How to Characterize

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

 

“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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

Make sense?

11+

When a Character Comes to Life

Photo credit: Jaredd Craig – Unsplash

by Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

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 was Dwight, 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?

8+

Have Shocking Coffee With Your Lead Character

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

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:

  1. Have a cup of shocking coffee with your Lead. Shocking and more shocking.
  2. 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?
  3. Closet search: What does your character have hidden in her closet that she doesn’t want anyone—anyone—to find?

More material like this can be found in my course, Writing a Novel They Can’t Put Down.

So when was the last time one of your characters surprised you? Did you go with it or resist it? What techniques do you use to deepen characters in your fiction? 

18+

How To Build Conflict Using Myers-Briggs Personality Types

by Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

In recent TKZ posts, Myers-Briggs has been mentioned by John Gilstrap and TKZ regular Eric Beversluis. Kathryn Lilley also talked about Myers-Briggs in this post from 2015.

Which brings me to today’s discussion about how authors can use this personality test to build characters and foment conflict.

Image purchased from Shutterstock by Debbie Burke

Have you ever met someone and instantly disliked them for no apparent reason?

Conversely, have you ever “clicked” with a stranger and didn’t know why?

Have you ever been fired from a job or had to leave because of “personality conflicts”?

Have you ended a relationship or been dumped because of different values?

Do you have a hard time figuring out the needs, desires, and priorities (or lack thereof) of some people?

Do people sometimes act in ways you can’t understand or justify?

How about your characters? Do they struggle with the above issues?

If so, that’s great because conflict is the mainstay of fiction.

Myers-Briggs (MB) is a tool that can help writers answer these questions.

What is Myers-Briggs?

Katharine Briggs and Isabel Myers-Briggs
Wikimedia Commons

In 1923, the mother/daughter team of Katharine Cook Briggs (1875-1968) and Isabel Briggs Myers (1897-1980) became interested in the study of personality types based on research by Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung (1875-1961). The two women developed the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator test that classifies the different ways people function in life.

Their purpose was to help people make career and personal choices that best suited their individual personalities. The test has been widely used by psychologists and industry to put people in the right jobs based on their particular traits, as well as to improve communication between vastly different personalities.

In other words, to solve problems.

However, in fiction, writers want to create problems for their characters.

If you understand why certain MB personality types clash with other types, you can use that knowledge to increase tension among your characters.

With the MB test, let’s dig a little deeper into reasons why you instantly dislike a person or can’t understand why they act the way they do. Then we’ll extrapolate those reasons into opportunities to create conflict among characters.

What are the MB components?

Introvert/Extravert (I or E)

Are you shy among strangers? Do you prefer to be alone in an interior world of thoughts and ideas? If so, you may be an introvert (I).

Are you outgoing and like large groups of people? Are you interested in what’s happening in the big, wide world around you? If so, you’re likely an extravert (E).

What happens if you take “I,” a shy character who avoids conflict at all costs, and force him/her to interact with “E,” a bold, boisterous character who loves to scrap?

Intuitive/Sensing (N or S)

Do you draw conclusions based on hunches? Do you look below the surface to determine what is going on? If so, you’re probably intuitive (N).

Do you use your five senses (sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch) to observe the world around you? Do you like facts and figures? You might be sensing (S).

Take “S,” a detective with the attitude if-I-can’t-see-it-it-doesn’t-exist. Add “N,” an intuitive who plays hunches and follows his/her gut instinct. Partner those two up and watch the fireworks.

Thinking/Feeling (T or F)

Are you logical and fact-oriented? You’re probably thinking (T).

Are you in touch with emotions and driven by them? You’re probably feeling (F).

Arrange a date between “T,” a logical, analytical woman, and “F,” a warm-fuzzy metrosexual. Lots of problems for that romance.

Judging/Perceiving (J or P)

Are you decisive and want things settled, organized, and clearly defined? Probably judging (J).

Do you prefer to take things as they come, remaining open to new opportunities? Probably perceiving (P).

