When bad things happen to good characters

SUMMARY: Ed Wilson talks about causing bad things to happen to good characters.

I am really lucky. I get to do exactly what I want to do, have a lovely wife and soul mate, get to take classes at a great university, and have a nice place to live. I get to travel around and speak at conferences.In short, I am basically living the dream. Of course there are some annoying things, like my decades old struggle with my weight, but beyond that, life is good.

I would make a really boring character.

Personally, I think I am a fascinating character, but I also realize that in a book I would be really, really, really boring. Ok, so we create these lovable, handsome, suave and debonair characters that we want our readers to fall in love with, and then what? Well, my tendency, because I love the character also, is to make everything turn out wonderful. I want the character to have a lovely life.

The cure for boring characters.

How do I add challenges for my character to overcome? Here are some thoughts.

  1. One of the most obvious, is to saddle the character with a problem, such as drugs, alcohol, nightmares from an abusive relationship, or childhood, or some other thing. But I think that by and large, these are pretty much overdone. I would love, for example, to see a detective who has a serious fear of snakes, or spiders, or some other such phobia that afflicts millions of people. How about a detective who is afraid to drive a vehicle (maybe they were in a car crash that killed their parents). To make matters more interesting, they live in a town where there is really sucky public transportation (like 90 percent of the USA).
  2. Have things go wrong. The protagonist knows the antagonist hides vital information in a specific location. The protagonist does the right thing and tries to obtain a search warrant, or tries to convince the police to investigate. All the while the antagonist makes plans to escape – for good. Oh no. What now? The protagonist can break the law, and catch the antagonist with the goods, and hope that things will work out (or shoot the antagonist and hope to get away with it) or whatever. But instead, overcome with an attack of conscience, the antagonist does the right thing. AND, the antagonist escapes. To make matters worse, the protagonist gets into trouble for some minor infraction, and ends up in jail. This is the classic denial AND FURTHER MORE formula. This is especially powerful when the protagonist is really trying to do the right thing, and gets ensnared in the morass of government red tape (think Kafka’s The Castle).
  3. The bargain with the devil. Think about Mister Roberts bargain for crew liberty with the draconian Captain Morton, where the price becomes something of a pound of flesh, and there is no Portia to sweep in and save Antonio.
  4. Back them into the corner. Once a character is completely backed into a corner, and there seems to be no way out, then as a writer I have done my job. The trick, of course, is to figure a way out of an inescapable situation.
  5. Kill the character. Once the character is dead, they cease to be boring. In my novel, I ended up killing a character, that at first I had intended as the love interest for my main character. But, dude, she was boring, so she had to die. I mean, there was no redeeming her. As it turned out, a walk on character, ended up being much more interesting.

If a character is boring, try one of these techniques and see what happens

Setting as character

SUMMARY: Ed Wilson talks about using setting as character

This morning it is cold, rainy, and the sun has yet to make an appearance. I decided to make a cup of coffee instead of tea this morning. It just seems like one of those sorts of days.

Luckily, I have a bag of Kona coffee. This particular coffee comes from the island Kauai in Hawaii. In a very real sense, the smells, the taste, the warmth all transport me back to when Teresa and I were on the island. I close my eyes, and visualize the blue skies, the green mountains, and the lush foliage that surrounds nearly everything on the island.

A strong sense of place exudes character

I know it is popular to write what one knows. I also know, from reading the FBI crime statistics, that murders happen everywhere. But to be brutally honest, some places are more interesting than other places. Maybe that is not entirely correct. Maybe what I mean is that some places are easier to make more interesting than other places.

This is because Mayberry RFD, and Petticoat Junction were both pretty boring places. I mean, if I were driving down the road, I do not think I would stop at Floyd’s barber shop and get my hair cut, and I most assuredly would not stop at the shady nook hotel and night of rest to get a room for the night. Especially with some old dude hogging the front porch, and some old scruffy dog laying across the steps. I believe I would hop back in the car, apologize to Teresa, and say something like, “Well it seemed like a good idea at the time.” I certainly would not stop at goobers garage to get a fill up. Nope, I would hope the fumes would carry me back to the Interstate.

But what does the previous excursion into nostalgic television reveal? The places were NOT character, it was the people: Uncle Joe, Andy, Goober, Floyd the barber … that made the places interesting. A wide dusty, dingy road, was not too exciting. Therefore if one happens to actually live in Dog Patch Tennessee, then one must populate the place with interesting people.

What is a strong place?

