Posts Tagged ‘character development’


As I’m sure I’ve already mentioned, character writing is my favorite part of the fiction process. Nothing else–except maybe the finished product–is as satisfying to me personally as the moment a character begins to tell his or her story. Sometimes, they reveal themselves in slow sections, teasing you with their secrets and the private details of their personas. Sometimes, they come fully-formed in an in-your-face moment of undeniable clarity.

My intrigue with the process of character development is what keeps me writing, and it is what has prompted me to elaborate on it here, and dig a little deeper into some of the characters I’ve created, with the purpose of learning more about the mystery of it in general, and maybe even learning a little more about my own process. And, one of the most frequently asked questions any writer receives is about the development of characters, so I thought it might also be fun for the folks who have read my work to see the inner workings of my imaginary friends 🙂

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The first character that comes to mind, for some reason, is Brytt Tanner, Sterling Bronson’s dim-witted side-kick in Beautiful Monster, so I’ll start with him.

Brytt came into existence pretty early on in the plotting of Monster,  and if I remember correctly, it all started–as it often does–with his name. My co-author, Mimi A. Williams, met a man named Brytt in the workplace. The moment she mentioned the guy’s name, I knew I had to use it.

The first thing I knew about Brytt was that he was a stripper. I’m not sure why that was–again, probably the name. It just sounds kind of strippery, I guess.

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Next came his physical appearance. I figured a bulky, muscle-bound blond guy would be an interesting antithesis to Sterling’s dark, brooding good looks. I don’t like to create characters who look too much alike, and second, I’m a sucker for contrast. After ascertaining the basics of Brytt’s appearance, the next thing I did was start browsing the internet for his doppelgänger. This isn’t something I always do, but at times, I’ve found it helpful. So, I found a photograph of a guy that fit the mold, and referred to said picture when I needed to expound on details. I considered posting that picture here, but have ultimately decided against it. I think it’s best to let readers fill in their own blanks and use their own imaginations.

Not all of Brytt was pre-planned. He–like all good characters–came with a little of his own agenda, and one of the first things that surprised me was his dim-wittedness. I don’t know that I would have deliberately created him to be such a lunkhead, but as is so often the case, this is how he kind of “revealed” himself as I wrote him.

And it worked… which is also very often the case when you trust your characters to do their own things.

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It was also a surprise to me that Brytt was almost–but not quite–as morally corrupt, sexually deviant, and as dangerous as Sterling. In the beginning, Brytt was created, I think, simply as a means to give Sterling–who lives by himself–more opportunity for dialogue. But as the story progressed and began to demand artistic unity, Brytt began to play a significant role in the novel.

Brytt’s last name was tricky. A strange thing happened as we got further into the story. We started noticing a pattern… an absolute overuse–and abuse, really–of the letter C. We had Claire, Connie, Carlson, Cassidy, Carson, Carlisle, and probably several other names that began with the letter. I wish I could tell you why C became such a prominent player, but I can’t–I don’t know. Wierd things happen sometimes. So, after we made the discovery of the letter Cs undeniable overuse, Brytt’s last name–Carson–was changed to Tanner. Tanner, because at the time, I worked for a company with the word “Tanner” in the title. I’d been at the company for thirteen years, and figured it deserved some kind of recognition for paying my bills all that time. Unfortunately, Brytt probably isn’t really the most complimentary thing to be associated with, but for what’s it’s worth, I like him. He amused the hell out of me… and hey, it’s the thought that counts…

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I can’t remember if Brytt’s addiction to cocaine was a surprise or part of the plan, but this was the most fun, and most challenging thing about him. His constant “pit stops” kind of became his calling card, his personal catch-phrase in a sense, and it was interesting to describe the physical symptoms, like his glassy eyes and powder-congealed nostrils–and it was a total blast describing the actual snorting of the cocaine. I know… I’m kinda twisted that way, but it was fun. The snorting of coke is not glamorous. I wanted that to be very clear when Brytt did his thing, and it turned out being more hilarious than anything.

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Brytt is, believe it or not, one of my favorites. He was fun because he didn’t allow Sterling to take himself so seriously. Well, maybe Sterling took himself seriously, but Brytt made it impossible for me to take him–and the rest of the story–as seriously. Brytt is one of the reasons Beautiful Monster was so much fun for me. He moved the story along like a good character, he played by the rules by not demanding more stage time than his part required, and he forced me to learn more about the darker, sleazier side of life. I absolutely love him, and I have no doubt he will reincarnate, in some form or another, in my future writes.