The Odd Couple is the classic example of conflict between “J” and “P”. Felix demands neatness and precision while Oscar thrives on disorder and chaos. Remember this scene: “It’s not spaghetti, it’s linguine.”

Sixteen Variations:

The combinations of the above characteristics yield sixteen variations of personality types. If you’re not already familiar with MB types, here is a link that describes each one: https://www.myersbriggs.org/my-mbti-personality-type/mbti-basics/the-16-mbti-types.htm

Pitting Opposites Against Each Other:

If you instantly dislike someone when you first meet them, their four dominant traits may be the opposite of your four dominant traits. This doesn’t mean they’re right or wrong; they’re simply different ways in which you perceive the world around you.

Here are a few examples to build personality differences into fictional conflict.

An extravert “E” can’t understand why the introvert “I” wants to stay home rather than go out partying. “I” is sick and tired of being pressured to mingle with other people when s/he would much rather read a book.

A sensing “S” doesn’t see why an intuitive “N” doesn’t act on facts that are as plain as the nose on your face. “N” trusts flashes of insight from the subconscious and thinks “S” is hopelessly unimaginative and dull.

A thinking “T” has no patience for a feeling “F” who always gets upset over the stupidest things. “F” is constantly frustrated by “T” who never understands his/her feelings.

A judging “J” is fed up with that loosey-goosey perceiver “P” who never plans ahead and flops haphazardly from one activity to another. “P” is annoyed that “J” is so rigid, inflexible, and set in his/her habits.

Characters who are too much alike can also mean trouble:

If characters share the same traits, they may lack balance and believe that is the only way to be.

For instance, judgmental J extremists convince their followers to condemn anyone who doesn’t share their beliefs. This manifestation brought Hitler to power.

Feeling F characters can go overboard emotionally. Because of intense feelings, poor Romeo and Juliet both end up dead.

Wikimedia Commons

Characters can also be defined by their lack of a trait. A classic example is Star Trek’s Mr. Spock, an extreme “T” for whom logic is the supreme law. Whenever he was confronted by another character’s emotional “F” reaction, his response was: “That’s illogical.” 

Personality traits run along a continuum. Some traits are well-developed and dominant; others are more subtle. Our job as writers is to combine dominant and subtle variations into unique characters who are not stereotypes.

The opposite qualities may be fairly equally developed in the same personality. For instance, when I took the MB as a teenager, the result was INTP but T and F scores were almost equal, meaning I possessed an analytical, logical mindset (my husband would dispute that!) but was also highly emotional (that, he agrees with!).

My Intuition N was well developed while my Sensing S scored low. That explains why I rarely notice someone’s eye color, clothes, or shoes, yet I know the depths of their fears and secrets.

Underdeveloped S makes me a lousy eyewitness. What was the bank robber wearing? Huh? What did the getaway car look like? I dunno.

 

Dominant traits can change with time and experience, giving your characters an opportunity to transform themselves.

As a child, I was extremely introverted and shy. Due to career requirements, my extraverted side developed because I had to deal with people. Now, I’m no longer paralyzed with dread at a party. In fact, I thoroughly enjoy meeting new people at writers’ gatherings and book festivals.

Not surprisingly, many writers fall into INFJ or INFP, a pattern Tom Kuegler explores in this article on medium.com.

 

Try guessing the traits of your mate and your children; that obnoxious neighbor you don’t get along with; your annoying boss.

You might gain insight into why they act the way they do.

Then put your characters through the MB personality type test and use their traits to increase conflict among them. 

~~~

Now it’s your turn, TKZers.

Using MB traits, which category does your favorite fictional character fall into?

Who is the most memorable (not necessarily likable) character you can think of? Can you guess their category?

How do their traits cause conflict with other characters?

~~~

 

In Debbie Burke’s thriller, Instrument of the Devil, find out how the attraction between two INFP characters means trouble, while an ENTJ causes further complications.

Instrument of the Devil is on sale for $.99 during April. Here’s the link.

