On the Writers in the Storm Blog, I offer suggestions how you can create characters with voices so distinct that your readers can “hear” theme music for each one.
Do your characters feel flat? Do they all sound like you and only you? Tune in to the music of character voices, make them sound more like the different instruments of a band or orchestra. Make music with your character voices and your readers won’t be able to get enough of the stories you write.
There are many things to consider when creating your story characters. Many how-to-write articles suggest creating a detailed profile of your characters. Delving into a character’s birth place, likes and dislikes, job, hair color, and using tools like spreadsheets and fill-in-the-blank questionnaires can be helpful, but characters are more than the details on a spreadsheet or form. Character are more than their story role, more than the point of view you choose for them, and more than what they do in the story. Your characters each need a voice, a unique voice. But how do you create that?
The Key to Understanding Characters
When a writer is told they’re too young or haven’t lived enough life to write about it, it’s often because of a lack of understand the basics of character or even life. A general understanding of psychological personality types will go a long way to helping you create varied and interesting characters.
Learn about the fundamental personality types. Go deeper than Wikipedia, though it may give you an overview that is helpful. There are literally millions of sites on the internet that discuss variations on personality types. Choose one that’s reliable like psychcentral, psychology today, and The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).
The more you practice creativity, the more you realize the blessing and curse of research and inspiration. It happened again while I was planning and writing my Fellowship Dystopia series. When we left Miranda at the end of My Soul to Keep, she had sworn off shooting to kill and taken to the water to help rescue fugitives from the tyranny of the Fellowship. So I had an obvious place to start book two… on the water. But the inspiration for her yacht, the Lady Angelfish, came from writing a completely different book.
Blessing and Curse
The blessing and a curse, research and inspiration come hand-in-hand for me. I can dive Marianas Trench deep down some of those research rabbit holes. When I do that, I lose time… days and days… All right, not days, but I definitely lose hours.
Some of you may have read a sneak peek at another novel I’ve started,Paladina. I needed information about life in Greece told from both natives and non-natives. While researching that, I came across blogs and vlogs of expats living on boats as they explored life outside the U.S. Life abroad and aboard a boat fascinated me. Their blogs gave lots of details about the benefits and challenges of that life. Their vlogs added to those details.
The Great Loop
I ate up those blogs about life on boats, and that led to a revelation. I discovered that there are boaters who take a year-long epic boating adventure in the U.S. They call it the “Great Loop.”
The Great Loop is the name of a continuous waterway that allows boaters to explore Eastern North America using the Atlantic and Gulf Inter Coastal Waterways, the Great Lakes, Canadian Heritage Canals, and the inland rivers of America’s heartland. Anyone who completes the journey becomes an official ‘Looper.’ Boaters can travel all or part of it.
Research Stretched into Inspiration
You know, with a name like Looper, I was hooked (wordplay intended.) I didn’t know it then, but that the blessing and curse of research and inspiration had hit me for a book I hadn’t even outlined yet. That rabbit’s hole took me on vicarious journeys via blogs and vlogs. Some shook loose memories of short boating trips I took as a kid. And boy, some of those blogs and vlogs were super educational.
A Little More Research
I learned about locks and I learned the rules of boating etiquette. Previous to my research, I hadn’t thought about who policed the waterways. I learned that, too. (Do you know which U.S. Agency patrols our inland waterways?) I used as much real detail as I could.
I also researched what size and type of boats travel the Great Loop. Then, I had to factor in the alternate world of the Fellowship Dystopia and determine what Miranda’s boat looked like. Fortunately, there are a ton of online marinas that sell boats with lots and lots of pictures and details. At the time, sYs International Yacht Sales had exactly what I had hoped to find.
Here are a couple more of the photographs I used to help me plan Miranda’s yacht. Some of these details appear in If I Should Die. But for the story, Miranda’s boat has more interior space and a few special features.
The protagonists from My Soul to Keep, Miranda and Beryl, return two years after their battles in book one. Although the rebels didn’t uproot the tyrannical Fellowship Council, Miranda kept her promise to herself and hadn’t picked up a gun to shoot another person. She’s piloting the Lady Angelfish through the inland waterways of the U.S. and rescuing fugitives from the Fellowship. She never expected to have to make a choice between sister and brother, peace and war.
Over the next few weeks, I’ll give you a taste of locations and characters from book two. You can read If I Should Die as a stand-alone novel, but you’ll enjoy it more if you’ve read My Soul to Keep.