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Beautiful Monster is available in paperback and ebook format at www.damnationbooks.com, and everywhere books are sold.

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The actor Ted Levine (Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs) once said that playing the crazy parts are easy…it’s the “normal” roles that are tough to pull off. At the time I saw that interview, I found the statement only moderately interesting, and, having no especial interest in acting, forgot about it. Recently however, that statement has made its way back into my awareness in relation to my writing.

When I wrote Sterling Bronson in Beautiful Monster, I had no trouble with him at all. I always found this a little worrisome…how could someone so heinous be so easy for me to write…what does that say about me and the workings of my mind? As I delve back into my previous novel, formerly known as The White Room though, I understand things a little differently.

When I’m writing an over-the-top character like Sterling Bronson, it’s easier for me and here’s why: he is extreme. When Sterling does something, he over-does it. If he wants something, he needs it. Whenever he reacts to something, he over-reacts to it. When I’m writing a “normal” person, though, it gets trickier.

I’m currently writing a semi-“normal” character named Cade Jacobi. He is a nineteen-year-old bookish type, with a naive, juvenile streak to him. What he wants more than anything is to be like his older brother. What he doesn’t see, of course, is that he is far better off than his brother, and that sometimes the greatest pain is wrapped in the prettiest packages. This is something Cade has to learn the hard way. Cade has his own personality and I’ve tried to keep him real, but unlike Sterling Bronson, I care if people like Cade. I worry that people need to like him, whereas, with Sterling, I never cared if he pissed people off. He was supposed to (and based on some of the letters we’ve received, he’s done a fine job! Ha!)

So while writing Cade, I find myself constantly toeing that thin line between keeping him real, and keeping him likable. Too often, in an attempt to write likable characters, writers populate their novels with cardboard cut-outs of real-life people who possess cookie-cutter kindness and whose only real flaws are that they trust too much, love too deeply, or give more than they can afford to. Just as no villain can be entirely without any soft spots, no hero is without his or her flaws, otherwise, it’s melodrama and it doesn’t feel real.

The solution, I’m finding out, is to simply “trust the process.” Let the character’s be themselves, likable or not, and just let them tell their story. As it is in the real world, no one can be liked by everyone. I believe this holds true for folks of the fictional persuasion as well. I hope people will like Cade, I really do, but if not, it’s not my business to worry about. I’m giving him my best effort and I’m maintaining his integrity; if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. The real trouble with “normal” people is that they are layered; they are human (or close to it anyway), and this is what makes them interesting. They’re just a hell of a lot harder to write.


Yesterday I received a text from a friend of mine who has been reading my manuscript, The White Room. “I can’t believe you killed him!” he said, referring to one of the characters in the story. I explained to my friend the reasons behind the macabre act and why it had to be done… and it got me to thinking about the reasons we kill some of our favorite characters.

 

When killing a character that the reader has invested in, an author walks a fine line between further engaging the audience and losing them altogether. The key to successfully murdering a make-believe person without repelling the reader lies in the reasons behind the character’s death and the string of events and ultimate outcome it provides.

We’ve all read stories or seen movies where a character we love dies for no good reason. At best, this divorces us from the active role we felt we were playing in the story. At worst, it offends and alienates us entirely, angering us enough to put the book down, change the channel, or otherwise find new and better things to invest our time in. Shock value, convenience, gore factor or just plain whimsy are not good enough reasons to kill someone you’ve asked the audience to care about.

The character my friend was referring to was the hardest character I’ve ever had to kill. My initial intention was to let the guy live, but as was pointed out to me in the process of writing the book, he had to die. He had to die not only for the sake of moving the story forward with its integrity in tact, but mostly, for the sake of propelling my protagonist forward and arming him with the conviction and wrath he would need in order to believably make the choices he had to make.

I did everything I could to find a way to reach the end of my story without killing this guy. For many reasons, I was incredibly attached to this character and accepting that he had to die was a gradual process that took place in slow sections. I fought with myself and with my mentor the whole way… but when the story was finished, I understood. Reading the manuscript from beginning to end, I realized that this character’s death was vital in the overall power of the story.

Murdering my all time favorite character was a good learning experience for me as a writer. I learned that, as it is in life, some things need to be compromised for the greater good; that even in the world of fiction, there is a price for everything… and if you want to write a good, strong story with enough emotional impact to keep the readers reading, sometimes you have to do things you don’t necessarily want to. I learned to tiptoe the precarious edge of good storytelling and cheap shots; that the death of a beloved character must be a kind of fictional human sacrifice for the greater good of the story. I learned the bottom line of all storytelling:  if it serves to further strengthen the story, do it… and if not, don’t.


