Studying Characterization — August 5, 2011

Studying Characterization

I’m a very visual learner.  I will admit that right here and now.  Never is that more apparent than when watching a movie or a television show gives me insight into my writing, and into writing in general.

Yesterday I talked about my binge on season 1 of “Haven.”  Well, aside from that special feature where I realized some things about my writing, about how I’m too connected and am letting my work control me too much at times, I got some great great insights into characterization.

I need to start doing this sort of binge to help with dialogue and stuff, too, methinks.  Anyway.

There’s this character on the show.  He’s your typical bad boy character.  But really not so much.  And one thing that I found myself continually doing, and I do this with a couple of my most favorite shows, was analyzing his character.  Those rare times where I had to tear myself away from the DVDs because real life was calling, this character was in my head.  And I was dissecting him, figuratively speaking.

Sometimes I find myself analyzing characters like this if I’m talking about the latest episode with someone else who is also a fan of that show.  But even then it’s hard to remember little nuances, to see patterns.

Watching 13 episodes of a show, almost entirely back to back, really makes those patterns stand out.  And you start to see a character’s tell, that indication that there’s something just under the surface that’s really influencing all their decisions.  Or the thing that shows you the character is falling in love with another one, even if no one sees it.  Just little things.

Watching that many episodes in a row is almost like reading a book.  Every episode is a chapter, and at the end of a season, you get the climax that both concludes that book’s arc and sets up the arc for the next in the series.  (And sometimes it doesn’t set up the external arc, it sets up an internal arc for one or more characters.)

What Does Your Character Want? — June 23, 2011

What Does Your Character Want?

Does your character want something so badly it aches?  Do they want something so desperately they cry thinking about it?

What are they willing to do to get that?

Are they willing to move across the country even if they really can’t afford it?  Are they willing to admit defeat and give up on the dream or desire?

At what point will they settle for second- or fifth-best because the odds against getting what they want are insurmountable?

Are you as the author willing to push them to that point and see if they break?

I’m going through this struggle in my real life right now.  I know the point at which I’ll break.  I sometimes wonder if Heavenly Father wants to see if I break this time or if I can push to a new breaking point and not break.

Right now, I’m looking for a job.  It’s not pretty, the war that rages in my head every time I click through my links of various job boards.  I went to a conference on Saturday that was not a writer’s conference.  This was a religious conference.  One of the workshops I attended was on landing the job you want.  Some 40,000 jobs created last month?  That’s great!  Oh, but 220,000 new job seekers entered the market.  Sigh.

At one point, the man teaching the workshop ran through a bunch of questions all meant to help us figure out what career we want.

Guess what my answers told me?  Well, 2 things.  Writer and agent/editor.

Crazy, right?  But the answers were there plain and simple.  You know what really stinks, though?  The fact that there isn’t a whole lot of publishing industry here where I live.  It exists.  There are some literary agencies and three magazines.

I’m at that point where I know what I want, I want it so desperately I want to cry, and I can’t have it.  The roadblocks are insurmountable.

Are your characters at that point?  Are they headed for that point?

Complicating Characters Revisited — November 16, 2010

Complicating Characters Revisited

This post originally appeared on the blog back in September of last year.

Just over a week ago (September 1) my mom and I were watching “Warehouse 13.” (Yes, I’m a nerd and proud to admit it.) For the entire debut season there’s been this lurking storyline. One of the characters lost their lover in Warehouse 13’s Act 0. (I will borrow here from my first professor of Shakespeare.) It’s pretty much the only significant thing they’ve ever indicated has happened to this character. Now, I realize that it would be no fun if they gave us her entire life story in one go. But, characters are more than just one shaping event from Act 0. Especially adult characters who have lived in the worlds we as authors create.

So, how do we complicate our characters, make them more than just one shaping event? For me, while each character does have one or two life-shattering events in their history, I try to map out changes around them. These changes can be corollary to event prime or unrelated. Then I fill in gaps. Small events, like whether they broke a bone, usually spring from the moment unless a past injury becomes an event prime and then I definitely plan it out ahead of time. I figure that I can let those little things spring from the well as I let the words flow because they aren’t crucial to story but they make a character real.

I also look beyond event prime to circumstances of birth. Did they have a birth defect? A neurological disorder? Poor? Rich? Nobility? Disgraced nobility? Fully human? (Fantasy worlds, after all, don’t necessarily preclude a no answer to that question.) The little details like that are what helps me to complicated my characters so they’re more than just Act 0 Event Prime.

Nowadays (meaning here in November of 2010) when I’m charactering, I think long and hard about those circumstances of birth and how they were raised.  I look at the character’s parents’ modes of thinking, personal beliefs, etc, that might factor into how my character will react to things.  Or from which the internal conflict might spring.

With my latest WiP, I’ve taken to letting the character’s decisions work backward from what I know is the decision she has to make at the end of the story.  What decisions and events would lead my character, from the way she formed at the beginning, to the decisions and actions that come at the end?

