Characters are real people, too – part 2

A while ago, I did a post with tips on writing well-rounded characters. I decided to follow that up with another post, featuring three more tips on how to flesh out your characters and make them just like real people. We are all more than the sum of our parts, and your characters should be, too.

1. What’s the motivation?

There’s always a why behind the what. Nobody does anything for just “no reason,” even if it seems like it at the time. Even something as innocuous as stopping for ice cream on the way home from work just on a whim has a motivation—you wanted ice cream more than you wanted to get home in a hurry.

Where the plot of a story is concerned, character motivation is a very important feature. Actually, I could devote an entire blog post to this (and many talented writers have already done so). But in short, your characters, major and minor, have a reason for doing what they do. The decisions that characters make is the main thing that drives the plot.

For an example, I’ll use Dumbledore and Snape from the Harry Potter series. (I must insert a quick confession: I’ve actually read only the first three books. But assuming that the movies were at least slightly accurate to the books, I feel comfortable in using these characters for this particular point).

Both Dumbledore and Snape spend the series protecting Harry. They go about in radically different ways, and that stems primarily from their motivation. The end goal for both men is the same: protect Harry. The reason? So that he can defeat Voldemort. But each man has a very different personal motivation for devoting the rest of his life to protect the boy who lived. Just in case you haven’t read the books or seen the movies, I won’t give away all the details; but it’s apparent right from the beginning that Dumbledore and Snape have very different motivations for everything that they do.

2. Challenges and struggles hit everyone

This can be related to motivation, because the way that character responds to challenges and struggles is what makes a plot. A story with characters who never go through troubles, never get stretched or challenged, and make no decisions because they have no motivation, is not a story at all.

There are basically two types of challenges (in stories and in real life): self-imposed struggles, and externally-imposed struggles. A story about a man who loses his wife could be told in many ways: did he lose his wife because of his stupid financial decisions and his refusal to curb his temper (self-imposed struggle), or because his wife was killed in a plane crash (externally-imposed struggle)?

In the His Dark Materials series by Phillip Pullman, the characters all become involved in the plot in different ways. Lee Scoresby finds himself involved in a multi-world war (the struggle) simply by doing a quick helpful deed for a strange little girl (his motivation—kindness and a desire to help out someone in a rough spot).

The character of Will Parry becomes involved in the war (the struggle) because he is on a quest to find his father and will stop at nothing to get answers (his motivation). Because the motivations of these characters is different, they respond to the various challenges and struggles in different ways. They also are faced with their own set of individual struggles (some self-imposed, especially on the part of Will), apart from the war that is the overall plot of the series.

3. Whose head are we in, anyway?

This is sort of a point of view tip (which I blogged about here). But as it relates to characters, the point of view or perspective can be used as a tool for the development of characters. If a story is being told in first person (narrated by I) or limited third person (he or she) then the reader can learn about the character’s quirks, faults, motivations, and decisions through interior monologue as well as external actions.

Characters who are not narrators of the story can only be developed through their actions and dialogue, as presented by the narrating characters. This doesn’t mean that non-point of view characters are flat or lacking some way—it just means that the author must chose a different way to develop the character.

I could use most any story for this example, but I’m going to use Ruse, a short-lived comic book series that probably few people have heard of or read. It was a Sherlock Holmes-esque sleuthing story, set in a steampunk Victorian world. The two main characters are Simon—the detective, and Emma—his assistant and the narrator of the story.

Even though the story is told from Emma’s point of view, complete with her inner musings about Simon, the two characters develop equally well throughout the series. Simon is a well-rounded character because of all of the points that I’ve covered in both of these posts—his quirks, his strengths and weaknesses, his motivations, his response to struggles. Emma’s thoughts about Simon contribute to this, because she is constantly second-guessing him and wondering about his actions.

As a narrator, Emma shares her thoughts with the reader—but not every thought. She has secrets of her own, which Simon often figures out just as fast as the reader does. Simon has secrets too, and towards the end of the series, the reader feels that they know Simon perhaps better than Emma does—specifically because of her inaccurate interpretations of his actions and motivations.

Emma’s quirks, weaknesses, and motivations are revealed as she reluctantly divulges bits and parts of her secrets to Simon (and the reader). Simon’s quirks, weakness, and motivations are revealed as Emma interprets them through her own personal filter. The writer(s) of this series used this limited point of view narration to develop two very strong characters in two very different ways.