Any fiction writer knows that characters are crafty and unpredictable little critters who seem to possess minds of their own. While this is one of the most fascinating aspects of the storytelling process, it can also be one of the most frustrating. At times, you want a character to do (or not do) one thing or another, and you spend substantial amounts of time and energy trying to force the desired activity only to learn over and over again that you really aren’t in control at all.

There are endless ways our characters surprise us. There is the good guy who suddenly wants to do something heinous, there’s the bad guy who wants nothing more than to redeem himself, and there are the small bit-players who demand far more of the spotlight than they need. Finally, there are those characters who just mysteriously appear, and of course, their even more mysterious counterparts, the ones who just kind of vanish into thin air. It’s those fictional vanishing acts that intrigue me most of all.

As far as I can see, disappearing acts in the world of the written word date as far back as The Holy Bible when, after stripping Samson of his lustrous locks and Almighty Power, his duplicitous love interest Delilah, slips into the netherworld, never to be heard from again. We don’t know what happened to Delilah, and for the most part, we don’t care; but it does make me stop and wonder what becomes of our own characters who never fulfilled their author-imposed missions.

Of my own characters, the one I’m most curious about is a fellow named Chester. Before a word of The White Room had actually been written, Chester was at the front of the line, lobbying for my attention with sweet little promises of all the various ways he would contribute to the story. It wasn’t until almost two years later, when I wrote those two beautiful, final words, The End, that I realized poor Chester was never even mentioned.

I’ve come to think of writing a novel as something similar to making a movie, and one of the most important parts of books and movies are, of course, the characters who drive the story. So it’s safe to assume that sometimes, certain players just don’t make the final cut. Maybe the story evolves and just kind of leaves them in the dust, or maybe the introduction and evolution of new characters renders the old ones unnecessary. In Chester’s case, I think it’s a matter of the latter, but I don’t think that means he won’t reappear at a later time.

I imagine fictional characters as actors of sorts who are ever-vying for the next best part to play. Maybe this analogy is a bit outlandish, but it’s what makes sense to me so I’m going to go with it. I just can’t accept that the characters we create are accidental mirages of meaninglessness who can fade in and out of existence as quickly as picking up or setting down a pen. We bond with these “people”; we foster them and invest in them. They are, I believe, extensions of ourselves that we’ve found a way to give expression to, and I don’t believe that part of ourselves will go ignored forever.

I still have a lot to learn about this whole fiction-writing thing, but I suspect that in time, I will clearly understand these little mysteries enough that I’ll no longer find myself worrying that people who do not exist didn’t get their chance to shine in a world that isn’t real. Until then, I will just have to comfort myself with the hope that these little disappearing acts will re-emerge when the time (and the story) is right.

This is a strange journey, indeed…


You’d think that after spending the countless hours, days, weeks and months required to write a novel, you’d get to relax. You did your research, developed your story, and invested almost all of your free time into writing it. Now 80 to 120 thousand words later, it would be nice to be able to call it finished. Unfortunately, the hard part is just beginning. Now it’s time to reread, revise and rehash.

Although this is not my favorite part of the writing process, it certainly isn’t the worst. Revisions are a good opportunity to strengthen story, add necessary detail, and perhaps most important of all, cut the fat.

I’ve learned that there are a few key things to look for in the editing process. One of them is character consistency. Are the characters solid? Do they remain true to their base nature throughout the story, and if the character goes through personal changes, are they believable? In Gallery of Dolls (the project formerly known as ‘An Evil Heart’), this wasn’t too big of a problem. My main character was very clear to me from the beginning and I was happy to see that he remained pretty true to himself throughout. There were a few lines of dialogue though, that when reread, didn’t sound like him. These, luckily, are easy fixes.

Plot consistency and holes in the plot are another, and probably the worst, potential good-story-destroyers that are commonly found in the revision process. Rereading Gallery of Dolls, Kim (my co-author) and I discovered some interesting issues. Hearing the story front to back, we think we may have to move the meeting of our two characters up a couple of chapters. This means some very serious rewriting and I am hoping that once we have a few outsiders read the story, it won’t be as big of an issue as I am afraid of. Beyond that, we found minor inconsistencies. I will need to go in and add a couple new scenes to smooth some transition but that’s about the worst of it.

Another thing to look for in revisions are wasted words. I tend to reiterate. And reiterate. This is a very bad habit that needs to stop. But that’s what revisions are for. It never ceases to amaze me how much stronger a sentence can become by taking away from it rather than adding to it. Adverbs are a fine example of this… but I’ll get into that later.

