The Fictorians

Good Characters Drive Good Stories

29 January 2015 | No Comments » | fictorians

A guest post by Daniel Braithwaite.

Daniel According to Plato we have the idea of the thing, or the form. Everything we see around us is just representations of those ideas. To take it one step further the poet (writer or author) makes a representation of a representation. The author is therefore creating something that is twice removed. A lie about a lie.

As an author, if we are going to lie, then we had better make it a good one. In science fiction and fantasy every story is a “lie.” Readers want to immerse themselves in the story. They want to forget the “truth” and believe the “lie,” even if it is only for a little while. But what makes a story believable, what makes a good story? Good characters drive good stories.

How many times have you been walking around when something hits you and you’re like, “Wow, that would be a great story”? So, you run home with your wonderful idea for a story, “Everyone is going to love this. I’m going to destroy the world and then . . . I’ll bring it back—with a time machine!” So, armed with your idea you start to write. You need someone to be the awesome hero, but who do you cast? Who can carry this amazing plot?

After thinking about it for a few days you decided to cast a reluctant hero, an everyman (or everywoman) and you get to writing. You have your character wake up, and what is the first thing he or she does? Well, get ready for the day, duh! So your character walks to the mirror and looks in, because that’s what everyone does first thing in the morning. (We never just throw clothes on and run out the door.) Alright, you have described your character, and by so doing you have achieved the ultimate Zen experience of storytelling: characterization. You smile and say to yourself, “This character has to be good, I mean, the reader know what she looks like!”

Right? Wrong. Turns out your character is just your cousin Bob . . . with boobs. And she isn’t even as interesting as Bob (he picks his nose and then feeds it to the dog). But how do you fix this? How do you save your hero from mediocrity? You’ve read up on your books: you’ve followed Frodo out of the Shire, Rand away from the farm, and Vin out of the city. You know a good character when you read one.

Out of the many tactics writer use to breathe life into their characters, I recommend using the character sheet (also called a character profile or character sketch). This type of planning may be difficult at the beginning, but will yield dividends with practice.

Before we dig into you character, lets dig into you. Are you just your outward appearance? No? I didn’t think so. Maybe you cringe when you come up to a blind turn, is that because you were in an accident as a child? Or perhaps you love to visit historical monuments, does that go back to your dad reading stories about cultural myths? Everyone internalizes their experiences in a myriad of ways, and that internalization plays a role in who they are.

Now, let’s look at our character sheets. I like to start with a name and outward appearance. It makes it easier for me to think about a person if I can see him or her in my mind. This is the quick part. Meet Annie. She is 5’9”, has shoulder length dusty blond hair, has a slight pigeon toe on her left foot, has hazel eyes, and is plump (but not fat). Do you see her? Is she introverted? Yep, else she wouldn’t be our reluctant hero. Why is she an introvert? Maybe she had a traumatic experience as a child playing in the neighborhood. A boy pulled down her pants on the playground. That, coupled with her closest friends laughing at her favorite underwear, sealed the deal. Great, what next? Her pigeon toe, you see she got it when she was twelve. She was on the monkey bars alone when she slipped and broke her leg. It didn’t heal perfectly and now she has a pigeon toe. Do the same thing for politics, religion, pet peeves . . . we can keep going, but I think you get the idea.

You keep asking questions and answering them until you feel you know your character. Now you know how she will react when the dying spy approaches her with the stolen plans to a time machine. You can weave the cool details you came up with into the story: a hint here, a line there, and eventually you have excellent characterization.

Do you have to do this with every character? In my opinion, you don’t need to go through this process for everyone; but at least your vital characters. Their supporting staff should have a few lines about them as well. (Uncle Tim talks with a fake Scottish accent because he wants to be “authentic” at his SCA events.) A little planning goes a long way. We’ve all heard that you should write what you know. Well, sit down and get to know your cast. Ask them deep questions and you will get deep answers. (And when your friends see you talking to yourself they will get deep concerns about your sanity.)

You have your idea, you have your character, and now you are ready to weave your tale. Practice on a few characters. If you ever get stumped, go back to one of your favorite books and ask those characters the same questions. Could you answer them? How did you know the answers? It’s not because you were told all at once. Before too long you will start to notice how their lives are woven into the action, dialogue, and plot. Ready to give it a try? Well, then get going, you have a lie to tell.


Guest Writer Bio:

Daniel Braithwaite is a Senior Editor at the science fiction and fantasy magazine Leading Edge (www.leadingedgemagazine.com). When he is not reading slush or interviewing authors he is working on his writing (if he isn’t battling off a horde of children and kittens). He is also currently studying writing under Brandon Sanderson at Brigham Young University. He is always happy to answer questions about the magazine (and the mysteries of the universe). You can reach him at nonfiction@leadingedgemagazine.com.