 

 

 

6+

Make Your Characters Memorable

Jordan Dane

@JordanDane

From Wikimedia Commons

Have you ever noticed that as a writer, you rarely can sit back and simply enjoy watching a TV show or a movie without thinking about plot or character development or pace? As authors, we “see” how the writers disguise plot twists or change direction. We may see behind the curtain of the Wizard of Oz, but on those rare occasions when you can forget you’re a writer and utterly enjoy the show, that’s when you truly are watching something special.

So the next time you watch a memorable movie or TV show, observe the traits of the main characters, the ones you can’t take your eyes off of. What makes them unforgettable? For most of us, it’s not the high-octane action that sticks in our heads. It’s usually what makes that character human, something we can relate to.

Here are some ways to make your characters memorable:

1. Add Depth to Each Character—Give them a journey

• With any journey comes baggage. Be generous. Load on the baggage. Give them a weakness that they’ll have to face head-on by the climax of the book.

• Make them vulnerable by giving them an Achilles Heel. Even the darkest street thug or a fearless young girl with magical powers should have a weakness that may get them killed and certainly makes them more human.

• Whether you are writing one book or a series, have a story arc for your character’s journey that spans the series. Will they find peace or love, or some version of a normal life? Will they let someone else into their lives or will they be content to live alone? Will a villain have a chance at redemption? Do what makes sense for your character, but realize that their emotional issues will cloud their judgment and affect how they deal with confrontations. By the end of a book, they should learn something.

2. Use Character Flaws as Handicaps

• Challenge yourself as an author by picking flaws that will make your character stand out and that aren’t easy to write about. Sometimes that means you have to dig deep in your own head to imagine things you don’t want to think about, but tap into your empathy for another human being. You might surprise yourself.

• Stay true to the flaws and biases you give your characters. Don’t present them to the reader then have the actions of the character contradict those handicaps. Be consistent. If they have strong enough issues, these won’t be fixed by the end of the book. Find a way to deal with them.

3. Clichéd Characters can be Fixed

• If you have a clichéd character, you may not need to rewrite your whole story. Try infusing a weird hobby or layer in a unique trait/quality that will set them apart. Maybe the computer nerd writes porn scripts for a local indie film company or the jock writes a secret blog under a girl’s name giving advice to teens on love and romance for the local paper. When that hobby is surprising and unexpected, that’s what will shine about the character and that’s what editors will remember.

4. Create A Divergent Cast of Characters

• Portray your characters in varying degrees of redemption—from the innocent to the “totally vile” characters.

• As in real life, not everyone is good or bad. They are a mix of both.

• Sometimes it’s great to show contrast between your characters by making them do comparable things. How does one character handle his or her love life versus another character?

5. Flesh Out your Villains or Antagonists

• Villains or antagonists are the heroes to their own stories—Spend time getting to know them.

• Give them goals.

• Give them a chance at redemption—will they take it?

• Give them a unique sense of humor or dare to endear them to your reader.

• The better and more diabolical they are, the more the reader will fear for the safety or well-being of your protagonist.

At the end of a TV show or a movie or your next book, characters that linger in your head are a gift that can help your writing. Examine what works in movies or TV shows as an exercise to tapping into your own creativity.

For Discussion:

1.) Do you have any personal tips for making your characters memorable?

2.) What characters have you been drawn to and find hard to forget – in TV movies, or books? Why have they stuck with you?

4+

READER FRIDAY: Give your main character the third degree with these questions.

How would your current main character answer the following questions? (For an added degree of difficulty, write your answers in the voice of your character.)

1.) Who is your closest friend?

2.) What is the worst thing you did as a teenager?

3.) What would you die for?

5+

Show Your Baddie R-E-S-P-E-C-T to Make Them Memorable

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

By Hasaw öztürk – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=58145267

It’s easy to focus on the main protagonists of our stories. Heroes and heroines usually pop up in our heads from the start, but have you ever been taken over by your bad guy or your femme fatale? In my latest series, Mercer’s War with Mr. January book 1, I’m obsessed with Keiko Kayakova. She is the devil personified, a remorseless killer, yet she constantly surprises me with her contradictions and what she truly cares about.

A great character is complicated and it can take time to develop them. Why not explore your antagonist with as much zeal as you would for your protagonists? You need to hear them in your head, maybe especially when they are their nastiest, or if they niggle your ear in the middle of the night. Flesh them out.

