What to Remember When Characters Break the Rules

Do not create characters who are too good to be true. Even your protagonist needs to have a flaw.

We’ve all heard this advice, or something very like it, at one time or another. And it makes sense. Perfect characters are off-putting. They maintain, and hold everyone else, to an impossible standard.

To avoid this, we introduce character flaws. We make sure that our characters make bad decisions. Periodically, they have to break the rules.

That said, you have to make it work. This rule breaking can’t be random. And it can’t be meaningless. Here are four things to remember when your character breaks the rules.

You Have to Know Why

Your character may not know why she is breaking the rules. Your reader may not know why. But you have to know. What is your character’s motivation for breaking the rules?

My husband and I have been watching Season 1 of The Umbrella Academy. It is a little embarrassing to admit that my favorite character is Klaus. It might be his inappropriate sense of humor. Or the fact that he breaks every single rule and guideline. But even when I didn’t know why he broke the rules, I knew there was a reason. After all, his siblings were never surprised even when they were profoundly disappointed.

Look at Whose Rules Are Being Broken

Not all rules carry the same weight. A character who is part of a gang or cartel will break society’s rules. Why? Because middle class, law-abiding rules just don’t matter. Don’t take what doesn’t belong to you. Don’t lie. Pfft. This character isn’t going to care.

But the rules of the gang or cartel will be altogether different. Those rules are important because that is the society the character is part of. To the character, these rules matter.

Even a character who seems chaotic, and very few characters are as chaotic as Klaus, has a code. Know what it is and keep it in mind as you pick and choose which rules your character breaks.

Little by little you can make the reasons why clear to your reader.

–SueBE

3 Tips for Creating Characters with Depth

Make sure your characters are unique and individual.

In my middle grade science fiction novel, I have two primary groups of characters. There is my protagonist and her two brothers. That’s the main group. Then there is the second group of young characters. Like the first group, they are siblings and there are thee of them.

This shouldn’t be too many characters but I find myself having to make certain that I don’t have only two basic characters, each sporting three names. It would be easy to do because I’ve got my elite group and the group that has had fewer opportunities. It would be so easy to have one group react to everything in one way and the other group react in another way. Three and three. No differentiation.

Fortunately, there are things we can do as writers to keep that from happening.

Character Sketches

The first step is to develop a character sketch of each character. Yes, I have three siblings from the same socio-economic background, but they are different ages. They have different hobbies and interests. They have different personalities and strengths.

It might seem like a lot of work to do these things for secondary characters but I want to avoid stereotypes. To do this, I need to know each of the six young characters as individuals.

Knee Jerk Reactions

As I get to know these characters, I will develop a feel for their knee jerk reactions. How do they react when a glass of water is knocked over at the dinner table? When an alarm goes off? When things suddenly go sideways?

This may seem like a strange group of questions but this was something I discovered watching the tweens and teens gather around my dining room table to game. When someone opens a two-liter of soda and it sprays out from under the cap, each one of them reacts in a unique way. One girl puts her hands on her head, mouth and eyes wide open. One boy starts barking orders. Another girl cracks up. One of the boys reaches out, grabs the bottle and cranks the lid back down, ending the spray. Four kids, four reactions.

Emotion

Now that you’ve considered knee jerk reactions, think about how your character expresses a range of emotions. How would each of these kids express joy? Anger? Confusion?

We tend to think of each emotion as having a fixed expression. When people experience joy, they laugh. But do they? My husband almost never laughs aloud but he stands and nods. My brother-in-law claps. Me? I tend to laugh like a loon. What can I say, my laugh has been described as “unique.”

Reach this point and you may not have all of the answers but you are well on the way to creating unique characters who go beyond the two-dimensional.

–SueBE

3 Ways Details Make a Difference

Nocturnal hallway lit by my flash.

I just met another deadline and have been getting ready to work on fiction again. Nonfiction is my natural writing fit but I have so many fiction ideas.

Okay, that’s not true. I do have a lot of fiction ideas. But I have to keep reminding myself that while I think of nonfiction as a natural fit, I had to learn to write it. My first lesson – how to hook the reader.

I have some idea how to do that in fiction but this weekend a lesson fell into my lap. This particular lesson was on details, specifically setting details. Take a look at two photos of the same hallway.

