One Writer’s Journey

November 28, 2016

Creating Spot-on Characters

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 4:29 am
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teens-629046_1920As I do the various bits of prewriting necessary before I start writing Iron Mountain, I’m spending a lot of time noodling over my characters. My story is science fiction but I want me characters to seem real to my young readers.  Here are some tips on how I plan to accomplish this.

Abandon Being Mom.  Most of us who write for teens are not teens ourselves.  I’m actually the Mom of a teen.  Ours is the house where anywhere from 3 to 13 kids may gather on a Saturday.  Suffice it to say that because I’m the Mom on duty, I get in a lot of Mom hours. “Don’t do that, do this and seriously? When did that seem like a good idea?” When I write for teens, I cannot be even a cool mom.  If I can’t put that aside, I’ll sound like a mom.  According to my son, we moms have a distinctive voice.  Hey, he’s the son of a writer.  He also comments on my motive and on subtext.  For my characters to sound like real teens, I have to give them free rein.

Listen In.  I also have to listen to how real teens talk.  Teens today sound different from teens sounded even ten years ago.  They use different phrases.  Not that I want to load my dialogue down with authentic jargon, but I want them to sound real.  The teens in my living room use terms that originated in texts.  I may know what they mean when I see them but hearing them sometimes throws me.

Know How They Differ.  Some things are very different from when I was a teen.  Where we worried about AIDS, that’s a non-issue today.  Yes, it still exists but it isn’t the death sentence it was way back when.  They grew up with high levels of technology.  A microwave oven and VCR were a huge deal when I was a teen.  I helped my father program our first computer.  Now everyone carries their own phones which are essentially mini-computers.  There are sports leagues that don’t involve any kind of ball but instead center on online gaming.

These are some of the things that I have to keep in mind as I create my teen characters.  I’m sure I’ll discover more, but this is where I am today.

–SueBE

November 15, 2016

Details: Keeping in Character

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:37 am
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square-peg-855294_1920This morning I started a new audio book.  No, I’m not going to tell you the name because, as much as I love it, I’m pointing out a detail that pulled me out of the story.  The main character is teenage girl from “upstairs.”  Her family is old money and she attends finishing school for the lone purpose of landing a suitable husband.

At one point in the book, she meets a young man who worked for her father.  In describing him, the young man, not the father, she notes that he has a bump on the bridge of his nose, like a boxer.  I washing dishes when I heard this passage and actually gave the speaker a hard look.  “Like a boxer?  How would she know a boxer’s nose from beans?”

The description was solid enough, I knew what the author meant. But unless I am gravely mistaken the the point-of-view character would not have seen a boxer’s nose.

This can be hard to remember when writing a character that is notably different than yourself, but you have to keep comparisons and descriptions in line with what this person would know, not what you would know.  Thus I might compare a texture to silk or mohair but I’m a knitter.  My main character who works on her parent’s dairy farm and his an excellent mechanic would come up with a different comparison — unless she was drawing a parallel to her mother’s softest sweater.

How might the author have described the young man?  This is a tough one because most of us immediately know what the author meant. A different description would have to be much more round-about and, because of this, runs the risk of being less satisfying.  Still, she could compare him to one of the servents who was nearly dismissed for fighting or whose nose was broken defending a family member or in an accident.  She could compare him to someone her father considered rowdy and a bad influence.

It isn’t easy to spot these slips.  Remember to look at your story world through the lens of your character’s experiences and interests.

–SueBE

November 2, 2016

Character Diversity: Don’t Create a Character Checklist

Ithe_hammer_of_thor‘m almost finished with Rick Riordan’s The Hammer of Thor, the second book in the Magnus Chase series.  This book was just what I needed.  I’m really appreciating Riordan’s relentlessly cheeky sense of humor.  That said, I had reservations early in the book.

The two main characters in the book are Magnus Chase, formerly homeless hero, and Sam, a Muslim Valkyrie.  For some reason, that character didn’t bother me.  Like Magnus Chase, she is the child of a Norse god but unlike Chase Sam does not consider her father a god.  He may be really powerful, but as far as Sam is concerned there is only one God.

