Tag Archives: character development

If Your Character Isn’t Memorable, Don’t Despair – Here’s Help!

You’ve read all the books, taken the workshops, and you’ve created your character bibles. You’ve even thought a little about which characters you like and why (see my post Memorable Characters – Who Do You Like?). Still, your character isn’t quite quintessential and therefore not memorable. What to do? Learn from the best. “But!” you say, “I don’t have time to study all those books, see all the movies!” The solution is easy – read April 2016’s blogs on Creating Memorable Characters. I’ve gleaned some tips and have summed them up (or have taken excerpts). Click on the links to each person’s blog to read it in its entirety.

These are the best how-to’s! Seriously, there’s a lot of great take-aways in these.

Sometimes less is more …

For David Carrico (Enter the Villain), Baron Vladimir Harkonnen is an absolute sadist, a pederast, and an incestophile, yet very little of that is shown “on screen” so to speak in the novel. The reader is given glimpses here and there of the raw evil lying beneath the surface of what is otherwise a very forceful, articulate, and urbane man. Herbert made the Baron memorable by understating him

Leigh Galbreath (Chaos For It’s Own Sake) says she doesn’t want to sympathize with a great villain and wants a villain that will make the hero work for every inch. What she loves about the the Joker in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, is Nolan’s conscious decision to leave some of the story up to the audience.

Mat Cauthon in Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time series is a stellar example of how to make a character funny not by what they say, but by who they are. In Gambler, Trickster, Son of Battles, Gregory D. Little notes that the humour of Mat’s character isn’t in what he says, but rather the irony the series continually thrusts upon him: contemptuous of nobility he, of course, marries an empress.

 A Mix of Good, Bad and Ugly or, the Imperfect Character

In Taking Strides in Character Development, Sean Golden points out that Strider’s mysterious past, his wit and wisdom, all factor in to create a reluctant hero in an almost a surly way. Strider struggles with self-doubt. He falters. He worries. He doubts. He takes chances. And in the end, he finds himself.

Characters become more likeable and sympathetic when they suffer or show genuine concern even if it’s at their own expense. In The Roller Coaster that was Tig Trager, Jace Killan explains that Tig wasn’t all good or all bad and it was Tig’s good traits that got him into trouble and sometimes it was his bad traits that got him out. It wasn’t easy and it took time for Tig to recover from what he had done.

Not every memorable character needs fisticuffs

You don’t need fisticuffs to be a hero or memorable. Evan Braun (The Ultimate Philosopher King) writes that Jean Luc Picard is the philosopher who rules as king, the true pilot who observes the stars and the heavens to preside over his ship. In the midst of near-perfect humanity, Picard shines brightly. As Shakespeare might say, he is the paragon of animals.

Inner strength without physical prowess can make for an admirable persona and Dashti in Dashti of a Thousand Days proves that. Colette Black notes that it’s complex characterization, where Dashti learns to temper a character flaw and discovers that her real power lies, not with physical prowess, but in her determination, an inner strength and loyalty.

The everyday man is tested…

In Yippee-ki-yay: The Most Reluctant Hero, Kristin Luna writes about how John McClane is a great example of how a hero doesn’t always have to be willing. He can be the wrong guy in the wrong place at the wrong time and still kick some major butt. Giving your hero a strong personality and a little reluctance can be a recipe for one of the most memorable heroes of all time.

For Frank Morin (When a Gardener Helps Defeat a Dark Lord) Samwise Gamgee is memorable because he accepts that his place in the world is not to be the hero, but to be the hero’s cook, assistant, and bodyguard. And yet, he demonstrates in his simple way that heroes are not always the great warriors, with the flashy armor or dazzling magic. Heroes get the job done. Any one of us could be Sam.

In the life of every evil person there is a series of decisions that lead, inevitably, to damnation. This is the moment where your villain goes wrong. The moment where he or she makes the decision to do the wrong thing for all the right reasons. After that, it’s a slow and gradual slide into hell. That’s Frog Jones’ take on Walter White. To learn more, read Regarding the Humble Blowfish.

Just because that’s the way it is…

Kim May (Marty Stus by Moonlight) writes about Chiba Mamoru being an ideal of a man: strong, silent, and enigmatic. The perfect gentleman whose sole purpose is to be Sailor Moon’s love interest, to rescue her from peril when her klutziness and fears get the best of her. You have to admit. There are times when we really really need that kind of rescuing. Marty Stus were never meant to be the ideal we should hold out for. They’re the ideal that we have little escapist fantasies about on a moonlit night when reality is too much…and there’s no shame in that.