It’s when I know these reactions, and they feel natural and not forced out, that I know I’ve come close to creating a full-fledged character, near to a real human being as I’m currently capable.

Tuning into the world around you — August 19, 2010

Tuning into the world around you

Yeah, yeah, this old tripe again.

But seriously, there is so much story and character fodder out there in the real world.


Somewhere that I was, I won’t say exact location, there was a man on the phone.  He’d chosen a quiet spot for his conversation.  Later, for whatever reason, he revealed to me and the people I was with that he was on the phone with a reporter from Abu Dhabi.  It was near midnight, close to press time, and the reporter needed to finish his story.

Wow, right?

I mean, what type of person gets a phone call from a reporter in Abu Dhabi like it’s an every day occurrence?  What sort of job does he have?

The possibilities are endless and with this one little detail, you can create a complex, deep character, just by playing a game of “What if?” and “Why?”

My theory?  He works for the US government and the reporter was doing a story on the oil spill in the Gulf or on US aid to countries ravaged by natural disasters.

Just for kicks and giggles, leave your theory on the conversation in the comments.  Also, how do you observe the world around you?  Do you carry a notepad for people-watching?  Do you scramble for scratch paper when you see a quirk you could incorporate into a character?  Some other method?

Reconciling differences — July 6, 2010

Reconciling differences

I have made no secret of the fact that I’m a practicing member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  Most call us Mormons.

It’s also no secret the members of the LDS faith generally abstain from smoking, swearing, extramarital and premarital sex, drugs, and alcohol.  Many think that we’re not allowed to have fun because of this.  But, isn’t it more fun to be able to remember how fun the party was rather than wonder what trouble you got into because you were drunk or stoned?

Lately, I’ve been struggling a bit with reconciling my personal beliefs with writing what’s true and authentic for my characters.  I don’t read or write steamy romance.  I blush quite easily.  (Frankly, I wish people would realize that a movie can still work without a gratuitous sex scene.)

The first novel I wrote and the short story I penned right before it featured LDS characters.  It was never made explicit that they were LDS, but in my head they were.  No hanky-panky going on there.  No swearing, either.  In fact, there might have been several references to heading off to church.  Then I wrote my YA fantasy.  There wasn’t much there, except maybe a hint or two with some of the adult characters, especially since my main character and her friends were all ages 10-14.  No hanky-panky there.  And since it was fantasy there wasn’t really any cussing in the sense we think of it.

And frankly I started feeling like I was writing the same character over and over again.  I was bored.

So I branched out.  The main character in my current novel is definitely not LDS.  I’ve written a fade to black moment, he drinks casually, and swears when all heck breaks loose.  But he doesn’t swear often in the book.

I asked my brother if he’d read the manuscript for a multitude of reasons, the first being that he’s a guy.  And he can give me excellent feedback on whether my main character sounds manly enough.  But I asked him, too, because he’s the one guy in my life that I can ask who won’t be offended by the non-LDS behaviors.

I’m starting to feel guilty for writing in swear words and hinting majorly at a sex scene and such.  It’s really becoming a struggle to reconcile my personal beliefs and convictions with what I know needs to happen for my characters.

I know that I have at least a handful of LDS readers out there and that there are a lot more who aren’t.  My question to the former is how do you bridge that gap, if you ever do?  To the latter, (I hope I haven’t offended you with this post) how do you bridge the gap backwards if you ever include a character who maybe doesn’t do something that you view as fun or okay?  Do you ever write characters who maybe don’t drink or don’t sleep with people before marriage?  (Those are just examples.)

And I really do hope I haven’t offended anyone with this post.  It wasn’t my intention at all.  I deeply apologize if I did and I hope you can forgive me for any offense.

Compelling characters — May 11, 2010

Compelling characters

There are so many different things we have to worry about in our writing.  Plot.  Structure.  Pacing.  Word choice.  Slaughter of innocent adverbs.

The list goes on and on.

I wonder if sometimes books get pushed through with very little thought to whether the characters are ones we can actually care about.

I’m not naming names or anything and I’m sure that every author does worry about it at some point.

For me, the story can be there and whatever, but if I can’t care about the characters, I’m done.  If I don’t care about the characters, I don’t care about what happens to them.

Case in point, last week’s episode of the CBS television show NCIS: LA.  Skip the next paragraph if you don’t want any spoilers.

Earlier in the season, one character got abducted.  There were no answers to who took him or why they did.  Over the course of a few episodes, most of which held nothing more than a passing mention of the character’s name (if that).  They didn’t deal with anything about him beyond the first episode where he got taken and then last week’s.  Last week they found him.  But then he got killed.  And let me tell you, I couldn’t care less.  I never missed him, I didn’t care about him, etc.

Here’s the reason: Lack of interaction.  He’d only been around for a handful of episodes when he was abducted.  And he was just a side note character.  There was no reason for me to care or worry about where he was.

Do we try too hard to make readers care about our characters, even the characters who only show up in one chapter only to be heard from again at the climax?

What makes you care about a character?  Sound off in the comments.