Chuck Wendig has a flash fiction challenge – not to write flash fiction (because that would be too easy) but to create a character, that possibly some of his other readers might want to ‘borrow’ for a future flash fiction contest. (Got all that? Me neither). Anyway, following is my attempt at this challenge:
I don’t know his name but he has the kind of face that you forget the second you turn away. Medium height, medium build – pale skin and eyes (green, maybe blue). Pure vanilla. No danger there. No heat. Totally blendable. In a crowd, he’s a ghost. Nobody sees him. Nobody seeks him out for friendship or advice. Air dressed in a human suit.
And so he’s free to do his work. Free to seek out the downcast and forgotten. The erasibles that society steps over, upon and around. The children whose mothers bond more with their cell phones than them. The husbands who serve only to provide credit cards and hold purses or shopping bags. The pets that nobody wants. The seniors whose families leave them in nursing homes or ‘communities’ and never visit.
While they sleep or cry or sit alone on a bench or stoop, he listens. To the words they dare not utter, the dreams hidden in their hearts, the tears they show no one, the pain that is daily living. And with a breath as soft as a summer breeze he sends all that pain into the ether and exchanges it with hope.
Where it goes from here is anybody’s guess but I hope there are superpowers involved.
As I’ve been working on the current novel, I have come to love the story, but for as much as I love the story, I love the characters even more.
Perhaps it’s because I’ve spent many hours each day with them and have watched as they’ve gone through hell and high water to prevail, or that with each new challenge they’ve grown and changed, but whatever it is I can’t seem to get enough of my new BFFs.
So, I thought it would be a hoot to give them their own blog. I have no idea if anyone else will think it’s a hoot, or want to go by and meet them and see what they’re all about. But I hope you do. So, consider yourself officially invited to Scotti & Zelda’s Blog – The real-life adventures of fictional sleuths.
Scotti, Zelda and their peeps, promise to entertain and inform by offering tips, tricks and anecdotes. Recipes, DIY tips and doggie poetry are just a few of things you’ll find there. And God knows what else, once things get rolling.
Anyway, there you have it. Be there or be square.
Writers are inexorably attached to their characters. And why shouldn’t they be? To us, they are like our children. We create them, nurture them and watch them grow until one day they can fly on their own as full-fledged people. Even mean, nasty and unlovable characters are cherished by the writers who create them – go figure, mother’s love and all that.
However, if you are constantly using yourself as a model for your characters you may find yourself swimming in a sea of fictional clones that do no favor for your story.
Writers are supposed to write what they know
This old chestnut has been around forever. And was in liberal use when I was a young writer, looking for usable advice on how to improve my writing and hone my skills. Nine times out of ten the mentor would don a solemn look and utter, “Write what you know and then the rest will follow.” To make matters worse, I actually believed them. I have to say, I wasted a lot of years on that one.
And I’d wager that so have many other writers that came before and after me. It is really confusing advice, especially to a writer who is younger and has little life experience. What could they write about then if they had to write what they knew? Themselves of course, their life, their family, the little spats between siblings. And who then would become the obvious hero, you guessed it, the person writing the story.
While I agree that writers write more authoritatively on subjects and experiences they know, since the advent of newspapers, textbooks, history books, libraries, search engines and social media the door to any experience, lifestyle, culture, or historical event has been wide open for writers to walk through and ‘know.’
Otherwise how could anyone have ever written a science fiction story? Was Isaac Asimov a space traveler and robot technician? Or a detective novel? Was Raymond Chandler a hard-boiled private detective? Or a horror story? Did Stephen King ever live in a hotel that was possessed by evil beings and had a boiler with a mind of its own? Is JK Rowling a wizard in disguise? Of course not.
The greatest nation on Earth
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – Imagination is the greatest nation on earth. It is the place where all new and exciting things are born. From the greatest inventions, technological advances, art and literature. It’s what enables a seven-year-old to have his very own battleship in his backyard, and sent man into space, and inspired a small group of men to create the first democratic republic in history. Surely, each of us has enough to create characters that aren’t carbon copies of ourselves?
Inspiration versus duplication
While many characters and perhaps most are based on or inspired by real people it’s not about recreating a real person down to the last detail but rather taking certain characteristics, manners of speech or funny little habits and weaving that into the characters you create.
Here’s a fun little drill: Note an admirable quality about each member of your family. Then do the same with their flaws. Use the first name of any close friend and the last name of another friend to create a name for your character. Then choose a location you went to or lived in at some time in your life, whether it was a vacation spot, a town you lived in, your grandmother’s neighborhood or a place you attended a convention – that’s where your character lives. Give your now named character, all the characteristics and flaws you previously noted and voila’ you now have the beginning of a character that you can flush out. And while you used what you knew and took that to inspire you, you end up with a unique, and probably interesting character that could never be mistaken for a clone of yourself or your Aunt Mable.
For me, creating characters is one of the best parts of writing and fun too. And sometimes the weirder the better. And if you think your characters are fun and interesting, chances are, so will your readers.
How do you create characters? Any tips you’d like to offer? Feel free.
How I find monikers for my characters
We fiction writers have our tips and tricks for how we do what we do. And sometimes we get stuck. Personally, I can get stuck on a character name for days. And I can’t go forward until I fight the right name. It has to look right. It has to feel right. It has to sound right. And it has to sound like a real name. Like somebody you’d meet in your daily life.
Let me count the ways
Over the years I had many ways that I’d try to find just the right name. Sometimes it came out of the blue. Sometimes I’d go through phone books or other directories to find one that grabbed me. I’d scan through the obits of newspapers. But usually I’d end up thumbing through several baby name books. Yes, I have several and they have proven the wealthiest source of character names for me.