The top photo is the hallway at the lodge where we spent the weekend. The light doesn’t extend all the way to the end so something could be hiding down there. So it is a little creepy but not too bad.

Hallway from Hell

If only this is how it normally looked. During the day, the lights are on and it just looks like a hallway with green carpet (ugh) and white walls. But at night? At night it is normally lit only by the exit signs.

Totally different atmosphere. Creepy, scary and, I have to admit, I hate getting up at night to make the trip to the bathroom. Hate it! And all that has changed is the color of the light. Details make a huge difference in setting.

And setting isn’t the only area impacted by the details in your story. Details can also be used to forshadow upcoming events.

If the character thinks that the red light looks like blood . . . firelight . . . or rage, it could suggest something that is coming later in the story.

The same can be true of other types of detail. What a character carries in her backpack or purse could later provide a clue as to a murder weapon or a missing item grabbed from a museum. It could reveal who she really is and how she may have lied about herself if she claims not to have a dog but has a spare leash in her bag or says she is vegetarian but has an open package of jerky.

Which leads us to the last area I want to discuss. Details can also reveal things about your character. What would a dancer carry in her bag vs what a yoga teacher would carry? A scout working on a swimming badge would carry different things than a scout working on a first aid badge.

Setting, forshadowing and character can all be shaped by the details you describe in your stories. And, now it is time for me to get to work on chapter 3.

–SueBE

3 Ways to Get to Know Your Character

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Last week, I read a post on Janice Hardy’s blog about getting to know your character. She pointed out that since she writes science fiction and fantasy, a lot of the questions you are supposed to ask your character just don’t work.

Because I write for young readers, I can see her point. What is your character’s job? What does she drive? Where did she go to school? Hmm. My character is thirteen. She is still excited about sitting in the front seat but has a strong dislike for all things middle school. Like Hardy, I find it more helpful to ask the kinds of questions that drive the story.

Character Goal

What is it that your character wants more than anything else? Depending on your character, your setting and the age of your reader your character might want to. . .

  • pull the sword from the stone.
  • win the school spelling bee.
  • reinvent himself now that he’s starting a new school.

What’s at Risk

In addition to knowing what your character wants more than anything else, you need to know what it matters. What is at risk if your character fails?

  • the kingdom will be ruled by an evil sorcerer (I’m making things up as I go!).
  • the competing 3rd grade class will get the pizza party.
  • he will miss out on a chance to be popular.

Who Or What Stands in the Way

Your character wants something. You know why it matters. But you also need to know who stands in the way. It can be a person, a thing, or even something inside the main character.

No matter what genre you or writing or how old your reader is, these are quesitons that you should be able to answer about your main character. And once you answer them, you are on the way to getting to know them.

–SueBE

Get to Know Your Character

There are numerous ways to get to know your character. They can write you a letter. You can contemplate what is in their backpack or even in the back of their closet. Me? I like to noodle over what they are reading. It sounds pretty simple. What types of books does your character read?

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  • The teen looking for true love might read romance.
  • The kindergartner who dreams of a puppy selects books about dogs.
  • The tween who is all about facts loves to read science.

It seems pretty simple doesn’t it. That’s why we need to dig deeper. And one way to do this is to ask yourself these questions.

What does your character read on her phone/kindle?

What would she read only on-screen so that no one could see the cover? Or, if she is a serious student, this might be something light, a book her friends would consider frivolous.

What does your character keep on her bedside table? Or the bookshelf in his room?

The books in perfect condition were most likely gifts. Things your character didn’t choose and will probably never pick up. But the books within easy reach? The ones that aren’t dusty and are more than a little ragged? Those are favorites.

What books are on your character’s coffee table?

If your character is an adult, these books may be the opposite of the e-reader titles. What books does your character want to be seen by other people? A student in a dorm might have these books on the corner of their desk. Or someplace at eye-level when people enter the room.

How might reading choices be misleading?

I added this question because of a friend’s son. At a family dinner, this teen might be in the corner reading Dante’s Inferno or a book of German philosophy. But he isn’t doing it to show of. He’s beyond bright and doesn’t care what others think. What books could lead people to the wrong conclusions about your character?

