Tag Archives: Characters

Real Characters

Like many of you, I read a lot. I love the new stuff and the classics. LOTR, Les Miserables, Moby Dick, all fantastic books. But there is no denying that they hold a different voice than novels of today. It’s not just words either. 

First Person POV like, “Call me Ishmael. Some years ago- never mind how long precisely- having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought…” has changed. Before it was like the telling of something that happened. But now, even though most First Person POVs are written in past tense, there is a closeness to them that makes it feel as if it is happening now. Present tense often has the effect of feeling like it is taking place in the near future.

First Person today or Close Third allow the reader to get inside the POV character’s head. This sets the medium apart from movies or television and I would propose that this is why the book is most often better than the movie.

For an author to do this effectively, the character needs to be alive with real thoughts and preferences and opinions. How else will they react to what comes their way? And isn’t this fantastic story telling? When the characters take hold and even argue with us the author.

I saw a documentary about the filming of Indiana Jones, Raiders of the Lost Ark. There is a scene where a samurai guy whips around his sword and taunts Jones. The documentary said that the original script called for an intricate fight scene where Jones eventually beats the Samurai. But Harrison Ford argued that his character had a gun and would simply shoot the Samurai dead. The story was rewritten.

Recently I have been writing a thriller involving a hitman, an FBI agent, a financial guru in witness protection, and I needed another character to round out the mix—a face of the evil corporate conglomerate. Fei. She is a middle-aged Chinese national and she runs a section of the corporation, laundering money made from sex trafficking and drugs.

I’m a discovery writer so often times I start with an idea and see where it goes with a distant idea in mind. I did not expect what Fei decided to do.

I needed her to ask the hitman to kill this guy, but Fei let me know that this was not an easy thing for her to do and that she’d developed feelings for this dude. I pushed it. She had her lover killed. Part of her was sad, and another felt power and control. She handled the death in a very interesting way. Two chapters later and Fei is now a serial killer. I did not expect that at all, but Fei, with her personality, her childhood issues, her lust and disgust for men, her struggling marriage with a husband who is reluctant to come out of the closet, all of these dynamics have formed and created Fei, a person, a character, someone that I would recognize if I bumped into her on the street (and then I’d run like hell in the opposite direction).

Real characters aren’t cliché. They aren’t faceless drones. They are a compilation of many people. They have wants and goals and dreams and they struggle and have weaknesses. And when they are real, we as readers recognize that and the story resonates with us.

I watch people. (Not in a creepy way). I observe their mannerisms. I listen to their word choices. I notice their posture and eye movements. These things make someone unique. And I ask them questions. I listen to how they respond. I strive to understand their ambitions and fears.

All of these mesh and mingle and come out in my writing.

I came up with Jared Sanderson about 7 years ago. He is very real to me. I could describe his physical features that are a mesh of three of my friends. But this little segment, which is his intro into the story, shows a bit of who he is as a character.

“Jared Sanderson gnawed on the side of his thumb as he waited for the attorney. He had forgotten to moisturize so his skin flaked and cracked at the sides of his fingers. By impulse, he chewed away the dead skin, especially when nervous.”

Jace Killan

I live in Arizona with my family, wife and five kids and a little dog. I write fiction, thrillers and soft sci-fi with a little short horror on the side. I hold an MBA and work in finance for a biotechnology firm.

I volunteer with the Boy Scouts, play and write music, and enjoy everything outdoors. I’m also a novice photographer.

You can check out my books here or at my website www.jacekillan.com.

Take Control – Please!

Letting your character take control is essential to maintain the illusion that the events in your story are real. Yes, every story is an illusion and what makes it believable are the details as perceived by the character. When writing a representational story (where the writer never addresses the audience), you will need to let the character not only tell but experience story events in their fullest. That experience becomes believable to the reader when the characters actions, reactions, thoughts and perceptions feel genuine. The only way to make that happen is to let your character take control.

Letting your character take control doesn’t mean the story will run afoul and destroy your plot – it’s about enhancing the plot by making it and your character feel real and not contrived. It is about choosing and placing the important details. It’s about the details that make him tick, that color his world, that give him motive and have created his common sense and hence his intuition.