Questions to ask about your current work-in-progress:
1. What’s your villain’s back story?
2. Why did they turn out the way they did?
3. What motivates them in the present? What are their goals?
4. Have you explored gender for your antagonist? Would your bad guy be more frightening and unexpected as a woman?
5. Have you given them a chance at redemption in your story? Do they take it?
6. What makes them vulnerable? What are their flaws?
7. Have you created a bad guy or gal’s bible, like you did for your good guys and gals?
8. Does your bad guy/gal have virtues the reader might find it hard to argue against, like an extreme respect for the law or a need to establish order in a society he or she controls for the greater good?
9. Do they have an unexpected hobby?
10. In the vast sea of literary villains, what makes your antagonist stand out?

Villains want top billing and for their name to be first on the marquee. Have you shown them enough R-E-S-P-E-C-T? Even if you’ve already got a first draft, it’s never too late to add depth or bone chilling traits to your characters. A flat character on the page is never satisfying.

Don’t waste good villain potential by making your character a two dimensional cardboard cutout or a mere roadblock to your good guys. Dare to give them humor or a peculiar hobby or a back story that explains their motivation. Develop a conflict between your antagonist and protagonist that is deliciously enticing that makes it harder for the reader to choose sides.

Here are a few tips on how to get started:
1. The best villains are the heroes in their own stories. Make them real and worthy of their own story line. Develop them with the same care and don’t resort to making them obstacles in the way of your main characters. Even if they’re a train wreck, make the reader interested in what drives them or make them so diabolical that the reader will fear more for your good guys. Do they have a journey in your book? If they have a chance at redemption, do they take it? These types of questions can add depth.

2. Dare to make your villain an anti-hero in his or her own story, giving him or her solid motivation to perpetrate their crimes or cover their backsides. If your antagonist and protagonist are both thwarted by the same bad weather, for example, how do they each deal with it? Do their minds work the same? Of course not. Their reactions can shed light on how their mind works. Bend the norm. Think out of the box to surprise the reader, but that plot twist comes from knowing each of them as their creator.

3. Match or counter the skills between your antagonist and your protag. Where one might have an intellect, make the other one have a diabolical brute force that can overpower your hero in confrontations that showcase their strengths. Make them worthy of each other.

4. Escalate the tension between your antagonist and protagonist by making them have a relationship that used to mean something. Imagine your adversary is your own father or someone in a foreign country with the same ideals as you (except they are your enemy). If under normal circumstances, your two characters might be friends, what horrible situation will keep them apart and what makes things worse between them?

5. Give your villain a face. Don’t hide behind a secret organization or an evil entity? The Hunger Games would not be the same without President Snow. Silence of the Lambs would be FBI’s Clarise hunting serial killer Buffalo Bill except for the memorable diversion of Hannibal Lecter, her white knight.

DISCUSSION:
1. Who are some of your most memorable villains from your own work? Tell us how you made them memorable.

2. What literary villains have stood out in your reading and have those books influenced your writing?

8+

All You Need To Know About Character Transformation

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

God was not pleased.Ocean-Storm-Waves_Free_Desktop_Backgrounds_chillcover.com_

The special creation he had lovingly shaped, and into which he breathed the breath of life, had gone off the rails. God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.

Things went south from the very start. He placed man and woman in this beautiful garden with plants and animals and a Starbucks, and said there was only one rule: Do not eat the fruit of this one tree, okay? Is there any part of Do not eat you don’t understand? No? Very good.

But then the first politician the serpent whispered a sweet lie, and Eve took a bite, then Adam chomped, and it was bye-bye Eden. In the outside world Adam and Eve scraped up enough to buy a little starter home, had kids. But tragedy ensued–Cain murdered his brother, Abel.

Things only got worse. After several generations God decided it was time to clear the table, wrap it all up. But there was this one man, Noah, who was perfect in his generations, and … walked with God.

