Last week, Sisters in Crime approached me to do a SINC-UP! video tip for their YouTube channel. Volunteers from the national education committee post video writing tips several times a month to provide inspiration for new writers and promote the value of Sisters in Crime membership. All the videos are only 2-5 minutes long and easily digestible.
I chose characterization. After we taped the video, the volunteer told me she finally understood why beta readers couldn’t connect with her main character. She’s not alone. Many new writers struggle with how to deepen their characters. After all, we can have the best concept, premise, and plot, but if readers can’t connect with our characters then the story won’t work.
How do we craft a compelling character?
It starts with three dimensions. We’re all layered. Who we portray to the world falls under the first dimension of character. That’s not to say we aren’t acting genuine, but when we are in a public setting we act appropriately—or we don’t, but that’s what you’ll have to figure out for your character.
Who is your character in public?
Do they put their best foot forward?
Or are they so uncomfortable in a public setting, they make a total fool of themselves?
Jotting down how your character might react in public places will help you nail down the first dimension.
The second dimension of character is the person we show to family and close friends. At home we let our guard down. We’re more relaxed, more ourselves. We don’t need to try to portray a certain image or level of professionalism because we’re surrounded by close friends and family.
How does your character react around close friends and family?
Are they goofballs?
The practical jokester?
More loving, more reserved?
The perfect real-life example of the first two dimensions of character is Richard Simmons. To the world he was a gregarious, loud, sensitive, and passionate workout guru who pranced around in flashy outfits, the more outrageous the better. Everyone loved him. He was so open, so seemingly transparent, even casual viewers of his workout videos felt they knew the real Richard Simmons. He was a shining light of inspiration to many over the years. When he disappeared from public view, the public feared the worst.
Did he die?
Is someone holding him hostage?
Is he being abused?
No one knew. One day he was performing for the camera, and the next day—gone. No explanation, no paparazzi photos, nothing. He vanished.
What very few knew in the decades that followed was that the Richard Simmons he portrayed to the world was who he longed to become. An alter ego, if you will. At home Richard was an extreme introvert, a recluse with only one or two close friends, a quiet, emotionally scarred, deep thinker who preferred the solace of silence—the polar opposite of who he was in public.
Richard Simmons is an extreme example of the first two dimensions of character but keep him in mind while crafting a new character.
The third dimension is our true character. And by that, I mean, if your character is sitting in a crowded theater when a fire breaks out, do they help others find the exit? Or do they trample the crowd to save themselves? One’s true character is tested when they’re put into perilous situations.
Who is your character then?
Are they the savior or the selfish?
Do they think they’re the savior but when trouble ensues, they run in the opposite direction?
Ask your significant other or best friend to describe who you are in public, who you are in private, and how that might differ. Unless you’ve been in a dangerous situation you may not even know your third dimension…until it’s tested. Then you’ll find out quick. 😉
Once you’ve mastered these three dimensions and have gotten to know your characters on a deeper level, then ask them questions like,
What’s your greatest passion?
What’s your favorite genre of music?
Do you travel?
What places have you gone?
How did each trip affect you?
What was your childhood like?
Are you an animal lover? (I don’t trust anyone who doesn’t like animals)
Did you have a favorite childhood pet?
How did you feel when they died?
What type of things are on your bucket list?
The more questions you ask, the better you’ll get to know them.
Apply the same three dimensions to all your characters, even your villain. You need to know the villain as well as your main character. After all, the two characters should be equally matched. Thus, even if everything they stand for rubs against who you are as a person, you’ve gotta fight for them, win their arguments, understand why they do the things they do. Most villains don’t know they’re the bad guy. They’re on a mission to fulfill their goals, and you, as the writer, need to champion their efforts, especially if you plan to write from their point-of-view.
Do you concentrate on the three dimensions of character while crafting characters?
For those who struggle with characterization, did this help connect a few dots?
Let’s welcome another Brave Author who submitted a first page for review. Enjoy reading it then we’ll discuss.
“Waller, they found a body on the Midwest Bike Trail about two hundred feet east of the Northwestern tracks,” stated Police Sergeant David Dodson, our special-operations supervisor. His voice was full of tension. Even when he smiled, his dark brown eyes never quite lost their keenness or their watchfulness.
I sat up straighter at my desk. “Isn’t that the Forest Preserve Police?” I asked into my cell.
“They’ve asked us to handle it because it looks like a homicide. I want you and Garcia on it. I’ll notify the coroner next.”
“A body? Yeah, we’re on it.” I looked at my partner, Detective Carlos Garcia, seated at his desk. He’s not bad looking. The Fu Manchu mustache looked good with his brown skin. A raised glazed donut perched in his right hand and a paper cup of Dunkin coffee before him on his desk. His white shirt and blue suit hung lean and long off his well-tapered build. I looked down at my solidly built arm, thinking, how can he eat donuts and still look like that? I became aware I had to hook my belt on the last notch when I dressed that Monday morning. I told him, “They’ve got a body for us.”
Garcia’s hand stopped halfway to his mouth. He made the necessary adjustments that would transform his appearance from simply splendid to magnificent. Only after each hair had been lovingly combed into position and his silk tie straightened, the second button of his jacket buttoned, he rose his six-foot frame and said, “Let’s go.”
My career as a detective with the violent Crimes division of the West Chicago Police Department exposed me to a lifetime of crime and tragedy. We strode out of the station house in a hurry to begin our job. I pride myself on being a no-nonsense individual. I’m thirty-five-year-old Detective Alicia Waller. My black shoes making long, mean strides.
Once in our unmarked Ford Explorer, I turned towards him and asked, “What do you know about the bike path?”
Garcia grew up in this town, probably walked that path hundreds of times as a teenager.
Okay, let’s dig in.
Photo credit: Public domain
The title Samaritan Sins intrigued me. Samaritan conjures the image of kindness and compassion. Sins brings to mind misdeeds, perhaps even evil. The ironic juxtaposition hints at the story’s conflict. Does a good person commit a terrible act? I want to learn more. Well done!
Unfortunately, this first page doesn’t live up to its promising title.
Brave Author, recently Terry Odell and Jim Bell wrote excellent posts on beginnings. I highly recommend you read them at links here and here.