Also, a lot of what you find in revisions are total surprises. When we reread Gallery of Dolls, we found an unusual likeness in the names of our characters: almost all of them started with a C. We had Courtney, Cassidy, Claire, Connie, Claudia, Cassandra, and Carlisle the cop. We don’t know how or why this happened, but there it is. Again, this is an easy fix. We have since changed several of the names.

The last thing I like to do in revisions is assassinate the adverbs. Not all adverbs are bad, of course, but when it comes to these cute little verb modifiers, a little goes a long way. In my first drafts, I never worry too much about them. Personally, I love adverbs, but it really is true that there is usually (<—-see? adverbs!) a finer way of saying what you meant without them, so the last thing I do is an “ly” search in my document. I go through each adverb and see if there isn’t an opportunity for more powerful phrasing.

Like it or not, revisions are a necessary part of (good) writing. Many people are intimidated by the process. Others believe they are golden enough that their work requires no revision. Personally, I try to write clean first drafts in order to keep editing to a minimum, but the fact remains that in order to get the book written, you need to sit down and actually write it. In order for me to do this, I have to try my best to minimize or eliminate the need to edit as I go. If I am editing as I go… I am usually not going at all. It’s a slippery slope.

The worst part about revisions in my opinion, is that after reading your story over and over, it loses its shine and numbs you out until it’s impossible to even tell if the story is any good. I think this is a good time to put the story down for a while and pick it up when you can view it with semi-fresh eyes again. That’s where I’m at right now. I need to not look at it for a couple of weeks. Our goal is to have it presentable by October, so if I take one or two more weeks away from it, we should easily be able to attain it. Till then… I’ll be thinking of the next story…

Write (and revise) on! And remember….

 


    

     I don’t believe it’s possible to not be creative.  While some people may deem themselves “artists”, and others may think they don’t have a creative bone in their bodies, the only difference between these two groups, in my opinion, is their opposing senses of self-perception. But the truth is, we are human and we create… whether we mean to, whether we want to… or not.

     I’ve come to believe that, with or without our consent, the mind refuses to not be creative in some form or another, and that if creativity is suppressed, it will find whatever cracks it can to seep through and get the message to us. One of the most fascinating ways the mind tricks us into being creative is through our dreams.

     I read an article a while back in which Stephenie Meyer said that one night she had a dream about a girl in a forest with a boy. The girl was heartbroken and didn’t know what to do because she was in love with him but knew they couldn’t be together because he was a vampire and she was human. When she woke up, she wrote down what she could remember from the dream, and then started asking questions like how did the couple get into the forest, and where were they going from there. And that is how the whole Twilight series began.

     I have a friend who is a writer and he gets many of his ideas from a recurring dream where he is in a bookstore. In the dream, he is surrounded by books he has never seen or heard of. He browses books and reads the premise on the back covers, then when he wakes up, he takes those ideas and begins writing them.

    My own dreams generally make little to no sense, but once in a while, I dream something that either solves a major problem in my story for me, or gives me an entirely new story idea, proving to me that being uncreative is not possible. One dream in particular stands out to me as a good example of how the mind’s need to be creative imposes its will upon us.

     In this dream, I was in a monster-sized Barnes and Noble. I say monster-sized because it had to have been a thirty story building, and it was full of books. Rows and rows of books. Wall to wall, ceiling to floor books. It was beautiful. But that’s beside the point. I was sitting near a window at a small table by myself. I knew I was waiting for someone, but I didn’t know who. For some reason, in this dream anyway, that made perfect sense.

     A boy approached my table. I guess he wasn’t a boy really, but more of a young man. I remember looking up and being a bit stunned by this guy’s ornamental appearance. He had curly blond hair, eerily flawless skin, perfect teeth, and he seemed to exist inside a golden globe of light that somehow radiated from inside him. I knew this was the person I had been waiting for.

    The guy sat down and introduced himself. He told me his name was Alejandro. I remember being a little confused by his name. He didn’t look like an “Alejandro” to me, but whatever, I figured~ not my business. He was very cordial and smiled at me non-stop. He reached into a bag that he had apparently brought with him and pulled out a few sheets of paper that were stapled together. I looked it over and realized it was a resume of sorts.

    At some point, I realized I was giving this guy some sort of employment interview. He seemed eager to get the job, and although I don’t remember specifics, he went into a long monologue about his experience and the ways it would benefit me if I hired him. As he spoke, I noticed he had golden halos around the irises of his eyes. I asked him about them and he told me he was an angel who wanted to be the star character in my next story.

