Character: Don’t let your characters run amok

SUMMARY: Ed Wilson talks about how to avoid confusing the reader

This morning I decided to do something I have been wanting to do for sometime … I made some muesli. I took a few liberties with the recipe, but I think it came out pretty good.

I may have gotten carried away with the  fresh fruit. But I was able to find some nice organic berries at the store last night. And Teresa came home with some apples from her last trip, so why not.

Now, one thing that is important when cooking is to allow each ingredient to have its own voice. If one ingredient, such as blueberries overpowers the dish, then all one ends up with is a bowl of blueberries, with a bit of stuff added in. It is the same way when writing.

Keeping characters under control

We have all watched movies, where some secondary character seems to steal the scene from a particular actor. It is great to have interesting characters, but if I end up rooting for a secondary character, then the situation has gotten out of hand. For example, when I go to watch a James Bond movie, I want to root for James Bond, and I want the Bond character to be the hero. If a secondary character seems to be more interesting, or the Bond du jour seems lifeless, flat and insipid, then I am going to leave the theatre unsatisfied (and with the price of movies and snacks approaching a c-note for a date night that is really unsatisfactory).

Five specific suggestions

What can I do to keep my characters under control? Well, here are some suggestions.

  1. Plan your character arc. Know in advance which characters are the main characters, and which are secondary. Ensure that the main character has specific strengths, weaknesses, and is interesting.
  2. Examine the plot. Do the characters simply exist to service the plot, or is their development part of the plot (or at least a plot thread).
  3. Examine the character. Is the character a complete person, or simply a cartoon caricature? If the latter, spend some time adding depth and complexity. Keep in mind that character complexity is not simply contradiction. Even Scooby Doo is always a coward, but he is willing to attempt some brave acts for a Scooby Snack.
  4. Do not dumb down a secondary character. If a secondary character appears to be unusually strong, consider adding a subplot that permits the character to shine – or better yet, consider adding a book to the series that features that character.
  5. Be flexible. Sometimes a secondary character really is more interesting than the main character. If the main character cannot be made more interesting, be prepared to fire that character, or at least provide a demotion. Obviously this will entail a bit of re-write, but in the end will produce a stronger work.

Interview your characters?

SUMMARY: Ed Wilson talks about interviewing characters as part of the development process

This morning I decided to make some Orange Cream tea from leaves I bought when I was in Hamburg. It is a wonderful tea, and it goes well with really dark chocolate. I added a bit of Orange Peel, and a cinnamon stick to the tea and it came out nice.

Interviewing the character

A common suggestion I hear in writers groups, at conferences, and even in books and blogs is to interview the character. Some even go so far as to create an interview sheet, that the writer is supposed to fill out.

The suggestion is to create an interview sheet for each character, especially for main characters. Include likes, dislikes, favorite foods, music, activities. Decide on style of clothes, type of hair cut, and so on and so on and so on. Of course, the interviews are supposed to be for the author, and will not end up in the book. But this is actually a pretty dangerous assumption because after all of the work, the writer really begins to think all of this stuff is important. This leads to the infamous beginner mistake called the info dump. It goes something like this:

In walked Sam. Sam was a recent graduate of Ohio State University where he was a member of the campus newspaper. He wrote a weekly review of chain restaurants that were within walking distance of the downtown campus. He was well known, therefore, for having a rather well developed culinary pallet, especially when thinking about low priced chain restaurants. There was just one thing, and that was that Sam really does not like green eggs, nor does he like green ham. This tended to cause quite a stir around St. Patrick’s day. In fact, Sam once stated to a close friend that he would not eat green eggs or green ham in a box, nor with a fox. He also confided to his wife that he would not eat either green eggs or green ham in a tree. But he had not ruled out eating green eggs and green ham with a Kangaroo. Yes, there was definitely a maybe when it comes to eating with Kangaroo, in in his household, it caused much ado.

Ok, so maybe this is not an improvement over a great children’s classic. In fact, there is much to distracting information here. The fact that Sam worked on a campus newspaper, or that it was Ohio State, or his reputation for eating at low priced chain restaurants, St. Patrick’s day. All this is unimportant. But because I took the time to create the back story, I want to use all of that work. Purists will say, but it helps with motivation, it helps the writer to understand the character and therefore to create believable characters.

Create, Document, on the fly

Maybe. Maybe not. What I do, is when I add in a specific detail, I document the detail in my character sketch. I only add details when I need them. To me, this keeps from having artificial characters. Because, if I sit down and create a back story, likes and dislikes and all of that, then the characters do not seem to believable. On the other hand, if I think how would the character react in a specific situation, then now I have context, and as a result a stronger character. Plus, because I have no back raft of details, I have no desire to do an info dump on the poor unsuspecting reader.

Think about it. Maybe it will work for you. Maybe not.

Join me tomorrow when I will talk about description.

I hope you have an great day.

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.

Is the Hero heroic, do I care?

SUMMARY: Ed Wilson talks about the different types of heroes, and the likability factor

MeInFrontOfAPirateShip_thumb.jpgThere are three different types of hero characters. By hero character, I am talking about the main character. This character is typically used for the point of view. I use this technique in my technical writing, as well as in fiction. The three different types are listed here:

  • The traditional hero – this is the Superman kind of person, the Nancy Drew type of person. They are basically good moral characters who do not cross the boundaries, and who are all around nice people. I would love for one of these types to be living next door to me.

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