Research and Inspiration
No matter how much research I did, I could not get my poor brain to remember nautical terms. In early drafts, I used port and starboard as if they were interchangeable. SIGH. Inspiration doesn’t mean you don’t have to work at it. To avoid confusion, I kept a cheat sheet beside me during revisions.
If you are a Looper, and you read If I Should Die, know that the book takes place on a very small portion of the Great Loop. I hope I did enough research I didn’t make any glaring errors, but whatever errors I made were mine and mine alone.
A writer’s life isn’t a comic book. We don’t get cartoon bubbles of lightbulbs above our heads. But we have the blessing and curse of research and inspiration being linked. Linked and a possible “waste of time.” A waste of time that often brings inspiration.
Had you heard about the Great Loop before? Are you a Looper? Even if you aren’t a Looper, I’d love to hear about your boating or inspiration experiences.
This week I’m revisiting and improving a post I wrote in 2019. Lies, Secrets, and Scars Create Better Characters appears today on the Writers in the Storm Blog. You may remember this post but it’s been improved with examples. If you check it out on the WITS blog, please say hi.
Lies, Secrets, and Scars Create Better Characters
Many writers spend days, weeks, months, even years creating characters using complex character profile worksheets. The best characters aren’t a collection of data points on a worksheet. Depending upon data points like the genre, physical attributes, favorite desert, or what he’s wearing may disrupt story flow even to the point of what many call writer’s block. Not that those data points are unimportant, but focusing on the lies, secrets, and scars of your characters will give your stories power. That emotional journey ties everything together into a book your readers can’t put down.
Most people have morals, values, or other belief systems that guide them in their choices. It’s the reason they choose B over A when A and B are equal. Call it an inner guidance system. Most of us don’t think about it much, it just is.
When we read a story or watch a film, we connect with characters whose inner guidance system is like ours. Choices the character makes, and the possibilities rejected by that character, fascinate us. The more we wonder, “would I have done that” and “what’s he going to do now,” the more we are hooked….
Writers are told to breathe life into your characters. But how? Some how-to experts claim that to write believable characters you must fill out page after page identifying every mundane detail of their lives. Is it wrong to do so? No. Some writers may need tool to learn who their characters are. Unfortunately, many writers take this advice to heart and spend days, weeks, months crafting the “perfect character” whose wooden speech and actions leave readers cold. There are four basic points you need to understand in order to create realistic, relatable characters.
Yes, your character needs a name, a background, and likes and dislikes. But details will not make your character real. Breathing life into your characters takes understanding people and, dare I say it, liking people. More importantly, it takes understanding yourself. If you don’t understand why and how you react to the triumphs and tragedies of your life, your characters will fall flatter.
No, you don’t need a degree in psychology, but you need to understand basic personality types and how they are likely to react to different trials and triumphs.
Don’t know where to start? Document your daily emotional reactions. Explore why you reacted that way.
For resources in print, go to your public library. Look for resources in the juvenile section. Ask your librarian for a recommendation. Another great resource is Stanislavski’s books on Method Acting (An Actor Prepares, Building a Character, and Creating a Role.)
Once you understand how distinct personalities respond to different pressures, you have the beginnings of motive and the beginning of your character’s inner life.
Everyone has an inner life. It can be voices in our head or pictures or a movie complete with a soundtrack. Inner life is a melding of our past, our present, and our dreams. Rarely are inner voices all positive or all negative.
That inner life often conflicts with the outer life. And that conflict is often the source of the lie we tell ourselves. To give your readers a character they care about, give your character a lie. Intertwine their lie with their desire and the theme of the story and you have the makings of a memorable character.
Notice, character roles like protagonist, heroine, antagonist, or villain are important to the story, but not what makes your characters come to life.
Every person has a rhythm to the way they move and speak and live. You know people who speak slowly or rapidly. They often move in the same rhythm in which they speak. They see the world differently. And they don’t trust the same things, nor do they attack problems in the same way.
Give your characters unique rhythms. The college educated kid uses words differently than the kid who’s street smart.
To the college educated kid, the world is a game to outsmart. The street kid sees the world as something out to get him if he doesn’t move fast enough. They each move, speak, plan, and react in a different rhythm.
Be mindful of the rhythms you give your characters. Sometimes the rhythm of sets one character in conflict with another.
What Is Extraordinary
Great Characters are the key to great fiction.