There are three things you can do to let your character take control effectively:

1. Understand how a character perceives and relates to his world

  • Physically through the five senses of touch, taste, smell, sight and sound.
  • Common sense which integrates what we’ve experienced through the five senses. It also helps us see the patterns in our life.
  • Intuition which recognizes the patterns in our lives and allows us to see or project where those patterns may lead us. Your character makes decisions for a reason which must feel genuine to the reader.Emotions which build upon experience and learning and provide a basis for motive and motivation.
  • Emotion is a reaction and colors how information is integrated. For example, a character may react to a strict upbringing by either always being afraid and leery of authority, or may have a total disregard for it. Either way, this will affect how he reacts in specific instances, the words he uses (metaphors) to describe places, people and events.
… larger than life characters … have a sense of self regard. Their emotions matter to them. They do not dismiss what they experience. They embrace life. They wonder about their responses to events and what such responses mean. They take themselves seriously…Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass

As your character lives in his world, he’ll perceive it through is senses, color his experience with his emotions, use his version of common sense and apply his intuition to move forward. When he does this successfully, he’ll be in control, his responses genuine and readers will love him for it.

2. Explore your character
This goes beyond the standard descriptions some writing advice advocates. As Les Edgerton points out in Hooked, a character’s physical description – unless markedly different from the norm – does relatively little to draw the reader in. A character doesn’t usually describe himself. He may describe someone else which in turns grounds the reader. But HOW he describes someone or the scenery around him tells us a lot about him and the lens through which he sees the world. He may even have physical reactions such as running his fingers though his hair when he sees someone’s unkempt hair or a desire to vomit at a certain smell. Thus, you can show rather than tell when you know your character well and you let him take control.

…possibilities only emerge when we demand more from the idea, when we ask more why and what result questions. Characters & Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card

The easiest way to do this is to write a detailed background history for your character as if you were there. As you get to know his trials and tribulations, the major influences in his life, his fears and desires and yes, even the little things that comforted him, it will become easier to show him in a genuine and full way because the all the important WHY questions become answered. Why does he do that? Why does he feel that? Why wouldn’t he…? Why, if he’s in a responsible position, acting irresponsibly? Why is he so caring about x and then so obtuse and mean about y?

3. Use the things you know about your character against him.
This puts him in a situation which shows who he is and compels him to act (whether running to or from the situation). If your character takes control of the story, his reactions may surprise you. The added benefit is that it cures your writing of the murky-middle syndrome. Often times I’ll ask my character what he sees and how he feels about things. Between his perceptions and his gut reaction, the story moves forward and I have little work to do except to write.

Fictional Characters come to life by giving them individual traits, real weaknesses and heroic qualities that readers can recognize and empathize with. You play these against each other to achieve drama. For instance, a man who is afraid of heights but who must climb a mountain to save his love. The Fiction Writer by Nina Munteanu

In his book, Writing Fiction for Dummies, Randy Ingermanson sums up why you should let your character take control: A character’s past determines what sort of person you have coming into the story. The past is only the imperfect guide to the future, though. Your character has a free will and can choose to break loose from his past and pursue a new future. But will he succeed? Your goal as a novelist is to make it plausible that he might without making it a certainty.

When you know your character this well, he’ll control the story without you losing control.

Happy Writing!

Mean Salvation

Every new author’s challenge is to learn to tell a story well and to do so with a passionate heart. There are reams of advice on the internet, in how-to-write books, from writers groups and at conventions, workshops and seminars. Knowing basic plot structure is quick to learn but how does one navigate character depth and writing with a passionate heart?

When I was starting out, I went to my first writers group meeting with a completed 100,000 word novel. Someone offered to read it for me. I was ecstatic. The reader had some valuable insights: 1) don’t let your characters be stupid. It sounds harsh but it wasn’t. Given the incident she was referring to it made perfect sense and it was an easy fix; 2) characters need to be consistent and logical; and 3) you must be mean, even cruel to your characters.

Permission to be mean??? I was both ecstatic and mortified. How could I embrace this? I don’t like conflict. Reading fairy tales as a kid, I was so relieved when the happy endings came – I wanted the conflict to be over so I could relish those sweet but short utopias. Yet, those words of permission filled me with relief – I no longer had to be nice, the peacemaker, making everyone happy somehow through their struggle. I was never so nice to my characters that they were wimpy and the story was without conflict but I hadn’t gone far enough.