Jim coined a new term—Wood—and quoted an old saying:
Your story begins when you strike the match, not when you lay out the wood.
The first page of Samaritan Sins is wood laying. It needs work before a match lights it on fire.
Brave Author is getting acquainted with the characters, their backgrounds, and the setting, before starting the story. Yes, preparation is important homework. But the information belongs in an outline, story notebook, character sketch, etc., not on the first page.
Police procedurals—which this appears to be—generally start with a dead body, in this case on a bike path in West Chicago. However, neither the point-of-view character, Detective Alicia Waller, nor the reader sees the body firsthand.
Instead the story begins with a report by a supervisor, Sergeant Dodson. That distances the reader from the crime. A report by phone, rather than in person, adds even more distance.
Further, it’s confusing. Alicia describes Dodson’s watchful dark brown eyes as if he is standing in front of her. Yet, in the next paragraph, she is talking to him on her cell.
The farther away from the crime, the less a reader cares about it. A crime needs to provoke an emotional response from the reader. A third-hand phone report dilutes the impact.
Details like “two hundred feet east of the Northwestern tracks” also dilute it. Specific details are important to paint a vivid picture. But choose details the reader cares about, not bland measurements.
There is a lot of repetition.
“…they found a body…”
“A body? Yeah, we’re on it.”
“They’ve got a body for us.”
Alicia mostly tells about Carlos Garcia, rather than showing. The description is also repetitive.
He’s not bad looking.
The Fu Manchu mustache looked good with his brown skin.
…transform his appearance from simply splendid to magnificent.
She appears to have a crush on him. Fine, but is that important enough to include on the first page? Not unless it’s significant to the story.
I strongly recommend getting rid of the donut cliché. Look for fresher ways to show Carlos’s looks. But again, consider if these details are significant enough to use up valuable first page real estate. If not, cut them.
Only after each hair had been lovingly combed into position and his silk tie straightened, the second button of his jacket buttoned…
Would this vain-sounding guy fuss with his appearance without first washing donut glaze off his hands?
I mention this because his sticky hands took my mind far away from the dead body. When the reader can be distracted that easily, there’s a major problem.
My career as a detective with the violent Crimes division of the West Chicago Police Department exposed me to a lifetime of crime and tragedy.
This statement is pure telling without offering insight into Alicia’s personality or how the career has affected her. Is she jaded? Wounded? Fed up? Does she still hold out hope she can help people? “A lifetime of crime and tragedy” is vague and meaningless without specifics.
I pride myself on being a no-nonsense individual. I’m thirty-five-year-old Detective Alicia Waller. My black shoes making long, mean strides.
Again, more telling rather than showing. How important is it for the reader to know this on the first page?
Photo credit: Public domain
A Jack Webb/Dragnet-style introduction could condense the background info and establish a distinctive voice while also moving the story ahead. Here’s one way it might be written:
I’m Detective Alicia Waller, West Chicago Police Department, fifteen years on the job, the last four in Special Operations. I’m thirty-five, wear sensible shoes, battle my weight, and have a secret crush on my partner, Carlos Garcia, a stylishly-dressed six-foot hunk with a Fu Manchu mustache. He’s vain but I forgive that flaw because he’s easy on the eyes.
Together we’ve worked violent crimes ranging from gang murders to a sexual assault on a ten-month-old baby that sent us both to the department shrink.
Today, we stood over a deceased teen-aged male lying face-up on the Midwest Bike Trail. Forest Preserve Police had called us because they suspected homicide.
The above is about 100 words, conveys relevant facts, introduces characters, and plops the reader into the crime scene.
Overall, the writing is competent but verb usage needs work.
Statedis an awkward verb that draws attention to itself. Why not use said?
Perchedis another odd verb. A parakeet might perch on his hand but not a donut.
…a paper cup of Dunkin coffee [sat] before him on his desk. Missing verb.
His white shirt and blue suit hung lean and long off his well-tapered build.Hung doesn’t work. Is the suit hanging lean and long? Or do you mean his build is lean and long?
…he rose his six-foot frame. A person generally doesn’t raise his frame unless the frame is for his barn.
My black shoes making long, mean strides. This sentence lacks a verb. It’s also inaccurate and awkward. The shoes aren’t striding; Alicia is. What are “mean strides”? Emphatic, loud, decisive?
In trying to be creative with verbs, BA instead inserts speed bumps and confusion.
Brave Author, I hope you don’t feel beat up by these comments. As writers, we’ve all been here. It’s part of the learning process as you hone your craft.
I suggest you save this first page in a “story notes” file. Refer to it as you develop the plot and characters. The information is useful background—it just doesn’t belong on page 1.
For now, move ahead with your story. After drafting a few chapters, you’ll likely find a more compelling place to start. Once you complete the ms., circle back and rewrite the opening.
Just because it says “Page 1” doesn’t mean it has to be written first. Write it last.
One way to interest readers is to make them curious. Ask questions they want answers to. Here are a few ideas:
What makes one or both members of this detective team unique?
Why should the reader care about a faceless victim in a city where murders occur frequently? (Hint: give the victim a distinctive characteristic. Is she missing an arm? Is he a local celebrity?)
Are there special circumstances or unusual clues that set this crime apart from run-of-the-mill calls?
Thank you for submitting, Brave Author. It takes courage to expose your work to strangers. Please take suggestions in the spirit they’re offered—to help make your story the best it can be.
TKZers, your turn to offer ideas to the Brave Author.
Flight to Forever was a finalist for the 2022 Eric Hoffer Book Award. Try a sample at these links:
When browsing the archives of TKZ, I sometimes find two or three blogs on the same or complimentary subjects. Today we have three articles on story ideas and character creation. The link at the end of each section will take you to the entire post, which I encourage you to read.
Please feel free to comment on other reader’s comments and strike up a conversation.
One of the questions writers hear often is where do we get our ideas. Depending on the situation, my standard answer is that I subscribe to the Great Idea of The Month Club. And when someone asks how they can join, I have to tell them that members are sworn to secrecy and forbidden to divulge that information.