Please share your thoughts! Any other tips or ideas about developing three-dimensional characters?

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Characters are real people, too

So what makes a good character?

There have been dozens (or hundreds, probably) of blogs, books, and other articles written about how to write a good character. This is my small contribution to that subject of how to write well-rounded, believable characters full of depth and passion that readers will fall in love with.

I’ll keep this list short, since most of the other blogs/books/etc could probably do a much better job. But here I’ll cover three things that I believe, if utilized properly, can enhance and really help bring to life any sort of character.

So let’s say you’ve got your character’s name, some background information, and their role in the story all worked out. You have their personality, their appearance, and even some likes and dislikes in mind. These are all important, of course, but a character—just like a real person—is much more than that.

1. Everyone’s got a little quirk, vice, or weakness.

This doesn’t have to a major, plot-altering deal. It can be something like the rough and tough motorcycle guy who loves Julie Andrews’ songs, or the exercise-and-organic-food enthusiast who smokes a pack of cigarettes a day. An unexpected habit, a funny catch-phrase, a nervous tick—these are the little things that everyone has, and can add another layer of depth to your characters.

In my current WIP (work in progress), my main character Lyylia is Finnish, and she speaks several languages in addition to her native tongue. However, Swedish is not one of those languages, and in the book, she’s just moved to an area of Finland where Swedish is as widely spoken as Finnish.

This is not a major plot point, actually, and most of the book does not take place in Finland at all. However, it’s a small insecurity for Lyylia, because she is the sort of person who is accustomed to being in control of herself and her situation. Not knowing one of her nation’s official languages is a weakness that she doesn’t like, especially when a friend of hers (who does speak Swedish) gives her friendly teasing about it.

2. Nobody’s perfect

This is different from the first point, because this is more about a major flaw or mistake rather than a quirky weakness. This is often a major plot point, as the character works to overcome their problem, or their mistake influences the direction of the story. And just like good characters aren’t all good, bad characters aren’t all bad. Even the worst bad guy can have a redeeming trait.

For this example I’ll use Lucy Pevensie, from The Chronicles of Narnia. Lucy could perhaps be called the most “perfect” of all of the Pevensie siblings, and she’s the most loyal to Aslan. In Prince Caspian, she sees Aslan when the others don’t and knows she should follow him, but she weakens and listens to the voices of the others telling her she’s imagining things. Later in the book Aslan rebukes her for not being bold and following him anyway; if she had followed him, it would have saved her and the group a lot of time, aggravation, and potential danger.

Lucy’s mistake in listening to the voices of the group instead of the inner voice she knew she should be obeying didn’t alter the entire plot of the book, but for this otherwise near-perfect character, it was a big deal and a big mistake.

3. Your character isn’t you

As the writer, naturally a part of you is in every one of your characters. But not all of your characters should actually be you. (This applies to fiction only, of course; if you’re writing a memoir or something that’s heavily based on real people and real events, then stick to what you’re doing).

Remember the personality, background, and motivation of your character—all of these things contribute to how they would respond to any given situation. And this may be completely not how you yourself would respond.

I’ll use another character of mine, from a temporarily-shelved WIP. This character is rough, rude, and hyper—she likes to pick fights, swears like a sailor, and hasn’t read a book since high school. In short, she is the total opposite of me. So as she interacts with the other characters and situations, I have to remember that she would not do the things that I would do.

Honestly, if I knew this woman in real life, I’d probably strongly dislike her, but in the story, she’s one of my favorite characters—perhaps because she’s so different from me, and writing her character really stretches me.

These three points apply to protagonists, antagonists, and even supporting characters. While it’s important to keep your major characters major and the minor characters minor, even characters with a small role in the story can be three-dimensional. As I stated at the beginning, this is by no means an exhaustive list, and many other authors have done a much better job of writing about how to write characters.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this anyway, though! Any other writers out there who would like to add favorite character-writing tip? Please comment!

It’s all in your point of view…

I believe that point of view (POV) can make or break a story. Well, maybe not break it, necessarily, but a different point of view can radically change a story.

A couple of other writers have blogged recently about POV, so I must do them credit by providing links to their posts. One of my favorite bloggers Ava Jae posted an insightful blog about POV, and editor Beth Hill wrote an exhaustive and very educational three-part post about point of view and character perspective.

