Building Characters Layer by Layer

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

About a month ago Mrs. B noticed a nest starting to form under the eaves outside our front door. We began to keep an eye on things and saw a couple of doves flitting about. We started calling them Mr. and Mrs. Dove, and were happy they’d decided to build a home attached to ours. We thought it a perfect spot, too, out of the reach of our neighbor’s cats.

Then a couple of weeks ago we noticed Mrs. Dove sitting in the nest each time we went out our door. Just sitting there, day after day. Obviously, a happy event (or two or three) is about to hatch.

There was also a stretch of days when we didn’t see Mr. Dove at all. I told Cindy, “I hope he’s not out having a worm with the boys.” I imagined a Far Side-style cartoon of a couple of male doves, with fedoras pushed back on their heads, holding martini glasses with worms in them. I imagined them in a bar called The Wiggle Room.

But I digress (I wish I could draw!)

Then one day I was sitting in my courtyard which offers a view of the pitched roof above the place where the nest is. And I saw Mr. Dove walk across it, one end to the other. He continued to higher ground, the jut of our garage roof, where he could survey all of the territory around the house.

He was protecting his wife and kids. So I took this picture:

Mr. Dove on the lookout

My admiration for Mr. Dove went up a mile. Good man! Good bird!

My view of Mr. Dove changed not by what he felt, but by what he did.

Which is how readers respond to characters. Not by what they feel, but by what they do. When we see a character acting with strength of will in pursuit of a worthy goal, we begin to care, and only then does emotional response deepen the experience.

As the great writing teacher Dwight V. Swain put it in his book Creating Characters, all “traits are abstract and general. Behavior is concrete and specific. ‘What does he or she do?’ that demonstrates any given point is what’s important.”

Over the years, as the teaching of the writing craft became mainstream, two approaches emerged that occupy the same relationship as plotters and pantsers. For our purposes I’ll refer to them as the Dossier Doers and the Discovery Kids.

With a dossier, the writer constructs a thorough background of the character before the actual writing begins. Marcel Proust was this kind of writer. He developed an extensive questionnaire for his characters, with such queries as:

  • What is your idea of perfect happiness?
  • Who is the greatest love of your life?
  • What is your greatest fear?
  • What is your greatest regret?
  • What is your motto?

You can find Proust’s questions, and other character-building questionnaires online. I have nothing against this method if it works for you. The caution I have is that when you do it this way, you pretty much lock in that character to the profile you create. As your story unfolds, the slings and arrows of the plot might operate to an extent that you wish your character had a different background altogether.

With the discovery method, you begin with a certain degree of knowledge, but then let the character react in the various scenes and watch them grow along with the story. Some authors prefer to do a first draft and then, upon rewrite, add layers to the character. “You simply can’t foresee all the facets of a story’s development,” says Swain, “and trying to out-guess every turn and twist may hang you up for longer than you think.”

Personally, I get bored quickly if I have to fill out a long questionnaire, or write a comprehensive biography. I’d rather add things as I go along, in keeping with the needs of the plot.

Which is not to say I start with a blank slate. I do need a few things in place before I get going. At a minimum they are:

A Visual. When I see the face of my character, it automatically starts the cauldron bubbling with possible characteristics. So I immediately figure out my character’s age and then go looking on the internet for a headshot that reaches out and says, “I’m your character.” I want the image to surprise me a bit, too.

A Voice. I begin a voice journal, which is a free-form document of the character talking to me. I may prod them with questions, but I mainly want to keep typing until a distinctive sound begins to appear. As a bonus, what the character tells me about their background may prove useful in the book.

A Want. What is the thing this character, at this point in time (as the story begins), want more than anything in the world? To become a great lawyer? Nun? Piano player?

A Mirror. As TKZ regulars know, I am big into the “mirror moment.” So I begin to brainstorm this early. It’s subject to change, but I’m finding more and more that it operates as my North Star, shining its light on the whole book. Knowing it up front is a tremendous help.

A Secret. I’ve found this to be a useful item to have in your back pocket. What is one thing character knows that he doesn’t want any of the other characters to know?

After my Lead is given this treatment, I move to my other major characters and go through this process again, paying special attention to casting for contrast. I want there to be the possibility of conflict among all the cast members.

Along the way I’ve constructed my signpost scenes, so pretty much have the plot trajectory down.

Now I write, and as I do I allow the characters to help me flesh out the scenes which, in turn, adds layers to characters.

For instance, let’s say I know I’ll have a scene early where my lawyer, a woman, is told by one of her senior partners to quickly settle a case. She doesn’t want to. She thinks it’s a winner. At the end of the scene, the partner has issued her a mild threat—play ball, or your future here is limited.