If I’m pressed for an answer, I say that I can give some sources away, but only if they don’t tell where they got them. If they want to write murder mysteries, for instance, I aim them toward THE MURDER BOOK 2008, a blog by Paul LaRosa that records all the murders in New York City during 2008. There’s enough material there to keep a writer going for years.
But in reality, our ideas can come from almost any source at any time. Writers’ minds are in-tune with their surroundings ready to see the telltale signs of that little spark that could be used in a story or even become the basis of a whole book. – Joe Moore, 8-27-08
Often, when I speak to book-loving groups, I tell the Klansman-in-the-store story to illustrate why I write thrillers. As an author I am always trying to make my readers feel some of what I felt when real villains crossed my path, and I realized that they could do me serious harm. And I also realized at some point that my father wouldn’t always be there to make the world safe again. I have met more villains than I can count, and I do my best to protect myself and those I love from bad things and evil people to the best of my ability. Some evil is obvious, but most of the time it lies just beneath an innocuous and seemingly harmless surface. And sometimes the most dangerous things come to us with open arms and a smile. But seeing evil first hand allows me to write about threat and fear. Evil isn’t usually all that well defined, and it certainly is not simple. Villains should be complex, and human, and understanding them well enough to adequately portray them (in words) remains the ultimate challenge for writers. – Joe Moore, 8-23-08
John Mortimer, creator of Rumpole, wrote that “most of the interest and part of the terror of great crime are not due to what is abnormal, but to what is normal in it; what we have in common with the criminal rather than the subtle insanity which differentiates him from us.” I couldn’t agree more – for me, it is the commonality rather than the abnormality that makes a villain truly villainous.
Take Doctor Crippen – an unremarkable man in real life, the least likely man perhaps to have poisoned and dismembered his wife or to have been pursued across the Atlantic with a young mistress in tow disguised as a boy. Part of the fascination with this case is the sheer ordinariness of the supposed murderer – and now, with DNA evidence casting doubt on whether the woman whose body was found was that of Doctor Crippen’s wife, Cora, the mystery of what actually happened may never be solved.
In fiction of course, some of the most fantastical crimes that occur in real life can never be used simply because readers would never believe them. Take for example the man who murdered his wife over an affair that happened 40 years before and then left her body as a gift beneath the Christmas tree. Writers have to walk a fine line with villains too, making them both believable as well as intriguing. Are they merely the flip side of the protagonist? Are they an ordinary person pushed to the brink? Or does some deep psychological wound create the monster within? – Clare Langley-Hawthorne, 8-18-08
What is your favorite place to find story ideas?
How do you approach character creation?
What are your thoughts on the subject?
What is the craziest story you have ever heard about how an author got an idea for a character?
Today, I’m pleased to host cozy mystery author Kay DiBianca who shares her fun and unique perspective on character arcs. Kay is a familiar name around The Zone, offering frequent, insightful comments. Welcome to Kay and the horse she rode in on!
It was a day for speed. A wind-at-your-back, smile-on-your-face day when a youthful gallop overruled frumpy caution, so we barreled down the dirt trail into the park and around a blind turn. As the bushes on our right gave way and the road ahead came into view, a terrifying specter suddenly loomed up in the middle of the trail, no more than fifty yards in front of us.
Dixie, my high-strung, prone-to-panic filly, slammed on the brakes. I had no idea a horse could stop like that. Two stiff-legged hops – thump, thump — to a dead halt.
I went straight over her head. Turns out an English forward seat saddle is particularly ill-suited for sudden deer sightings.
As I was flying through the air, anticipating an unpleasant reacquaintance with Mother Earth, Dixie began some kind of crazy cha-cha in reverse, trying to flee the tiny deer creature. I was still holding on to the reins, however, so she couldn’t turn and run. Instead, she made a determined dart backward, dragging me along in her wake.
You might be wondering why I didn’t just let go of the reins and save myself from a mouthful of dirt and a painful awareness of my sudden change in circumstances. I’ll be honest with you. I would have let my horse drag me into the next county before I allowed her to return riderless to the barn. I have my pride, you know.
Body-surfing down a dirt trail at the whim of a frightened animal is an excellent way to focus one’s mind. I’m older now, but sometimes I still get that urge to gallop furiously into the next adventure, no matter what form it takes. But when I recall that day in the park, the awful taste of grit in my mouth, the look of terror in Dixie’s eyes, and the acrid scent of fear in the air, I pull back the reins on my emotions and proceed at a deliberate trot.
Whether dramatic or not, we each have a set of experiences that have transformed the way we view the world. Likewise, we all know the characters we write about must change from the beginning of the story to the end, and the change must be meaningful.
So TKZers: Tell us about a character in one of your novels that went through a metamorphosis. Was it a dramatic, once in a lifetime experience? Or a slow coming to grips with reality over the course of the story? How did you accomplish the change in a way that would grab your readers?
I’m deeply grateful to Debbie Burke for giving me the opportunity to post to the Kill Zone Blog. And thanks to all the TKZ contributors and commenters for allowing me to be part of the journey.
SAVING ONE LIFE IS LIKE SAVING THE WHOLE WORLD.
Kay’s delightful cozy mystery, Dead Man’s Watch, features characters the reader cares about.
Foils and antagonists are two types of characters that serve different functions. An antagonist or villain works in direct opposition to the protagonist or hero. The antagonist presents obstacles to thwart the hero from achieving his or her goal. The foil, on the other hand, isn’t necessarily working against the hero. A foil’s qualities simply differ from the hero’s.
The hero and foil often work together, such as Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. The key difference between the foil and antagonist is that the antagonist’s actions oppose the hero while the foil’s character traits create conflict. Also, a foil shines the spotlight on another character’s personality traits and/or flaws, without necessarily thwarting their plans. When done right, however, there will be conflict!
The term “foil” came into its current usage as a literary device from the concept of putting tin foil behind a gemstone to make it look more brilliant. The foil character works in the same way—to add credibility to the hero or to spotlight his or her faults.
Opposing personalities add a great deal to a story. Pairing these two characters can transform a ho-hum scene into one with explosive conflict. But we need to—dare I say—plan these character traits in advance. 😉
Conflicting personalities rub against one another, which allows the writer to maximize slower moments within the plot. After all, if everyone in the scene “plays nice,” we risk boring the reader. With a bit of character planning—oh, my, there’s that word again—clashing personalities lead to conflict-driven scenes.