To begin with, POV is one of three things: first person, second person, or third person. Each one has their pros and cons.

First person: I tells the story. The reader can immediately get into the main character’s head—the reader sees, hears, and feels everything that the character does.

For an example, I’ll use Daphne Du Maurier’s classic Rebecca. The story begins with an intense first line that puts the reader right away into the mind of the unnamed narrator:

          Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.

A disadvantage (or perhaps advantage, depending on how you use it) is that first person POV can be limiting. If important events occur that the narrator does not witness, the information must be revealed in some other way or at some other point in the story.

As I said, this could be either good or not so good. In the case of Rebecca, for those of you who’ve read it, just think how different the story would have been if Max de Winter had been the one telling the story. Without giving away everything to people who haven’t read it, let’s just say that there would have been a whole lot less suspense and intrigue if the reader knew everything that Max de Winter knew.

I wrote a sci-fi story a few years ago (it’s been temporarily shelved, but I haven’t given up on it) that was written in the first person from the perspective of an alien. The plot involved the alien on her way to visit Earth for the first time, and her first encounter with a human.

I enjoyed being able to create and tell about the alien culture basically from the inside out. The interesting challenge to this, however, was describing humans and their culture from the point of view of someone who didn’t know what hair or tear ducts were, had never seen a yellow sun in the sky, and didn’t even have the words to describe the food that humans ate.

Second person: You tells the story. This POV is almost never used, and is rather awkward. Really the only example (good or bad) that I can think of that’s written in second person are the Choose Your Own Adventure books. Anybody remember reading those as a kid? Those were cool because you were actually in the story. But as for reading, say, an actual novel, you as the narrator makes for a difficult read.

Third person: He or she (or it or they) tells the story. This POV form has the most options, which, like most anything, could be either good or bad.

The story can be told from the perspective of just one character, making it similar to first person in that the reader has a limited view of the story but very intimate knowledge of the character, their thoughts and feelings, everything that they do and why.

Multiple characters can tell the story, giving the reader not only knowledge of simultaneous events, but sometimes different perspectives on the same event or character. This format works best, in my opinion, for long complicated stories like epic fantasy (and other genres too, of course) that involve a large cast of characters and multiple plot threads.

The book I’m working on falls into this category. While I have two characters who would be the absolute main main characters, I have a cast of five characters who share the job of telling the story.

I keep the scenes separate as far as character perspective goes, however. I don’t know if this is what might be called a “rule” of narration and POV, but keeping the narrating characters separate within a scene is usually advisable. The best multiple-perspective third person POV stories I’ve read have separate scenes, or even separate chapters, for each character’s viewpoint. Switching mid-scene (or worse, mid-paragraph) from one character’s head to another can often be jarring or confusing for the reader.

For an example of third person, I’ll use an excerpt of a scene from my current book. This scenes that involves two of my main characters (Mađen and Teija), but it’s told from the perspective of Mađen.

          The sun was rising as they neared Sodankylä. Mađen paused at the top of a hill for a moment to admire the view. The snow was just mere flurries now and the clouds were thin, and a red-gold glow was blazing on the horizon. Wild sweeping hills stretched in every direction, dotted with little pockets of trees and rapidly freezing lakes. Towers of rock, softened only slightly by the fresh dusting of snow, rose up from the tundra. Everything glowed a muted orange in the veiled sunrise.

          “It’s beautiful,” Teija said.

          “Sápmi. It’s always been the most beautiful thing to me.”

          “Sápmi?”

         “The land of the Sami children. You call it Lapland, or sometimes Samiland. But our ancestors called it home.”

         Home—a land of ice and reindeer, rich traditions and dying languages. And because of his stupidity, he’d almost let that life slide through his fingers and be lost to him—again. He belonged in the north with his reindeer and his family. Ávgos and their animals would be brought back safely, if it was the last thing he did. He gunned the engine and sped down the hill.

          He stopped briefly in Sodankylä for food and fuel. Teija was uncomplaining, though she did purchase a thicker scarf before they left the village. Mađen saw no evidence of pursuit of any sort, either in Sodankylä village or out on the tundra. During another pause in the late afternoon to stretch and relieve themselves, Mađen noticed Teija examining her phone.