Both of these characters are from book #1 in the series but when Riordan introduced a new character, I felt like he might have a checklist going.  Person of Color, preferably Muslim — Check/Sam.  LGBQT or Gender Fluid character — Check/Alex.  Like Magnus, Alex is also a demigod but Alex is also transgender and gender fluid.  I briefly felt like Riordan was just trying too hard to hit all the diversity high points.

But I was so appreciating the humor that I kept going and I have to say that I’m glad I did.   Why?  Because I feel like I came to a hasty judgement.

In part, this is because I really like the character. Like my brother-in-law, Alex is a potter.  Alex is also more than a little cheeky with personality to spare.  Riordan didn’t just slap the label transgender on a character.  This is truly a part of who Alex is and that is reflected in choice of art form, tattoo/symbol and more.  It also explains the total melt down the character has upon becoming a resident of Valhalla.

When you create a “diverse” character, you have to make them completely 3 dimensional and believable.  You have to make whatever trait it is that makes them diverse truly a part of them.  In short, you have to make them a strong character just like you would with any other character in your story.

I’m guessing that Riordan didn’t need me to tell him that.

–SueBE

October 18, 2016

Characterization: Prewriting to the Extreme

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:18 am
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When author K.M. Weiland interviews her characters, she asks them a wide variety of questions including the name of their favorite book. As I started doing this for my main character, Clem, my first thought was that she wouldn’t have a favorite book.  She is definitely working class and poor.  She doesn’t have much time for things like books.

Then I started to wonder if I was taking the easy way out.  My grandfather graduated with a degree in Mining Engineering just as many of the mines in the US were playing out.  Because of this, he took any job he could find.  Sometimes he was head mining engineer for the mercury mines in Terlingua, Texas.  Other times he ran a filling station.  My grandmother used chicken feed sacks to make clothing.  Pretty sacks became dresses focrisscrossing-the-galaxyr the girls.  Ugly sacks were destined to be underwear.  They were definitely foundation-stonesworking class and poor but they had books.

So what kind of books would kids on a mining planet have access to?  Especially working class kids? What would there be and what would they want?

Fortunately, I collect old books, snatching them up whenever I see them at a yard sale, rummage sale or book sale.  I was able to base these two books on actual texts in my collection.  One is my character’s favorite book because her older brother read it to her.  The other is the kind of book her step father wants her to read.  It should be pretty obvious which is which.

I’m not going to be able to put this much effort into every crumb of material culture but having put the effort into creating these “books,” even if I really only made the covers, I feel like I know my characters a bit better.

I better hustle though so that I’ll be ready to start working on the novel in two weeks.  Fingers crossed!

–SueBE

 

 

 

 

October 10, 2016

Characters: Getting to know them inside and out

fiddleAs part of the pre-writing that I need to get done for NaNoWriMo, I spent some time last week scrapbooking my characters.  This is definitely an exercise that I’d recommend if you’ve never done it before.

Before I did this exercise, I’d given some thought to my characters.  For my main character and three main secondary characters, I knew what they liked and what they valued but I hadn’t nailed down their appearances.  Now I have coloring, general height and  build for each of them.  I even have a pretty good idea what one character’s tatoo looks like.  The funny thing?  Before I did this, I didn’t know he had a tatoo.

I knew some of the baggage that he brought with him into the story.  It’s the baggage that makes him such a mystery, but I didn’t know about the ink.  As I was doing a variety of searches in Google Image, up popped a full back tattoo of a fallen angel.  Oh.  Wow.  Absolute perfection.

This isn’t the only character that I learned about.  My main character has a surprising hobby.  Yes, it is something a lot of girls do but it isn’t something you usually associate with a tom boy.

The surprise that’s going to make the most work for me came in the form of a pair of fiddles.  Two of my characters saw fit to let me in on the fact that they both play the fiddle.  That’s awesome for the story but what I know about fiddles would fit in the case alongside the bow and the fiddle itself.

But the character that I learned the most about is my villain.  All this time, I didn’t realize that I had never named him.  I just called him Stepfather.  Yes, it may be a bit cliché that the stepfather is the villain and because of that I’d let this character slide.  But now that he has a name and a face and even a motivation . . . I can’t say that I like him any better than I did before but now I know why he does the jerky things that he does.

This was definitely a worthwhile exercise.  This week I’ll be scrapbooking my settings.  I’m sure I’ll learn a few things in the process.

