The Fictorians

Conflicts of Character Design

13 January 2015 | No Comments » | Matt Jones

There are many parts of creating a new novel, and creating realistic characters is probably one of the most challenging ones. Characters need to be believable. They need to have their own personality, habits, and traits that set them apart from others. If done correctly, the reader will be able to relate. They’ll understand and feel concerned. It’ll pull them deeper into the novel and they’ll keep reading to figure out what will happen. If done poorly, it will throw them out of the novel. They won’t be able to believe and before long, they’ll look elsewhere and leave your novel behind.

When I create new characters, I focus on the conflicts. Everyone has conflicts they face and have to deal with. It’s the sum of all these conflicts that can lead them on the road of hero or villain. These conflicts will generally take on the shape of external and internal, two sides of a fight that is always raging in everyone.

Internal conflicts are anything that tears your character apart from inside. This can be dealing with a phobia, memory, or other psychological barrier. It can be need to be the best, or look the prettiest. It can be the fear of the dark that makes your character abandon others he could easily save. Or the pride that keeps him from admitting he was wrong. The internal conflicts are generally the deeply ingrained problems that the character spends the entire novel attempting to overcome.

External conflicts are everything else that keeps your character on track. The broken home he has to deal with, the abusive parents. They can include the weather, environment, wild animals, or other characters. Anything that goes against what the character would do and forces them to make decisions.

When you create a new character, consider all the conflicts that they have to deal with. Write them down and keep them in your mind as you write them. They’ll keep your character constant and provide motivation to act, even if it’s running away. Once these conflicts are established, your character can show true heroism by not only saving the day, but by having to overcome their natural reaction to do so.

Walking the Tightrope – Making Characters Real Without Making Them Really Boring

12 January 2015 | 1 Comment » | Leigh Galbreath

We all face that struggle of how to make our characters into people, but if you are one of those writers who have tried to take a real person and plop them onto the page, you might have come to the startling realization that people do not make good characters. Real people are confused, slow to act, distracted by the everyday, often don’t know what they want or what their purpose is, thus making them, quite frankly, too boring and unlikable to serve a story.

So, this got me thinking. What is it about a character that makes them seem like people when real people make such bad characters?

I think it comes down to characters being not so much fictional people as distilled people. Characters are us, stripped down to the core.

Emotionally, people are unfathomable. We have so many layers to our psyches even we don’t know it all. Yet, when constructing a character, we writers like to start out with the barest sparks of a person. We trap our characters in roles and archetypes and then fill them out just enough to make them seem realistic without diluting them so much that they become one of us confused, distracted, and oblivious people. The trick, I think isn’t so much the creation. You can make a character as complicated and convoluted as you like. The tick is what you put on the page. As I’m sure we’ve all heard, what’s on the page is barely the tip of the iceberg. While the reader rarely gets to see everything below the waterline, it still has to be there, peaking through even when no one is really paying attention. It’s easy to get carried away, plastering every nook and cranny of the character’s psyche on the page. Where a writer puts the waterline is a personal choice, but real people have unknowable depths that even they aren’t aware of. It’s important that the character (and therefore the reader) be forced to figure things out without it being blatant.

But also, the moments that we choose to show the reader are also stripped down. I mean really, how many stories are about a person who has to deal with everything that a real person has to deal with. Most of use have multiple conflicts. Mortgages, injuries, family disfunction, bad coworkers, and what have you, all at once, all the time. Characters don’t. These issues are only important as long as they impact the story, and usually one or two at a time as the story dictates. As soon as one stops being relevant, it miraculously gets rectified one way or another, and we move on to the next. Thus a breakup or moral dilemma becomes all-encompassing – as if nothing else is happening in that character’s life, or the lives of the characters they interact with. Characters skip over the boring parts with such regular alacrity that those issues don’t exist for all intents and purposes.

And, yes, that scene where the character wakes up in the morning an goes about his normal day might indeed show how lonely yet witty and intelligent he is, but how does that serve the story, and therefore the character? Stories are, for the most part, about people doing something important. Maybe it’s a small thing, that only really impacts the character, or something big that saves the world, but in the end, the character and the story have to go hand in hand. What the reader is shown is hugely important as it both drives the story forward, but also deepens our relationship with the character.

Maybe part of the reason we like characters to be stripped down people is that we like having something knowable and explainable when real life isn’t. It’s nice to visit a world were things make sense. Maybe we human beings are just not capable of understanding ourselves well enough to make reality more appealing in the written form. I don’t know. Maybe I’m just overthinking things.