In my mind, this scene would leave my lawyer angry and maybe a bit afraid. This is supposed to be her dream job. So she goes back to her office and writes an angry email to the partner. Then deletes it.

Then I’ll ask, what if she does something else? What if she quits? Maybe this is just what she needs to do at this point in her life! I could then construct a bit of backstory about how she was afraid to do something as a little girl, how a boy taunted her for that, how she’s never taken a risk. And now she finally does.

Or what if she leaves work and goes to a bar and gets hammered? Hey, maybe she has a drinking problem.

You get the idea. The layers get added. And upon rewrite, they can be deepened and secured.

My wife and I are anxiously awaiting the birth of the little doves. I wonder of Mr. Dove will be puffing out his chest a little bit more when it happens. Hmm, maybe when he was a young dove he had an encounter with a cat, and…

So what is your preferred method for building characters?

10+

Why Plot is Essential to Character

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Rhett-Butler-Scarlett-O-Hara-scarlett-ohara-and-rhett-butler-6948455-316-392If you ever find yourself among a group of writers, writing teachers, agents or editors; and said group is waxing verbose on the craft of fiction; and the subject of what fiction is or should be rumbles into the discussion, you are likely to hear things like:

All fiction is character-driven.

It’s characters that make the book.

Readers care about characters, not plot. 

Don’t talk to me about plot. I want to hear about the characters!

Such comments are usually followed by nods, murmured That’s rights or I so agrees, but almost never a healthy and hearty harrumph.

So, here is my contribution to the discussion: Harrumph!

Now that I have your attention, let me be clear about a couple of items before I continue.

First, we all agree that the best books, the most memorable novels, are a combination of terrific characters and intriguing plot developments.

Second, we all know there are different approaches to writing the novel. There are those who begin with a character and just start writing. Ray Bradbury was perhaps the most famous proponent of this method. He said he liked to let a character go running off as he followed the “footprints in the snow.” He would eventually look back and try to find the pattern in the prints.

Other writers like to begin with a strong What if, a plot idea, then people it with memorable characters. I would put Stephen King in this category. His character work is tremendous. Perhaps that is his greatest strength. But no one would say King ignores plot. He does avoid outlining the plot. But that’s more about method.

I’m not talking about method.

What I am proposing is that no successful novel is ever “just” about characters. In fact, no dynamic character can even exist without plot.

Why not? Because true character is only revealed in crisis.

Without crisis, a character can wear a mask. Plot rips off the mask and forces the character to transform––or resist transforming.

Now, what is meant by a so-called character-driven novel is that it’s more concerned with the inner life and emotions and growth of a character. Whereas a plot-driven novel is more about action and twists and turns (though the best of these weave in great character work, too). There is some sort of indefinable demarcation point where one can start to talk about a novel being one or the other. Somewhere between Annie Proulx and James Patterson is that line. Look for it if you dare.

We can also talk about the challenge to a character being rather “quiet.” Take a Jan Karon book. Father Tim is not running from armed assassins. But he does face the task of restoring a nativity scene in time for Christmas. If he didn’t have that challenge (with the pressure of time, pastoral duties, and lack of artistic skills) we would have a picture of a nice Episcopal priest who would overstay his welcome after thirty or forty pages. Instead, we have Shepherds Abiding.

If you still feel that voice within you protesting that it’s “all about character,” let me offer you this thought experiment. Let’s imagine we are reading a novel about an antebellum girl who has mesmerizing green eyes and likes to flirt with the local boys.

Let’s call her, oh, Scarlett.

We meet her on the front porch of her large Southern home chatting with the Tarleton twins. “I just can’t decide which of you is the more handsome,” she says. “And remember, I want to eat barbecue with you!”

Ten pages later we are at an estate called Twelve Oaks. Big barbecue going on. Scarlett goes around flirting with the men. She also asks one of her friends who that man is who is giving her the eye.

“Which one?” her friend says.

“That one,” says Scarlett. “The one who looks like Clark Gable.”

“Oh, that’s Rhett Butler from Charleston. Stay away from him.”

“I certainly will,” says Scarlett. (The character of Rhett Butler never appears again.)

Scarlett then finds Ashley Wilkes and coaxes him into the library.

“I love you,” she says.

“I love you too,” Ashley says. “Let’s get married.”

So they do.

One hundred pages later, Scarlett says, “I really do love you, Ashley.”

Ashley says, “I love you, Scarlett. Isn’t it grand how wonderful our life is?”

At which point a reader who has been very patient tosses the book across the room and says, “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.”

