One Writer’s Journey

March 9, 2020

Three Ways to Avoid Dumbing Down Your Character

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:42 am
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I’m not sure how this came up the other night at book club, but one of us remembered a comedy routine about the Amityville Horror. The comedian said that if his house said “Get out!” he would leave.  Right then.  And it would be the world’s shortest movie.  Why?  Because when blood is running down the wall and a disembodied voice says “get it,” it is beyond brainless to ignore it.

And, yet . . . how often do we do this with our characters.  Sometimes it seems like the only way to get your character into some plot-essential “bad place.”  Or so it seems.  Or you could try one of these three ways to move things along.

Desperate situation. Instead of making your character make bad decisions, you can manufacture a horrible situation.  Your character is walking home from school when a storm drives them to seek shelter.  The closest available roof is an abandoned building.  Still seem like a dumb decision?  Throw hail into the storm and shelter becomes life saving.

Horrible choice.  You need your straight A character to skip school.  That’s not going to be a natural choice for most straight-A kids so you need to create a situation where they have to make this bad decision.  What could it be?  A message from a friend asking for help.  A humiliating event in the cafeteria makes them flee for home.  Create something that plays into your character’s weakness.

Playing dumb. Your character isn’t dumb but for some reason decides to play dumb.  Why would that be?  If my son couldn’t be the best, he wouldn’t even try and almost flunked AR in 2nd grade because of it.  Your smart character is accused of always showing others up and decides to let her friends solve the next problem that comes up no matter what.

Needlessly clueless characters are so frustrating.  Instead, create a situation where the only choices are bad ones and your character is struggling for a way out.

–SueBE

January 8, 2020

Character: Introductions

I’d say that I’m just short of the halfway point in the draft of my cozy mystery.  They tend to be about 85,000 words long. I’m at 42,000 words.

And, unfortunately, I’m having troubles keeping my secondary characters straight.  My detective, her best friend and a few other characters are rock solid in my mind.  I remember what each of them looks like, what I’ve written about them and what they were last doing in the book.

But some of my other characters?  “What the heck is his name?”  The love interest of one of my suspects makes a strong impression in the second chapter or so I thought.  But I can’t even consistenly remember his name.  How are my readers going to keep him and all my other secondary characters straight?

I begin to understand why the casts of characters in so many cozies are just a touch eccentric.  Quirky, over-the-top traits help them stand out in the reader’s mind.  When it comes time to rewrite, I’ll definitely have my work cut out for me.

In a recent blog post, former agent Mary Kole talks about helping the reader care about your characters.  You can do this by letting the reader know five things about your character, and Kole wants you to get this in in the first pages of your book.  My guess is that she’s talking about your main character but I’m going to keep this in mind as I work on those secondary characters as well.  Kole lists:

  • Something nice.
  • Something secret.
  • Something stormy.
  • Something past.
  • Something future.

Obviously, you can’t immediately go into great detail even if you are only considering these traits for your main character.  Sadly, I didn’t quite nail it even with her.  According to Kole, I need to give her a secret and a future.  And, I have to agree with Kole, it will make her more interesting.  Right now, she has a tendency to feel a bit like a victim and she isn’t even THE VICTIM.

Ah, well.  You know what they say.  The key to writing is rewriting.  I will definitely have some things to consider once I get that far!

–SueBE

October 25, 2019

Writing Fiction: Go Big or Go Home

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:27 am
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My favorite Kate DiCamillo character.

I’ve been trying to get back into my mystery this week and get started on a new picture book. . .

(cricket, cricket, cricket)

I say this and I’ve done some pre-work but sitting down to actually write has not been in the cards.  And the really sorry thing is that I don’t have a good reason.  Sure, I could list dozens of things that I have done – an interview, two trips to the library, worked out, etc.

But writing?  Nope.

Then I saw an interview today with Kate DiCamillo on her book Beverly, Right Here. In part, the interview is about DiCamillo’s tendency to give her characters big problems and trust her readers to deal with them.  But the interview also got me to thinking about the fiction I love.