As a writer, I know that creating a believable character is very much like walking a tightrope. A little too much leaning either way, and you fall into confusion or boredom or, if you’re really unlucky, both. Yet, if you can find the right balance, it feels like the characters are real. Those are the ones that stay with you.

Good Gone Bad and Bad Gone Good

9 January 2015 | No Comments » | Gregory D. Little

goatee[For the sake of thoroughness, I’ll go ahead and put up a spoiler warning for Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter in front of this post, though I think the statute of limitations on those series has long since expired.]

Everyone loves a good redemption story. No wait, scratch that. Everyone loves a good fall from grace. Or maybe it’s both?

We’ve already heard Jace talk a bit about why to avoid all good or all bad characters. Giving your heroes flaws and your villains virtues makes them feel both relatable and real. But keep in mind that it’s not enough just to have characters with a little gray in them. Your character has to change with the story. If they end the story in the same mental and emotion place as they started, you aren’t writing a real story, you’re writing a sitcom. An 80’s sitcom.

So static characters are boring, check. Change is good, check. Well-written characters change some by the end of their stories. A protagonist will walk into the fires of conflict and emerge reforged, or some such blacksmithing metaphor. But sometimes readers get bored with a little change. Sometimes you have to go all the way. Think your Jaime Lannisters and your Walter Whites. But how do you do it well?

The rules are surprisingly similar regardless of direction. In fact, they are the same rules as those for any decision a character makes. In order to make a character’s actions believable, you have to plant the seeds at the very beginning of your story. You establish a character by getting the reader inside their head or viewing them from the head of another character. You get across a personality and at least a sketch of a backstory. For every action the character takes, some aspect of their personality and/or backstory combines with an element of the plot and drives them to make a decision that rings true for this fake person you’ve created.

In order to redeem a character or make them fall, you simply turn the stakes up to 11 in such a way that either amplifies their strength of or pries into their flaw. Saruman the White was leader of the White Council until the temptation of the One Ring proved too much for him. The pride that went along with his leadership position convinced him that he could master the ring’s power. Severus Snape, from the viewpoint of the reader at least, went from “he’s definitely bad news” to “he’s a big jerk, but he’s on the right side” gradually over the course of seven books. His redeeming quality, his unrequited love for Lily, burns through all his nastiness and his sympathy with Voldemort’s views and steers him on a path toward redemption.

Other choices can help lend credibility to your character’s journey into extremity. For a character to fall, it helps if they are stubborn and unbending to a fault. They can’t take all moral compromise they see around them, and eventually it becomes too much to bear. They snap, like the tree that doesn’t bend with the wind. In contrast, for a character to be redeemed, the opposite is helpful. If there is a part of them that is uncomfortable with their evil status quo, it provides a seed that can grow into a desire to repent for their crimes.

Handled deftly, this technique can open a reader’s mind in ways that lesser character growth can’t. A villain readers once despised can transform into someone they root for. Or a hero they loved can fall gradually into darkness, bringing readers along in complicity until they realize, with perfectly elicited horror, just how far the character has fallen. If you pull it off, it packs a very special kind of punch.

One last bit of advice. If you turn your main hero bad or your main villain good, make sure you have an understudy character you’ve developed over the course of the story available to fill the now-vacant spot. It helps if they wind up being an even better hero or villain than the character they are replacing. As a bonus, the fresh conflict introduced as former allies turn on one another can add a kick to your story’s climax.

Hidden in a Dash

8 January 2015 | No Comments » | fictorians

A guest post by VICTORIA MORRIS.


There’s an oblong granite stone just behind a wrought iron fence. You can’t see it clearly unless you walk around the gate. Continue through the hallowed ground until you’re standing just to the left of the gatehouse, under the shade of a hundred year-old weeping willow lending relief from the day.

There are three names on that headstone. The first two, on either end, aren’t similar in any way. The numbers beneath the names are as different as the names themselves. But what is carved between them, binds them all together.

We’ve all seen grave stones. They bear cherished titles: Beloved wife, sister, mother, grandmother. Written just below the name are years. In this case, 1927 ~ 2007.

Have you ever pondered what is really being said in that short last phrase? It isn’t the day of birth and the day of death that tell the story. It’s the dash between them.

Hidden inside that one mark, is a lifetime. All the choices and the entire world of that person. Every joy and every sorrow. Every minute of every day that became the pages of her life.

Changes happened. She grew up during the great depression. She helped work on a farm, and she made sure that she, her little brother, and sister all made it to school. Then she married at fifteen. And promptly sent her brand new husband off to fight in World War 2.