Which brings me back to Leigh Galbreath’s post about the Joker because sometimes you want Chaos For It’s Own Sake.

Villains come in all shades

The reluctant villain and one who you can’t resist! In A Character You Can’t Refuse, Marta Sprout talks about how Michael Corleone does some terrible things and yet we still like him. We’re drawn to him as he is slowly pulled away from his own honorable world and into his family’s mob dealings. When a character changes so profoundly it’s engrossing and it was done one reasonable step at a time. At each moment Michael is held tightly into his role where he can’t back out.

The loveable antagonist. Instead of hating Gollum, David Heyman, reveals in A Preciously Complex Character that he liked Gollum, felt sorry for him, and hoped Frodo would find a solution to his problem that didn’t force Gollum (and Smeagol) to lose. Gollum’s love of the Ring is heartbreakingly pure: even as it destroys and corrupts him, he wants nothing from life other than to possess it.

That’s me! Sometimes the villain is us pushed to the wall. In Walter White, you monster, E. Godhand says that a villain protagonist whose methods may not be right, can win your sympathy and support because after doing everything right and getting nothing in return, he has nothing left to lose. We feel the adage, “But for the Grace of God, goes I.”

Pure Evil. And, as David Carrico said in Enter the Villain, Baron Vladimir Harkonnen is an absolute sadist, a pederast, and an incestophile. Pure evil works too!

A Personal Truth We Can Relate To – and it comes in all shapes, sizes and tropes!

Character Arc – In Summoning Character Development, Sarah Golden found that Yuna’s response to adversity (not the sword but endurance and wisdom) made her an admirable character with emotional and spiritual strength. But, she didn’t start out that way. She develops from doing what other people want to having her own thoughts, and making her own decisions.

Someone different yet real – When you bring in a character who is so different from the others, she not only illuminates the cast, but her character is more profound. But, as Peter Clampton explains in The Girl Who Changed EVERYTHING!, Asuka Langley Soryu is no cheap trope, used to simply spice things up for she brings her own history, strengths and weaknesses. She’s a protagonist with real and profound problems who deals by self-medicating in isolation.

I love doing this! Jacqui Talbot’s admiration of Flavia de Luce (You Had Me at Nitrogen Pentoxide) comes from her own love of chemistry and solving mysteries. As she says, Flacia is a beguiling cross between Pippi Longstocking and Sherlock Holmes. Flavia is an eleven-year-old sleuth with a passion for chemistry (specifically poisons) and a penchant for crime solving.

The hero within rises! D.H. Aire (A Lesson in Character from Superman) tells us that Superman was created during the cusp of Worlds War II to illuminate Americans about the Nazi threat. Thus a superhero who fights for truth and justice was more than a mere story for Siegel and Shuster. Superman is memorable because he had a secret identity (a hero deep inside), and that’s a feeling we all have, that inside, we too are heroes.

Do what must be done! For Joshua David Bennett (The Power of Pain) Kaladin Stormblessed’s ability to overcome pain and hardship, not wallow in it, made him memorable. He’s an inspiration to rise to the occasion, to do what must be done.

The devil is in the detail so find one!

As Josh Vogt explains of his own writing in When All Else Fails, Bring in a Lizard, the protagonist, Dani wasn’t memorable until he gave her a quirk. A pet lizard! The lizard seems at odds with her original self. That presented a mystery (even a minor one) to unravel, which created personality paradoxes which were entertaining.

Taken to another medium, some characters sometimes become more memorable and others we wish we could forget.

Watching Sidney Poitier play Kimani Wa Karanja was profoundly moving for W.J. Cherf (Something of Value: Of Boyhood Friendships and Harsh Realities). Kimani (Poitier) became his favorite character (actor) because of his immense depth, passion, pride of place, and desire to succeed. Even with his dying breaths, after bitterly fighting his boyhood friend Peter, Kimani died hoping, yearning, for “something of value.” Poitier absolutely nailed the character and the role.

Good characters usually have clear motives with stakes involved Matt Beckett states in Lex Talk About Lex, Baby. Reintroduced characters shouldn’t rely too much on a savvy audience already familiar with the brand. Lex Luthor wasn’t given a good platform this round. His motive didn’t hit home and wobbled.