–SueBE

4 Ways Readers Get to Know Your Character

As writers, we spend an amazing amount of time getting to know our characters. Then we have to figure out how to introduce them to our readers. There are four ways we can do this. In the DIY MFA Writer Igniter challenge, Gabriela Pereira refers to them as TADA:

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Thought and Feeling

What does your character think about what is going on? This doesn’t mean that you have to say, “Jane was angry.” But perhaps you could say, “Jane couldn’t believe that she had to give up her entire Spring Break.”

Action

What your character actually does. Something that Pereira pointed out is that we should pay attention to contradictions such as when our character’s actions contradict what she thinks, feels or says. So Jane may resent giving up Spring Break but . . . “Jane couldn’t believe she had to give up her entire Spring Break, but she pasted a smile on her face.”

Dialogue

Again, this can be particularly revealing when it contradicts emotion or action. “Jane couldn’t believe she had to give up her entire Spring Break, but she pasted a smile on her face. ‘What an honor to be a part of the team.'”

Appearance

This goes beyond eye and hair color. What involuntary reactions can be seen by those around your character. “Jane couldn’t believe she had to give up her entire Spring Break, but she pasted a smile on her face. ‘What an honor to be a part of the team,’ Jane said as she grasped the shell charm that matched the one worn by her friend.

Character compasses. Four from my mentor text. One from my own work.

The tricky thing about using all four of these elements is that we tend to rely on one or two more than the others. To reveal which ones you rely on and which ones you neglect, Pereira suggested that we graph the four on a compass. North is Thought/Feeling, East is Action, South is Dialogue, and West is Appeance.

Read a scene. When you read one of these as it relates to your POV character, make a check. Let’s say that your scene has 18 Thoughts, 8 Actions, 20 Dialogues, and 2 Appearances. Put a dot on that axis proportionally near the center for low numbers and the outer circle for large. Then, to make it all more visible, connect the dots and color in the quadrangle.

The four melon colored compasses are from my mentor text, Plaid and Plagiarism. As you can see, the balance shifts from scene to scene. I went ahead on graphed my own opening scene.

What did I learn? Generally I use a lot of dialogue, but there are very few characters so scene 1 was more thought and action. But I’m going to have to make sure I get Appearance into the story and, for that, I will break out my Emotion Thesaurus.

–SueBE

3 Things You Need to Know about Inner Dialogue

The things your character says are dialogue. The things she thinks are inner dialogue. If inner dialogue isn’t part of your fiction toolbox, you need to find out why inner dialogue matters and when to use it. The why is fairly easy.

Make sure your character’s inner dialogue is more than just chatter. Photo by Sandy Torchon on Pexels.com

Inner dialogue is a great way to tell your reader how your character feels about something. Becca couldn’t believe she had wrecked her brother’s brand new car. He had worked for months to make the downpayment. All that work gone in a matter of minutes. Yet again she had let him down and this time she’d done it in a big way.

But the key to making it work is to dwell on her more important thoughts. In yoga, a mind that wanders is called a monkey mind. Jon, in my class, says I have a barrel of monkeys mind. He is not wrong. In a matter of seconds I can note the sound of rain, wonder if we have any more of the good coffee at home, and remember that I need to put the laundry in the dryer. But really? Who wants to know about the inane chatter of my monkeys? No one.

Instead, stick with things that matter to the story and that your reader can find out only by being told. This can include what the character wants (goals), why she wants it (motivation), and the stakes. Use the inner dialogue to give your reader important information about the character. Don’t just tally a higher word count. Make it matter!

For a really good list of types of information you can share through character thoughts, see Mary Kole’s Writing Character Thoughts. This is something I’ve been giving a lot of thought because my critique group is always asking me “How does your character feel about this?” Clearly, I need to make sure that the inner dialogue I include is meaningful and not just chatter.

–SueBE

5 Questions to Ask When Naming Your Character

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Recently I saw an article about 10 questions you should ask yourself before you name your character. Since I was getting ready to work on a new piece, I clicked through. Blah!

As usual, the author assumed that you were writing about adult characters. There were questions like what does your character do for a living, did she have a happy childhood, how did her last relationship end. I’m still not sure what I need to know some of that to come up with a solid character name. Whatever. The list did not work for me.

Being me, I made up my own list.

What Type of Story Is This?

Are you writing fantasy? Science fiction or historic fiction? All of this can inform the type of name you chose for your character. A fantasy set among woodland creatures may mean that your characters have names like Fern or Fawn.