What’s missing? Challenge. Threat. Plot! In the first few pages Scarlett should find out Ashley is engaged to another woman! And then she should confront him, and slap him, and then break a vase over the head of that scalawag who looks like Clark Gable! Oh yes, and then a little something called the Civil War needs to break out.

These developments rip off Scarlett’s genteel mask and begin to show us what she’s really made of.

That is what makes a novel.

Yes, yes, you must create a character the readers bond with and care about. But guess what’s the best way to do that? No, it’s not backstory. Or a quirky way of talking. It’s by disturbing their ordinary world.

Which is a function of plot.

So don’t tell me that character is more important than plot. It’s actually the other way around. Thus:

  1. If you like to conceive of a character first, don’t do it in a vacuum. Imagine that character reacting to crisis. Play within the movie theater of your mind, creating various scenes of great tension, even if you never use them in the novel. Why? Because this exercise will begin to reveal who your character really is.
  1. Disturb your character on the opening page. It can be anything that is out of the ordinary, doesn’t quite fit, portends trouble. Even in literary fiction. A woman wakes up and her husband isn’t in their bed (Blue Shoe by Ann Lamott). Readers bond with characters experiencing immediate disquiet, confusion, confrontation, trouble.
  1. Act first, explain later. The temptation for the character-leaning writer is to spend too many early pages giving us backstory and exposition. Pare that down so the story can get moving. I like to advise three sentences of backstory in the first ten pages, used all at once or spread around. Then three paragraphs of backstory in the next ten pages. Try this as an experiment and see how your openings flow.
  1. If you’re writing along and start to get lost, and wonder what the heck your plot actually is, brainstorm what may be the most important plot beat of all, the mirror moment. Once you know that, you can ratchet up everything else in the novel to reflect it.

Do these things and guess what? You’ll be a plotter! Don’t hide your face in shame! Wear that badge proudly!

Super Plotter

14+

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?

12+

When Your Brainstorming Hits a Drought

gobi-692640_1280A writing friend recently shared with a bunch of fellow scribes that she was seriously stuck on the brainstorming aspect of a new project. She gave me permission to blog about it. This author needs to solidify her idea and start writing because she has a thing called a deadline. But, she says, “the story and the characters are seriously playing hard to get.”

She asked, “Would love any brainstorming tips and tricks if you have them! How do you start building your story and characters? And how do you feel productive and intentional when brainstorming is such a creative (often stubborn…at least for me) process?”

It’s a great question. Here is what I wrote to her:

I wonder if part of the deal is what so many of us have expressed over the years with each new book, that it seems to get “harder.” And the reason for that, I believe, is that with each book you’re better and your standards go up. You know what goes into writing a whole book, all the constituent parts, and think, “Man, I’ve got to do all that again! And better!” So every idea in the brainstorming phase gets tested, when it should be a time for getting as many ideas as you can without judgment.

FWIW, I do the following at the beginning of any project.

– A free-form journal, interacting with myself, asking myself questions, going deeper into why I think I want to write this, and also putting down plot and character ideas as they come. I take several days (at least) for this, writing without stopping, but re-reading the journal each day, doing some editing on what I wrote the day before, highlighting the best ideas, and so on.

– At some point I take a stack of 3 x 5 cards to Starbucks and just write down scene ideas. Random. Whatever vivid scene comes to mind. I might prompt myself by playing the dictionary game (opening a dictionary to a random page, picking a noun, and riffing off that). When I have 30-40 scenes I shuffle the deck and pick two cards at random and see what the connection suggests.

– Finally, I want my concept in a three-sentence elevator pitch that I know is absolutely solid and marketable. Sentence 1 is character + vocation + current situation. Sentence 2 starts with “When” and is what I call the Doorway of No Return––the thing that pushes the Lead into the main plot. Sentence 3 begins with “Now” and the death (physical, professional, or psychological/spiritual) stakes. Here’s an example based on The Insider by Reece Hirsch:

Will Connelly is an associate at a prestigious San Francisco law firm, handling high level merger negotiations between computer companies. 

When Will celebrates by picking up a Russian woman at a club, he finds himself at the mercy of a ring of small-time Russian mobsters with designs on the top-secret NSA computer chip Will’s client is developing.  

Now, with the Russian mob, the SEC and the Department of Justice all after him, Will has to find a way to save his professional life and his own skin before the wrong people get the technology for mass destruction.  

Here’s another example:

Dorothy Gale is a farm girl who dreams of getting out of Kansas to a land far, far away, where she and her dog will be safe from the likes of town busybody Miss Gulch.

