Everyone in the writing community is part of a long continuum climbing a steep hill. Those who are ahead often reach down their hands to help those who are less experienced.
For three decades, my local writing group, the Authors of the Flathead (AOF), has thrived because of mentors who extended their hands to the rest of us, freely and generously sharing knowledge.
Barbara Schiffman, script consultant and creative producer
One of those mentors is Barbara Schiffman, who worked in Hollywood for 35+ years as a script consultant and creative producer. She reviewed potential projects for literary agencies and production companies like DreamWorks, HBO, Showtime, and more. After retirement, she and her author-husband Glenn moved to Montana in 2019 to live near their grandchildren and settled into a new home.
Before their boxes were unpacked, Barbara jumped in to help local writers. At the community college in Kalispell, she now facilitates monthly seminars about screenwriting sponsored by AOF and her MT Screenwriting Meetup (https://meetup.com/MTScreenwriting/ – not limited to Montana writers).
At a recent meeting I attended, screenwriters had driven long distances from Polson (50 miles), Ovando (120 miles), Helena (220 miles), and Spokane, Washington (240 miles) to hear Barbara. With gas at more than $5/gallon, these are serious writers hungry to learn. The trip is worth it.
That evening, Barbara spoke about how to make a good first impression on people who might buy your stories. She stresses you never have a second chance to make a good first impression: “Get ’em in the beginning or you don’t get ’em.”
Her approach is two-pronged and applies to both to you as the author and to the main characters of your stories.
You, the writer, could be pitching to agents, editors, producers, etc., hoping to stand out among thousands of writers they meet.
Your book’s main character could be pitching to readers browsing thousands of books on virtual and physical shelves.
Both you as the author and your main character have the same goal: seduce the reader into saying, “I’ve got to hear/read more about this person!”
Barbara analyzed countless scripts and learned to read quickly, sometimes simultaneously writing a logline, one or two page synopsis, and comments for her clients.
The first 10 pages make or break a screenplay. Even when they didn’t grab her, she still needed to skim the rest, write a full summary, and make recommendations. The options were pass or consider, strong consider, or consider with recommendations.
An unqualified Recommend was rare. While many scripts were good, they needed to be great to earn a Recommend.
Insider tip: a reader’s analysis of each script or book must be thoroughly documented, including the date received and who submitted it, to protect the producer, director, and others from plagiarism claims.
Next, Barbara put us through an exercise to demonstrate everyone has a unique quality or experience that makes them memorable. She asked each person to give their name, where they’re from, and relate one unusual thing about themselves that isn’t generally known.
She offered her own example of a memorable event that led to a realization: a fire walk with motivational guru Tony Robbins. As she walked across the coals, she thought, This isn’t so hot. Yet afterward, she had a blister on her little toe. Even though her perception had been the walk was no big deal, the physical blister proved to her that, yes, the fire was indeed scorching.
Then she went around the room full of writers, ranging in age from early 20s to 70+, asking for their memorable events. Since I don’t have their permission, I can’t share what they said. But every single person, no matter how ordinary they appeared, had a unique, surprising story that caused the rest of us to say Wow!
Prior to that evening, I hadn’t met several newcomers. Next time I see them, I likely won’t remember their names or where they’re from but I will definitely remember the unique story they told.
That is exactly the effect a writer wants to achieve when meeting with a producer, actor, agent, or editor. According to Barbara, even if they don’t accept your current pitch, if you make a good impression, they will remember you and perhaps offer a different opportunity later.
Your main character must make a similar impact when s/he first walks onstage in the story.
If it’s a script, you want the actor reading it to say, “I have to play that character onscreen.”
If it’s a novel, you want the reader to say, “I have to learn more about this character. I need to buy this book.”
A current character description trend in screenwriting is to be minimalist—hair color, height, age. Barbara considers that “lazy writing.” When she reads scripts, she wants to know more than surface impressions. She says physical traits are important ONLY if they are integral to the plot.
“Less can be more but make it the right less,” she says.
Barbara recommends developing a skill she calls “screenplay haiku”—memorable phrases, especially in dialogue, that she says may wind up in a movie trailer and frequently in common lexicon.
