Category Archives: Character

Crit Groups Suck I mean Rock

It was my turn. I passed out my thirty pages to the group to take home and love. I knew they would. They’d come back the next week and beg for more. The prose. The story. The insight. They’d share with their friends. The leader of the crit group (a group I paid $200 a month to be a part of) had been published—four times. She’d probably kick my submission over to her agent. I’d have publishers beating down my door, demanding I quit my day job and finish the book.

The next week I waited nervously as we went through the opening formalities. Then they pulled out their redlined thirty pages and looked at me. Not with eyes of amazement or envy, but…pity? Confusion?

“Well,” said the four-time published author, “where do I start?”

I learned a lot in the next twenty minutes. It was like prancing around the high school cafeteria, butt naked.

They wanted to know what happened to the peanuts. See, my character went on a road trip with his dad. He stopped in the gas station and bought peanuts. I never mentioned them again. They wanted to know what happened. The group leader suggested if I put it on the table, that I use it.

I sucked at POV. I hadn’t written a story but wrote about the scenes I would have watched on television, shifting camera angles back and forth. Good for television, bad for storytelling. This was the first time I learned about the concept known as Point of View.

“But beautiful imagery in the fire scene.” That coming from the four-time published author. I didn’t know what imagery was. But I had written something that I had experienced, building a campfire.

After the experience, my pride more than bruised, more like destroyed, and surprisingly with no agent deals, I about gave up writing.

Fast forward 10 years. Tonight, I just got off the phone with a phenomenal crit group. We submit1000 words each week and critique them. We probably overanalyze things, discuss word variations, plot structure, character development. The benefit of this group, hasn’t been the critiques, the multiple eyes and perceptions that catch inconsistencies or typos (like mine tonight where I wrote “her waste” instead of “her waist”).

No the greatest gift of this crit group has not been so apparent. In reading other writings as a fellow critiquer, I have to ask myself a number of questions: Why does this work or not work? Why did I misread this? What do they mean here? Why did they take it that direction? Why did they use that word? How might I have said that? Why do I love this character? Why do I enjoy this character? What made that piece great? And on and on and on.

Then, while asking the questions, developing a response that is constructive and then sharing that response with the author has helped me better understand my own writing weaknesses.

Robert Heinlein said, “When one teaches, two learn.” This my friends, is why you need a crit group. Because when all six of us teach, all six of us learn and we are getting better, I am getting better.

Here are some things crit groups have taught me.

  1. How you mention something in a story can add great significance to that something…like peanuts.
  2. If you put something on the table, use it.
  3. Good writers are not born. Everyone sucks as some stage in their writing career. If you want to be a good writer, persistence will help.
  4. DON’T PAY FOR CRIT GROUPS – even if they are a four-time published author.
  5. If you don’t like your crit group, find another. There are plenty. Maybe join two.
  6. If you’re the smartest guy in your crit group, maybe join a second (don’t necessarily quit your first because Robert Heinlein had a good point.
  7. Make the time to submit, attend, and offer feedback in your crit groups.
  8. Be consistent.
  9. Writing prompts, given by someone in the crit group is a waste of time. I’ve got plenty of ideas and too little time.
  10. Join a group that writes the same genre as you. It’s hard to get feedback on legal thrillers if everyone else is a fantasy guy.
  11. Be appreciative. They’re helping you and maybe you’re helping them.
  12. Take all feedback. If it helps, great. If not, throw it away quietly.

You’ve Got to Have Friends

A Guest Post by Karen Pellett

While the point of view character is the individual we root for throughout the story, it is often their best friend or side kick that makes the story real to me. Take a look at all the movies or books that have stuck with you throughout time and I bet you will find that part of the solid foundation was built on friendship. In fact, it is that friendship that helped make, or even sometimes, break the main character. Yes, the main character tends to be dynamic, interesting, or flawed in a way that draws the reader in; mainly the person every reader wishes they could be, to some degree. But it is the friend who truly makes the story feel complex, real, and believable.

For one, friends can be solidifiers for a group. Consider Han Solo, he is not the main character in the original Star Wars trilogy; the story is about Luke and Leia, growing up separately, learning who they truly are, and finding the strength from within. But it is Han who brings the humor, the quirky friendship, the tenacity, the fantastic one-liners, and the spunk. He is flawed, but he is fabulous. And, with his background in smuggling, he provides an alternative perspective and solutions way “outside the box”.

