Posts Tagged ‘dynamic’


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.

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     Me and my friends’ Kim (Williams-Justesen) and Joe (Ostler) talked about forming our own critique group for many months before we ever got together and actually did it. The trouble was that the project Kim and I were collaborating on was very high in gore and horror, and I, being the nice guy I am, didn’t feel comfortable corrupting poor Joe by subjecting him to the nastiness and raw morbidity of our story, (little did I realize at the time that Joe has his own unique brand of deviance ~ but hey, I was trying to be nice!) Just kidding, Joe. 😉

So, as Kim and I wrapped up An Evil Heart, we both began new (and far tamer)  projects which we used in our critique group of three. The interesting thing about our group is that I write Horror/Supernatural, Kim writes for Middle Grade and Young Adult, and Joe writes Sci-Fi/High Fantasy, so the contrast of our styles creates a fun dynamic. The three of us were only able to meet twice though. I am leaving the state in two days from now, but we plan to continue the group through Instant Messenger and e-mail, but already, in the short time I have been a participant of a critique group, I have learned a good deal.

A critique group is an assembly of writers who’ve come together for the purpose of gaining insight and feedback from other writers, and no matter how good a writer you may be, there can be no arguing the benefits of being part of one. Critique groups may be as large or small as the group desires. They may be done face to face, over the phone, or online.

The beauty of the critique group is that however polished a writer may be, he or she will undoubtedly overlook some necessary detail at some point in his or her story. The other member’s of the group will hopefully be able to see these snags and help the writer smooth them over. Editors, agents and publishers don’t want raw and sloppy rough drafts. They want polished, revised material that has been read and critiqued, preferably a few times over. A critique group can help a writer be sure that the material he or she sends to an agent or editor is clean, concise, and professional.

     There are however, those groups of writers who do not have their fellows’ best interests at heart. I’ve heard many horror stories about really nasty critique groups whose members were apparently more interested in stroking their own egos than becoming better writers. These kinds of folks undoubtedly run rampant in writing communities worldwide. These kinds of writers aren’t hard to spot and should be avoided at all times. When someone works up the courage to allow his or her work to be viewed by others, I think we need to respect the vulnerability of the writer. That’s not to say that honesty isn’t imperative, it absolutely is, but honesty in and of itself does not need to be cruel. Writer’s are up against enough rejection and damage without having his or her peers standing in line to take turns crushing him or her. Critique groups should be constructive and supportive, and if they aren’t, find a new one. End of story.

Critique groups are as good (or bad) as the members make them, and I am grateful to have a pretty good, albeit very small, group of trusted writers to share my work with. It’s a disconcerting and unfortunately very necessary thing to lay your heart out and ask to be critiqued. To find just a handful of people who I feel comfortable asking feedback from is a wonderful thing.

     The world in general loves to give its opinion and whether you ask for it or not, you are going to get it. The trouble is, you have to be very careful who you listen to. The way I see it, you can divide the world’s population into three groups. The first (and probably largest) group, are those who really just don’t much care whether or not you succeed or fail. The second group is what I call the “cockroaches”. These guys will go out of their way to try to sabotage your success and sense of self-confidence. And the third and final group is the group you need to stick with. These are the folks who want to be better people themselves, and who want to help you become a better person.

So if you are thinking of joining or creating  your own critique group, my advice is to be sure you are among good company because, as important as it is to get feedback from other people, it’s even more important that you don’t give up on writing at the hands of someone who took it upon him or herself to let you know how bad you suck. We all suck or have sucked at some time or another. Totally sucking is the first step of good writing, so if you have to suck, why not suck with the best of them? 🙂

Write on.