What Five Physical Traits Describe Your Character?

How old are they? Are they tall? Muscular? Male or female? This last could be either biological or how they identify. Sunny might describe your character’s appearance or personality.

What Fiver Terms Would Your Character Use to Describe Themself?

Are they athletic? Analytic? Maybe they are loyal or crafty. I’m not setting this up as athletic OR analytic. They could be both. But pick five terms they would use about themself?

Where Do They Fall in Birth Order?

Is this child the oldest or the youngest? What does their place in the birth order represent within their family? This gets into culture but it can also impact how they are called. Someone who is the heir may be named after an older family member and have a dated name. Get creative!

What Is Their Role In the Story?

Is this character a leader? A problem solver? Maybe they are a trouble maker? Or the peace keeper?

Any and all of these answers can be used to help choose your character’s name. My story centers on the POV character and her two siblings. She is the middle child, a brainiac, science lover. I named her Ada.

We’ll see if it sticks!

–SueBE

3 Ways to Select a Character’s Job

Rather you are writing for young readers or adult readers, eventually you are going to have to give a character a job.  It might be a teen’s first job or the job of a character’s parent.  If you are writing a novel for adult readers, it might be your protagonist’s job.  I’ve been thinking about this a lot since reading a post by Angela Ackerman.  In noodling this over, I’ve come up with three ways to select your character’s job.

The Average Job

Your character needs money.  Your character has not inherited money.  Thus your character needs a job.  Sometimes it is okay to go with the obvious.  Your tween character babysits or mows lawns.  Your teen character works in food service or at the local grocery.  In Stranger Things, one of the characters works in the mall.  If Stranger Things can do it, you can do it.  But you may want your character’s job to reveal something.  That’s when you dig a little deeper.

Character Interests

A character who is on swim team might be a life guard.  Statistically, in my experience as a swim mom, this is actually pretty likely.  A character who loves to cook might bake cakes for birthday parties.  One of my son’s friends and his two cousins catered parties while they were still in high school.  Develop your character, find out who they are, and then come up with a job that is a good match.

Emotional Scars

Angela’s post was all about how a character’s emotional scars might impact the job they choose.  A character who lost their grandmother might want to work at a senior day care.  A character with negligent parents might choose a job that requires them to be incredibly reliable or a job with a lot of rules.

There are many ways to chose character jobs.  My only word of warning?  Writers seem to create a lot of characters who are writers.  Not that you can’t, but give it a little thought before you pick this one.

–SueBE

4 Rules for the Historical Fiction Road

The other day I read a guest post by Andrew Noakes on Jane Friedman’s blog.  He wrote about writing historical fiction and has some really good tips.  I’m going to expand on one of them and then add three  of my own.

No Hive Mind

I don’t remember how Noakes phrased this but remember when you are writing historical fiction that not everyone thinks the same way about every little thing.  Think about the Revolutionary War.  Should we remain an English colony or become free?  Not everyone agreed on which answer as right and the justifications for their opinions were wide ranging.  No matter what time period you are writing about, don’t have everyone think exactly the same thing.  But if your main character disagrees with her family, know why this might be.

Research Details for Settings and Artifacts 

A lot of authors who are new to historical fiction want to research every little detail.  And you do need to know enough to set your story in the appropriate culture. When I write historical fiction, I use my research to enrich the setting and the various artifacts that surround the character.  What would their school look like?  Does it have artificial lighting?  If so, is it electric?  Gas?  Oil lamps?  This keeps me from trying to research dialogue.

Dialogue Rules

In his post, Noakes wrote about not writing dialogue that sounds like it is from that time period.  When you do this, you produce dialogue that is largely unreadable.  This is especially serious if you write for young readers.  You aren’t transcribing period dialogue.  You want to include just enough to give it the flavor of the time and place.  Do do this, I might use a few phrases or slang like “crazy” or “dolled up.”

Bridge

When you create a story set in a distant time and place, it can be tricky for readers to identify with your character.  To make this possible, provide a bridge.  Give your character emotions that readers can identify with or put them in a situation that they can empathize with.  Anger, joy, and hope are all identifiable emotions.  Family problems, school worries, and being the new kid at school are familiar situations.

Writing historical fiction isn’t easy but it is popular with readers of all ages.  Why not try to spin a story in your favorite historic period?

–SueBE