Kate DiCamillo’s characters don’t just have big problems, they have HUGE personalities.  Think about Mercy Watson on Deckawoo Drive.  She is a big pig who loves hot buttered toast and her family and friends.  She is loaded with personality.

It doesn’t matter if I’m talking picture book, early reader, young adult or adult.  All of the books I love have personality to spare.  The Raven Cycle.  The Dresden Files.  The Troubleshooter series.  Strictly speaking, none of them are believable because the characters are just too . . . something.  What depends on the character.  But they are entertaining and compelling.

So maybe that’s what I need to look for in my own ideas.  Is my main character ho hum or packed full of personality?  If the latter, I think I’d be excited and ready to write.  But they seem to be the former so it is time for a makeover.  This is going to take some thought but that’s okay.  If I work it out in my head, then I will be prepared to work it out on paper.

And, on that note, I have to get ready for choir.  But when she’s working with the altos, I’ll be working on my character.

–SueBE

July 1, 2019

Creating Characters: Flawed But Believable

I love fiction.  I feel like I need to throw that out there every now and again since I write nonfiction.  Fiction may not be my writing mainstay but I love to read it.

One of the most difficult tasks in writing fiction, in my opinion, is creating a believable character.  Your character can’t be perfect.  Perfect characters are ho-hum boring.  But your flaws have to be believable.

Recently, my book club read a book about a woman spy.  The book was set during World War I. How this woman survived as a spy is beyond me.  Right up until the very end, she relied on men to rescue her.  Sure, she pulled the last one off herself but up until then I had no reason to believe she was capable.  And she walked right into a trap because she gave the code phrase out willy-nilly.

There is no way that this woman should have survived her first mission let alone an entire book. And then we discovered this wasn’t book 1 in a series.  It wasn’t even book 2.  Book 10.  So presumably she’s gotten better.

Suffice it to say that books one through nine will remain a mystery.  I just can’t do it.  She makes the Pink Panther look like James Bond.

You just can’t do this when you write.  Yes, your character needs to get into one fix after another but you can’t help it happen by making your character situationally brainless.  Do NOT do this.  Please.

There are a number of much better ways to accomplish it.  These include:

Your character misunderstands or misinterprets a clue.

Your character is misled by a good friend.

Your character thinks she’s good at something but she’s not and this flaw keeps her from solving a problem.

Or she’s overconfident and should have accepted help.

Or she’s been told she’s awful at something but actually has some talent.

Please oh please don’t periodically switch your character’s brain off to keep her in trouble.  Out of the eight women in my book club, only one of us is reading additional books in the series.  The rest of us have moved on to experience a character who hasn’t fatally disappointed us.

–SueBE

May 17, 2019

4 Things to Study in Screen Plays

Recently Writer’s Digest published a blog post about studying screen writing and what you can learn by reading specific Oscar winning screen plays.  Their post was intended for people who are studying screen writing. I’d like to expand on this – study screen writing and screen plays no matter what type of fiction you write.  Because there is something to learn whether you write picture books, graphic novels, or young adult mysteries.

Here are four things you can learn by reading screen plays.

The Three Act Structure.  Stories frequently consist of three acts – the beginning (introduction), the middle (body of the story), and the end (or resolution).  While fiction writers in general are aware of this, among the first to realize the importance may have been screenwriters.  In her Plot  Whisperer book, Martha Alderson pulls examples from both books and movies.

The Hero’s Journey.  The importance of this form in story telling may have first been discovered by Joseph Campbell who studied ancient stories and found that throughout time they consist of certain types of characters and certain plot points.  You have heroes and mentors.  You have a call and a climax.  To read more about this and how it applies to writing check out The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler.

Humor.  So often I see editors asking for books with more humor including books that deal with serious issues.  One of the screenplays on this list, The Apartment, was cited not only for being funny but also funny while dealing with the “unsavory.”  Loved the use of that word. Casablanca was also noted for its often humorous dialogue.

Characterization.  Speaking of Casablanca, another reason it made the list was for fully realized characters.  Even the cameos presented characters who were given an opportunity to shine.  There are no stock characters here so if you feel like your secondary characters come across as flat, check out this screen play.