          “You’re not calling anyone, are you?” he asked.

          She looked up at him. “How could I? There’s zero signal out here. My mom called me earlier and my friend texted me, but I can’t reply to either one.”

         “Are you planning to tell them where you are?”

         “Johanna knows where I am—basically. Well, she knows I’ve gone to Lapland. Why? You seem really concerned about me communicating with anyone.”

         Mađen pursed his lips and tried to think of a good way to answer that. “I just don’t want anyone to think I’ve kidnapped you.”

Along similar lines in the third person POV is the omniscient narrator, which is basically just the author telling the story. Scenes and characters are all treated equally, and if the thoughts of any characters are discussed, the reader is informed of them by the author rather than having the characters themselves share.

A good example of this is in Beatrix Potter’s stories; the author is the narrator, and in The Tailor of Gloucester, for example, this omniscient narrator tells us what is going on with the characters of the tailor, Simpkin the cat, and the mice. These stories are of course children’s books, and this omniscient narrator form is more common in children’s stories (it was also the most common POV form used about 100 years ago, when Beatrix Potter began writing).

It’s rare, though not impossible, of course, for a story to mix POV forms. One book that accomplishes this mixing quite well is The Dreaming: Walks through Mist by Kim Murphy. There are three main characters who tell the story—two of them tell it in third person, and one in first person. Each POV and perspective is given its own chapter, with a heading featuring the name of the character. This is a great way to prepare the reader for not only the change in perspective, as the third person narration switches between Shae and Lee, but also for the dramatic shift when the first person I narrator Phoebe tells her part of the story.

Regardless of the point of view, or the viewpoint character(s) used, the reader can only know what the author chooses to tell. That’s why I mentioned at the beginning that POV and character perspective can radically alter a story.

For writers out there, do you have a favorite POV that you write in, or do you let the story and characters determine the narrative perspective? For readers, who do you like to have telling the story: first or third person, omniscient narrator or just one or two characters? Please share your thoughts!

The First Sentence

Today’s blog subject I’m totally stealing from one of my favorite blogs that I read. Ava Jae wrote a great post on her Writability blog about great first lines of books.

So to continue on that thread, I decided to write about my take on the first sentence of a story.  What makes a good beginning to a novel or story anyway?

1. The first line should be attention-getting. It’s “the hook,” as folks in the writing world like to call it. A good example of an attention-getting first line can be found in the novel The Third Witch by Rebecca Reisert:

                “’Tis time to rob the dead.”

First of all, it’s a line of dialogue, so it puts the reader right into the middle of something happening. For me, I want to read on to find out who is talking, who they are talking to, and why.

Secondly, it’s a bit shocking. Grave-robbing is not generally something that’s done or even talked about in polite society. Immediately the reader is jolted awake (just in case they’d dozed off somewhere between the cover and the first page).  Not every first sentence needs to be this startling and grisly, but a hook of some sort is a good way to begin a novel.

2. The first line should involve the main character. The MC doesn’t have to be in the first sentence, or even the second or third sentence, but it’s a good idea if the beginning lines point to the MC somehow. As a reader, I, for one, want a story that’s about a character, not just a retelling of a Wikipedia entry.

Here’s a first line that introduces one of the main characters. It’s from C.S. Lewis’ The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, my favorite book from the Chronicles of Narnia.

                There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.

What a humorous—and attention-getting—intro to the book and the character! Right away, Lewis incites both dislike and pity for Eustace, as well as piquing curiosity as to the specifics of why he deserved such a name.

3. The first line shouldn’t be about the weather. I know I’ve read this tip in multiple places, and if I could find the blogs or remember who might have tweeted it, I’d include them here.

Weather (or descriptions of the setting or environment) is certainly important, but so easily it could become the Wikipedia entry that I mentioned earlier. Some sense of setting is good, but we all remember the classic no-no of beginning a story with “It was a dark and stormy night.”

The Voyage of the Narwhal by Andrea Barrett (oddly, I’m using two books about sea-going boats in my examples) has a good first line that involves a mention of the setting and weather, but also has the main character and a hook.

                He was standing on the wharf, peering down at the Delaware River while the sun beat on his shoulders.

So we know it’s a sunny day by a river. But more importantly, it involves the main character, and it leads the reader to wonder why he’s on the wharf and why it’s the Delaware River specifically, and thus read on.