If the hero dances on the edge of the law, the foil might be hyper-vigilant about following rules of any kind. If the hero never follows directions, the foil might be a map enthusiast. If the hero’s loud and extroverted, the foil might be shy, quiet, and reclusive.
Positioning the foil and main character in close proximity will draw readers’ attention to the hero’s attributes. A story could have more than one foil. In my Mayhem Series, I created a foil for my hero and another for my villain.
By crafting opposites, these characters’ scenes crackle with tension. Foils show the hero’s and/or villain’s strengths and weaknesses through friction. Remember to include the element that ties the two characters together, a believable bond that’s stronger than their differences.
Since Garry mentioned my video excerpt in the comments on Thursday, I’ll include it as an example of the foil/hero relationship. Don’t worry. There’s no need to watch the entire video (unless you want to). You should recognize the opposing personalities pretty quick.
Have you used a foil in your story? Please explain. Or: What’s your favorite fictional foil/hero relationship?
As bloody, severed body parts show up on her doorstep, Shawnee Daniels must stop the serial killer who wants her dead before she becomes the next victim.
But can she solve his cryptic clues before it’s too late? Or will she be the next to die a slow, agonizing death?
Tiny Creatures is a new docuseries on Netflix that’s adorable, suspenseful, and masterfully plotted and paced. To check it out I skipped ahead to Episode 6, which features a raven and a rat. And the storytelling craft blew me away. This episode, along with all the others in the series, provide a detailed roadmap driven by obstacles, misdirection, and conflict. Let’s pull back the curtain and peek behind the scenes.
Even with the “Spoiler Alerts” I still recommend watching the episode. I’ve only concentrated on a few areas of craft, and I don’t point out every instance of where it occurs. The full post still landed at 4564 words. Hence why I’ve broken the post into two parts. See what can happen when you’re high on craft? 😉
Before we get to the deconstruction, check out the trailer.
Deconstruction Part I
“Florida, home to the Everglades. A wild expanse of almost two million acres of wetlands.” (We know where we are, but there’s also a hint of mystery and intrigue. What creatures lurk in the Everglades? And that, is the Central Dramatic Story Question—the cornerstone question at the heart of every story that directly relates to the hero’s conflict. Boom! The writer raised the most important question in the first two lines of the script. Notice s/he never outright poses the question. Rather, s/he implants it in the viewer’s mind.) “Isolated among the Everglades stands a fishing shack, the backdrop of two very different animals whose stories are destined to cross.” (There’s the hook. We need to continue to find out where this leads.)
In flies an impressive raven. (Is he our villain or hero? We’ll keep watching to find out.)
“A raven, a sleek bird with glossy black feathers. Behind this polished appearance, the raven possesses intellect as well as beauty.” The camera zooms in on his size and power (hints that he must be the bad guy). “Lately, the raven’s been keeping an eye on this fishing shack, tracking the movements of the human owner, their habits and routine. He knows when the coast will be clear.”
The raven struts into the fishing shack.
“Ravens are quirky characters and this one is keen to explore. (quirky = surface trait = 1st Dimension of Character) His eyesight, however, isn’t as sharp as his mind (character flaw). He can’t see well in the dark. (obstacle) But this bird is a problem-solver and he has the perfect solution.”
The raven tugs on the wooden knob of the shade, and the shade rolls up. Cascading sunlight bathes the fishing shack in brightness.
“As smart as a chimpanzee, ravens frequently use their brains to exploit the riches of others. Especially humans. (Notice the word choices; the harsh “exploit” and staccato “especially humans” indicates he’s the villain) And this person has many treasures hidden away, safely out of reach.”
The raven flies over to a tackle box.
“But for the raven this is a test of his wits.” (Tension builds) Raven struggles to break into the tackle box (conflict). “And he does what ravens do best—he improvises.” (problem-solver = psychological trait stemming from past experience, upbringing, emotional scars, memories, etc. = 2nd Dimension of Character. We’re beginning to better understand the raven.)
Using a hook-shaped tool, the raven breaks into the tackle box to get at some sort of bait scattered across the bottom of the middle drawer. Clearly, the raven is burglarizing this shack to suit he needs. (Burglar = antagonist. Or could he be an anti-hero? We’re still not sure, which forces us to keep watching.)
Camera pans out to the Everglades and the narrator offers more details about the area. “The water is also home to an assortment of wildlife. Unlike the raven, some animals strive for a simple existence.” (A sprinkle of backstory. More importantly, this is the setup to introduce our tiny hero).
Enter stage left: an adorable rat doggy paddles across the water. (cuteness = surface trait = 1st Dimension of Character)
(Side note: If you’re not a lover of rats, I get it. I wasn’t either. But by the end of this story, you will fall in love with this little rat.And that, ladies and gents, is what characterization is all about.)
“After a busy night exploring, this drowned rat is traveling home to rest (relatable + we empathize with our tiny hero). Each night she swims from bank to bank to see what she can forage. Just like humans, not all rats are natural swimmers (our hero has a superpower). Those rats who have mastered the art can swim over a mile in one go. With her small frame and streamlined body, she’s a natural, moving effortlessly through the water.” (What other superpowers might she possess? Curiosity and empathy keeps us watching.)
Our tiny hero reaches a drainpipe and climbs inside.
“This is a familiar and safe route. Not many predators can follow her through these narrow tunnels. It was her swimming agility which brought her to this hidden route to her home.” (backstory dribbled in to drive the plot) Our tiny hero crawls farther through the drainpipe. “A light at the end of the tunnel signifies her final hurdle.” <cue dramatic music> She plunges into a U-shaped drain (tension builds). “One that relies on her ability to hold her breath and stay submerged for up to three minutes.” (determination = psychological trait = 2nd Dimension of Character) “A rather unconventional way of entering her home in the fishing shack.” (setup of 2nd Pinch Point)
Up pops our tiny hero from the toilet.
“Now soaked to the bone, she carries an extra 5% of her body weight in water. If her fur stays wet for too long, she’s at risk for hyperthermia. (more conflict + character flaw) Using the equivalent of nature’s hairdryer to dry off, she adopts an alternative approach.”