Think: Make my day. (Clint Eastwood, Dirty Harry).
Houston, we’ve had a problem. (Jim Lovell, Apollo 13)
She also mentioned Sheridan’s screenplay of Hell or High Water as a prime example of memorable screenwriting. A number of TKZers have recommended the film. Here’s a scene-by-scene dissection by director David Mackenzie.
The face in the rear-view mirror possessed more distinctive characteristics than you’d normally find in a whole room full of faces. The eyes, black as a curse, were so close to each other they nearly touched, barely bisected by the tiniest nose ever to adorn an adult male face. I’d seen bigger noses on a pizza. The guy had no eyebrows and a mouth that looked like it was assembled in the dark: no upper lip to speak of, and a lower that plumped out like a throw pillow, above a chin as sharp as an elbow.
It wasn’t a nice face, but that was misleading. The man who owned it wasn’t just not nice: he was a venal, calculating, corrupt son of a bitch.
That’s a character most readers will remember!
Thanks, Barbara, for sharing tips on how to make a memorable first impression.
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.
Recently a writer friend turned me onto a site called The Protagonist Speaks, created by author Assaph Mehr, who was born in Israel and now lives in Australia. He writes a series described as Stories of Togas, Daggers, and Magicfor lovers of urban fantasy, detective mysteries, and ancient Rome.
His main character is Felix the Fox, part sleuth, part magician, part fixer who handles occult trouble for Rome’s upstanding citizens who don’t want to dirty their hands.
Felix’s first interview appeared in 2016. The idea of an author interviewing the characters in his book intrigued readers. Soon, Assaph expanded the site to include other authors interviewing their characters.
The concept struck me as a fun, quirky marketing tool. I reached out to Assaph and requested an interview. That is today’s post, although I’m not quite sure who will show up—Assaph or Felix!
In Numina by Assaph Mehr
Debbie Burke: Please share a little about yourself and your background.
Assaph: I grew up on the shores of the Mediterranean, where every stone has a history – and the stone under it too, going back millennia. One of my favourite spots was an Ottoman citadel (we used to play LARP [live-action role-playing game] there), which is built on Mameluk foundation, laid on top of Roman village, which displaced older settlements to Egyptian times. Can’t grow up like that and not love history. Fantasy I discovered early on when introduced to The Hobbit, and thereafter I’ve been reading it voraciously. I now live in Oz (aka Australia), with various cats, kids, spiders, and water dragons.
Felix: I come from the city of Egretia, which Assaph assures me is very like your own ancient Rome. My father was in the antiquities trade, though I was fortunate enough to be accepted to the Collegium Incantatorum. My father died, the family fortune was lost, and I could no longer pay tuition so never graduated. So, after a brief stint in the legions, I came back and by a stroke of luck apprenticed with a couple of the city’s most renowned investigators. When they didn’t want to take a case that had occult elements, I seized my chance. I combined whatever education in the magical arts I gathered in the collegium with the investigative skills I learnt, and set out to solve paranormal problems for the proletariat.
Assaph: In Ancient Rome tradespeople often advertised by chalking messages on public walls. That’s how I met Felix, and got him to tell me his stories so I could write them down. For our world we couldn’t quite spray graffiti everywhere, so we made Felix some business cards. Please, pass them on to your readers.
DB: Your books sound like an interesting mashup of hard-boiled detective stories, fantasy, and history. How did you come up with that combination?
Assaph: Quite simply, that’s what I always liked to read. I grew up on classic detectives and thrillers, loved ancient Rome, and often escaped into fantasy and Sci-Fi. I always wanted to see my name in print, so when it was time to write I combined my favourite elements into the stories I wanted to read. (sotto voce) Don’t tell Felix he’s a figment of my imagination – he gets offended, and besides I’d rather he not ask uncomfortable questions about some of the misery I put him through.
Felix: For me it was a stroke of luck – my name, Felix, means lucky, so I attribute everything to my patron goddess Fortuna. As everyone will tell you – or, rather, whisper so she can’t hear – she can be a fickle and capricious goddess. I was accepted to the collegium, but had to terminate my studies; with no prospects I joined the legions, but escaped honorably without injury; the two investigators took me in, and I managed to carve out a unique niche for my business. So those stories are just the cases I handle for my customers, which Assaph publishes here. I’m still waiting on those royalties he promised.