     I don’t remember anything else that we talked about; the details of the conversation were lost as soon as I woke up, but I guess I must have decided to “hire him”, because about a week later, I got this great idea about an angel whose original  mission is intercepted, landing him in a trailer park in Podunk, America where he must learn what it means to interact as a human, to help others as a human, and above all, to find and maintain his faith as a human.

     This dream was one of the most compelling and fascinating moments in my life. I would have never thought the mind, especially when unconscious, could conjure up and direct such effective methods of creative execution. Since dreaming this, I have looked deeper into the phenomenon of dreams and have found an astounding number of artists and creators who have pulled details from a dream and made it into something tangible in the waking world.

     All human beings are artists;  just being alive makes you an artist in your own right. I believe that the human mind will stop at nothing to find an outlet for creativity and that eventually, that need for creativity will stop taking no for an answer, and one way or another, whether conscious or unconscious, we will all be forced, by one means or another, to leave tangible strands of our inherent, creative DNA on the face of this planet. Creating is not our talent. It is not our right and it isn’t even our duty. Creating is our nature.

     Write on, and…


    

     People are damned interesting.  And they’re everywhere. I have yet to get to know someone who doesn’t lend some kind of inspiration or insight into human nature, and the deeper you dig, the more you find.  The good news is that if approached the right way, most people will tell you just about anything you want to know.  In fact, a lot of the time, there’s nothing else most folks would rather discuss than themselves.  If you’re a writer, this is the best asset you have when it comes to character conception and development.

     But there is still something to be said about people in their natural state, when they think no one is watching. Before I even began writing fiction, I did a very creepy thing: I would watch people, listen to them, and jot down what interested me on loose pieces of paper that would ultimately do nothing but clutter my personal space (hey… don’t judge me). Anything that snagged my attention  for more than a millisecond was a worthwhile installation into the volumes of (at the time) utterly useless information.  Sometimes it was interesting dialogue or mannerisms; other times it was a person’s style or charisma, and sometimes, I just liked the way a person looked and made it a personal challenge to see how I could most interestingly and effectively put them on paper. (Some will say that spying is wrong and unethical.  I say that we live in an age where privacy is all but dead and if you don’t want any witnesses, then do it behind closed doors).

     These days, I still do much the same thing and I’m glad that, as pointless as it seemed to be in the past, I always did it. It gave me a lot of practice in people watching ~ something that is essential to writing… but now, I do it with more purpose.

     Last summer, when I was writing The White Room, I once followed a kid in grocery store because I thought that, if I were a vampire, this guy would be the perfect victim. I hung back far enough so as not to draw any attention to myself, of course, but still it was a little weird of me, I know. It turned out to be a valuable experience because it got me into the correct mind frame to write a necessary scene where my main character experienced blood lust for the first time. As I followed the guy around, I noticed things about him that I otherwise would have thought nothing of.  He was in his early twenties and seemed very shifty. Passing him, I could smell the lingering of marijuana which he’d tried to cover up with something minty. He was stoned, which explained his shiftiness. That and the fact that I suspect he may have been considering shoplifting a squirt gun from the toy aisle… but that is neither here nor there.  I ended up using this experience in the book and it is one of my favorite scenes.

     A few houses down from me lives another guy in his twenties. This guy has some of the most unusual habits. For example, he seems to always be looking for a good excuse to take his shirt off. If someone comes to his door, he takes his shirt off and stands in the doorway, literally posing so that all passersby can get a good look at him. When he is out walking his dog, he does it shirtless and is always on the lookout, as if trying to make certain that everyone can see him. He throws a lot of parties and I am often able to overhear some of his conversation with friends. I have determined that this guy is a total narcissist, much like the character I am currently writing, and I have used him more than once as a kind of yardstick for my story.

     I have another neighbor who is a great source of interesting things.  She has about a hundred boyfriends I think, and according to the snippets of conversation I’ve caught between her and her friends, this woman doesn’t know anyone who isn’t struggling with meth addiction. From her, I have learned the ins and outs of the world of meth. Not sure I’ll ever use the information, but I’m certain that at this point, I could probably even make my own meth lab!

    As fun as it is to spy on people though, it’s still a lucrative thing to ask questions.  A writer can spend hours, weeks, and even months agonizing over what a character would or wouldn’t do in a certain situation before realizing that the solution to the problem is really very simple: start asking people. They will tell you.  And if they don’t… well, polish up the binoculars, high-tune your hearing and start paying attention to people. In my experience, everything you need to know about writing believable characters can be found in the people around you. Just be sure to change the names…