<cue dramatic music and slow-motion camera> Our tiny hero twists and shakes her body 18 times per second, loose water spraying in all directions.
“It’s an efficient if not slightly messy approach. Within just four seconds, she’s removed 70% of the water droplets.” She climbs down off the toilet seat and into the main room of the fishing shack. “Unbeknown to the rat, however, there’s a trespasser inside her home.” (First hint of trouble.) <cue dangerous music as the camera narrows on the raven> “And the normal serenity of the shack is swiftly broken.” (Inciting Incident)
Wings outstretched, the raven squawks.
“The presence of the rat irritates the raven. He could easily kill this rodent. But he has other ideas.” (Because we’ve bonded with our hero — the under-rat, if you will — we fear for her safety. There’s no way we’ll stop watching.) Loud screeches from the raven combined with a penetrating glare startle our tiny hero. “Ravens are one of the few bird species that like to play. And the rat is the unfortunate victim of its game . . . and her tale is a tempting target.”
Raven swan-dives off a nearby table—straight at our hero. The chase is on! (1st Plot Point lands at 20-25% — perfect)
<dramatic music enhances the terror> “Fleeing this terrifying predator, the rat seeks sanctuary where she can.” Each time the raven misses our hero by mere millimeters. Camera closes in on the raven’s opened beak, massive black wings, and powerful physique. “This game is a little one-sided.” (And now, we’re certain Raven is the formidable villain.)
Our tiny hero scampers into a hole in the side of a cardboard box. “The raven uses its sharp beak to poke and probe.” (Notice the hard-sounding word choices “poke” & “probe” which only solidifies our theory about the raven) Raven leaps on top of the box, tears at the old packing tape. (Stakes are raised. If our hero doesn’t escape, she could die!)
“But the rat’s size and agility gives her the edge into some unusual terrain. She ceases her opportunity and makes a dash for it. She squeezes through a one-inch gap, leaving the raven still pecking.”
When our tiny hero races across the floor, Raven is right on her heels. But in the mad dash he knocks over a bottle. Liquid leaks out its spout (foreshadows danger + setup of climax).
“Distracted by the chase, the raven loses track of time.”
Outside the shack, a boat docks at the pier. “The fisherman arrives back at the shack, seeking shelter from the midday sun. But for some, the heat of the sun’s rays are welcome to warm, cold blood.” A menacing-looking iguana sunbathes atop a large rock on the porch, and we learn more about him, including his voracious appetite. (This spattering of backstory raises the stakes even higher while conjuring more story questions: Will our hero need to fight the iguana, too?)
Camera cuts back to the raven whose sharp talons pin down a burlap sack. Underneath, our tiny hero struggles to break free.
“The fisherman returns from a long but successful day on the water.” He unloads his gear and clomps toward the front door. “He is unaware of the raven’s game that is still taking place in the shack.”
Cameras cuts back to inside, where our hero whimpers as she tries to flee from the massive raven. (Conflict, tension, action, and rising stakes, combined with rotating motivation/reaction units, along with solid characterization and story questions—questions that must be answered—and the viewer’s breathless with anticipation. We cannot look away.)
“The noise of the fisherman alerts the raven. Realizing the human has returned, the game with the rat is no longer of interest to him”—he soars toward the window— “as the raven spots a more appealing opportunity outside.”
Camera zooms in on bait in a three-gallon bucket.
“Luckily, the pause in the chase allows the rat to escape to her bed.” Our tiny hero careens into an old boot (allowing viewers a moment to catch their breath = smart pacing).
“For the raven, it seems there are bigger fish to fry.”
Camera captures the raven lickin’ his chops as he stares out the window at the bucket (menacing appearance = surface trait = 1st Dimension of Character). Raven climbs out the window and stalks the ledge to the front corner of the fishing shack. When the fisherman enters the shack, he seizes the opportunity to raid the bait.
While we watch the raven feast, the narrator offers us a few more fascinating details. “With no teeth, the raven pecks at the food, swallowing whole the more manageable pieces.” (These tidbits allow us to better understand the raven, and to envision what he might do to our sweet hero.)
Little Miss Rat emerges from the boot. The camera flashes outside to the iguana, increasing the tension of the scene. Our tiny hero could be up against two villains! (raises the stakes even higher)
“Capable of smelling food from a mile away, the scent of fish entices the rat to leave her hiding place. Similar to ravens, rats are not choosy to what they eat (similar character flaws). There’s more than enough food here for both of them.”
Our innocent hero totters up to the bait bucket. Glowering, Raven towers the rat, his talons latched onto the rim.
“Though still leery of the raven, she hopes this distraction will allow her to break cover and grab a quick bite, unnoticed. But the beady-eyed raven hasn’t learned the art of sharing.”
Raven squawks (motivation), which wakes the sleeping iguana (reaction). Our tiny hero runs and hides, leaving the two bad guys to square off. (tension mounts)
“Woken by the commotion from the raven, this sensitive lizard doesn’t hesitate. Its instinctive reaction is to run.” But when the iguana charges (motivation), the raven leaps off the bucket (reaction) and the bait splatters across the porch. The iguana escapes into the surrounding landscape. “In a flash, it’s gone.”
But the fisherman hears the crash from inside and peers out the window. Raven makes a mad dash to gobble up as much bait as he can swallow.
The narrator hits us with this as a clever misdirect: “Ravens can learn to either like or dislike a person, depending on how they’re treated. And they never forget a face.”
Da, nah, nah. <cue dangerous music>
The fisherman storms outside with a broom. (Now it looks like the human might be the real antagonist of the story. Is the raven an anti-hero? But if that’s true, then why does he keep tormenting an innocent rat? Raising story questions forces us to keep watching.)
Broom in hand, the fisherman chases the raven across the porch, screaming and yelling, and we watch this play out in silhouette through the window (1st Pinch Point, perfectly placed at 37.5%).
With the raven gone, our tiny hero can finally rest. <cue sweet music>
“Both the rat and the raven are blissfully unaware of the danger being constructed outside (This line subtly signals that they are, in fact, dual protagonists). Humans also hold grudges. And the raven’s actions have consequences.” (The fisherman sure looks like the real villain now, doesn’t he? Just when one answer is revealed, the writer raises another story question. How will the human punish the raven?)