Assaph: Skinflint. I told you, I had to pay the editor and the cover designer. We’re waiting on that movie deal for the big payout.
DB: What inspired the seed forThe Protagonist Speaks?
Assaph: It was one of those 3 a.m. ideas that stuck. Every reader talks about favourite characters, I thought it would be an interesting idea to let them meet those characters in person, as it were. A bit like a celebrity talk show, but centered about the characters rather than the authors.
DB: How do readers respond to interviews with characters?
Assaph: The responses I get are overwhelmingly positive. Both authors and readers enjoy the quirky experience of letting the character sit on a guest couch and be interviewed. Both authors and readers also tell me that they are sometimes surprised by the answers they get.
Felix: For my part, I can say that it was a bit weird at the start. I didn’t quite get what it was all about, and I was reluctant to share secrets. Now I do have a better understanding of what’s involved, and I can say it can be a phenomenal experience for the character as well.
Assaph: Right, so that’s you agreeing to do another one – proper one – for the next book launch.
DB: What is the site’s primary purpose? Promote author name recognition? A way to increase book sales? Fun and entertainment?
Assaph: Yes – pretty much all of that. Authors and readers get to have a bit of fun, it helps increase exposure of the books to potential readers, and authors end up with long-life marketing collateral, something that can be shared to help increase buzz. Running the site is my way of giving back and helping fellow authors.
DB: Have you experienced an uptick in sales fromThe Protagonist Speaks?
Assaph: Modest, but yes. As with most marketing, it’s about repeatedly putting good content in front of potential buyers, till they make the decision to buy. Having these quirky interviews helps do just that – it’s a way to come across new authors, it’s a reason to share the books again, it gives more view-points into the author’s style that may help convince a reader that this is a book for them. There is definitely more engagement from authors who understand that, and I see more engagement when authors share it on social media and newsletters (beyond what I normally see when only I share the interviews).
DB: What is the process for an author to submit an interview with a character? Is there any cost?
Assaph: No costs. As said above, it’s my way of helping fellow authors. Heck, I half do it for myself – besides having an excuse to chat up authors I enjoy, I also discovered a few new favourites.
DB: Anything else you’d like to share with Kill Zone readers?
Assaph: Thanks much for hosting us, Debbie! I promise I’m not as crazy as I sound, despite the voices in my head. Should any of your readers like to meet Felix more, there are a few free short stories and a free novella on my website here: egretia.com/short-stories. Those will give you an idea of the trials and tribulations of a private investigator during antiquity, dealing with the supernatural world (and why he wants to get paid, and I don’t want him to think I’m the cause of all his troubles).
As a side note, after chatting with Assaph, I dragged the male lead in my thriller series, Tillman Rosenbaum, kicking and screaming, to Assaph’s interview couch. Please check out Tillman’s reluctant answers onMarch 5 at The Protagonist Speaks.
TKZers: Do you ever interview your characters? Do their answers surprise you?
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.
I’m currently living in the limbo that inspires fear and loathing in many writers, and drives others to query random Magic 8 Balls with the seriousness of a sugar-drunk eight-year-old at a slumber party: I have a manuscript on submission. For the sake of my sanity, let’s step away from the constant checking of email, the extra glass of wine after dinner, and the cold-sweat certainty that there should have been One More Edit before it went out.
So, tell me things, please. Specifically, I want you to think about the sayings you have in your family. They might be well-known sayings, or something you and your siblings picked up from a long lost television episode that stuck with you for whatever reason. Or it might be a saying whose origins are lost to history, but you still use it. These sayings don’t necessarily have the gravitas or moral spin of an aphorism, but when you use colorful or shocking or sweet sayings occasionally and appropriately in your dialogue, they immediately give your reader important information about your characters.
I’ll start. Here are some that show up again and again in the Benedict family, or came from my childhood:
While at Malice, I was on a panel about Religion in Mysteries. It’s a topic I really hadn’t thought about before. So how do mystery writers handle this subject? Fellow panelists were authors whose protagonists included a hospital chaplain (Mindy Quigley), a minister (Stephanie Jaye Evans), a rabbi (Ilene Schneider), and a Scotland Yard Detective (Anne Cleeland).