Check out the post from Writer’s Digest, download the various screen plays and get to work.  It is time to make those manuscript shine!

 

March 12, 2019

Characterization and Dialogue: Keeping Things Real

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 2:57 am
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One of the most fascinating parts of writing fiction is creating characters that sound real in every way.  This means that their dialogue has to sound real and they have to be three-dimensional.

Dialogue can seem false when it is straight forward and oh so linear.  Character A asks a question.  Character B answers it.  Another question. Another straight forward response.  Back and forth again and again.

Zzzzzzz.

No one answers every question that they are asked.  Sometimes it is simply because each person has their own agenda.  One person is trying to have one conversation. Perhaps they are trying to find something out.  The other person also has an agenda.  Perhaps they are tying to get a point across.

Keep that in mind and the conversation might look more like Character A asks a question.  Character B gives a tiny bit of information but segues into something else.  Character A asks more or less the same question.  Character B may give a bit more information but again goes off on their own conversational tangent.

This is, of course, assuming that Character B isn’t intentionally hiding something.  We all have things we don’t want to talk about.  It could be something embarrassing (weight, debt, a bad grade), something we are simply tired of discussing (politics, a health problem, a failure), icky emotions (envy, lust, anger), things we are afraid of (heights, flying, storms), or past failures (losing a job or friend).

If Character A asks about something or comments on something that Character B would rather keep hidden, Character B might . . . dare I say it? . . . actually lie.  All of these things, the things the character wouldn’t want to discuss as well as the failure to always be straight forward, are going to make the character more realistic and more believable.  The dialogue will be less robotic and more realistic as well.

Just a few things that I’m thinking about as I draft my mystery.

–SueBE

February 28, 2019

Characters: Doing Things Right and It Still Goes Wrong

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:05 am
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Recently, I rediscovered the Tweet to the right on Pinterest. It’s one I pinned that has been getting saved a lot lately.

Yet again, it really spoke to me.  I’ve been trying my hand at writing fiction and getting my characters into trouble without having them look like complete ding bats is tough.

I returned a book to the library without finishing it because the character seemed to be at the mercy of the story.  The author needed X to happen so it happened.

I think of this at the Amityville Horror effect.  You go in the house, a disembodied voice says “get out,” and instead you move in.  Really?  Cause there would have to be something awfully bad in the front yard for me to say inside.

How then do I put my character in a tough spot?  Here are a few ways:

Have two equally deserving characters competing for the same thing.  It could be for the blue ribbon at state or for a scholarship.  But there’s only one.  Who is going to win?

There are no good choices, only bad choices.   You can write these situations in either fiction or nonfiction.  In Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War by Steve Sheinkin, Ellsberg has to decide whether he will betray his friend or his country.  Put your character in a situation where something must be sacrificed either way. Think Hunger Games.

What other ways can you “write smart”?  Your character could make what seems like a good choice but it is based on misinformation.  Rebecca Roanhorse uses misinformation to great effect in Trail of Lightning.  Face it, her character is dealing with Coyote. You know the facts will be twisted but the trick is in figuring out how.

Writing smart isn’t easy but it will keep your readers reading.  And isn’t that our goal?

–SueBE

September 14, 2018

5 Minutes a Day: Testing Your Characters and Your Setting

Are your characters unique?  Is your setting woven into your story? These are the kinds of things that can make a story top-notch instead of ho-hum.  Here are some simple thing you can do to test how well you’ve done.

Change the setting for your story.

If your story is contemporary, consider resetting it 100 years ago.  If it is set in modern New York, move it to San Antonio.

If this is easy to do and nothing changes, you need to weave your setting deeper into your story.  The time period needs to be seen through the culture, the artifacts, and how people get around.  The environment needs to impact people’s clothing and outdoor activities.  The culture of where they are needs to come into play.

If your story can take place any-where and any-when, sadly you have work to do.

Swap one character for another.  

Two of your characters are about to confront the antagonist.  Swap the secondary character for a different secondary character.

Or your main character has just discovered who the informant is.  Swap this sneaky so-and-so for another secondary character.