You know the story. God tells Noah that judgment is coming, so he is to build a big boat according to certain specs. Then he must bring in pairs of animals for the repopulation project. Noah obeys, gets the animals and his family on board. The flood arrives.

And Noah becomes the greatest financial planner in the Bible. He floated his stock while everyone else liquidated.

Ba-dump-bump.

So there is Noah, inside a stinky animal pen for over a year (when you do the math), and what is he thinking? We have a clue. The ancient Hebrew style of writing is minimalist, and leaves a lot “between the lines.” At one point we read this: And God remembered Noah.

This tells me that sometime during his voyage Noah began to wonder if God had forgotten him. Was he a sap for listening? Was this all a cosmic joke? Was he going to die out here in this watery wasteland?

What Noah experienced was his “mirror moment.”

Yet he keeps the faith, does not curse God. The flood subsides. Noah and his family and the animals step out into the new world.

And Noah builded an altar unto the LORD; and took of every clean beast, and of every clean fowl, and offered burnt offerings on the altar. And the LORD smelled a sweet savour… 

Noah is the same righteous man he was before the flood, but now his faith has been tested, and has become stronger.

This is Noah’s arc.

Discussions about character arcs can sometimes get overly complicated––complete with graphs that look like transcranial Doppler readings––or too simplistic (“Not every story needs a character arc!”)

But as I argue in my book, Write Your Novel From The Middle, it’s not really complicated at all once you nail that mirror moment.

And every story must have a character arc–or as I prefer, transformation–because, wait for it, you can’t have a story without one. You can have good writing. You can have distinct style. You can have quirky characters. But without transformation, friend, you will not have a story, and that’s what 99.9% of readers are looking for, consciously or not.

Your character’s mirror moment tells you what kind of transformation guides your story. It will be one of two types:

  1. The Lead character changes inside, becoming a different person at the end than at the beginning. In this type of mirror moment, the character is forced to look at himself and “ask” if this is who he really is, and wonder if he’s going to stay that way. The story question then is: will he actually transform into a different person at the end?
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Martin Riggs

This transformation is from one pole of existence to another. From one kind of being to another. It’s a fundamental change.

Examples of this type of transformation include: Rick Blaine in Casablanca; Scout Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird; Martin Riggs in Lethal Weapon.

Note: This transformation does not have to travel from negative to positive (though most of the time it does). It can also be from positive to negative. A prime example of this is Michael Corleone in The Godfather. He transforms from good American soldier to soulless gangster.

There is even a type of transformation where the character is “offered grace” (as Flannery O’Connor put it) but turns it down. This is a tragedy. The character actually transforms backwards, becoming even worse off than before. Two of my favorite films of all time, both starring Paul Newman, are examples of this––Hud and The Hustler. 

  1. The Lead character realizes, right in the middle of the struggle, that there is no way he can win. The odds are too great. He is “probably going to die.”
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Clarice Starling

This transformation goes from stasis to strength. The character remains the same person fundamentally, but grows stronger in order to survive the “death stakes” of the conflict.

Examples of this type are: Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs; Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games; Dr. Richard Kimble in The Fugitive. 

Are there any examples of characters without any type of transformation? What about James Bond? Jack Reacher? They’re always the same, aren’t they?

They are the same fundamentally, but in those stories the transformation is of the second type, because the case or intrigue they are involved in challenges their powers and threatens them with physical, professional or psychological death.  

If the story doesn’t have death on the line, it’s going to feel flat.

The easiest way to find the transformation that is right for your story is to brainstorm your mirror moment.

Pantsers, you can brainstorm that anytime you like. If you’re lost in the middle of a draft (and I know you will be), the mirror moment will become the beacon that lights your way out of the thicket.

Plotters, you can determine your transformation at the beginning of things and know precisely how to outline from there (in my book I describe the “Golden Triangle” as the basis of a solid outline). Or you can put a moment in provisionally and change it later on as the story grows.

The point is that once you have it, it will illuminate the rest of your novel, from beginning to end. It will guide you in the formulation of plot, scenes and the ultimate meaning (theme) of the story trying to get out.

I’ll be in travel mode today, but will try to drop by if I can. Please continue the discussion!