Well, Hawaii is an awesome place. Magnum PI, Hawaii Five O, both were great shows with a strong sense of place. I mean, Magnum was a rather boring person to be honest. He did have great hair, and an awesome mustache, but as a character he was really one dimensional. And the lounge lizard? Dude, I mean can I say flat cartoon? And Hawaii Five O? Come on, I mean nearly all of those characters were flat, and not all that likable. I found myself rooting for the bad guys. But the setting? The scenery? Awesome. So Hawaii exudes a strong sense of place, and becomes a character in the shows.

Of course, big cities – New York, LA, Miami all have a strong sense of place. But I do not want to simply read another “LA crime story.” I want to see something that is different, unique, where the character of the setting shines through. Don’t show the same old stuff, but portray a sense of place with an artists eye, an insiders knowledge of locale, and show how the story could only have taken place in this particular location.

Do that. Make me want to stop in Mayberry.

Using Dialogue to Reveal Character

SUMMARY: Ed Wilson talks about using dialogue to reveal character when writing fiction

Last night in class we began a discussion of Goethe’s Faust. It is an amazing work, and one that makes me wish to study harder when it comes to learning German. As it is, I must read it in translation. Interestingly enough, I actually have four different copies of this work.

As I was studying for class the other day, I begin to notice how Goethe reveals Dr. Faust’s character. He uses inner monologue, actions, and even dialogue to show us the character of Dr. Faust.

In the scene outside the city gates, Wagner and Faust are walking along having an animated conversation about the meaning of life. When suddenly an old peasant comes up to Faust and offers a jug of beer. This is because of work the doctor and his father did during the plague in which hundreds of lives were saved, at great peril to their own. The old peasant credits Faust with overcoming many a hard ordeal.

Others chime in, My health attend this man of worth, long to help others on this earth! Dr. Faust appears to be somewhat embarrassed by this outpouring of adulation, and he replies, Obeisance make to Him on high, who teaches help, whose help is nigh.

So, it appears that Faust is a humble person. Wagner, who continues walking with Faust comments on how great it must be, and how proud it must make Faust to receive such praise and homage from the citizenry. But Faust replies, that it was despite their efforts that people recovered, and that no matter what they tried patients kept on dying. In fact, he confesses, that some of their treatments probably hastened the death of some of the patients.

What is presented, then is a public face that appears humble, and a private face that is full of doubts. Faust even comments on this duality in another part of the text. Even in translation, Goethe’s strong characterization shines through.

If you can find a nice modern translation (or better yet if you can read the original German) you may want to look at this poem with a fresh eye to characterization. It just may be the perfect thing to read today.

What makes a good literary character

SUMMARY: Ed Wilson talks about the elements of a good character

Once again it is a wonderful day outside. I am convinced that one reason for putting up with the oppressive heat and humidity of the deep south during the summer season, is anticipation of a lovely fall. Indeed, this year the fall season is exceptional.

Elements of a good character

I want to talk a little today about what makes a good literary character.

NOTE: I am continuing yesterday’s It’s all about character article.

A good character, is not necessarily one that is irreverent, irascible, or irritating – although they may in fact possess those characteristics. But what makes a good character is are they believable.

Now, I do not mean that the character must conform to some arbitrary psychological profile, rather, does the sum equal believability in the particular world created by the writer. When Luke Skywalker picks up the light saber and is able to hit the battle drone while blind folded it is believable because of elements of his character brought up earlier in the movie.

When creating a description of a character, do not just recite facts such as he was 250 pounds, six feet two inches tall, had blue eyes and blond hair. This tells nearly nothing about the character. If one must describe the character in physical terms, a great way is to do something like Rex Stout did in the Nero Wolfe novels where he described Nero Wolfe as an eighth of a ton. Goethe’s Dr. Faust is not described in terms of appearance, but in terms of what he knows – and more importantly in terms of what he wants.

For Dr. Faust, these two elements, knowledge and desire, are important in his characterization because they lead to his hubris and eventual downfall. For Nero Wolfe, his size is likewise important for his characterization because it explains why he is so reluctant to leave the brownstone.

Here are some elements of character, that when used judiciously, can help to move a story along.

  1. Desire. What does a character want more than anything else.
  2. Fear. What does a character fear? Will the character overcome the fear, learn to deal with the fear, or succumb to the fear.
  3. Normal routine. What a character does on a normal basis is useful when contrasted to what becomes the “new normal.”
  4. Habits. Either known or unknown to the character. For example, a character who says that they “hate gossips” and yet is the worst gossip in the entire story is revealing something about their inner truth.
  5. Dreams. This differs from desires in that desires are usually known to the character, whereas dreams may be unacknowledged. This can become really interesting when the character actively peruses one thing, but desires something else … especially when the character does not know that it is what they really want. When placed in terms of people and love, it can make for a fun and interesting love triangle.