Is there meaning in the meaning?
One of the things I love about my baby name books is that they not only have hundreds of names to choose from – but that they tell you what the name means. And this was my ‘aha!” moment with these resourceful little books. If I knew the characteristics and purpose of my characters I could find a way to match them to a name.
For example the main character in my book False Witness (insert link here) is Billy Frayne. William means ‘determined’ and Frayne means ‘stranger’. Put the two together and you get a determined stranger. This for me worked incredibly well because Billy goes off looking for a stranger to get to the truth he is determined to find. Another character in an upcoming novel is named Kennie. To ken is to know. This too is applicable to this character.
Exception to the rule
Now I don’t always use this method. Sometimes the name just comes to me. The universe just serves it up on a silver platter and I’m off to the races. But when I get stuck thumbing through my books looking for the meaning of names often does unearth just the right one for me. It’s not always easy and it’s not always quick but it does work for me. So, if you get stuck – give it a try.
How about you? What are you secrets for find the right character name? Let me know in the comments below.
In the writing world much is said about plots and plotting in general can lead to many a writer’s frustration. There are many theories about plots but perennial favorites are that:
- There are only two basic plots
- There are 36 basic plots
- There are no new plots
- Every plot possible has already been used/created
No matter where you may stand on the above, knowing the difference between plot driven and character driven stories can only help you strengthen your story.
Plot driven stories are tales in which the story is more important than the individual characters. It is the type of story that Hollywood calls ‘high concept’ and often involves stories that are larger than life like, alien invasions of Earth, a global outbreak of a virulent disease, or some other disaster that will affect the human race on a large scale. Think, Jurassic Park, Outbreak, Meteor, and The Matrix.
Conversely, in character driven stories the characters take center stage and drive the plot. In fact, the story is the characters themselves, how they change, what they learn, wisdom gained or not. Hollywood may refer to these stories as ‘small films’ and foreign films are often character oriented and tell the story of the characters. Think Taxi Drive, Silence of the Lambs, and Rocky. In these stories we come to know the characters generally on a deeper level and care more strongly about what happens to them.
Examples of each type
Examples of character-driven stories include:
- The Quest – the protagonist searches for a person, place or thing and the story usually results in the hero experiencing a large personal change and a gain of personal wisdom about something. Think Stars Wars, The Lord of the Rings, and The Wizard of Oz.
- The Transformation – the protagonist goes through a process of change and ends with a clarifying incident that enables the character to understand the nature of his experience and how it has affected him. Think My Fair Lady, Ordinary People, On the Waterfront, and It’s a Wonderful Life.
Examples of plot-driven stories include:
- The Pursuit – this type of story is one character or group of characters chasing another. Generally the story is the chase and there are no large characters arcs or introspection. Think, The Terminator, Sugarland Express, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
- The Riddle (mystery) – this story is pretty well known by most – something happens we want to know why and whodunit. Clues, are tucked among the story for the reader to discover the answer to the riddle. Think Memento, Rear Window, and The Maltese Falcon.
Of course some stories can be a combination of two or more types within the plot-driven and character-driven categories. If you’re interested in knowing more about character and plot driven stories, I recommend you pick up a copy of 20 Master Plots by Ron Tobias. The book is easy to read, very informative, and will definitely help any writer determine what type of plot will work best for their story.
Not long ago I was talking to a friend about writing and he mentioned that though he was doing well with non-fiction, his fiction was problematic. Specifically he complained of two-dimensional and flat characters that failed to come to life.
A lot of writers are very good at creating characters and some even have a natural talent for creating, living, breathing, three-dimensional people without working up a sweat. While other writers have to apply all manner of life support in order to just get their characters to breathe on their own. Most of us are somewhere in between the two extremes. While not all stories are character driven, characters are an integral part of any story and the more real you can make your characters the more memorable your story will be. Following are a few tips for adding dimension to your characters:
- It’s all in the details. Even in the sprawling acreage of a novel, you simply cannot slow the story down in order to fill in everything there is to know about a character. Rather it’s the details that you reveal about a character that tells the reader who he or she is. For example, rather than spending several paragraphs describing your character’s miserly ways, make him a lousy tipper, who uses coupons when dining out, and takes advantage of the endless bread basket or soda glass.
- Keeping dialogue real. As a fiction writer you have an obligation to eavesdrop on others’ conversations, and spend inordinate amounts of time listening to people. Pay attention to regional accents and phrasing. Southerners speak differently than northerners. Sad people speak more slowly and insecure people may stutter. And while punctuation and proper grammar is important in prose, people rarely are grammatically correct when they speak. The point is, no two people speak exactly alike, neither should your characters.
- Modeling characters after real people. While it’s probably not smart to use your mom or your cousin Elma as a character in your story, you could borrow a characteristic or two from them – a turn of phrase, a quirky habit. For example when I have a character who is on the crusty side I think of my dad. I don’t fashion the character after him but I think of his habits, phraseology, and what his responses would be to certain circumstances. It kind of puts in that universe where that type of character lives.
- Physical descriptions. Many writers like to give a full physical description of a character, others give little to no physical description. Personally, I like to sprinkle the character’s physical description through dialogues, the viewpoint of other characters and in attributions. For example, “He trembled so violently that I thought his giant ears would begin flapping and take wing at any moment.”
No matter what your process I highly recommend picking up a copy of The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri .The man was a veritable genius on characterization and his book could help any writer with character creation.
How about you? What is your process for creating three-dimensional characters?