On the porch sits a wired trap baited with fish. Our tiny hero is sleeping soundly in her boot when she’s awakened by the raven screeching outside.
“Trapped and outsmarted by the fisherman, the raven calls for help.” Poor Raven is caught in the trap (gaining empathy for our anti-hero).
The camera pans over to our sweet rat emerging from the safety of her bed.
“A social animal, the rat can sense the raven’s distress. Unnerved by the calls for help, her instinct draws her to the raven. (instinct = inner trait = 2nd Dimension of Character) Arriving to see the trapped bird, a sense of empathy washes over the rat. (compassion = inner trait = 2nd Dimension of Character) She approaches cautiously. She has not forgotten the raven’s torment yesterday.”
The raven and the rat gaze into each other’s eyes (this Mirror Moment bonds the two heroes).
Camera closes in on our tiny hero’s sweet face. “Her sense of compassion overrides her concern.” In a bold move, she climbs up on the door of the trap and gnaws on the rope securing the top of the door to the metal bars (the act of facing her fears = 3rd Dimension of character, her true character). “Equipped with super strong teeth, rats are capable of chewing through concrete, glass, and even metal. Although not quite as a clever as the raven, rats are super smart. (yes, the repetition is a writing tic, but it’s invisible to the viewer due to the high tension & action. See what good plotting and three-dimensional characters can mask?) Unsure of when the fisherman will return, the rat works as quickly as she can to gnaw through the rope.”
The rope falls to the deck boards and our tiny hero drags open the door, freeing the raven. <cue dramatic music> (Midpoint Shift, perfectly placed at 50%.)
Raven cocks his head and stares at the rat. “The raven is puzzled by the rat’s action, but grateful nonetheless.” He leaps into the sky. (story question: will they meet again?)
The fisherman returns from an early morning outing, and the raven calls out to warn the rat to get out of sight (his actions/behavior = 3rd Dimension of Character, his true character). Our tiny hero scurries back into the shack as the fisherman examines his busted trap on the front porch.
As our tiny hero curls into her boot home, the camera pans out to the surrounding area. “The Everglades are home to many animals.” Camera closes in on an alligator. “The American alligator is a keystone species crucial to the health and wellbeing of the ecosystem.” (red herring to get our blood pumping—more tension builds + more story questions. Will our heroes soon face this beast?)
Of special note for Part I: Through characterization, did you notice how the writer periodically forced the viewer (reader) to change their perception of the hero, anti-hero, and almost every villain we’ve encountered so far? Storytelling at its finest, folks.
Back when I was first learning how to write fiction, I concentrated on plot and structure. These were the parts of the craft that were most mysterious to me. I had no idea how the writers I enjoyed came up with twisting, turning plots that held delightful surprises and satisfying endings. I thought they just sat down and started typing, and therefore had an inner genius I lacked. I’d been told as much in college: “You don’t have any inner genius, Mr. Bell.” Okay, maybe not in those exact words, but it was implied. I was certainly told I couldn’t learn how to write great fiction. You either have it or you don’t, they said.
I apparently didn’t have it. So I went into a much more stable profession—acting. Then I got married (see last week’s post) and decided a steady income was actually a good thing, so I went to law school.
Some years later I saw Moonstruck and had to find out if I could, after all, learn to write.
It took me a year of study to get a handle on structure. During that year I was concentrating on screenwriting. My primary text was Syd Field’s Screenplay. I still remember the joy I felt when I finally started to see what was going on structurally, and then added to the mix my formulation of the “doorways of no return.”
So I wrote a screenplay (my fourth or fifth effort) based on what I learned. An up-and-coming Hollywood agent consented to read it.
I sent it to her.
And vividly remember the phone call. She told me the plot was good, but the script didn’t do it for her, because “the characters don’t jump off the page.”
After retrieving my heart from my shoes, I sat back and thought about her comment. Intuitively, I understood. After all, the movie that re-awakened my desire to write, Moonstruck, is full of characters who “jump off” the screen. Even the minor ones.
That’s what was missing in my screenplays.
So began another course of study to figure out characterization.
As usual, I got some craft books and re-read a few favorite novels with great characters. I studied and practiced and, lo and behold, landed a book contract. After a few years I began teaching workshops and writing my own books on the craft.
Here’s the new one: Writing Unforgettable Characters: How to Create Story People Who Jump Off the Page. (See below for pre-order info).
I’ve included a number of my workshop exercises in the book. One of my favorites is “Best Day, Worst Day.” I got this idea from the hit comedy City Slickers. Remember? Billy Crystal, Daniel Stern and Bruno Kirby play three friends: Mitch, Phil and Ed. They are almost 40 years old and have come to a point where they look at their lives and think, Is this is as good as it’s ever going to get? Mitch is stuck in a job he hates. Phil is stuck in a terrible marriage. And Ed is stuck in a macho image hiding his insecurities.
So the three decide to get away from it all and go out West for a “real” cattle drive. They join with a few other tourists. And then meet the tough trail boss, Curly (Jack Palance, in an Oscar-winning turn).
The superb script (by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel) is an example of what I call “orchestration.” You cast your characters so they are different enough from each other that conflict can naturally occur. This is especially important for your allies (characters on the same team).
At one point the three friends are riding along, and Mitch tells about the best day of his life (his father taking him to Yankee Stadium for the first time) and his worst day (the day a lump was found in his wife’s breast). Then:
Phil: All right, I got one. My best day—
Ed: This isn’t the one about Arlene and that loose step, is it?
Phil: No, my wedding day.
Phil: Yeah, remember that day? Outdoor wedding. Arlene looked great. Those water pills really worked. You guys were all smiling at me, and my dad, in the front, gives me a little wink, you know? I mean, he’s not the warmest of men, but he winked. I was the first one of us to get married and have a real job and I remember thinking, I’m grown up, you know? I’m not a goofball anymore. I made it. I felt like a man. That was the best day of my life.
Ed: What was your worst day?
Phil: Every day since is a tie.