When Kevin Ikenberry (The Most Successful Bankrobber Ever) saw Jack Foley played by Clooney it was the perfect match! Kevin wrote: as I read Road Dogs, I could not stop seeing and hearing Clooney in the role. That’s where Foley transcended being a likable sympathetic character into something different. Clooney’s effortless performance as Foley indelibly attaches his “aura” to the character. But is it the actor or the character that is memorable? I vote character. No matter the actor’s talent, commitment to the role, or appearance, the character is developed on paper and is the vision of the writer/screenwriter that the actor is to bring to life. When it’s done perfectly in a book, it resonates with us. When we see that on camera, it’s more than memorable. It’s legendary.

Readers must care about a character!

Memorable characters, Mary Pletsch wrote in More than Meets the Eye, must be seen as people we come to know, then we become invested in them and their stories. When we see that their actions not only affect the plot but drive it forward, we care about what they do. And when we wonder and worry about what will happen to our favourites, we keep coming back–issue after issue, year after year. It’s the character work that makes the story shine

Marta Sprout sums it all up best when she said: When we write characters, we balance two seemingly oppositional things: the character must have qualities that resonate with the reader and he or she must venture into areas the reader would never go and take actions that the reader could not do. Therein lies the grounds for spellbinding characters.

There you have it – great lessons for making memorable characters. Pick your angle, work with it and you’ll have readers asking for more!

Close Conflicts of the Romantic Kind

Here on The Fictorians, we’ve been talking conflict all month—internal, external, character vs …, writer vs…, but we haven’t yet talked about romance. Time to change that. Now, I’m a Fantasy guy, both as a reader and a writer. The reading came first, of course. I started with Tolkien, Brooks, Hickman, McKiernan, and Eddings back in the day, gobbling up epic tales of elves and dwarves and dragons, magic and mysticism, and good versus evil on a planetary scale. Man, I loved that stuff. Still do, actually.

Over the years I’ve read a gazillion books, but the stories that stick with me, the ones that hold a piece of my soul, are those that not only satisfied my need for the magic, but also spoke to my heart. I love stories that explore the spark, the attraction, between two characters. A strong romantic storyline, carefully fed and nurtured, can turn a good story into a magnificent tale that brushes against the reader’s soul.

And what writer doesn’t strive for that each and every time he puts words to paper?

I’m not talking about writing a Romance novel, but a sci-fi/fantasy story with romantic elements. There’s a big difference between the two. A novel classified as romance is subject to what I call the “Three Laws of Romance”:

  1. The Law of the HEA – the story must have a “happily ever after” ending.
  2. The Law of Astronomical Odds – the odds against the characters realizingtheir HEA must be so astronomical, the reader cannot possibly foresee how they could ever get together.
  3. The Law of Forever Apart – keep the budding lovers apart for as long as possible. Once they get together, the story is over.

These three laws constitute an emotional contract between the Romance writer and the reader. Before reading the first word, a reader has their story-level expectations set. She buys into the formula and looks to lose herself in the unique twists and turns the author takes to reach that HEA.

Once a writer drops the “big R”, introducing a romantic subplot off the main sword and sorcery epic, the laws vanish. Anything goes. As a writer, this is where I live. I’m a lawbreaker, a rebel.

Badges? I don’t need no stinkin’ badges.

Let’s talk about developing the romantic conflict. For writers who consider planning/outlining a four-letter word, the romantic storyline is something that develops organically, something that the characters “feel” while the words flow from the writer’s brain to his fingertips.

But I’m a hard-core plotter. I have to know what to do when or I’ll leave something out. In the early stages, while developing each primary character’s internal and external conflicts, I consider a third type—the romantic conflict. Which characters will fall in love, or like, or lust, depending on the needs of the story? How will it happen? Will it have a HEA? When will it happen? Writing in a land with no “Big R” laws, I can do whatever I want. I can string the reader along, plying her with stolen goblin kisses behind the ale casks and furtive cyclopean smiles from the high window in the wizard’s tower, only to have one of the characters turned into a coconut in the last chapter. While that might add a kick to a refreshing adult beverage, being turned into a fuzzy, hard-shelled fruit wreaks havoc upon a budding relationship.

That’s a mean example, but makes my point. Being a romantic, I would never do that to my readers without a significant amount of foreshadowing to cushion the blow. I want the guy to get the girl, or the elf to get the elf maid, or the whatever creature to get the blue whatsit. The key here is to consider adding that dash of romantic conflict to any plot.

Romance, love, attraction, they are all inherent in the human, or quasi human, condition. Fully resolved characters will encounter this at some point in their existence. Embrace it. Develop it. Write it. Give the story the added spark.