What made my series different was that my sleuth Marla is a hairdresser. As I told the crowd, women see their stylists a lot more often than their clergymen. They willingly confide in their hairdressers and overhear juicy conversations in the salon, whereas people confess to priests or to chaplains on their deathbeds. So while people approach the ministry to be absolved for their sins, Marla has to worm their secrets out of them. Thank goodness she’s a skilled conversationalist.
The moderator posed some interesting questions. If those other protags were not clergy, would it matter to the series? And if my heroine was more religious, how would that change things? Ask yourself this question about your main character. In Marla’s case, it would make a big difference. She’s not particularly religious but she has a basic belief in Judaism and follows the traditional holidays. As the series progresses, so does her romantic relationship with Detective Dalton Vail who isn’t Jewish. This probably wouldn’t happen if she were more devout. They enter into an interfaith marriage where they respect each other’s traditions and beliefs.
Here’s another question to pose to your characters: How does their view of religion color their view of the world? Marla’s outlook is more expansive. She encompasses other viewpoints with tolerance and understanding. A priest or rabbi’s attitude will be focused on their own kind, while a hospital chaplain has to minister to patients of all faiths.
What role does religion play in your books? Is it a central or peripheral part of your plot? Does religion influence your protagonists’ search for justice?
How important are your protagonists’ careers to the stories? Would the slant be different if they were police professionals or hairdressers or members of the clergy?
Do holidays play a role in your stories? I’ve had Passover, Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, and New Year’s in my series, if you count the book I just turned in. Holidays in my books are where friends and families gather and where their ties are strengthened. But you could easily have a contentious family gathering where tensions escalate instead.
Perhaps this thematic content is something you haven’t considered before. But as a writer, your views of religion and sense of right from wrong color your perceptions. Do they influence your protagonist’s view as well?
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When developing your characters, you’ll want to give them internal conflicts as well as external ones. What do we mean by this? The internal conflict is an emotional struggle that inhibits your protagonist from moving on. He could have trouble taking the next step to get a job promotion, making a commitment to his girlfriend, or deepening his relationship with his estranged father. Often something in his past has caused this crisis of confidence, and he can’t see his way past it. Adding these internal conflicts gives your characters added depth. It’s not only about fighting the bad guys. It’s also about fighting one’s inner demons. For examples, look at popular movies and TV shows that have captured your attention. Take notes on what bothers each of the characters. Here are some examples:
Claire is forced to hide her knowledge in a land ruled by superstition.
Jamie is torn between his gentler instincts for Claire and his cultural expectations of a husband’s role in marriage.
Claire is torn between her love for two men.
Claire wants to go home but that means leaving Jamie.
The main character wrestles with guilt and grief over his daughter’s death while trying to prevent Armageddon. The bad guys exploit this weakness by luring him with a woman who resembles the dead girl.
Lord of the Rings
Son seeks approval and recognition from father who favors his brother.
Man struggles against the pull of corruption.
Woman wants to fight in a world that belongs to man.
Woman loves man who loves another woman.
Woman must give up her station in life (or special power) to be with the man she loves.
Man fears he will succumb to the same weakness as his father. (This also applies to Luke Skywalker in Star Wars. He fears turning to the dark side like his father.)
Man blames father for the death of his brother. He’s unable to forgive.
Female hero has had to work hard to prove herself. This means hiding her vulnerability.
A man who traded sex for secrets discovers he’s responsible for the world’s destruction.
A woman who is dying from cancer is forced to take charge.
It helps in determining a character’s internal conflict if you examine their past history. What happened to motivate their present behavior? What is inhibiting them from emotional growth? How will your character overcome this hang-up? Layer in your motivation, and you’ll have a richer story.
My favorite stories, written by me or someone else, are those dealing with characters best described as “fence post” characters which usually possess at least two or more of these traits: they are out of their element; in at least potentially in trouble: they have little or no idea how they got where they are; and have to rely on their skills and wits, to get out of the situation, though they appear to be ill-suited to do so. Think of a turtle on top of a fence post, if that helps. Sometimes a character like that can make, or save, the story you are telling, particularly if it just isn’t working otherwise.