Then the question is asked of Ed, who at first refuses to answer. But then:
Ed: I’m fourteen and my mother and father are fighting again, you know, because she caught him again. Caught him! This time the girl drove by the house to pick him up. And I finally realized, he wasn’t just cheating on my mother, he was cheating us. So I told him, I said, “You’re bad to us. We don’t love you. I’ll take care of my mother and my sister. We don’t need you anymore.” And he made like he was gonna hit me, but I didn’t budge. And he turned around and he left. Never bothered us again. But I took care of my mother and my sister from that day on. That’s my best day.
Phil: What was your worst day?
Ed: Same day.
That is just flat-out great dialogue. But for our purposes, it is also a fantastic exercise for deepening your characters before you render them on the page. The nice thing is you don’t have to put the material in your novel (though you certainly may). Just knowing it for yourself will automatically give you a better, more complex character. So brainstorm away, be ye plotter or pantser. You’ll be glad you did.
You’ll find more exercises like this in Writing Unforgettable Characters, which you can pre-order here:
“Nice to meet you. I’m beautiful and talented and caring. But enough about me.”
Some years ago I decided to see what all the hubbub was about a bestselling romance writer. It’s not my usual genre, but I like to read outside the thriller realm to pick things up other authors do well in their own bailiwick.
So I went to the library and picked one of this author’s titles off the shelf, at random. I sat down and opened to the first chapter.
I don’t have the specifics now (I’ve since forgotten the title!) but it opens with the main character in her car. The second paragraph went something like this: She was beautiful, talented, and caring. She was a hard worker, and earned every bit of her success…
It went on in the same vein for a few more lines. And I found myself thinking, “Really? You expect me to believe this?”
You know why. It’s pure telling. How would we feel if we met someone for the first time at a party, and the person said, “Nice to meet you. I’m beautiful and talented and caring. But enough about me.” It’s only a short jump from that to an author telling us the same thing about a characters.
So let’s go over the two ways to characterize that won’t put up a subconscious barrier in the reader.
Show us through action
Instead of telling us that Mary cares about people, show her bringing a meal to a grieving friend. Or stopping her car to comfort a crying child. Or letting a little old lady go ahead of her at the pharmacist’s.
Or, start with a character who doesn’t care about people. Rick (Humphrey Bogart) in Casablanca sticks his neck out for nobody. The first time we see him he’s playing chess—by himself. A bit later in Act 1, the police come to take away Ugarte (Peter Lorre) who begs Rick to help him. Rick refuses, even knowing Ugarte will now face a firing squad.
And by the way, a character’s own dialogue is a form of action. So earlier when Ugarte is sitting with Rick and asks, “You despise me, don’t you?” Rick responds, “If I gave you any thought I probably would.”
And as dialogue is a form of action, inner thoughts are a form of dialogue (just not so that anyone can hear it). In a novel Rick could think If I gave you any thought I probably would, and not say anything out loud.
So determine what you want readers to know and feel about your character. Brainstorm possible actions and dialogue that will show us these things, and salt them in early in your novel—because first impressions count.
Let other characters do the talking
In the first of my Mike Romeo books, Romeo’s Rules, I wanted the readers to know that Romeo is a big guy who can handle himself in a fight. Since these books are in First Person POV, I couldn’t very well have Mike say, “I’m a big, strong guy. I can handle myself in a fight.” That’s braggadocio, and we don’t like braggarts in real life, do we?
So on the opening page I have him jogging, stopping to talk to an older woman about her flowers (Mike is into flora). At one point the woman says, “You don’t look like a flower man.”
“What do I look like?”
“Football player, maybe?”
I shook my head.
“Then what exactly do you do with all those muscles?”
“Are you flirting with me, Nell?”
She pushed her hat back slightly. “If I was thirty years younger, I’d rip your T-shirt right off.”
You do the same thing in Open Third Person POV (where you switch between POV characters). Dean Koontz does this in The Door to December. The first three chapters are from Laura McCaffrey’s POV. She is a doctor—a psychiatrist—whose ex-husband absconded with their daughter six years ago. Now the police are taking her to a home with multiple murder victims and lots of blood. The detective there, Dan Haldane, has summoned her because one of the bodies might be her ex. He also needs her to see something (Koontz, the rascal, keeps us in suspense as to what that is).
Then we get Chapter Four, which is from Haldane’s POV. Koontz uses this opportunity to further characterize Laura:
Dan Haldane was surprised at how well the woman was coping with the situation. Okay, she was a doctor, but most physicians weren’t accustomed to wading through blood; at the scene of multiple, violent homicides, doctors could clutch up and lose control as easily as any ordinary citizen. It wasn’t just Laura McCaffrey’s medical training that was carrying her through this; she also had an unusual inner strength, a toughness and resilience that Dan admired—that he found intriguing and appealing. Her daughter was missing and might be hurt, might even be dead, but until she to the answers to important questions about Melanie, she wasn’t, by God, going to break down or be weak in any way. He liked her.
So don’t let me catch you, dear author, trying to slip in some instant characterization by telling me something. Let’s see it demonstrated on the page, or hear about it from other characters.
Fiction writers play with imaginary friends whenever we create characters. We put them in a pickle and see what they do; pile insurmountable challenges on them; make them fall in and out of love; tie them to the railroad tracks and see how they free themselves. They become as close and familiar as our own family and friends.
We design how they look—short, tall, slender, heavyset, muscular, flabby. Choose the color of their skin, hair, and eyes. Grow a beard or mustache. Add scars, tattoos, piercings.
Some authors cut out photos from magazines to use as their models. Or they draw parallels to real-life actors, musicians, celebrities, or politicians in the news.
Others prefer to keep descriptions minimal. They paint a general picture but let the reader fill in the fine details.
I lean toward minimalist but have an image in my mind. Often that vision shifts in the course of a story because of plot needs.
The main character in my series, Tawny Lindholm, is a fiftyish recent widow. She’s smart but also naïve and too trusting because of her sheltered life in small-town Montana. As the story unfolded, I piled on more flaws that enhanced important parts of the plot and themes.
She’s far-sighted and can’t read small print without glasses—also a metaphor for her initial blindness to danger.
