Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Flesh and blood characters for stand-out stories


You know how, when you’re thinking about something, everything around you seems to be that same something? For me recently, in writing, that “something” has been character. Everywhere I turn, strange, even bizarre characters have appeared. First, there’s the news, replete with characters to study. Then the writing course offered by NaNoWriMo through the online site Coursera includes a segment on character. Even when I turned to what seemed to be a delightful book about a woman and her pet bulldog, darned if the “character” aspect didn’t appear again. (For both woman and her canine friend!) Finally, half of this fall’s writing workshop sponsored by the Writers Guild of Texas hinged on the aspect of character. 

Creating fictional characters, we as human beings can relate to is such an essential element that the basic formula for story is: character + action = plot. But how to create those characters? (I’ll save the action portion of the formula for another post!)
image: Wikimedia commons

During the Coursera lessons, novelist/instructor Amy Bloom noted, “Most of us have enough trouble being ourselves, without having to then take on the task of (inventing) other people. But when you’re a writer, that’s the job. You have to enter into their body, into their soul, and see the world as they see it.”

So no wonder that after bestselling romantic suspense author Cindy Dees, who taught the WGT workshop, confessed that character development isn’t her strongest point, she developed an entire course on the subject to help her compensate. Because I was a student of Dees at a creative writing course at Southern Methodist University several years ago, I knew there would be character description worksheets. This time they were even bigger and more detailed than I remembered. 

There are innumerable sample character building worksheets online, including one developed just for NaNoWriMo, but I’m addicted to Dees’ version.

I don’t want to – in fact, it’s not even possible – to include the entire volume of information Dees lists in a single blog post. They include all the generalities available online: ethnic, social, economic, religious and educational background; behavioral descriptions; and physical description. (The Dees version emphasizes the way the physical characteristics evoke the main aspects of the person’s character.)

Digging deeper, she asked her audience members to list the main qualities that describe and define each character, the characters’ ethics (what they believe) and their code of honor (what they do), and consider the possibility of internal conflict these present.

“Some characters talk about their values,” she said, “but don’t do a darn thing.”

Dees’ character spreadsheets included side by side listings for both the main character and another primary character (and can be expanded to include multiple other characters). What I found particularly interesting was her suggestion of placing a checkmark by each point at which the characters’ personalities, background, etc., would conflict. And using these points of conflict to help build the story. 

“Is there a moral crisis that challenges (the character’s) values? If there’s not, why the hell are you writing the book?. . .What makes (the character) argue passionately about after they’ve had a few drinks?”

Then there are the detail such as: What’s this character’s most embarrassing moment ever? When did this character feel like the greatest fool ever in his/her life? “Such profound and visceral moments” can make readers so emotionally involved with a character that Dees tries to include at least one in every book.

And the often talked about issue of character likeability? As novelist Amy Bloom also noted in her discussion of character in the segment of her Coursera class, “You don’t have to like your characters, but you do have to love them and be willing to see the world through their eyes.”

It’s great to “have your heroic characters do something heroic off the bat to show us they’re the good guys,” Dees said. But watch out for cliché moments. 

Since the appearance of the late screenwriter Blake Snyder’s handbook, Save the Cat! “I’ve seen a rash of characters who climbed trees and saved cats recently,” she noted wryly.

She continued. Is the character interesting? Fascinating? “Interesting is someone I’d like to talk to at a cocktail party,” Dees told her audience. “Fascinating is, I can’t look away from that train wreck. A person can be terrible and be fascinating. Bad guys are where you can really (write) off the rails.” (I’ll add – study your news sources for examples of off-the-rails, over the top versions.)

As I flipped through the pages of character sheets Dees passed out to the workshop audience, I groaned inwardly at her suggestion to “give a symbol set to each character.” I should have known she had more in mind that yet another magical piece of jewelry or sparkly slippers. Not. She wanted us to think of our characters as that symbol.

“If I think of a character as a motorcycle, I can create a whole set of characteristics without ever calling him a motorcycle.” He/she can be noisy, powerful, eccentric, a loner, with as many of the attributes the writer attributes to motorcycles as the dog writer at the beginning of this post attributed to her bulldog. 

And I thought, yes, I do have a character who’s a motorcycle. . . And maybe one who’s a bulldog, as well.