Does your main character have two sidekicks?  Find a scene with both of them in it.  Can you cut it to only one sidekick?

Or find a scene with only one sidekick.  Can you swap this sidekick for the other.

Love interests, adversaries, and mentors can all be tested in similar ways if there is more than one.

You’ve probably guessed by now but if you can swap one for the other or eliminate one altogether, they are too much alike.  They are probably also two-dimensional. Contemplate what you can do to make them both interesting and integral to the story.

If you’ve discovered that your setting and/or your characters are ho-hum, don’t panic.  Rewrites are a great opportunity to fix problems just like these.  Speaking of which, I have a two-dimensional sidekick to bring into a three-dimensional world.

–SueBE

February 23, 2018

5 Minutes a Day: Using Pinterest Boards to Develop Characters and Create Backstory

claras-wardrobe.jpgI’m still working on my mystery and this week I’ve been creating Pinterest boards.  Secret Pinterest boards that only I can see are a great place to deepen my characterization.  Because they are secret, no one else can see them but I can use them to save things pertinent to my main character.

What kinds of boards can you create for your character? The most obvious would be to detail how my character looks. But the problem with that is that physical appearance is the most shallow level of characterization . . . unless it serves a deeper purpose.

In my book, Clara has her own unique style based on the clothing of the 1940s. That’s pretty different from most of what you see today so I spent time pinning a variety of patterns.  I know she wears blues and greys but I didn’t worry about pinning colors, just the clothes themselves including dressy clothes, sporty clothes and purses.  The really funny part of this is that I’m pretty much opposed to shopping and my own fashion consists of light or heavy yoga pants.

But as I sought these clothes, I thought about the person who would wear them.  Especially the contemporary person who would wear them.  That gave me insight into her job which led me to develop a fictitious book series that provides backstory.

She’s going to be moving around her home space so I wanted to be able to see her home.  1940s would be expected since that is the style of clothing she wears so I couldn’t do that.  But she’s into history.  What’s close enough to the 1940s and recognizable?  Craftsman. So now I have saved a series of pins on that as well.  I still need to find a floor plan but the pins are a good start.

The great thing is that if you already have a Pinterst account, it takes seconds to set up another board.  That means that in about five minutes you can pin a wardrobe, a home interior, or a set of book covers.

Not bad work for just a few minutes here and a few minutes there.

–SueBE

February 16, 2018

5 Minutes a Day: Getting to Know Your Characters as Individuals

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 3:34 am
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This week, my 5-minute task has focused on getting to know my main character for the cozy I’m pre-writing.  There’s a lot you can do in just five minutes in terms of developing your character.

Some of getting to know Clara has also helped me start thinking about the plot.  This is a mystery so there’s something to solve.  In this case it is a murder.  As I worked through what Clara’s stake in all of this is, I now know who gets killed, who did it, who gets set up, and who the tricksters are.

But I don’t want two-dimensional characters.  It is especially important that my main character and her best friends (aka The Sidekicks) are each unique especially compared to each other.  So that means I’m doing a lot of fairly simple “get to know my character” exercises including:

Three Wishes:  Clara has discovered a genie’s lamp.  What would she wish for?  Her wishes could include what she would wish to be if nothing stood in her way, what material thing would she want, and what one thing would she banish from existence?

Paint Swatches: What colors does your character choose for her private spaces?  For the public areas of her life? Why don’t do the two coincide?

Dress Up: What does your character wear?  Go beyond style. What colors does she wear?  What outfit does she own but she’s never worn it and why does she hang onto it?

Reading Material: Print books or e-readers?  What is on your character’s coffee table or public book space?  Are these things she’s read?  If not, why has she chosen them? How does this compare to what’s on her bedside table?

These are just some of the exercises I use to get to know my character better. When I am done, not only will I know how she dresses and her home decorating style, I’ll have set up Pinterest boards that highlight her taste.  And the funny thing?  As I’ve been contemplating this, the plot is starting to come together.

5 Minutes Here.  5 Minutes There.  It is all starting to add up.

–SueBE

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