Because the friend often resides on the outskirts of the main plot, they also have a tendency to be the counter balance for our hero/heroine. Even though I adore Anne Shirley (from Anne of Green Gables) with her love of literature, he r wild imagination, and her spirit, it is Diana Barry that makes the story whole. She is the putty in Anne’s hands; she is the Dean Martin straight man, to Anne’s Jerry Lewis hilarity. Diana is guided into mischief by her friend, which helps the scene come alive, because we’ve all been that friend who is going to get into trouble because as a direct result of their BFF’s actions. Diana also is Anne’s safety net, and listens to her woes, providing counterpoints and possible solutions to Anne’s difficulties with the exasperating, but delectable, Gilbert Blythe.

Then there are the friends who find courage within themselves, strengthen the hero, and if need be fight their friend when the hero goes astray. For that . . . I give you Ronald Weasley. In both the books and the movies it was Ron who won my heart as a character way more than Harry Potter (I know, sacrilege). Yes, he is flawed, but he had the most growth out of the main trio in my book. He felt second rate, awkward, and lost in a crowd in the beginning (believe me, been there done that). And yet by the end, he created his own solutions, found his own strength, and helped fully defeat Voldemort. To me he had the best combination of Han Solo and Diana Barry in any character ever.

He had outstanding one-liners.

Think Sorcerer’s Stone when our intrepid trio return from their first experience with Fluffy, the three-headed dog, where Hermione states (movie):

“Now if you two don’t mind, I’m going to bed before either of you come up with another clever idea to get us killed – or worse, expelled.” Before stomping off to bed.

Ronald tells Harry the classic line, ”She needs to sort out her priorities!”

Need a say anything about spiders:

“Why’d it have to be spiders? Why couldn’t he have said, ‘Follow the butterflies.’?”

Or later, after meeting Aragog he says, “Can we panic now?”

Ron also had his own mishaps, mistakes, and misdemeanors that he grew from, and he provided the perfect counterbalance of growing up in a magic world, to Harry’s life in the Muggle world. It may have been Hermione who was the walking encyclopedia, but it was Ron who firmed up what it meant to live in the magic world. He made the magic feel real, especially when faced with the consequences of shoddy magical mishaps (don’t get me started on the whole vomiting slugs thing).

What all this boils down to is, that if you are creating a story, a world you want your readers to be sucked into so much that they will make the return trip time and time again, then make sure that you give due diligence to your point of view character’s BFF. By so doing you will add dimension, flavor, balance and believability to your story. Believe me, if you do, your readers/watchers/fans will come back to your work time and time again, in all its many formats. If you don’t, you have wasted a golden-snitch of an opportunity.

Karen Pellett:

Karen Pellett is a crazy woman with a computer, and she’s not afraid to use it. Most of her time is spent between raising three overly brilliant and stinkin’ cute children, playing video games with her stepsons, and the rare peaceful moment with her husband. When opportunity provides she escapes to the alternate dimension to write fantasy & magical realism novels, the occasional short story, and essays on raising special needs children. Karen lives, plots & writes in American Fork, Utah.

It Takes a Village (Full of Weirdos)

Welcome to March 13th, and the first morning of a bright Full Moon. Both of these facts should contribute to my essay, hopefully for the better.

Photo by Guy Anthony De MarcoI’ve been writing off and on since 1977. More off than on, just like my normal mental state. The first few stories I horrifically assembled were based on some dreams with the antics of some of my friends mixed in. I was still in high school and I hung out with the freaks, geeks, and weirdos. I also spent time with some of the stoner and drug using folks, even though I never partook. (No, really, I was even sorta famous for it.) On top of that, I was friendly with many of the jocks, and even tried out for the baseball team as a pitcher. I still think I didn’t get on the team because I drilled the coach with a line shot off of his cranium during a practice. Well, that or because I had a wicked fast ball that I couldn’t control. Anyways…

Over the years, I’ve made friends and lost some, drifted apart or buried others. Most of the time I admit I was just too lazy to send a letter or pick up the phone to say hello. Some folks were just acquaintances or Friends-of-Friends.

Some folks were people I once just said hello to. A good example is Fiona. My wife and I were going through the checkout line at the North Island Commissary (like a military store), and the young lady who was ringing things up was the Uber Queen of the Goths. Every bit of exposed skin was pale, like the pallor of the dead. Fiona wore all black, of course. She was also very nice and friendly. For years my wife and I would recall Fiona out of the blue. The only reason we know her name is because of her name tag. She’s appeared in two of my books in one form or another.

