Do your novel’s characters seem bland? A bit too average? Nothing setting them apart from anyone else you have walking around in your pages?

Want to work on that?  Here’s how.

The trick here (and for novices it is tricky) is to come at this problem backwards.

Don’t say to yourself, Humm, I need to make this gal or guy more quirky.  They just do the same old things everyone does. How can they be more I don’t know, better? This character needs more—umph!

Instead, work from what you know.

Don’t think of your characters at all yet. Just think of things you know about people.

What do you know about boys, girls, men, or women?

Not what we all know – that general stuff, those are just clichés that society knows about people.

I’m talking about what you’ve personally experienced in your life about boys, classmates, brothers, girls, cousins, men, nieces, women, or ex’s.

These are the bits of knowledge that bring your writing up a notch, and bring your characters to life.

The tricky part is that what you know is applied randomly.

So don’t ask yourself  What do I know about private investigators, or single dads, or bad boyfriends?

That’s coming at things head on.

We’re trying for tricky here – and what needs tricking is your preconceived notions of what you think you know about boys, classmates, brothers, girls, cousins, men, nieces, women, or ex’s.

For instance: I know that an old friend of mine, when he cooked, would talk to himself in a low voice all though the prep; lovingly narrating every move he made.

That quirk of self-talk in the kitchen is something unique that I can take from my actual life knowledge and use as a character’s quirk— in any of my novels. Luckily, it could be used differently on any PI, or a single dad, or a bad boyfriend character I write.

Drawing on character knowledge of this sort will work far better than those societal clichés we all assume we know about people. He is a silent type. She can be a harridan. Teens are disgruntled or sullen.

Those things are rather abstract. The act of self-talk in a character is a bit more concrete.

Now, if you feel you’re not a novice, perhaps you’re a 2nd Tier writer, there is even more you can do.

Ask yourself how this character’s quirk would differ from character to character? That is refining uniqueness for the needs of your story. It also exercises refinement of how you might use the character trait in your character.

How can it be applied on that investigator? How can it be switched up so that it’s nothing as how it would be used for a single dad, or a bad boyfriend? How can you do some serious writing to find what’s uniquely characteristic about your characters?

If all three of these characters are in your story, and you run this exercise for all three of them, one will work a lot better than the others and that is who you’ll give this quirky habit to.

To find that out you’ll need to put that found quirk into a unique circumstance or scene. It doesn’t have to do with your plot (though that’s good if it does); it is there to heighten your characters’ uniqueness so that the reader sees him as real.

Example:

Private investigatorhe’s contemplating going to AA and the self-talk he does waiting in his car while on a case is his way hearing what he’ll sound like if he ever gets up the courage to go to a meeting.

 Single dadHe’s outside the kid’s room, in the hallway, and overhears his two sons mimicking that self-talk Dad does and in a flash, realizes he’s doing okay by them after all, no matter what anyone says.

 Bad boyfriendHe’s there on the couch after a fight, doing that self-talk thing again. But this time your character hears him running baby names options, mixing them with his last name, then a hyphenated version of the FMC’s and his. For one moment in your story, this person is more than a clichéd version of all those other bad boyfriends.

Here’s the final tip of the day:

This is what the experts mean when they tell you that you need to write what you know.

My Call for Submissions for your 200 word excerpts is still open.

Click the link to find out about it.

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A Hint Will Do

May 18, 2013

Novices sometimes fall into shorter lines that only tell where their characters are standing. They only tell the reader ways that characters are moving. It’s all very stage direction-ish. These underwritten shorter lines don’t help tell the story.

There are conjunctions (for, and, nor, but, or, yet & so), and there are punctuation marks (commas and semi-colons) that you can use to make a simple sentence more robust.  These revision helpers bring more story to your stories. Read the rest of this entry »

You’ve been at the grocery store. And something funny happened there, so funny that you want to tell your friends about it. It was so funny, it might be a story you tell to a lot of people. You may even use it in your novel.

So you sit around the lounge at your dorm, or the lunchroom where you work, or some other place you gather at regularly, getting ready to entertain everyone with telling this story. Your friends always like your stories, you’re a person who tells things well, people always listen because they can see you’re a storyteller.

This story from the grocery store has to do with a lady and her four-year-old. It’s hilarious.

Do you start the story like this:

 Standing in the check outline waiting for her turn to be rung up, this lady leans against her cart wearing her old work out clothes. A washed out, pale pink crop T-shirt, her midnight blue workout pants rolled down to show her stomach. Her simple white socks, extend up her ankles, in contrast to the black hair scrunchie which holds her blond bangs away from her forehead. She’s holding her son’s hand, He’s got red hair. And he’s dressed in little, brown Oshkosh bib overalls, with a yellow cowboy belt, along with black baby Nike shoes. Finally her turn at the register arrives…

 

Probably not.

There’s nothing hilarious about what they had on. The funny part was….

Novice writers open their novels with something like this example all the time. With what someone wore. Not why there are being introduced. Not the reason the character is there in the scene, doing something. No reaction from the character to some action for us to see or imagine. No purpose of their existence being illustrated. Just a presentation of the color of their hair, and sixty or more words about what they are wearing.