I thought of this while binge watching a new dramatic series named Fortitude. It’s on the Pivot Network, which you’ll find in the equivalent of the nosebleed seats of your cable television system. Fortitude is set in a desolate section of Solvard, a Norwegian territory; the title is the name of the small town where almost of the story takes place. Two murders bookend the first episode, and at first it looks like your typical whodunit which will be investigated by a barely competent sheriff who may well be in the tank for some special interests relating to tourism as well. Everything changes, however, in Episode Two, with the arrival of our “fencepost” character in the form of Detective Chief Inspector Morton. Brilliantly played by the criminally underappreciated Stanley Tucci, Morton is 1) an American; 2) an ex-FBI agent now working for the London Metropolitan Police; and is 3) investigating the circumstances surrounding the death of one of the murder victims, who is a British citizen in 4) a God-forsaken area of Norway that looks like Boston (or Columbus, Ohio) did last week. Morton’s arrival puts almost everyone concerned in high dudgeon, particularly the sheriff (at least at first), but there isn’t much anyone can do about it because of some treaty of some sort which gives Morton jurisdiction. Morton no sooner sets foot on the slippery ice when he starts uncovering things, frozen ground and non-stop snowfall notwithstanding. Think of a cross between True Detective and Twin Peaks (the television series, not the restaurant chain) and you’ll have a vague idea of where things seem to be going. Morton, however, out of his element but not out of his league, is the fulcrum which takes the story off in an entirely new direction.
You can do this in your own work. If your story or novel isn’t working, change up your primary character. Make them uncomfortable in their own skin. Change gender or race or education level, just for a start. Even a small difference taken to its conclusion, logical or otherwise, can change the character and or the story dramatically. Downsizing your character’s abilities, such as they are, and throwing them to the sharks when they can’t swim works even better. I read a book several years ago — and I apologize out front for not being able to recall either the name or the author (yes; I’m getting old) — of an Asian father whose daughter disappears while attending college in England. He doesn’t speak English but makes the trip, determined to find her, armed with little more than fortitude and a keen power of logic and observation.
I do recall the name of a short story — because I have read it at least once a year since it was published — which puts a somewhat unassuming turtle on top of a very dangerous fence post. I’m speaking of “Duel” by Richard Matheson. “Duel,” in case you haven’t had the pleasure, concerns a motorist named “Mann” who is terrorized along several miles of highway by a trucker. The story was written over four decades ago, some eighteen years before the term “road rage” ever entered the nation’s lexicon, but still reads well. Mann is not Jack Reacher, or even his baby brother; he is totally out of his element and just wants to be left alone to keep driving. It doesn’t happen, of course, but what does will keep you reading. Steven Spielberg made an excellent attempt at capturing Matheson’s magic in a made-for-television movie, but you have to read the story to really appreciate what Matheson did so well.
Now, if I might ask…authors: have you tried this? And readers: have there been any fish out of water characters that you have enjoyed in novels, stories, or films? Please. Share with us.
If I asked you to name 5 of your favorite heroes and 5 villains, which would you think of first? Which would come easier, the good guys or the bad? If you’re an action-adventure fan and you read a lot of Clive Cussler novels, Dirk Pitt would probably pop into your head right away. Now, name one arch-villain in a Dirk Pitt novel. We all know or have heard of Jack Ryan, Jason Bourne and Lara Croft. But name the bad guys they fought against. The reason it’s harder to recall specific villains is because it’s harder to write memorable bad guys. There aren’t that many Hannibal Lecters out there. But there are quite a few Clarice Starlings.
If you’re working on making your villain memorable, here are a few tips to do so.
Your villain must have multiple layers, perhaps even more that your hero. Stereotypical 2-D villains are boring. Why? Because we’ve all seen our share of non-motivated antagonists. A bunch of teens go to a cabin by a lake and start getting chopped up one by one. Seen that before? The villain is a killing machine. Why? Most of the time we have no idea. How about a good guy who turns bad. The motivational layers are all there. Just watch BREAKING BAD or DEATH WISH.