–SueBE

September 21, 2016

Your Main Character: What Do Your Readers Need to Know?

cat-as-lionUp until about a week ago, I had a fast and firm list of things that the reader needs to know about the main character.  That list included:

  • Gender
  • Age
  • Name
  • Story goal

Leave any one of those out and I’d have something to say about it.  But then I read a piece of flash fiction, Fear of the Sentry by Tracy Maxwell, that made me question all of this.

SPOILER ALERT (DON’T READ PAST THIS POINT IF KNOWING HOW THE STORY ENDS WILL BOTHER YOU!)

The entire story is 5 paragraphs long.  For the first three, you follow the main character who is seeking out the enemy sentry.  And then if paragraph #4 you discover that this is a child sneaking up on fighting parents. The goal, the only thing that you thought you knew was figurative.

That’s right.  You don’t know the character’s gender, age, or name.  You think you know the story goal only to discover that you really don’t.

Yet, the story works and works to great effect.

Wow.  That’s all I can say is WOW.

Now I’m wondering, how would an editor react if you didn’t divulge your child character’s age?  Or name?  I’m guessing that if it works, no questions will be asked, no comments will be made.  But the story still needs to work.

In this case, Maxwell knew the writing rules and set out very deliberately to break them.  Age, name and gender are traits that serve to orient the reader in relation to the character.  If you leave one or more of these things out, you still need to orient your reader but you need to do it in a way that reveals something even more important.  In this case, we discover what the reader fears.  We learn that in spite of this fear, there is no choice but to move forward.  And we aren’t told these things.  They are shown to us.

For every support that you cut, you need to provide another.  Anyone else up for the challenge?

–SueBE

September 20, 2016

Characters: Make them interesting

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:25 am
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runner-1544448_1920Recently I was reading a fantasy tale and just could not connect with the character.  I tried.  After all, I love fantasy.  But there just wasn’t any attraction.  About four chapters in it hit me.  The character wasn’t specifically unlikable.  The problem was that he wasn’t interesting.  Here are three tips to create interesting characters.

Interesting Characters Have to Do Something
Whether or not your character is good or bad, to be really and truly interesting they have to be active.  This generally isn’t a problem when a story is plot driven but it is a different story when a piece is character driven.  All to often the character spends a great deal of time in her head or talking to someone.  SNORE.  To hold your reader’s attention, your character needs to do, working toward a goal whether that goal is figuring out an unsolvable puzzle or winning a race.

Interesting Characters Have Pasts
To be really and truly interesting, your character needs to have a past. Their past is what drives them and fuels their need to meet that goal.  This doesn’t mean that you have to reveal it all to the reader in a great-big info dump, but you need to know what it is because the past shapes the present.  As choices and actions are driven forward by what went before, you can reveal bits and pieces of it as needed.

Interesting Characters Aren’t All Good or All Bad
Another way to lose reader interest is to create a character who is always good.  No matter what the antagonist throws in her path, she is good and kind and sweet and . . . ugh.  saccharine.  The same is true of a character who is unrelentingly evil.  These kinds of characters just aren’t realistic so they don’t hold the reader’s attention.  Instead you need to create a good person who has a flaw or a bad person who has a redeeming quality.  These characters will then by more like real people and better able to hold the reader’s attention.

Runner, robber, regent, or robber, the biggest crime your character can commit is to bore your reader.

–SueBE

August 30, 2016

How to Add Depth to Your Writing

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:29 am
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depthFor the first time in quite a while, I am once again sending out manuscripts without a contract in hand.  And today was only the beginning. I’ve got another one to submit tomorrow.  And another to go out on Wednesday.  Still another is ready and will go out Thursday.  Deep breath.  Tale a deep breath, Sue.

It doesn’t matter how many sales I have.  If I’m lucky, sending material out like this means that I’ll get a rejection.  If I’m not so lucky, I’ll get feedback with an offer to read it again. How’s that unlucky?  I’m only joking, a little.  Getting feedback of any kind is actually great but it means that I’m running the risk of hearing one of the phrases that I dread.  “You need to add depth.”

I know enough to realize that this doesn’t just mean add to the word count.  Adding another scene isn’t the way to get the job done.

But what does it mean?  For different writers or different stories it can mean different things.

