Tag Archives: Character

Building Wisdom

Knowledge + Experience = Wisdom.

Great writers develop a deft touch and an extensive toolkit of skills to draw upon. They marry their knowledge with their experience to produce something more. The good news is that we don’t each have to discover every skill ourselves in a vacuum.

I enjoy reading. I always have. It is one of the reasons I turned to writing as a youth. I find reading to be a great escape, which is probably why one of my favorite genres is fantasy. I love getting lost in a good story. However, as a writer there’s so much more a good story can provide than just the escape. Great authors teach those willing to learn from their experience, those able to see. I struggle sometimes to do that. I tend to get sucked in too deep to analyze as I read. Usually I have to go back and study after I reach the end.

In a recent post, Leigh talked about how she learns from great authors. I haven’t yet tried the technique she recommends, but I think when I do it will help cement even better some of the lessons I learn from authors I enjoy.

In my own writing, I’ve developed some strengths, and am working to identify additional areas for improvement.  One strength of mine is action scenes. I’ve spent a lot of time working on these, and I’ve studied some great authors to learn ways to improve delivery of a good action scene. Matthew Reilly, author of Scarecrow, is one example. This book is an excellent military thriller that delivers non-stop action from page one to the very end. From him, I learned the importantce of keeping sentences and even paragraphs short in action scenes to ratchet up the tension. That simple change in structure has a huge impact. Another critical element for writing great action scenes is to use multiple senses to really draw the reader into the action and help them feel the danger. Too many authors gloss over action scenes at a high level and miss delivering that visceral experience to the reader.

On the other hand, an area I am working to improve is character depth/complexity/arc. Since I write fantasy, not thrillers, I need more character development and depth than a pure thriller might worry about, so I’ve turned to other authors for insights.

I recently read Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind. I thoroughly enjoyed the novel, and learned some lessons from it. The book is very interesting, but not really very action packed. Despite the lack of lots of action, it did not bore me or let my interest wander. That’s because it is a great example of a fascinating, complex world brought to life with excellent descriptions, and a character we really root for. These are things I can learn from and add to the solid structure and explosive action scenes I already know how to write.

Another book I recently finished reading was The Warded Man by Peter V Brett. This is a dark fantasy with a brilliant concept and truly high stakes. Again, the action scenes were not what jumped out at me in this book. Instead, the magic system and precarious situation of the characters sucked me in. The worled was well defined and exotic, and all the main characters were complex and compelling. I plan to study this book again with an eye toward developing stronger, multi-faceted characters.

I’m on the hunt for other books that are great examples of particular skills. What books do you consider landmark novels that have taught you or given you insights to lift your craft to a higher level?

The Conflicts of Character Design

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.

Method Writing

Ever had your heart broke?  Or lost someone you love? Or been in a traumatic accident?  Or been scared witless?  Or held your baby for the first time?  Or got married? Or any host of circumstances where you felt an emotion strongly, so strong that even remembering it causes your heart to race or your skin to get goosebumps?  Method actors use sense memory to recreate an emotion they can tap into for acting scenes.  I’m going to suggest that writers do the same thing.  It’s not the only way – but it is one way.

If we can connect with our emotions to write a better scene, I think we should.  Not gonna say it can’t be exhausting, but then it depends on the emotion – right?  Being really in tune with our feelings is not always easy, remembering difficult ones  – even harder.  But, if I can make a reader cry because my character is sad over a loss, then I am doing my job.   

When I read, I read to feel a certain emotion.  David Wolverton/Farland said (and I’m paraphrasing) that we like genre fiction because of the emotions it brings out in us and they are mostly named for the sense of what they inspire in us – SciFi/Fantasy – a sense of wonder, romance – romance, mystery/suspense – a thrill of suspense….and so on…. Seems obvious, right?  But, I’ll admit I hadn’t thought of it until he said it.  And, I have to be in the right mood to read a certain genre.  And, I have to know what the genre is before starting or I will have an incorrect set of promises to be kept by the writer.

As a tangent – ever start reading something expecting one thing and then it doesn’t meet your expectations?  Every time this has happened to me, it was because the rules of the genre weren’t being met.  We make contracts with our readers (again paraphrasing Dave and others) by identifying with a genre.