All of the friends, acquaintances, and random weirdos and strangers I’ve encountered in my life at one time or another are all now living as part of the DNA in the characters I write. I never try to copy them directly — it would feel like plagiarizing meatspace. I take tiny bits of personality and blend them together. The subtle half-wink as they tell a joke; the way their voice wavers as they yell in anger; the way they smell because they don’t believe in deodorant. All of these slices can come together to create a complete and believable character. In many cases, I know why they do what they do. The old friend who never used deodorant was too poor to afford the luxury. That background adds seasoning for characters. Now I know how they may act in certain situations, like finding an envelope of hundred dollar bills in a donated dresser. That pungent friend would do his best to find the rightful owner because he knows what it feels like to be destitute.

One should be careful not to make the characters recognizable. In many cases, it can cause hurt feelings. If I copied a friend down to a speech impediment and a facial birthmark, then gave it to a horrific villain who tortures small fuzzy animals for kicks, you can rest assured that my friend would be quite irate (and probably move into the ‘former friend’ category.) Always make the characters you create a collection of traits put into a blender and hit the frappe button a few times. The froth you end up with can then be used to make believable, realistic characters that seem like they’re someone you know intimately — because they are.

There are times you have to create characters that are outside of your scope of knowledge. Take a walk around and listen to strangers. Take notes, write down interesting descriptions, and even consider saying hello. You might end up with a new friend and a protagonist outline in one fell swoop.


About the Author:DeMarco_Web-5963

Guy Anthony De Marco is a disabled US Navy veteran speculative fiction author; a Graphic Novel Bram Stoker Award® nominee; winner of the HWA Silver Hammer Award; a prolific short story and flash fiction crafter; a novelist; an invisible man with superhero powers; a game writer (Sojourner Tales modules, Interface Zero 2.0 core team, third-party D&D modules); and a coffee addict. One of these is false.
A writer since 1977, Guy is a member of the following organizations: SFWA, WWA, SFPA, IAMTW, ASCAP, RMFW, NCW, HWA. He hopes to collect the rest of the letters of the alphabet one day. Additional information can be found at Wikipedia and GuyAnthonyDeMarco.com.

Don’t Split the Party!

Yes, the title of this post is one of the most revered and honored tropes of role-playing games. I can’t even begin to count the number of stories I could tell about the consequences of an adventuring party going their separate ways and being systematically wiped out by frustrated Dungeon Masters whose carefully constructed campaign is being turned into a shambles by players who think it’s a grand idea to have everyone wander off on their own.

But this post isn’t about gaming. It’s about writing. Of course, like all “rules”, this one is frequently violated to great effect in numerous stories from “Lord of the Rings” to “The Avengers.” So as Barbossa would say, this isn’t a “rule” so much as a “guideline.”

But it’s a solid guideline if you want to create a story where readers can experience the rich interplay of characters that is really only possible when the reader has become not only acquainted with individual characters, but has also developed an understanding of the complex dynamics of interpersonal relationships between groups of people.

It is rare for any story to rely on a total focus on one main character. It is incredibly difficult for a writer to keep readers interested in a story like that anyway. So the vast majority of the world’s favorite stories usually have one main focus, but that main focus is surrounded by other characters whose stories weave their own threads around and through the main character’s thread.

In that group of orbiting characters, at least one should be a friend of the main character, not just a flunky, or a tool the main character uses to advance their agenda. Friendships allow the reader to see the main character as a living, breathing person. The more a writer can create a sense of true mutual love and respect between the main character and another character, the more likely readers will be to empathize and sympathize with the protagonist. In most cases we want to root for characters we like, and observing how the protagonist interacts with close friends is the best way for a reader to learn the normally hidden vulnerabilities that make them human and relatable. Sometimes these “friends” are also siblings, but usually not.

Creating close friendships does more than make a protagonist more human. It also gives the author opportunities to use that relationship to bring elements of the story to more compelling climaxes, and to explore emotions to sublime depths. What would the story of Frodo be without Sam? Would we really care as much about Lizzy and Mr. Darcy without Charlotte and Bingley? And Harry Potter would have been far less interesting without Ron and Hermione.

Building relationships like that takes time. It can’t be “told” it has to be “shown” in dozens of little details sprinkled through scene after scene. And that’s not easy to do if you can’t keep the party together long enough to build them.