More changes came. He almost didn’t come home when a bullet found his chest, and death swarmed all around him. If a member of his troop hadn’t seen him just barely pointing to his own pocket, to where the rain slicker each of them kept was held, they would have left him in their retreat. Instead, they would use that thin plastic to carry him off the still engaged battlefield. Had they not, children never would have been born.

But he did come home. And their choices together added more pages to their story.

They tried and failed at a few things. But they didn’t give up. They kept on moving, together.

They changed their scenery, moving from the farm into a little white house on an island, where they raised their family of ten children.

The story of the life goes on, adding more chapters. Many more years. Many more joys and happy days. Along with ones that brought tears. All of this, happening during that dash chiseled in a few skillful taps into a white-gray granite.

We all face trials, joys, choices, successes, and failures in life. It’s how we choose to view them, that determines how we classify them and how we embrace, rather than resist them, that helps to make our life great.

Sometimes, it’s within the trials and errors that we find the paths to the greatest joys. Who among the writers here, hasn’t found inspiration by changing the scenery. Inspired images come raining down in the shower, that moments before were no where near existing. And you have to rush to dry off to get them all onto paper. Found the answer to a perplexing scene where you least expected. Located the keys in the last place you looked.

Great inventions nearly always happen that way. Penicillin, capable of saving and helping a life, first existed as mold on a piece of bread. But someone looked at that moldy bread differently, and saw the flash of an idea.

Plot twists change the way we see things. One thousand ways to not make a light bulb happened, before the light bulb did.

Losing something worth everything can be the hardest place to start again. But if you have the courage to begin again, perhaps some of your greatest yet-to-bes, are waiting for you there.

Changes kept happening for that couple. He passed away the day after their 49th anniversary. Cancer finally taking him, after the bullet that stayed in his lung the rest of his life couldn’t.

She mourned him. But before too long, another man crossed her path. Having dealt with his own dash, life had been hard. He didn’t smile much. He spoke with a very soft voice, if at all. But she showed him how to smile. And in showing him, found a joy she’d never experienced before, even in a life-long love.

Then cancer came again. And twice, she had to bury that love.

We all face things that seem insurmountable. Troubles, illness, job losses, moves to places unknown. Things that will shape our stories. But we have the power to choose how that new shape looks. We have the opportunity to turn the unknown into the greatest thing that will ever happen, just by deciding to see it that way in the beginning.

She mourned a second time. This time in a completely different way. She was so sad that she had to choose where to go, whom to lie beside when her time came. Until she realized, she didn’t have to choose between them. She felt she needed to share it with her family, but not a single one of them objected to her idea.

She moved her first husband to lie at her left. Her second would be buried to her right. Leaving the space between them for herself. Connected to them both in death, the loves of her life.

She spent her last years happy. Even though the pain of losing each of them was always with her, the joy that each had given surrounded her completely. There nearly wasn’t a day on her wipe board calendar that did not celebrate a birthday of someone close.

Then the day came when she was laid to rest between her two loves, and her dash was chiseled. Though there were many many tears, there was even more laughter. Because if there was one consistent thing about her, my grandmother knew how to laugh.

A different outcome on that Okinawa battlefield would have caused an enormous difference in my life. I’m very thankful for those men that stopped and looked, so very far away and long ago. Without their bravery in the face of an ongoing destructive force, my mother would have never been born. Without her, me. A scary choice faced them when they stopped for one wounded soldier, not unlike some of choices we ourselves face today.

That headstone is complete now. It stands as a quiet memorial of three lives that influenced my own deeply. My grandfather was an artist and a poet, my grandmother the first to show me what music could do for the soul. My second grandpa, who came and left too quickly for me to get to love deep enough, but to whom I am forever grateful for giving grandma so much joy. There, behind that wrought iron fence, shaded by that willow. Even though I don’t get to visit it very often, the symbol of those words and dashes and the stories they hold are always with me.

Every story deserves its chance to be told. Don’t be afraid to share the failures along with the successes. Don’t steer clear of the hard choices you may face, if you can imagine a different way of seeing through them.

Each choice, every chance, is one more way to learn if the vision of your life can work. And even if it’s not how you pictured it the first time, you may find something you never knew was there. And that something might very well change your dash forever.

victoriaMorrisVictoria Morris Bio: Victoria lives on the edge of a mysty magical forest in the Pacific Northwest with one husband, two daughters, a big white dog and one huge resident bald eagle that likes to circle over her house when she brings in the groceries. A lifelong artist and not quite as long writer, Victoria is building a universe inside her head that has taken form in a six book fantasy series, with a middle grade trilogy on the side. While illustrating the world and all its characters is always on her mind, she draws portraits in her spare time to relax. Find out more here.


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