Pick and Click a Character Issue

29 January 2015 | No Comments » | Ace Jordyn

Over the years we’ve posted over 90 articles on character from who to how-to. Murderers, villains, lovers, enduring characters, shoes, shape shifters, hackers, dicks, and cannibal dwarves – we’ve got those covered! Then there’s the great how-to topics including how to build character through dialogue, using everyday inspiration, interactions, perspective, conflict and a touch of horror.

By the time you’re done reading through these, you’ll feel like you’ve attended a full workshop. So, pick and click and enjoy!

Indiana Jones and the Great Test of Character

On Cannibal Dwarves and Other Character Problems

Character Study – It’s All About Soles – Building a Character from the Ground Up

How to Build a Murderer

Take Note of Inspiration

Programmers, Hackers, and Technology

The Conflicts of Character Design

What Does Your Dialogue Say About Your Characters?

How to be a Better Tease

The Right Voice for a Dick

Love Your Cannon Fodder

Building Character : The Art of Genuine Interactions

Take Control – Please!

Characters: A Writer’s Best Friends or Bêtes Noire?

3 Dimensions of Character – A Review of Larry Brooks’ Character Development Technique

Complex Characters

Why do I like you when you’re standing in my way? The likable antagonist.

Villains, Villains, Everywhere-The Perfect Bad Guy For All Occasions

My Alien Being

Platonic Male-Female Relationships in Fiction (a.k.a. “The Glue”)

Shapeshifting: Mythical and Modern

The Outsider’s Perspective

A Secret History: The Real Stories Behind Literature’s Most Legendary Figures

Pirates of the Caribbean – The Curse of the Black Pearl

Mean Salvation

Bad Boys and Anti-heroes: Why the Gals Love Them

Making the Fear Personal

Making Murder Acceptable

Understanding Accents

Writing Who You’re Not

Hot Fun in the Summertime

The Not-So Likable Hero

What Makes Good Horror?

Valuing Your Characters or Maslow for Writers

Faith

 

 

Every Character Has a Role to Play

28 January 2015 | No Comments » | Colette

a very potter musicalAs you can tell, quite a few of us at Fictorians love David Farland’s workshops. I’m no exception, so I admit that this post is based on information I received at his outlining workshop. I won’t do him justice, but maybe my perspective on this topic will be of use.

(Btw, did they spell awesomeness wrong in the picture to the left? Not just me, right? OK, let’s move on.)

So, every story has a protagonist and an antagonist, right? The thing is, the best stories have so much more, though I’ll start with the basics:

Protagonist: Our protagonist is our main girl/guy, but remember that a story can have more than one protagonist. You can have a main protagonist and a secondary protagonist, both of whose stories weave together in synchronicity.

*In Harry Potter, though Ron and Hermione might be considered protagonists, the entire story is told from Harry’s pov, and the focus of the story is Harry. I see him as the only real protagonist.

Antagonist: The main bad dude/dudette. The person, place, or thing that stands in the way of our protagonist(s) achieving their goal(s). Yep, I said it, the antagonist does not have to be a person. It can be nature as in mountains in the middle of nowhere, crippling emotions, a monster, or any of a vast number of possibilities. Don’t limit yourself.

*Harry Potter: Duh, Voldemort.

Contagonist: I think of the contagonist as the antagonist’s knowing (or unknowing) minion. This is the one getting in the way, but not the one originally instigating the problems. Having a contagonist allows for plot twists and surprises. They’re a great way to lead the reader in one direction then twist them entirely around into another.

*Harry Potter: Some might say Malfoy, but I consider Severus Snape to be the main contagonist. We’re always unsure of his motives, and he makes himself entirely dislikable, so dying for Harry becomes a great reveal.

Heckler: The thorn in the protagonist’s side, always willing to jeer, taunt, make life difficult, and generally get in the way. Not necessarily against the protagonist’s goals, but always willing to take our protagonist down a peg or two.

*Harry Potter: Through most of the series, this role goes almost entirely to Draco Malfoy. And we love to hate him SO MUCH.

Love Interest: It’s meant to be! *insert pink and red hearts* This is the person your protagonist likes, comes to love, hates but can’t deny their attraction to. Whatever, this is the one who makes the sparks fly.

*Harry Potter: Ginny Weasley, though it sure takes them a while, and their kiss in the movie is beyond lame, in my personal opinion.

Seducer: This is the person who diverts the protagonist from the love interest, whether intentionally or otherwise. This helps the tension in the romantic subplot.