For some writers, your story may be too slight.  Yes, you have a plot.  It is a well-developed plot and your hero has to put out some serious effort to succeed.  That may be enough if you’ve written a picture book, an early reader, or a chapter book.  But novels, both for middle grade and young adult readers, often have subplots.  You may need to add one or more subplots that in some way mirror the main plot.

Sometimes the problem is that the reader needs more insight into your character.  Fixing this problem may be a matter of inner dialogue or making sure that some of the dialogue has not just text but subtext.

Last but not least, what is lacking may center on the setting.  You have details.  You have descriptions but they seem to be incidental to the story itself.  You need to find a to have the setting speak about the character, the story problem or a theme.

If an editor describes your story as slight or asks you to add depth, give the comment some thought.  Read your manuscript again with this comment in mind.  The key is to craft a solution that fits right into your story, seamlessly, as if it has always been there.

–SueBE

May 17, 2016

Characterization: Verbal cues, facial cues and lying

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:49 am
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lyingHow do your characters behave when they are lying?  In my reading I’ve come across characters who glance down or away, shift from foot to foot, can’t keep their hands still or have a nervous smile.  I’ve also come across a number of adult characters who are veritable lie detectors.  In my own work I’m going to make sure this isn’t the case because I just watched Kang Lee’s TED talk, “Can You Really Tell if a Kid is Lying?

Lee and his team of researchers told a group of children that they would receive a big prize if they did well enough completing a task.  Working with one child at a time, they left the child alone  with top secret material.  Cameras watched to see if the children would peak.  Then the researchers came back and asked if the child had peaked.

Lee showed the audience two recordings of children claiming that they didn’t peek.  In the first, a boy displays classic “liar” behavior, glancing down and away.  In the second, a girl shakes her head. Lee than asked the adults to vote on who was lying.  Let’s just say that their accuracy was horrible.  Panels of adults have been shown the videos and none of them scored significantly better than if they simply guessed.  The panels included teachers, social workers, judges, police officers and parents.  Lee’s conclusion?  Adults are awful lie detectors.

Lee has discovered that only one reliable physical indicator exists — a change in facial blood flow.  Simply, blood flow to the cheeks drops off and to the nose increases.  There are no visible indicators.

In spite of this, as a society we believe that lying makes a child bad (it is developmentally normal), children are bad liars and adults are good at telling when a child lies.  Lee has shown the lie in all of these assumptions.  A little something to keep in mind the next time your character tells a big fib.

–SueBE

May 13, 2016

Characters: Keeping Everyone in Play

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 2:45 am
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smiley-1041796_1920I’m about fifty pages into my middle grade novel which is, I suspect, about 2/3 of the way through the plot.  As I move forward, I’m noticing a few issues.

I’m really good at keeping my main character busy.  She’s always on the go and keeps the plot moving forward.  Unfortunately, about 90% of the time she’s accompanied by her younger brother.  I’d love to say that I’m equally good at keeping him occupied but I’m not.  It’s as if he is in limbo when he isn’t needed for a discussion or to be the assistant in some escapade.

Characters who aren’t on-screen for four or five chapters?  I’ve love to say that I’ve given them a lot of thought but I haven’t.  In all truth, I haven’t given them a lot of thought.  Because of this, my guess is that they feel pretty insubstantial when they do appear “on-screen.”  How to solve this?

First things first, I’m going to finish this draft.  Once I’m done, I’m going to replot the story.  No, I’m not going to change the plot but I’m going to expand on it.  For one thing, I have to add a few scenes.  I’ve given my main character a trait that comes into play early on and again at the very end but in the middle is nowhere to be seen.  I’m going to have to do something about that.  But I’ve also given some thought to the kid brother.  I need a scene or two that shows him in contrast to his sister.

I’m also going to draw up timelines for the various characters in the story.  I need to know who is doing what when they aren’t “on camera.” This will give me a better feel for each of them.  Even if not all of this appears “on-screen,” it will add depth to the story.

What about your secondary characters?  Have you given them enough to do?  Do you know where they are and what they’re up to when they aren’t interacting with your main character?  If not, you may need to give it some thought.  Secondary characters, after all, are the stars of their own stories even if it isn’t the story you are telling.

–SueBE

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