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How to Bring Characters in From the Cold

 

Cold CharacterVirtually all books on character creation contain a list of questions, a “dossier” to fill out which starts with how a character looks, where he was born, and so on through his family circumstances, education, likes and dislikes, etc.

I have not found such forms helpful. It may just be a personal quirk, but I’m never excited about filling out answers to questions.

First of all, too many answers too soon might hinder the development of a character. A book is a living, breathing entity. If I have a long list of facts for a character before I begin writing, it hamstrings me. I may want the character to do one thing or another, but the dossier is set and works against me.

Characters I create using the dossier method seem cold and distant. I want characters who are hot and close.

Consequently, I’ve come up with my own way of bringing story people to the page. It starts with my protagonist and finding a visual (a head shot) that resonates with me, that says to me, This is her! I copy that image and paste it on a character card in Scrivener (this way, I can look at a corkboard of all my characters at once).

Next, I want a unique voice, and that comes from a Voice Journal, a free-form document of the character talking to me. I let the character go on and on until I hear a distinct and surprising voice. It always happens, bubbling up from my basement without me being overtly conscious of it.

From here I usually go to my “mirror moment.” I brainstorm it by making a list of possibilities, until one clicks. Then I let the character talk to me in the Voice Journal. When I nail that moment, I know my pre-story psychology (and can brainstorm that, again with the journal) and the transformation at the end (I try to visualize a scene to prove the transformation. All this is explained in my book, Write Your Novel From the Middle).

I’ll spend almost as much time with my antagonist, but relatively little with the other characters I’ve cast in the story. Why? Because I want to be able to manipulate them as needed. God complex, don’t you know?

As I write to my “signpost scenes” I’ll be creating characters along the way. Instead of stopping for each and filling out a form, I just ask the character to tell me what I need to know!

For example, let’s say I’m writing a scene about a lawyer interviewing a witness. The lawyer is the main character, a female public defender. The witness is an old man who used to be a … I’m thinking about it … I want him to be blue collar … how about a machinist?

I know my Lead pretty well. Now I’ve come to this old man. He’s going to be an important player, so I start by giving him some basics—age, looks, vocation. I’ll find a head shot to match.

Now to the scene. My lawyer is questioning him in his home, and he doesn’t want to talk to her at all. Why not? So I can have conflict, of course. But the question now is why? Why would he refuse?

I asked him.

You wanna know why I don’t want to talk to a lousy lawyer? Well I’ll tell you. The minute you start flapping your gums is the minute you’re going down, because the whole system is rigged against you. I was going good there when the aerospace boom was on in L.A., out there in the San Fernando Valley, and I was good at what I did, I could operate anything, and I had a friend, Buck Franklin, that was the scum sucker’s name, he took me to a couple of meetings where a guy wanted to know if I could use some more scratch, and of course I could’ve, we all could’ve, and before I know it I’ve got a couple of Gs in cash but this guy wants me to give him some information about what’s going on inside Rocketdyne, and I say sure, but instead what I do is go to the FBI, right to ‘em, and tell ‘em what’s going on. But before I can say Jack Robinson, they turn around and arrest me because of some evidence that got planted, because the agent on the case was dirty, but I was never able to prove it, not even to the L.A. Times who wouldn’t touch my story. And I end up out of a job and out of a pension, and can’t get hired, and Buck Franklin ends up farting through silk. So yeah, I’m not talking, I’m clamming, I don’t care if I see the Queen of England walk up to a drug dealer and blow his brains out and take his money. You’ll get nothing from me.

This all just came out as I wrote. I kind of like it. I can tweak it as I will. But the big thing is this: I now feel this character. When I render him on the page he will alive for me––and thus, I hope, for the reader.

So there’s my tip for today: Don’t fill out forms. Let the characters tell you about themselves. And if what they say is Dullsville, dig deeper. Make them reveal a secret to you. Ask them what the one thing is they don’t want anyone to ever know about them.

That’s how you bring your characters in from the cold.

So what about you? What is your process for character creation? Do you like the dossier method? Or are you more of a “character pantser” who creates on the fly?

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