Posts Tagged ‘characterization’


Though I’ve been taught to never start writing a book without having my beginning, middle, and end in mind, I have continually insisted on sitting down and blindly tapping away at the keyboard, trusting the plot to work itself out as I go. And sometimes, the story does just that…but sometimes it doesn’t, and when it doesn’t, as I’ve recently learned the hard way, it’s a mess.

Since deciding that the book I’m currently working on might be stronger if it were written in the third person point of view (and I have to virtually start the book over anyway), I’ve refused to make that mistake again. Therefore, I’ve spent the majority of the past week or so working on an outline for the book.

Here’s what I’m learning:

1) My characters need a little structure. What I mean by that is, although I love the surprises my characters present to me as I write along, I need to keep them under control, to a point. As any writer knows, characters have a way of taking the story into their own fictitious little hands, and guiding the plot their own way. Sometimes, this is a blessing. Other times, it’s a curse. I’m finding that giving them freedom, but within the confines of the stories structure, works out well as long as the boundaries are set in place.

2) My outlines never go exactly as I plan them. Even with a solid outline, the characters bring their own attitudes and actions to the story, the same way actors do with their scripts, so for me, having an outline really doesn’t limit my creative freedom.

3) Outlining is a great way to know what comes next. Nothing sucks worse than getting 35,000 words into a story and suddenly wondering now what? I’m finding that having an outline in place eliminates this problem, and for me, that is awesome.

4) Outlining is hard, damn it. There seem to be two types of writers: those who excel and plot, and those whose strength lies in characterization. I am of the latter persuasion. I just kind of “get” characters. I understand how to make them move and speak, and I usually instinctively know “who” they are and what they want. Creating a strong plot to cast them in, however, isn’t so easy for me. I don’t know how other writers operate, but I see glimpses of story ~ small, seemingly unrelated flashes of action, dialogue, or events. It’s my job then to put these slices of plot into some kind of order, and to ultimately tell a solid and cohesive story. This, for me, is usually pretty challenging, but although it’s difficult (for me anyway), it saves me a lot of trouble in the long run.

5) Process is unique to every writer. I’ve talked to many writers about their process, and none of them use exactly the same methods. This is both a blessing and a curse for the beginning writer. On one hand, it’s great because the possibilities are endless, and the new writer doesn’t feel restrained by the advice of other writers. On the other hand, every writer needs to develop his or her own process, and that takes time, practice, and requires a few (or a lot of) dead-end attempts.

6) Process can change from book to book. For me, some stories work just fine without an outline. When I was writing Sterling Bronson for Beautiful Monster, I rarely referenced the outline, although we had one made up. Sterling just kind of did his own thing, and since he divided his time with Brenna, Mimi’s character, there wasn’t any room for dawdling. The book I’m currently working on now however, needed to be outlined. This one is a more layered storyline and I don’t think there’s any way I could finish the book without a solid knowledge of where I’m going with it.

7) Finally, what I’ve learned from outlining is that whether or not you map your stories out at all, the most important thing in writing anything is still to simply sit down and do it. It doesn’t matter how you do it…just that you do it. I’ve heard of writers who spend so much time working out convoluted character development sheets, learning every detail of each character to the point of what this character’s favorite kind of socks are, that very little actual writing gets done. My advice: outline, even if it’s very skeletal…but let the story come to life as it’s being written. Let the details fill themselves in as the characters and the plot invent or require them.

Until next time,

Happy writing!

(What a typical outline of mine looks like!)

outlining

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One of the first things that will hinder a work of fiction is poor characterization. A good rule of thumb is that before we sit down to write, we should have a firm grasp on the concept of characterization and the role it plays in the overall effect of good storytelling. Unfortunately, passion and inspiration generally beat good form and doctrine to the punch. We plunge into what we think is a brilliant plot concept, making the characters a secondary priority, tossing them in and out of the story as convenience requires it. Then we find out too late that as powerful as the plot is, the fictional folks who people our story have cast a long, dark shadows of suckiness that dulls the brilliance.  I used to do this all the time, and it’s something I still struggle against, but I’ve learned some general rules of characterization that I have found to be very handy.

First, there are a couple of different ways to present a character, which determines right away who these people are. One method is called direct presentation and the other is indirect presentation. In direct presentation, the author lays it out for us in either exposition or through the dialogue of other characters. “Bob Longfellow was a tall man,” is much the same as, “Wendy turned to her friend with wide eyes and said, ‘Did you see how tall that guy was?'” Either way, we know Bob Longfellow is a tall drink of water because we’ve just been told that he is. With indirect presentation, the author shows us the characters through their actions. “Jim Jones strained to reach the jar of peaches on the top shelf, cursing whoever had thought that building a shelf that was nearly ten feet high was a good idea. Losing patience with the whole shenanigan, Bob Longfellow strode over to the supply shelf,  swiped the jar from its spot, unscrewed the lid, and handed it to Jim.” Now you know Bob is tall, not because I told you he was, but because if he can easily swipe a jar from a shelf that’s about ten feet high, he couldn’t be a short man. From that same indirect method of presentation, you also get the impression than Bob Longfellow is an impatient man and that Jim Jones is stubborn.

This ties into the whole “Show vs. Tell” concept that no writer can get away from. As a general rule, readers prefer to be shown rather than told about a person or an event. That, however, just like almost everything else in writing, is subjective. Danielle Steele, for example, loves to tell us detail after detail about any given person, place or thing, but we keep reading her because, well… she tells a good story. However, the direct method usually lacks emotional impact because unlike the indirect method, it fails to present the characters as living beings of flesh and blood. Also, by too much telling, we give the impression that we aren’t crediting our readers with the intellectual capacity to connect the dots, and thereby, we are inadvertently insulting their intelligence, which will make us anything but popular among readers.