*Harry Potter: Cho Chang, though their Valentine’s date made me a bit nauseous.

Sidekick: This is the supporting character, there when the hero(ine) needs them, giving advice, an extra hand, or just moral support.

*Harry Potter: This is where Ron and Hermione really come in. Chess anyone?

Jester: The funny one. In every book, we need someone to make us laugh, lighten the mood when the drama gets too intense, or just play slapstick.

*Harry Potter: Neville Longbottom, though he definitely grew out of this role as the series progressed.

Mentor: The one who takes our protagonist’s hand, teaches him the ropes, protects him in the early stages, and almost always dies. The mentor gets our protagonist started until he/she can stand on their own.

*Harry Potter: Dumbledore, so of course he had to die.

I’m sure the list could go on, but these are the ones that stuck out to me. You see, I think the best stories have all of these character aspects. One person can embody more than one. The contagonist can also be the heckler. The seducer can also be the jester. But if you have multiple characters playing multiple roles in one story, then you might have some unnecessary characters. And if you don’t have anyone playing one of these roles then you might seriously consider, why not?

Each of these roles, whether their participation is highlighted or in the background, brings depth to a story. You might ask why I used Harry Potter as my example; because it is so easy to spot these roles in the Harry Potter stories and because they change as the story progresses. And remember, people aren’t the only ones able to play some of these roles. In the last couple of books, Harry’s seducer is his quest, pulling him away from Ginny.

And one of the funnest aspects of these character roles, is how they can change over the course of a book or a series. A sidekick may turn out to be a contagonist, the seducer may end up being the true love after all. The possibilities, just as the characters who play them, are endless.

Beyond the Nightlight

27 January 2015 | No Comments » | mary

There’s nothing to be afraid of. Childhood fears fade as the years pass. They are never as real as they were when you were a child.

Unless they are.

“Beyond the Nightlight” is an anthology for adult readers about the terrors of childhood boogeymen. My contribution, “Big Boy,” is based on the earliest childhood fear I can remember. I wasn’t afraid of monsters under the bed, creatures in my closet or the dark shadows in the corners of my room. I was afraid…of the light.

More specifically, I was afraid of the light cast by trucks going by on the highway outside. Their powerful headlights reflected through my window and created an illuminated square that crawled over my wall and disappeared right above my headboard.

My goal, in writing this scary story, was to show readers, firsthand, what’s so scary about light on a wall. Most people are familiar with common tropes like boogey men and monsters under the bed. And, because those tropes are common, writing a story about them demands a fresh twist or some new insight into the reasons those concepts became tropes in the first place. I decided I’d rather take my uncommon fear and show readers why that moving light kept me awake late into the night, watching it come creeping towards me.

To do that, one of the things I had to do was put myself in the mindset of a three-year-old. I remember arguing with my dad that headlights shone straight ahead on the road, not sideways and up into people’s windows, so how could a truck cause that scary moving square? The square, of course, was caused by the shape of my window, and the light moved as the truck moved on the highway, appearing when the vehicle came into range and disappearing when it passed by. My father tried very patiently to explain this to me, but my child’s logic didn’t think it made sense. Moving patches of light aren’t scary to adults. I had to describe this scene through a child’s eyes.

Next, I asked myself what I remembered the most about this childhood fear. Why do I still remember being scared of the light over three decades later, when I’ve long forgotten why I was ever afraid of other childhood boogeys? (I remember the Sphynx and sprouty potatoes being other terrors of mine). I thought back, and realized that my other fears could be easily escaped: I just closed the book on Ancient Egypt, or put the lid back on the potato barrel. With that light, though, all I could do was lie very still and hope it didn’t notice me. I remember calling for my parents, not knowing if they’d come or not, knowing the light would reappear sooner or later after they left. That feeling of being alone, possibly abandoned, holding very still in the dark and watching the light come crawling my way…that feeling lasted. That was the feeling I wanted to convey to my readers: the feeling of being there with the three-year-old protagonist, small and young and all alone in the dark, wondering if your parent would come…or if the light would get you first.

Thankfully for me (and unfortunately for my main character), “Beyond the Nightlight” falls into the horror component of speculative fiction. That means that I wasn’t bound to write a story that conformed to my reality (which always involved the illuminated square of light vanishing harmlessly once the truck moved out of range). No, in fiction I’m free to describe exactly what three-year-old me was so afraid might happen if I fell asleep with that light on my wall.

Are you scared yet? No? Are you….curious?

You can order your own copy of “Beyond the Nightlight” in paperback or ebook here.

Shine your light on twenty-four terrifying stories for grown-up readers about the horrors that lurk in a child’s imagination.

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