Your villain must be intelligent. Perhaps even more so than your hero. The brilliant bad guys are the ones that make the hero work really hard to solve the conflict. Their meticulous planning and concentration make them memorable. To see a brilliant villain in action, watch DIE HARD or SPEED.
Your villain had to have baggage. Preferably enough to make the reader cheer for him at least once. This usually happens near the beginning of the story where we see what motivates him. There is a hint of sympathy from the reader. But it doesn’t last long. Mr. Villain does something nasty and the sympathy shifts to the protagonist.
Your villain must face a fork in the road—a point in the story when he chooses to become a bad boy. The reader must believe the choice was voluntary. No one is born evil. They must choose to become evil somewhere along the way, for a believable reason.
Most important of all, your villain must be convinced he’s right. He needs to believe that his course of action is the correct path. Whether it’s revenge or jealousy, or some other strong motivator, he must do what he does out of commitment to being right. He must believe it and so must the reader.
As you write your villain into your manuscript, remember that he is not a throwaway character. He must be accepted by the reader for what he stands for and what he believes. For most of your story, he has to be as strong a character, if not stronger, than your protag. Make him memorable.
Now your turn. Name 5 of your favorite heroes and five villains your love to hate.
Guest Post from: L.J. Sellers, author of provocative mysteries & thrillers Jordan Dane @JordanDane As my guest today, I have mystery thriller author L. J. Sellers writing about one of my favorite topics: Villains. LJ shares her thoughts and asks you to share your favorite villains at the end of her post. And be sure to check out the great giveaway contests below. Take it away, LJ! The villains in thrillers are often extraordinary human beings. Super smart, physically indestructible, and/or incredibly powerful because of their money and influence. As a reader/consumer, those characters are fun for me too, especially in a visual medium where we get to watch them be amazing. But as an author, I like to write about antagonists who are everyday people—either caught up in extraordinary circumstances or so wedded to their own belief system and needs that they become delusional in how they see the world. In my Detective Jackson stories, I rarely write from the POV of the antagonists. That would spoil the mystery! But in my thrillers, I get inside those characters’ heads so my readers can get to know them and fully understand their motives. I’ve heard readers complain about being subjected to the “bad guy POV,” but that’s typically when the antagonist is a serial killer or pure evil in some other way. I share their pain. I don’t enjoy the serial-killer POV reading experience either. But when the villain in the story is a fully realized human being, who has good qualities as well as bad, and who’s suffered some type of victimization, and/or has great intentions, then I like see and feel all of that. And I think most readers do too.
In The Trigger, the antagonists are brothers, Spencer and Randall Clayton, founders of an isolated community of survivalists, or preppers, as they’re called today. As with most real-life isolationists/cult leaders, they are intelligent, successful professionals—with a vision for a better society. But these everyday characters decide to mold the world to suit their own objectives and see themselves as saviors—becoming villains in the process.
From a writer’s perspective, they were challenging to craft—likeable and believable enough for readers to identify with, yet edgy enough to be threatening on a grand scale. On the other hand, my protagonist Jamie Dallas, an FBI agent who specializes in undercover work, was such a joy to write that I’m launching a new series based on her.
The first book, The Trigger, releases January 1 in print and ebook formats, with an audiobook coming soon after. To celebrate the new series, the ebook will be on sale for $.99 on launch day. Everyone who buys a copy (print or digital) and forwards their Amazon receipt to email@example.com will be entered to win a trip to Left Coast Crime 2015. For more details, check my website. If that weren’t enough, I’m also giving away ten $50 Amazon gift certificates. So there’s a good chance of winning something. But the contest is only valid for January 1 purchases. Who are your favorite villains? Supermen types? Everyday delusionals? Or something else? L.J. Sellers writes the bestselling Detective Jackson mystery series—a two-time Readers Favorite Award winner—as well as provocative standalone thrillers. Her novels have been highly praised by reviewers, and her Jackson books are the highest-rated crime fiction on Amazon. L.J. resides in Eugene, Oregon where most of her novels are set and is an award-winning journalist who earned the Grand Neal. When not plotting murders, she enjoys standup comedy, cycling, social networking, and attending mystery conferences. She’s also been known to jump out of airplanes. Other social media links for LJ: Website, Blog, Facebook