Donald Maass, Writing the Breakout Novel
In Writing the Breakout Novel, Donald Maass also said that it’s possible to create the breakout novel. All it requires is to find what is extraordinary in ordinary people. I’d go a little farther. I’d say that most people have a bit of extraordinary in them. Many of us never find that one extraordinary thing within us. To find it, the writer has to be a keen observer of other people and themselves. Especially of themselves.
There is a spark in most people. The thing that lights them up and spreads the joy or enthusiasm they have. Or maybe it’s the tiny spark that keeps them going no matter how badly life piles it on.
Often in great juvenile fiction, the character’s extraordinary bit is pretty clear. What makes Sherlock Holmes extraordinary? It’s more than magic that makes Harry Potter extraordinary. Before you decide you know what that is, as a non-writer who reads a lot. If their answer doesn’t match yours, dig deep and figure out why.
Breathe Life into Your Characters
To breathe life into your characters, the writer needs to understand basic personalities, the inner lives of people, the rhythms people use, and what is extraordinary about ordinary people. When a writer is told they’re young and haven’t lived enough life to write about it, it’s often because of a lack of understand these basics of character building. Basic personalities with rich inner lives and specific rhythms along with that one extraordinary train will breathe life into your characters.
You’ve got a fantastic idea for a book of fiction. A great conflict drives the story and you write action scene after action scene in a burst of creativity. But without sequels your reader won’t care. No, not the sequel to the book. The sequels to your scenes. Sequel is one of the most important parts of your story.
What Is a Scene’s Sequel
Most authors of how-to-write books use the term scene and define that term in the same way. For the sequel, different authors label it differently, but the functions remain the same.
Dwight V. Swain calls this unit of storytelling a sequel and describes as “a unit of transition between two scenes.” James Scott Bell calls it reaction and Robert McKee calls it the “emotional transition.”
Think of it this way: your protagonist fought a battle (real or figurative) with the antagonist. Win or lose, both your character and your reader need a moment of recovery. That moment of recovery, the sequel reveals how your protagonist reacts to this win or lose. It can be a few sentences or paragraphs or pages.
There are three parts to a sequel: Reaction, Analysis, and Dilemma.
Reaction appears to be the easiest part of a sequel, but it’s not. It is where you can connect, or disconnect, with your reader.
Each protagonist will have a different emotional reaction to a scene. What if halfway through the novel, Harry Potter gave us the more factual, less emotional reactions of Jack Reacher? Readers would disconnect because it’s untrue to what they know of Potter up to that point.
How much reaction? That depends on two things: the character and the emotional impact of the scene. The weightier the emotional value of the scene’s conflict, the more important the sequel’s reaction.
A true-to-the-character reaction does two things. It gives the reader a place to connect to your protagonist and it reinforces the theme of your story. But the emotional reaction alone will not solidify the reader’s empathy and connection with the protagonist.
Besides the emotional reaction, the sequel gives the reader an analysis of what happened in the scene leading up to the sequel. Did we win or lose or draw?
Sometimes the character makes a thoughtful analysis of what happened. He’ll figure out how he got into the situation he’s in. Another character might make a snap analysis or place blame upon the wrong oppositional character.
This is where you can slip in some backstory. Your protagonist will reflect (briefly) on how this situation relates or compares to past situations. Or, you may show how some part of her past affects her emotional reaction and her analysis of the previous scene.
One of the most important pieces of sequel is the dilemma. The result of her analysis leaves her with a choice of two or more next actions.
When the reader sees the character’s internal process, how and why she her choice, the reader relates more to the character.
You will ratchet up the stakes or tension of the story if the protagonist must choose between the lesser of two evils or greater of two goods. Once again, her choice reinforces the story’s theme.
Must I Write Sequels?
Is a full sequel necessary for every scene? The quick answer is yes, every scene needs a reaction. It can be very short or very long. The length and intensity of a sequel affects the pacing.
The writer must be careful in crafting the sequel. If it’s too long, it can give the reader a reason to put the book down. Study your favorite author’s use of scene and sequel. That should give you a good idea of how long your sequels should be.
The sequel is the stimulus for the next scene. Often, a writer experiences writer’s block because she’s forced the character into a sequel that doesn’t fit the character or because she’s skipped the sequel entirely.
The scene is the big picture. It shows the action your characters take to solve their problem. Scenes can be big drama, huge action, or small actions, small dramas. They can include one or more of your characters. They take place in familiar or exotic locations. And if that’s all that you have in your story, you may have readers, but you won’t have readers who love your characters.
Without sequels your readers won’t care. With the skillful use of sequels, you will hook your reader into loving (or hating) your protagonist and reading on to find out what happens next.