. You need to know where the character grew up, lives, works, studied. You need to know what your character has for breakfast and where he or she gets coffee. Finally, you need to examine your character’s motivations: Why do they do what they do? Why do they think, act, speak, or feel a certain way? What makes them happy, sad, angry? What are they passionate about? Only when you know how your character feels and thinks will you be able to write how your character will react, what your character will do when faced with a particular problem. Then you will have a story.

 

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