Her meniscus is torn, which hampers fleeing from bad guys.
I broke the poor woman’s finger (how cruel, right?), which caused arthritis and permanent swelling. That injury means she can’t remove her wedding ring and becomes part of her personality, tying in the theme of mourning and loyalty to her late husband. More importantly, that seemingly insignificant detail served as a key element in the plot, proving her innocence.
Have you ever experienced a character who shows up in real life, as if s/he had just stepped out of your computer screen? Recently, that’s happened twice to me in a couple of unlikely places.
First incident: my car needed new tires. The manager at Les Schwab was fiftyish, dark hair, barrel-chested, and muscular. He wore a blue uniform with his name on the pocket, hands a little dirty from showing tires to customers and helping out in the shop. His brown eyes twinkled with an inside joke he couldn’t wait to share. Although we kidded around as he wrote up my tire purchase, he was professional and business-like.
I don’t remember his real name because, to me, he wasDwight, Tawny’s dead husband. Through the series, Dwight occasionally appears in her memories with a joke or snippet of conversation.
Waiting time to install new tires was two hours. I grabbed a cup of coffee and a free bag of popcorn—at Les Schwab stores, you hardly smell the rubber because the popcorn aroma greets you as soon as you walk in the door (popcorn and coffee have since been discontinued since COVID-19). I settled in at a tall table, pretended to read a magazine, and did what writers love to do—people-watch and eavesdrop.
For two hours, I watched the real-life Dwight interact with other patrons, tire busters, and people on the phone. He was patient and polite with cranky customers, and firm but even-tempered when screw-ups happened in the shop. That twinkle in his brown eyes never wavered.
Not only did his appearance and manner exactly match the Dwight of my imagination, so did his personality. It was eerie but also thrilling.
Second incident: This happened in February while vacationing in Florida. When I’m there, I attend Zumba classes and, over several years, have gotten to know a number of regulars. I’m happy to reconnect with them because they’re loyal fans of my thriller series, bringing copies for me to sign, inviting me to talk to their book clubs, and eagerly asking when the next book will be out. They are terrific supporters for whom I’m very grateful.
One morning, I spotted a new woman in class—tall, willowy, with long red hair in a ponytail and a bright smile.
Tawny, my protagonist, in the flesh.
The woman must have thought I was weird because, for the next hour, I watched her instead of the instructor. After class, we chatted about dancing. She felt intimidated because it was her first time but she was game and didn’t give up. Persistence and determination are two major personality traits Tawny has and this lady checked off those boxes. She was also friendly, open, spirited, and a good listener. Check off more boxes.
After several minutes of conversation, I worked up the courage to tell her I was a writer and explained I’d been staring at her because she looked like the heroine in my books. Instead of being creeped out by a crazy old lady Zumba stalker, she was excited. A dozen other people who’d read the series also noticed the resemblance, affirming, “Yes! She does look just like Tawny.”
Her real name is Kim, a massage therapist from Minnesota and she was eager to read about her alter ego.
In #1, Tawny receives a confusing new smartphone that she believes is a gift from her son. The Instrument of the Devil actually came from the villain who tampered with the device as part of a terrorist plot. Tawny blames herself for the phone’s peculiar behavior when, in fact, he rigged it to stalk her and eavesdrop.
At the next Zumba class, Kim had read the first few chapters and said, “I totally identify with her struggles with the smartphone.”
As do all of us born before 1990!
A few days later, she finished the book and said, “She’s so much like me it’s giving me chills.”
That comment gave me chills.
As authors, connecting with readers is our best reward. But connecting in real life with characters we thought only lived in our imaginations is a close second.
This gracious doppelganger agreed to pose for a photo. Heeeeere’s Tawny!
Kim AKA Tawny
A big thank you to Kim for being an inspiration. She’s also a great sport as I continue to make her life miserable in the next books, Stalking Midas and Eyes in the Sky.
TKZers: Has a character ever stepped out of your book into real life? What happened? Did their appearance match their personality? How were they different from what you envisioned?
In my one-day workshops I do an exercise called “Shocking Coffee.” You, the author, imagine you are seated with your main character over a cup of coffee. She tells you she doesn’t think you’ve quite captured her. That surprises you a bit. I mean, after all, you created her.
So you ask, “In what way?” And your character tells you something that shocks you. What is it? (I have the students write for one minute.)
Then I say: You’ve spit out your coffee. Your character hands you a napkin and then tells you something even more shocking! (Write for one minute.)
I was conducting this at a recent conference, and while the students were writing a voice said, “Wow!”
Another voice chimed in. “Exactly!”
And everyone laughed. When we were done I asked a few people to share what they’d come up with. One woman said this clarified the entire novel for her. Another said this offered a whole new direction she’d never thought of.
But one student, a middle-aged man, seemed troubled. He had explained earlier in the workshop that his story was about a man carrying around a load of guilt because he’d accidentally killed his brother years ago. He fears that if his secret ever gets out it will hurt a number of people.
Now he said, “The more shocking thing he told me was that he intended to kill his brother, because he was jealous.”
There were audible oohs and ahhs throughout the room.
“But,” the man protested, “this would make him totally unsympathetic.”
The oohs and ahhs turned to No! and You’re wrong!
I asked the students, “Who is more interested in this book now?”
All the hands shot up.
The author still seemed confused.
I told him it doesn’t matter where the character has come from, or what he’s done, so long as he’s got the capacity to change and the will to try. We will follow a character like that, hoping for his redemption. Indeed, it’s one of the most powerful engines of fiction.
What had just happened was that the author, by way of a simple exercise, had gone deeper into his material than ever before. Before, he’d stopped at a “safe place.” Now he had pushed past that, and it scared him a little.
Which, I told him, is a good thing, because that’s where originality comes from. (For more on this, see my post here.)
To push through the safe places, try these exercises:
Have a cup of shocking coffee with your Lead. Shocking and more shocking.
Chair through the window: Imagine your character in a nice room with a big, bay window. She picks up a chair and throws it through the glass. Why would she do that? Come up with a reason. Next, write a crazy reason she’d do that. What is this telling you about your Lead?
Closet search: What does your character have hidden in her closet that she doesn’t want anyone—anyone—to find?