And now, for a final example of a first sentence, here is the first line of the fantasy novel that I’m currently working on:

                It was barely dawn when Lyylia Niiranen hauled her suitcase out of the trunk of the taxi cab.

I’m not claiming that this is the best first line ever, especially according to the criteria I just laid out, and the other examples. But I would be interested in some feedback. Does my first line grab your attention at all? Does it make you want to give the next sentence a chance, or are you already underwhelmed? What are some of your favorite first lines?

Comments are welcome!

3 Reasons Why I Love Beatrix Potter

A few days ago I re-watched one of my favorite movies of all time—Miss Potter. In case you haven’t seen it, the film is a reasonably accurate portrayal of a span of several years in the life of Beatrix Potter. It covers her journey from a single woman bored with life with her parents and their pretentions at aristocracy to her life as a published author and wealthy community leader. The film stars Reneé Zellweger and Ewan McGregor (that should be reason enough to see it, with that line-up…)

Number 1: I love Beatrix Potter because she wrote some awesome stories. For a hundred years now, children have read and loved the stories about Peter Rabbit, Tom Kitten, Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle, and all the rest.

One of my personal favorites was The Roly-Poly Pudding (or The Tale of Samuel Whiskers, depending on the edition). There was something about that story that was creepy but fun, like ghost stories around a campfire. In the story it was chillingly cool that the house was so big that Tom Kitten could get lost for days before anyone might find him and that the walls were three feet thick.

In reality, if I lived in a house where I could hear dancing and partying inside the walls, and there were rats big enough to run off with things like rolling pins, I’d move. But Beatrix Potter turned it into an adventure story, complete with the thinly-veiled moral of “always obey your mother.”

Number 2: I love Beatrix Potter because her life inspired the Miss Potter movie. Did I mention that this movie is one of my all-time favorites?

One of the things I love most about the movie is the way that the director brings the audience not just into Beatrix’s life, but into her creative process and into her mind. There are little moments—just a few, and very subtle—when Beatrix’s drawings come to life and respond to her. These moments are not long or overt and don’t interfere with the stodgy Victorian setting—they’re just little animated tweaks that let the viewer know how deeply Beatrix was involved with her characters and art. How real they were to her.

As a writer, I can readily identify with this concept. My characters are my friends; I enjoy spending time with them, and sometimes we even argue. For example, right now one of my characters (Teija is her name, and she’s normally a somewhat timid girl) is loudly banging on my mind to remind me that I left her last scene hanging much too long ago and when am I going to finish it already.

There’s a scene in Miss Potter when Beatrix is trying to cope with a sudden tragedy in her life and she stays up all night sketching—only to have her beloved Peter turn away from her as she’s drawing. Peter Rabbit, frightened by his creator’s sadness and anger, flees from her, running away through the various drawings scattered across her desk.

The pencil sketch of Peter Rabbit hides behind some flower pots in one drawing and peer out at her, as if to give her firm instructions: “don’t you dare try to paint me or tell my story until you’re in a better frame of mind.” Peter may be a troublemaker of a little bunny most of the time, but in that instance, he is giving his creator some sorely-needed guidance.

Any other writers or artists out there besides me and the movie Beatrix who have experienced this? Have you ever felt guided (or even pushed) by your characters, instead of the other way around?

Number 3: I love Beatrix Potter because she achieved every writer’s dream. No, not every author or artist wants to live on a farm in the country raising sheep, but she did that because she loved it and she was making enough money with her books to live the lifestyle that she wanted. Control over their own life is every person’s dream to one extent or another, I believe. Not everyone will achieve this dream—and not every writer will get rich with their books—but the way I see it, if even one person did it, then there’s a chance that someone else can, too.

Beatrix Potter not only gained control of her lifestyle with her books, but she accomplished what is perhaps an even deeper universal dream—she created a legacy. She wrote something worth reading long after she was gone. More than 50 years after her death, and her stories and drawings are still bringing joy to children everywhere.

I’d love to hear your thoughts! Any other fans of Beatrix Potter out there? What author’s life story has inspired you?

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Some legal disclaimers, just in case…

Frederick Warne and Co owns all rights and copyrights to Beatrix Potter’s works

Miss Potter, 2006 by Phoenix Pictures, directed by Chris Noonan