How to Build a Murderer

http://www.dreamstime.com/royalty-free-stock-image-conspiracy-image19497126

Horror and mayhem are all about the villain. Your murderer has to be as real as and smarter than your hero, whether your hero is a street smart cop, a yoga teacher framed for the killing or a busy body old lady. And really, why would anyone invite Ms. Jane Marple (Agatha Christie’s heroine) or Jessica Fletcher (Murder She Wrote) to a party? People are falling down dead all around them. All the time.

But I digress.

The challenge in writing a murderer is to push past your own personal revulsion at what the character does and see why he does it.

Why do we love Professor James Moriarty as much as Sherlock Holmes?

Because Moriarty is a whole and terribly wounded person. He has wants, needs and his own (internal) code of conduct. He is at least as clever as, if not more clever than, Sherlock. Moriarty is who Sherlock could have been if he’d been nudged down a different path.

My current work in progress is an urban fantasy thriller. So how did I create a murderer? I did what any writer would do. Research.

I’m probably on the NSA’s watch list based on the serial killer searches I ran from my computer. I read lots of thrillers, murder mysteries, and true crime novels. I took notes. I read craft books including James N. Frey’s How to Write a Damned Good Mystery: A Practical Step-by-Step Guide from Inspiration to Finished Manuscript. I highly recommend Frey’s book to anyone writing in this genre. mystery cover

My research confirmed a lot of what I suspected. What makes a good murderer? According to Frey:

“1. Our murderer will be evil.” Frey defines this as someone who is acting out of his or her best interests. I’ll add that this drive toward self-satisfaction will be overwhelming. Our killer doesn’t care who he hurts as long as he gets his selfish desires.

“2. Our murder will not appear to be evil.” Sadly, real life bears this principle out. Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, and Aileen Wuornos all looked respectable. Bundy worked a crisis hotline. The idea of evil lurking just under the skin is central to horror stories. Also, if the bad guy is the obvious suspect you fail to create the tension needed to maintain a horror, mystery or thriller.

“3. Our murderer will be clever and resourceful.” Sherlock would not spend his life trying to catch Moriarty if he wasn’t clever or resourceful. The near miss, the hero arriving moments too late, creates tension and makes the chase all that more thrilling. We read thrillers and murder mysteries for the chase and inevitable capture.

“4. Our murderer is wounded.” A deep psychological wound drives our murderer. After all, he’s taken a step (or several dozen) past the line. He’s gone from thinking of ending someone’s life to actually doing it. Like Jack the Ripper, he may take his crime beyond mere murder and mutilate his victims. He’s shattered the veneer of civilization we all live with, and something outside the normal has made him do it. He (often) justifies killing because of this emotional wound. This is probably the step that most “failed” (defined as stories that didn’t capture my attention) stories miss. Without this driving force shaping your murderer he will feel like a two-dimensional character or a cliché.

“5. Our murderer is afraid.” Even with the thrill of the kill the murderer must worry about apprehension. His fear mixes with an intensifies his other emotions. Your character needs to feel fear whether fear of discovery, losing what he’s built or something else. Fear is a defining human trait. We all fear something. Often many somethings. Fear of failure. Fear of being not good enough. Fear of being discovered as a “fraud.” Without fear a character is a sketch.

Lots of craft books spend time on getting you to flesh out your characters. Your killer should be the most fully realized. You need to know his history and all his actions even though most will never make it into the story – only the results. The psychology of a killer is in many ways more important than his physiology. Merely hitting the high points of psychopathy – like most serial killers in their youth have tortured or killed animals – isn’t enough. Merely hating women isn’t enough. Something in the killer’s path has pushed him over the line from malcontent to murderer.

Did he accidentally kill someone in a fit of temper and “get away” with it but now he has to kill again to protect the life he’s built since (the example Frey uses in his book)? Did he like the thrill? What is he afraid of?

Simply put, if you don’t know how your killer got to the point we find him in this story he’s not going to be very compelling.

Frey spends about 20 pages on developing your murderer and becoming intimate with him. Obviously, I can’t do justice to Frey’s advice in the space of a blog post. But let me leave you with this:

Murderers are three-dimensional characters. They are clever, not just lucky. They are “evil” in the sense that their desires are the most important thing in the world to them. They are highly damaged people. Unless you know what drives your killer (his wound) you can’t know how he kills and won’t keep your reader engaged.

WEB_N Greene-1 You can find me at my blog. Twitter, and Facebook .

 

 

 

Valuing Your Characters or Maslow for Writers

A great plot and fantastic world building mean nothing without solid characters. Solid characters? Aren’t protagonists supposed to have weaknesses, flaws, desires which make them easier to relate to? And aren’t antagonists supposed to have soft spots to make them less stereotypical? True enough. But how do we determine those qualities?