When a twister hits the farm, Dorothy is transported to a land of strange creatures and at least one wicked witch who wants to kill her.

Now, with the help of three unlikely friends, Dorothy must find a way to destroy the wicked witch so the great wizard will send her back home.

A good pitch guarantees a solid foundation. Now what?

Well, the next phase depends on how you like to approach things: plotter or pantser or something in between?

My own practice is to go immediately to the mirror moment, for it influences everything else. This is a concept I explain in detail in my book Write Your Novel From the Middle.

Now, I know there are some dedicated pantsers out there for whom any kind of pre-planning brings out a case of hives. They just want to start writing, and that’s okay … so long as you realize that you’re basically brainstorming the long way round. Some contend that this is the best way to find original story material. I would say it is only one way. There is still going to be a lot of editing and a ton of rewriting. The process I’ve described here is a faster and, to my mind, a more efficient way of getting to an original story line that you will be excited to write.

And so ended my advice, which I hope bursts the clouds for a fellow writer.

When things go dry in your writer’s mind, what are some of the things you do?

 

 

8+

Revisiting the Mirror Moment

@jamesscottbell

Please allow me a bit of shameless self-promo, because it involves Kevin Costner. No, he’s not contacted me about filming one of my books (though he should). It’s about one of his older movies. Stay with me.

Earlier this year I put out a book called Write Your Novel From the Middle. In it I describe what I call the “mirror moment,” a powerful beat I saw happening in the middle of solidly structured movies and novels. It has since become the basis of all my plotting, and seems to have helped many other writers, too. For example, here’s a recent email I received (used by permission):
Hi James,
I own so many of your books, so I want to email you about a small epiphany I had. I recently bought “Write Your Novel From The Middle” and, jaded as I am about writing books, read it with some interest but not much conviction.
Two weeks later, I’m elbows-deep in the guts of a novel I wrote 7 years ago, and cutting. I mean, I’m slicing and dicing like Freddy Krueger, blood and guts everywhere. I took 20k out of a 127k novel.
And there was that weird passage where my main character has a health crisis (he essentially screws up his immune system from overwork, but he thinks it’s something worse) and basically lies flat on his back in his bedroom, waiting to die.
And he realizes that due to the path he’s chosen, he’s completely alone on the planet, in London, and nobody cares if he lives or dies. It’s a moment of great weakness, self-pity and the existential crisis that propels him – once he gets better – to really work that human interaction, make friends, network. (He’s in finance, so being good with people is important). Long story short, I really gutted the book, cut that scene down by at least half, and some editors said I should cut it entirely, but for me it was weirdly important. It felt powerful, and it wasn’t the typical “kill your darlings” kind of vanity on my part. I knew it was important, so I only condensed it and kept it in place.
The book then went to layout. It was exactly 400 pages in PDF.
Guess where that scene fell? Pages 202 and 203. If you take out the front matter/cover, it’s SMACK BANG in the middle.
I admit I guffawed.
Thank you for putting your writing advice out there. You definitely blew my mind this time.
All the best,
Aleks
The reason I share this is that this writer’s reaction is one I continue to experience in my own writing as I utilize the mirror moment and writing from the middle.
Now, on to Kevin Costner.
A few months ago my wife wanted to watch the thriller No Way Out with Costner and Gene Hackman. We hadn’t seen it in ages, so I got the DVD from Netflix and popped it in the player.
Halfway in there’s a critical scene involving Hackman and Costner. I paused the DVD. I looked at the counter. We were in the exact middle of the movie.
I turned to my wife and said, “Kevin is about to have his mirror moment.” I did not know what it was going to be or how it would be shown. I just felt it was coming. 
My wife looked at me the way Jack Palance looks at Alan Ladd in Shane when he says, “Prove it.”
I started the film up again. And this is what happened next:
I stopped the movie and smiled at my wife.
She said, “Don’t let it go to your head.”
If you were writing this scene in a novel, you would give us the inner thoughts of the Costner character. He’s thinking along the lines of, “This is too much. I’m dead. There’s no way out of this…” That’s one of the mirror moment tropes. The other is a reflection on questions like, Who am I? What have I become? What must I become?
It’s my contention that knowing your book’s mirror moment illuminates the entire novel better than any other single

technique. And the great thing is you can do this at the beginning, middle or end of your draft. You can use it whether you’re plotting or pantsing your way through.

Anyway, I had to tell you about the Costner thing. Thanks for indulging me. Write well and prosper, my friends! And may the mirror be with you.

 

 

 

 

So here’s today’s question: What’s your favorite Kevin Costner movie?
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