Permission to be mean was permission to delve deep into a character’s psyche, to understand their deepest fears, anxieties and painful back story. It was about not feeling guilty because the characters I loved had to experience trouble and pain.

Understanding that it was my responsibility to look into a character’s deepest fears and to throw them into the pits of emotional hell and physical danger made me a better writer. When I now read the how-to books and columns, I understand they are challenging us to search for those emotional pits of hell within ourselves, to be honest enough so we can make our characters sweat through them. For example, this spring I took a one day workshop with Donald Maass based on his book Writing 21st Century Fiction: High Impact Techniques for Exceptional Storytelling. That workshop was like being in therapy. We were asked questions similar to ‘What is the most painful secret you have? Where can you make your character feel what you are feeling right now?’

It’s a mean salvation for a writer – as we dig deeper and challenge our characters and are mean to them emotionally and physically, we are challenging our inner selves and are digging deeper into our own psyches.

The advice I was given when I started out makes sense now – if I dig deep within myself to understand emotional truth, dig deep within my character (my character isn’t me and her emotional truth isn’t necessarily mine), if I dig deep into the emotional realities of life (and they can be cruel), if I let my characters experience what they need, then I will be true (and logical) to my characters and my readers will experience a satisfying emotional journey. The added bonus was that I could now more easily ramp up conflict and tension.

Mean salvation – that’s the best way I can describe that first advice. We all live it, we write it and in our hearts, we know it. My favorite books make me live through those dark, awkward and painful moments with a character and in the end I embrace their journey although not all endings are sweet. Their catharsis is my catharsis. Their pain is my pain. Their salvation is my salvation.

It’s not like the song lyrics “you’ve got to be cruel to be kind” it’s that we’ve got to be cruel to be real, to dig down deep and face what makes us and our characters emotionally real. It’s mean salvation.

Anime: Aren’t They Just Cartoons?

Guest Post by Stone Sanchez

The year is 1998. I’m sitting at home watching the latest airing of Power Rangers in Space, excited to see my favorite multicolored team of heroes take out the newest baddie on the block. Up until now, the draw of other shows has been meaningless and nothing has been able to take me away from the Power Rangers franchise that I may have been a little obsessed with. (If I’m honest with myself, I’m still a little obsessed with it.) Outside of mega titles like X-Men, Spiderman, and Superman: The Animated Series-shows that I only watched with some form of regularity-the Power Rangers franchise had me completely hooked.

Until that fateful day when my brother runs into our room just as the theme to Space is about to start and he changes the channel on me. All of a sudden I’m greeted by the image of what looks to be two aliens flying in front of the moon. The words “I wanna be the very best, that no one ever was” play in my ears … and from that moment my world was changed. I had just experienced Pokémon for the first time, and by extension, anime.

dhy_ya061 ANIMEThe word “anime” is usually mistaken to come from the word “Japanimation,” a word that was coined in the 1980s and commonly used to reference animated series made in Japan. This origin, while seemingly very possible, is inaccurate. Anime is actually the Japanese’s shortened word for the English word “animation.” In Japan, the term is used to describe any works that have been animated-be it from Japan or anywhere else. Outside of Japan, using the word anime is reserved and specified for Japanese Cel Animation only.

What is anime, though? What makes it different from any other regular Saturday morning cartoon? Absolutely everything! A major difference between anime and cartoons is in the art. While American art is very basic, usually putting just enough effort to make the characters recognizable, anime is very artistic and creative when it comes to the depiction and distinction of each character, depending on which stylized version of anime you watch. But the biggest is in story.

In Cartoons we only see kids deal with kid situations, and adults deal with adult situations. This line is skewered in anime. Case in point: Gundam Wing. Five teenagers ages 15-16 are sent to Earth from the Space Colonies to begin terrorist attacks on the unsuspecting OZ organization. In the fallout, these teens must deal with being hunted, hated, and targeted at every turn. Throughout the show they deal with emotional strain from constant war, being betrayed by the home they thought they were protecting, and become ostracized by the world.   Teen depictions in Cartoons are usually comedic while dealing with their issues. Even in the great American Cartoons like Avatar: The Last Airbender, tense situations are usually broken by a comedic gesture so that the tone of the show isn’t too heavy.