It’s all about character

SUMMARY: Ed Wilson talks about the importance of character

This morning I am sitting on the porch enjoying a cool fall morning. I am sipping on a cup of English breakfast. I decided to add a cinnamon stick, and a little peppermint and spearmint leaf to the pot. The result is a nice refreshing tea that goes well with Belgium almond cookies, and German Chocolate biscuits.

I have my Surface Pro 3 with me, and am reading a new writer on the Kindle app. The cool thing about using a Surface, is I can read, check my email, keep up with market open, and even write a blog all at the same time.

One of the problems the new writer I am reading seems to have is with creating memorable characters … unfortunately, I am not really invested in any of the characters, and that is unfortunate (especially after nearly 100 pages).

Character is the thing. In fact, I would go so far as to say that compelling characters are the most important thing. For example, when I was a kid, I watched Captain Kangaroo. Now, I remember the rabbit, Mr. Green Jeans, the Captain, and especially Mr. Moose. Yep, who could ever forget Mr. Moose and his ping pong balls? Do I remember any particular episode? Nope. So plot is not as memorable as character. What about setting? To be honest, I could not tell you a single thing from the Captain’s set … did it look like a ship? It might make sense, but I am not sure.

What makes a compelling character? Well, for a character to be memorable, I need to either really love or really hate the character. A wishy washy character is not going to do it for me. Does the character need to be over the top? Not necessarily, but it might not hurt. How about funny? That really helps … not a clown, but an interesting view of the world.

Hints for creating compelling characters:

  1. Sense of humor. Not slap stick, but cool turns of the phrase. Saying something unexpected.
  2. An unusual interest, or hobby. A character that seems to be slightly out of place. For example, a cop in a rural South Carolina town that quotes Thomas Mann might be unusual. The compelling question then becomes, where did he come across this?
  3. An unexpected soft side. Something that shows an unexpected connection with at least some fellow human beings. For example a bank robber who always hands a little folding stuff to panhandlers.
  4. A person who seems unflappable. A cop, a detective, or even a criminal who maintains their cool when everyone else is degenerating into panic. We always tend to gravitate to people who remain calm and exude professionalism … even when it is professional criminals.
  5. Avoids clichés. The suave and debonair art thief, the crooked defense attorney, the criminally inclined police officer, the cowboy detective are all clichés. This does not mean that one of these types of characters cannot make an appearance in the book, but there had better be something unique and memorable about them, or they degenerate into cartoon characters … and when is the last time a cartoon character was truly memorable? It takes more than a rabbit that can talk to make the character memorable. About the only talking rabbit I remember is Bugs Bunny … and that is because speech is actually the least surprising thing about him.

I truly hope you have a wonderful day. Go forth and write.

It’s talk like a moose day

SUMMARY: Ed Wilson discusses the importance of context in understanding language

Hey, it is talk like a moose day. Ok, not really, but it can be. The challenge is to talk like a moose all day. Can you do it? You see, the thing is a moose does not have a tremendously large vocabulary. In fact, as far as I know a moose only has one word. They say, “moooooooooooose.”

Given the constraints on vocabulary, how does a moose communicate? They do so with tone, facial expression, and context. I have read that over 90 percent of what we communicate with one another is done non-verbally. I may say, “Yes, I would love to go with you.” But my tone of voice, my ‘body language’ (such as crossed arms and feet, tilt of my head, my eyes, the corners of my mouth) all may be saying, “dude, I would rather have match sticks shoved under my toe nails and set on fire, than to go with you.”

To bring in these subtle contexts into ones writing can be a challenge. Here are a few recommendations for bring in the non-verbal aspect of communication:

1. Study body language. You can do this via observation. Watch what people do with their hands, feet, how they shift their body, move their eyes, or tilt their head when they are talking with someone. Listen for tone of voice, non-verbal pauses and utterances when someone is speaking. All of these convey much more meaning than mere words.

2. Read a good book on body language. There are tons of books about body language, look at the reviews and pick one. Or better yet, go to your public library, and ask the librarian for help.

3. Practice writing.

4. Read good writing. Go to the library, and peruse books written by excellent writers. See how, or if, they handle the non-verbal stuff.