Aside from how we present our characters, we also need to understand what kinds of characters they are. There are three types of characters that populate a story: static, dynamic, and stock.

We don’t need to know much about “static” characters. They generally possess only a few prominent qualities and are there mostly to move the story along, or give the main characters some kind of conflict or resolution. Static characters are different from stock characters though, because these guys can have more than one dimension, and can play very large roles in the story, much like a “supporting” actor or actress in a movie. The main definition of a static character though, is that they do not change. Static characters are the same people by the end of the story as they were in the beginning.  We don’t get to see how they are changed by the events of the plot.

“Dynamic” characters are just the opposite.  These guys are usually the main characters and we get to see them change. Dynamic characters are multi-dimensional, life-like beings who undergo a distinct change of personality, attitude or character as the story progresses. One of the biggest mistakes writers make, in my opinion, is creating a main character who is entirely static. Sometimes, avoiding this is terribly difficult though. In the case of “Beautiful Monster”, (a manuscript I co-wrote with Kim Williams-Justesen) my main character was bad guy. A very, very bad guy. Bad enough that there was no believable way to give him a life-altering epiphany that would show him the error of his ways. Furthermore, I had no interest in redeeming him. Still, he is a dynamic character, and therefore, he must change. The possibilities of change for dynamic characters is wide open though. It doesn’t matter how they change, only that they do change.

Finally, “stock” characters are basically stereotypical characters an author uses for the sake of quick and easy grasp-ability by the readers. We are all too familiar with the wicked stepmother, the harlot with the heart of gold, the good-looking, dark-haired man on the white horse, the hospitable southern widow, the manic-depressive artistic genius, etc. Stock characters are just static characters with one single role: to bring immediate understanding to the reader by capitalizing on stereotypes.

The rules of characterization are some of the most important rules of writing fiction. Unlike many of the other writing rules, I believe these ones need to be firmly observed and respected. A great plot is a powerful thing, but without the right characterization to execute it, readers are left with a sense of having been cheated, a reaction that no writer I know wants to get.


     So yesterday (slash last night, slash this morning), we completed the first comprehensive read-through of Project: Evil Heart.  It was far less of a disaster than I anticipated.  Still, it was a process that took over sixteen hours (minus an hour or two for breaks for food and drink, plus a little of the inevitable unrelated chit-chat), but over all, it was a more positive and encouraging experience than I’d hoped for.

     Also yesterday, before we began working, we attended a seminar where one of the speakers was Patricia G. Stevenson, author of The Dilapidated Man.  Her advice was this:  “Listen to your characters.  They’ll tell you what to do.  No, you would never do the same things they would, and some of the things they do may be appalling to you, but if you trust them, they’ll write your book for you.”  Those were just the words I’ve been needing to hear.

     Since day one of this story, I have had issues with my main character.  He is a violent, terrible, fiendish demon in the flesh, and I suppose I’ve always been a little afraid of being judged for having written him.  This was, as far as I was concerned, just part of the territory though.  In time, I figured my skin would thicken and I would hopefully one day be proud of Mr. Sterling Bronson.  That day came sooner than I expected.  Yesterday, as we read the first ten chapters of the manuscript, I found within the confines of all his wickedness, a rare kind of beauty.  This character, although still all of the terrible things he is, is an accurate representation of the dark side, and having heard his story with a little more continuity, I have to say, I kinda like him.  This surprised me because I haven’t enjoyed writing him and yet, his friend Brytt, who I love writing, is ultimately, much less likable to me.

          The only technical problems we found in the read through were timeline issues and over used “comfort lines”.  What I am referring to when I say “comfort lines” are those expressions and descriptions that the writer becomes way too comfortable using and therefore implements over and over… and over.  In The White Room, my biggest comfort line was, “There was a long stretch of silence.”  Originally, there were so many long stretches of silence in fact, that it was a wonder the manuscript contained any dialog at all.  In An Evil Heart, my comfort (word) seems to be “stiffening.”  A lot of stiffening goes on in this story; stiffening muscles, stiffening spines, stiffening in the boxer shorts… it was out of control and ninety percent of it needs to go.  Kim’s comfort line was, “there was an ache in my chest.”  Her character had so many aches in her chest throughout the first ten chapters that we joked that perhaps the girl needed an EKG.

    All in all, these were easy fixes.  We removed the comfort lines in favor of more original expressions and now just need to tweak the timelines a little.  The difficulty with the timelines is that Kim and I are writing alternating chapters and half the time, I don’t even know what day we are supposed to be on, but there was only one real significant flaw in the timing, and a simple transposing of events will clear the inconsistency right up.

     For all the dreading and worrying I’ve done over this, I’m now very glad we did the read through.  It flowed smoothly and read like a pretty damned good book.  I’m now approaching the second half of the story with a revivified enthusiasm and a heightened sense of accomplishment.  We figure we have about fourteen more chapters to write and the finished project should be done and ready to be looked at by mid-July.  Also, I’ve set the goal of beginning a third book (this one will be a solitary project) by the first of May and having that one finished by the end of 2011, so there will be a couple of months where projects overlap, assuming An Evil Heart runs on time, but I’m not too worried about it.  I still love every minute of this and for me, it isn’t like work at all.