Novices,

if you see you’ve fallen into this default type of opening to your novel, try to re-vision your opening scene to give us why your character is there in that scene. Or what they are doing there. At the least, illustrate them so we feel we know something about their character, based on your descriptions.

Unless those workout pants and the cowboy belt are part of the hilarity of your scene, save those details, pepper them (lightly) into the action, reactions, motivations, or emotions of the story you’re showing us ‘in scene’.

Use the detail of your characters’ dress or hair color because it reveals something about them– do they consider themselves a fashion plate? That’s a perfect reason to detail their outfit.

Are they proud or vain? Okay, they show them reacting to how they feel about being dressed to the nines.

Wearing something because they just got paid and could now afford it? Did they run out to buy this thing they wear? Show us the purchase, and their feelings about ownership— don’t start and stop with the item, disclose what the purchase means to them.

Is their blonde hair jet black because they hate their parents this week? Does their makeup or nail polish show something about them beyond how they look?

Look at this example here, a few lines about sixteen year-old Cinda:

Cinda’s black bangs nearly covered her plucked eyebrows. The cap on her un-nerving black dyed hair read ‘Cin’ in red embroidered script.  She scratched at her ankle with short bitten nails painted a glossy shade of bruise purple.  A small, neat tattoo peeked out from under her busy fingertips: a tiny green frog. Her toenails were painted the same battered shade as her fingers.

This is nearly the same word count as the example above, but here, aside from seeing someone, we’re also given hints in her actions, in the verbs and adjectives used, about who this girl might be and how she might be acting. Along with getting how she wears her hair, eyebrows, and nails.

Do a search in your work – find those less than storytelling descriptions of clothes and hair color you’re telling us about.  Revise for the action, reactions, motivations, or emotions of the story you’re showing us.

toast-coffee

Building better characters

 

Karlie asked about characterization.

I also read a good post about this subject of Character  on the Blog ‘The Living Notebook’

Here is my take on this element of writing:

Read the rest of this entry »

Want to reach me for 1-on-1 coaching or edits to your manuscript? See my contact info to the right >>

Here’s the big secret:  It’s about writing in scene, and not telling the reader things so that they know what your story is going to be about.

That’s all there is to it.

But saying that means nothing unless you see what I mean: much like your story – it needs to seen, not told to your reader.

Some novices write their first drafts and feel pretty good about them, and then some feedback comes in suggesting they tightening the writing. And  so the novice asks questions, and rightfully, about what they thought was stuff put in for all the right reasons: to inform the reader. Read the rest of this entry »

Before we begin today’s post:

There are still a few opening left for this Post-NaNo offer for coaching and edit work.

So contact me for your January 2013 re-writing help.

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Now, about writing in a newer way to know your characters better.

Novices are encouraged to build Character Templates to get to know their characters better.These tools help novices get a grip on the facts about who they are writing about.

They help a lot, but they aren’t the end-all of knowing your character, because lot of times when you are working with a character template, you’re basically looking at the story-facts about them.

(thanks www.epiguide.com/ep101/writing/charchart.html

Nickname, if any
(if so, explain its origin – e.g. who created it?):
Does s/he like the nickname?
Birth date:
Place of birth:
Ethnic background:
Religion:
Degree of religious practice
(e.g. orthodox, casual, lapsed):
Current address:
Does s/he rent or own?
Brief description of home
(apartment, house, trailer, etc.):

While this type of knowledge about your character might help you know who they are. Can it help you see them in action? Does it help you to see them in scenes that tell a story?

Do you think that after beginning with templates there’s more to figure out?

Consider this new way of knowing your characters to take you deeper into their lives. I made this up a long time ago, it’s cool Because no 2 lists are ever the same.

It works like this:

Some of the best writing uses the character, with her actions and her reactions, her motivations, and her emotions to tell a tale.  Unless the story-facts on a Character template are an integral part of the story, where can these story-facts take us, your reader? How do they story-facts about character become the scenes you are building?

All those template answers can be used but as ‘story-facts’, but they’re not always what gets the story going.

So, once you finish with character templates, consider building yourself a Question template: questions about your character’s “what-ifs?”– the things that are going to get you from one scene to the next. The things that will brng something concrete to your story telling

Here’s some samples “What if?” questions to get your scenes going:
1. What if this character who never cries is suddenly faced with a situation where tears come, What will she do?
2. What if this character knows she’s been awful but can’t stop herself, how would she feel about not stopping, knowing she’s wrong?
3. What if this character loves somebody – how can she show it never using words?
4. What if this character has stood up for herself, but because of it all hell’s broken loose– How would she now react to this new dire situation?

You can create as many of these as you can figure out.
You can also build them for writing buddy and each of you share each others’ list so that you’re not writing from your own “what-ifs?”.

So, What actions or reactions would your characters have to these situations:

Someone refused to make any more eye-contact.

A female giggles high, the way some ladies’ do.

While walking on a city street, the new smell wafts up from an open car window.

A dog trots up and sniffs at a character’s leg.

A waiter drops a coffee pot or tray.

The smell of chili cheese fries invades a space.

The radio/TV suddenly dies, and the room is silent.

Where do you think this kind of character template will take your story?
Hope these helps someone, somewhere.