There are different ways anime can be categorized.  Luckily for us, the Japanese have given us several ways to do this:cb_ed0050 ANIME

  1. On one hand, it can be broken down anime by genre. You have your run of the mill action/adventure, horror, sci-fi, drama, progressive, and then one not so normal: game-based. This is used to denote animes that are based off a game. (Yu-gi-oh is a good example.)
  2. More specifically, you can categorize anime by demographic. The Japanese have specific names for each demographic.
  • Shojo: This brand denotes anime made for young girls from the ages of ten to eighteen. (Sailor Moon, Cardcaptor Sakura, Kaicho wa Maid-sama)
  • Shonen: This is usually targeted at male ages ten and up. There’s no age cap to seal that limit. (Dragon Ball Z, Naruto, Bleach)
  • Seinen: Targeted at males over the age of eighteen, Seinen is sometimes mistaken  for the Japanese Hentai category. In actuality, Seinen anime emphasizes storyline and character development instead of focusing on just the action and powers of the characters. Oftentimes, due to its concentration on plot and characters, Seinen may be confused with Shojo, but ultimately comes out as Seinen as the show is played out. (Ghost in the Shell, Hellsing, Akira)
  • Josei: Young women ages fifteen to forty-four are the target market. Unlike Shojo anime, this category is more restrained with its animation. There are no sparkling eyes, although the wispy features of the characters are kept. Unlike Shojo, Josei deals with a very realistic aspect of relationships and takes away the romanticized view of everything that Shojo usually contains. (Paradise Kiss, Loveless, Between the Sheets)
  1. One of the last ways to classify Anime is by the themes of the story:
  • Bishojo: Anime with beautiful girls. (The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, Sailor Moon, Lucky Star)
  • Bishonen: Anime with guys with pretty, girlish features. (Kaicho Wa Maid-Sama, This Ugly Yet Beautiful World, Getbackers)
  • Sentai: Anime with teams of fighters. On a reference note, Power Rangers was based off a Japanese show called “Super Sentai” (Dragon Ball Z, Yu Yu Hakusho, King of Fighters)
  • Mecha: Anime with giant robots in them. (Gundam, Robotech, Neon Genesis Evangelion)
  • Post-apocalyptic: Anime taking place after the world has already ended. (The Big O, Cassherin Sins, Desert Punk)
  • Maho Shojo: Anime based on magical girls. (Sailor Moon, Princess Tutu, Shugo Chara!)
  • Maho Shonen: Anime based on magic boys. (G Gundam, Nagima! D.N Angel)
  • Expertise: Sports, arts, cooking-related anime. (Whistle, Prince of Tennis, Kaleido Star )
  • Harem: One guy with a lot of female romances. (Tenchi Muyo, Shuffle, Love Hina)
  • Reverse Harem: Anime where a girl has romances with multiple guys. (Candy Candy, Fruits Basket, Princess Army: Wedding Combat)

pp_rangiku002 ANIMEThese are the building blocks of anime. Some of these themes can be translated into anime’s counterpart, cartoons, but usually most cartoons aren’t willing to go as far as anime is. Liberties are taken with darker tones, risqué characters, and “grey area” subject matter. Whereas cartoons in America are specifically seen as things for kids to watch, with the exception of shows like South Park and Archer, anime in Japan has a categorization for every demographic and is not strictly seen as childish or immature.

Anime is a very broad subject, and this post barely scratches the surface. There are many differences between anime and cartoons and within anime itself. If you’ve never watched any anime before, do so. You may be surprised to find out you’re one of those “anime people” after all.

Here are my top picks: Cowboy Bebop, Gurren Lagann, Ghost in the Shell, Eden of the East, Clannad, Gundam 00 (I’m obsessed with Gundam), Desert Punk, Tenchi Muyo, Another, Yu-Yu Hakusho, The Big O, Samurai Champloo.

Stone Sanchez is an aspiring professional author that has been active in the writing community for the past two years. Currently Stone is associated with the Superstars Writing Seminars by recording, and managing the production of the seminars when they occur. He’s also worked with David Farland recording his workshops, and is currently the Director of Media Relations for JordanCon, the official Wheel of Time fan convention. Often referred to as the “kid” in a lot of circles, Stone is immensely happy that he can no longer be denied access places due to not being old enough.

Photos are courtesy of the website http://www.animegalleries.net/