When I read romance, I better know right away who my hero and heroine (h/h) are and no matter the ups and downs (required) they have to go through they better end up in love at the end.  That’s what I expect when I pick up a romance and that’s what I better get or I am going to be one unhappy camper.

Each genre has their own specific rules or expectations and we, as writers, need to follow them in order to keep our readers reading.  Tangent over.

Now – why are these emotions so important and why would I want to relive potentially painful memories in order to write?  Because if I can remember how I felt living that emotion, I may be better able to convey it to my reader.  I write romance, so when the h/h are having troubles and are feeling sad or angry over those troubles, I need to have my reader identifying with that sadness or anger.  I want them to cry or ball up their fists alongside the character.  I want them to laugh or get turned on right beside the character.  The emotion should resonate with them.  No matter what that emotion is.

So, I challenge you as writers to remember those strong emotions, recall what was going on with your body – shallow breathing, increased heart rate, tight chest, big smile, chills, and so on.  Remember and write from that place.
Gift your readers that experience.  Be a Method Writer.



My Alien Being

I’m sitting on the beach in Essouira, Morocco. No bikinis dot the Sahara-red sand. There’s just kids playing soccer, tourists declining barkers carrying silver trays of delicate sweets rebaked in the afternoon sun and camels carrying giddy riders through sea side dunes. Surf’s high – so high the pulsing ocean is blood red with a ribbon of frothing foam and the sea monster’s mouth snaps shut on the shore. A shard of light spears roiling storm clouds. Awestruck, I gape, ignoring the stinging sand in my eyes and the salty spray turning my hair prematurely white. I want to fall to my knees in reverence knowing that if I wasn’t a child of science, this moment would be my moment of truth because I’ve seen the Angel. From this point forward, my writing would no longer be of fantasy but of prophecy and revelation.

Walking through the Medina, with store keepers cooing enticements of shared tea or special deals for pretty women or special Berber massages, I’m reminded that I’m not simply the observer, I’m the alien being observed. No matter how modestly I’m dressed, how respectful I’m being, I’m still a foreigner in a country where I don’t speak the main language. And I love it. I laugh at the offers, banter with the best all the while noting my reactions and theirs.  But then I’ve had enough. Enough of the smells of sweet spices teasing my nostrils which have just been assaulted by heaps of raw fish. Enough of chickens squawking while docile rabbits nibble grass in the butcher’s stall. Enough of brightly colored linens carefully displayed, leather goods spilling into the street, metal workers hammering out bowls. Enough of watching the ebb and flow of tourists pushing, vendors enticing and arms desperately flailing about to secure a good deal.

Alienness overload. That’s what this is.  

Somewhere deep inside, we all try to understand the alien within ourselves otherwise, we wouldn’t be writing fantasy. But writing is a safe way to practice the alien experience vicariously through the new worlds we’ve built, through plot twists and every character’s angst. Sometimes it’s too safe and our writing suffers for it. When we’re too familiar with something, we lose the rawness of wonder. We need to remember that rawness, that excitement and fear when our character enters a new world. We can’t let our familiarity overshadow the character’s experience.

That’s why I like to travel to countries where I don’t understand the language and the customs are totally new. It’s raw. It’s exciting. Sometimes it’s overwhelming. But always, it reminds me that my characters have their own points of view about the world they’re experiencing. I know that when something so familiar to others is so new to me. It’s safe but it isn’t. It’s fun but it’s scary. It’s awesome and it’s overwhelming. Those feelings are what I must hold on to because my characters can never be as comfortable as I am about the new world I’ve created for them.

I am their interpreter. Bringing their experiences to life on the page. Finding that raw edge, the vulnerability that makes them spin out of control or struggle for control in the alien landscape. I challenge them by committing the cultural faux pas which forces them to take desperate actions to survive.

Understanding the alien within never gets any easier – it only gets more exciting. Our need for belonging and security heightens our awareness yet when those needs are our memories of alienness drift away. So I travel the roads unknown taking care to note the alien nature, the creeping comfort of familiarity and to translate that to the written word. Somewhere in those gems of observations are not only the feelings my characters will have, but the sparks of ingenuity for inspiring deeper, richer worlds where angel swords pierce the heart, sea monsters snatch unwitting victims from the shore and someone falls in love with the alien.