Here are a couple of examples:

She looked at me and said, “Of course I love you.”

“Yeah, I know,” I replied.

Here is another example:

I studied her carefully. She exhaled. She slumped back into the chair. She crossed her arms. I noticed her foot began tapping. It tapped, and tapped, and tapped. It was like Morse code. I don’t know Morse code, but I knew what it was saying, she had found someone else. Finally, she looked straight at my chin, and spoke.

“Of course I love you. I always will. Till death do we part. Remember?”

I felt cold and began to tremble. That’s what I am afraid of.

“Yeah, I remember,” I replied.

Conveying the non-verbal communication is a great chance to “show, don’t tell.” So, remember, today is talk like a moose day. Pay attention to the non-verbal communication around you, and when you are ready, give it a go. Remember, a writer writes.

Three reasons to attend a writers conference

SUMMARY: Ed Wilson talks about three good reasons to attend a writers conference, with a few bad reasons thrown in for fun.

I spend eight to ten hours a day secluded in a room watching black text appear on a white background. I listen to the click, click of my fingers as they tap rhythmically against plastic keys. I feel the pain as it begins in my neck, creeps down my arms, and leaves my fingers tingling over time. The highlight of my day is answering email, attending virtual meetings, and getting up to make a pot of tea. You see, I am a writer, and like most professional writers my life is a solitary existence.

When I get an opportunity to attend a writers conference, I usually jump at the chance. Of course, it takes planning. I need to write ahead on my schedule, make travel arrangements, squirrel away a bit of extra cash and all of that.  I am also careful about choosing what conferences I attend.

Besides just getting out of the house, and finding a bit of human interaction, why do I attend writers conferences?

1. Inspiration. I always leave writers conferences inspired to work harder, be more diligent in my reading, try new techniques, and so forth and so on. In general, I end up back in the hotel room writing until the wee hours of the morning when I am at a conference, or at least I jot ideas down in the notepad that follows me around like a big old shaggy dog. The inspiration comes from, at times, unexpected places: something a speaker says, something an attendee says, a thought that crops up during a flight of fancy I take while pretending to listen to either a speaker or an attendee. At times it is simply the venue.

2. Information. I always look at the agenda, the speakers, and the topics that will be covered during a conference. If it looks like there is a track taught by subject matter experts the conference will definitely bubble up on my to do list. I always try to look up information about the speakers, to see if they are qualified to address their topic, and I select my schedule before I even arrive at the conference. I also carry my notepad and several pens so I can take notes to help remember things that catch my attention.

3. Individuals. Who is attending the conference? From the faculty perspective, to the vendor selection, and lastly the registered conferees each plays a role in making a successful conference. I am not simply talking about reconnecting with old friends (although that is definitely a plus) but from a contact perspective as well. For example, agents, editors and publishers are all known to attend writers conferences from time to time. It it definitely a plus if one can connect with the right person at the right time in ones career. I met my agent at one conference, and walked away with a promise of a three book contract from my publisher at another conference. I was not specifically seeking either at the time, but hey, it worked out great. A writers conference is also a great place to meet other writers, and who knows, one of them might agree to be a beta reader, or to supply a jacket blurb at some point in the future.

There are also good reasons not to go to a writers conference. Here are a few:

1. For a tax deduction. There are better ways to get a nice tax deduction than going to a writers conference. For specific tax advice, I suggest you talk to your accountant.

2. To get an agent, or a publisher. If you happen to find someone, connect with someone, and it ends up that you acquire an agent or a publisher great. But do not go to a writers conference with this an expectation because chances are you will be disappointed. I will write about acquiring an agent in the future. Until then, I suggest you use Bing and search for something like acquiring an agent.

3. Because you want to get out of the house. Ok, so maybe you will in fact get out of the house, but in place of the house, you are substituting a conference center. If OUT is your goal, I suggest you go to the zoo, or take a walk in the park, or go jogging, or something like that. Don’t substitute one walled box with another walled box.

4. Because you want to learn to write. Dude, buy a book about writing, or take a class. Conferences are great for finesse, for inspiration, but they are not the best venue for specific technical and mechanical instruction. If this level of education is your goal, don’t go you will be setting yourself up for disappointment – and there is enough disappointment in the world already with manufacturing it on your own.

So, why am I writing this? Well because I just came back from the South Carolina Writers Workshop event in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina and I am inspired, psyched, and all of that. It was a great conference and well worth the cost. Stay tuned for next years event, because I am sure it will be awesome.