Solid, well rounded characters, above all else, need value systems. What is the character’s core philosophy? What does he/she value above all else? What is most important? Family? Survival? Pursuit of knowledge? Loyalty? Money? Control? Love? Revenge? Adherence to rules? Fully realized characters have values which are challenged as they try to achieve their goals or live up to them. For example, an heiress, loyal to her father and his values which made him wealthy, searches for love and finds it in someone who hates everything her family stands for.

Value systems create opportunity for conflict and give characters depth. Once we’ve discovered those values, the plot comes alive as characters struggle to be true to themselves. For example, in The Hunger Games, despite all contestants valuing survival, they each value other things which motivate them: Katniss wants to save her sister and to avoid loving people but finds herself falling in love with Peeta who she’ll have to kill to win the competition; and Peeta wants to save Katniss but to do so, he must overcome his pacifist nature and kill others.

Ask – What three things does your character value the most?
The most important thing for X is: survival ….. adhering to the rules ….. scientific discovery …. family ….. avoiding love … finding love …. and so on.

We can use Maslow’s Hierarchy to explore the range of values to determine which ones will create the most conflict for our character and our story. Maslow’s Hierarchy orders our human needs from the most basic to self-actualization. Remember, fulfilling our needs determines what our values are at any given point in our lives. That means we can be on level 1 while trying to achieve level 5 because conflicts are never tidy packages – they are individual to the person and even to the culture.

Maslow’s Hierarchy
Level 1 – Survival: basics such as food, shelter, water, clothing, health – what the human body requires to function
Level 2 – Safety and security: personal (violence, natural disaster), financial, health and well being
Level 3 – Love/belonging: friendship, intimacy, family, this is our tribal nature of needing to belong in a group to enhance safety and survival needs
Level 4 – Esteem: being respected by others, needing status, recognition, fame, prestige, and attention. self-respect, mastery, independence and freedom. Respect = greater power
Level 5 – Self-actualization: concerns personal growth and fulfilment

Now use Maslow’s Hierarchy to understand your character’s values and to create conflict. Let’s start with Cindy. She’s a mom, a scientist and a peace activist.

Ask – What three things are most important for Cindy? What does she value? How does that fit into the hierarchy?1) winning the Pulitzer prize for peace by creating a Virtual web around the earth which neutralizes weapons (levels 4 and 5);
2) survival because nuclear proliferation threatens world safety (levels 1 and 2); and
3) her family (level 3).

Create your plot line by threatening all or some of the values or pitting them against one another:
Terrorists steal Cindy’s invention to use it to control all political powers on earth. Cindy must cooperate by agreeing to be their spokesperson and by activating the device in order to save her family. Will Cindy sacrifice her family to save the world? Will she die saving the world but be dishonoured as a traitor?

The higher levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy can be compromised by the lower basic needs or vice versa. Take a value and either go higher or lower on the chart to find a situation or value which can undo it. Ask what your character wants to gain and then ask how that can be undone or threatened by another value or what the effect of that will be.

Once you’ve determined your character’s values, putting them in emotional or physical conflicts which challenge those values makes for interesting reading. How your character responds to those situations creates wonderful opportunities for more action and reaction and moves the story along.

And, as an added bonus, focussing on values helps create the elusive pitch! Here are two quick pitches developed using Maslow’s Hierarchy and a character’s values.

Tom cannot remain the invisible technician aboard a space ship (level 4) when a computer virus compromises life support (levels 1 and 2) and he must overcome his insecurities (levels 4 and 5) to find the traitor before everyone dies.

Kim values family above all else (level 3) but his desire for wealth (level 2) puts him in a compromised position which threatens to bankrupt him and leave his family penniless (levels 1 and 2).

Using these examples create a story by exploring the protagonist’s values. Ask yourself: What is important to the character? What threatens his values? Now, create the supporting characters and determine what is important to each of them. Which of their values will conflict with the protagonist? What internal conflicts arise for each character?

By answering these questions, your plot comes alive through conflict, your characters rise beyond cardboard cut-outs and your readers, well, they’ll love you for it!

So, value your character by developing personal values which are threatened or clash with one another. Let those values drive the plot and watch your story come alive.

Happy writing!

Research sources:
psychology.about.com/od/theoriesofpersonality/…/hierarchyneeds.ht
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maslow’s_hierarchy_of_needs
www.businessballs.com Ҽ leadership/management
http://changingminds.org/explanations/needs/maslow.htm