Tag Archives: character

Utopia is boring

It’s an interesting aspect of writing that people who likely despise conflict in their own lives create so much conflict in the lives of those we write about. It seems a bit bloodthirsty, really, but think about it. Only one person I’m aware of has ever made a name for himself writing about utopia, and that was Sir Thomas More. Everyone else seems to take an idea that some characters might think is utopia, and then breaks it in some way or shows the reality behind the façade, resulting in what we of late have dubbed “Dystopic Fiction”.

Of course not every story needs an oppressive government enforcing psychotic laws to have conflict. Nor does a story’s protagonist have to have a miserable life they seek to escape. Conflict can come from something as simple as the character wanting their life to change. After all, how many successful children’s movies revolve around “kid’s life is less than perfect, kid meets animal, kid falls in love with animal, kid fights for animal, kid saves and/or gets to keep animal”?

This is pretty basic stuff, right? We create some sort of conflict around which we can build a story.

So why do I have such a hard time with this? How many times have I gone through world-building only to find I’ve created a relatively peaceful world, or one where the conflicts are superficial and are easily worked out? Or even if I do manage to build some conflict into my setting I find my characters are such reasonable, sensible people that the conflict it worked out far too easily.

I guess not all of us are the type to kick over an anthill just to watch the ants get mad, so to speak. Does this mean we’re doomed as writers? I don’t think so. I think it’s possible to train ourselves to introduce conflict.

I’m an avid role-playing gamer. I’ve been playing RPGs for most of my adult life. Oddly enough, I have no difficulty throwing my gaming groups into nasty situations. I enjoy creating narrow escapes and dramatic fights for them. They players enjoy it, too. They want their characters to be heroic, and you can’t be heroic without conflict. The greater the conflict, the more heroic they feel. And the longer they talk fondly about “that one time when we overcame that …”.

This was reinforced for me once again recently. My daughter has discovered RPGs recently, but her gaming group disbanded before she’d had her fill. I agreed to run a campaign for her and her friends, and have been busily creating a world to play in. And I found myself slipping back into my old, bad habits. I’d create one country and make the people there kinda cool. Then I’d create another country and make those people kinda cool. And of course two different people who are so darn cool would never have trouble getting along, right?

But that won’t be fun. I had to rethink my approach and start building in some conflict. And it was precisely those areas where each country was awesome that I found my points of conflict. I have one country that excels at trade. It occurred to me that not everyone is going to like them trying to control all trade, and may fight back. And that in turn is going to lead some of the less scrupulous of those traders to go to extreme measures to discourage competition. Viola! Conflict!

Even in building in adventure hooks for this potential game group I found just a little more effort would make things much more interesting, and by which I mean create conflict. Instead of creating a benevolent patron who sends the group out on quests I twisted him a little to make him secretive and not entirely forthcoming. He’ll send out the group, but he won’t tell them everything he knows–and some of that information could prove fatal. Bang! Conflict! They need this guy, but they can’t entirely trust him.

I’m increasingly convinced from this experience that the lack of conflict in my world building and plot creation could be from a form of laziness. I could create more potential for conflict, but I don’t want to. I need to force myself to look for those reasons why awesome characters might not get along so well. I need to purposely build in opportunities for reasonable people to reach different conclusions from the same information. I need to be willing to “stir the pot’ and make my characters not get along.

Because it’s fun! Utopia is dull!

It’ll take practice. But most good writing habits do.

Thom Stratton

About Thom Stratton

Thom Stratton was born and raised in Idaho, and now lives in Utah with his Finnish wife, three amazing kids, three distinct cats, and a big, goofy dog. He works for a regional bank, and is part owner of a video game store. He enjoys writing, photography, war gaming, music, theater, building things, and reading. Though active in writing as a teen, he convinced himself it could never be a career. Decades later upon moving to Utah, where there’s something odd in the water, he has decided to get serious about writing. To date he has written five novels to be published posthumously by his greedy estate and is polishing a set of short stories to start submitting. Any day now…

Character Analysis

Today I want to look at a few examples of how characters are first introduced to the reader. How much does the reader really need to know about a character at first glance? How much description is needed? Let’s grab a few excerpts to examine.

First up, the character Kelsier, from Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn:

Kelsier had heard stories.

That’s the first paragraph. We basically have a name, and nothing else. The second paragraph, other than letting us know Kelsier is a ‘he’, is pretty much exposition of the setting by describing the stories Kelsier had heard. We don’t get much more on Kelsier until the third paragraph:

Kelsier watched the sun, his eyes following the giant red disk as it crept toward the western horizon. He stood quietly for a long moment, alone in the empty fields. The day’s work was done; the skaa had been herded back to their hovels. Soon the mists would come.

We get a little more about Kelsier here, mostly be observation. He’s quiet, contemplative, and he’s connected with a farm, though we’re not sure he’s a skaa (whatever that is), so he may or may not be a worker.

Eventually, Kelsier sighed, then turned away to pick his way across the furrows and pathways, weaving between large heaps of ash. He avoided stepping on the plants–though he wasn’t sure why he bothered. The crops hardly seemed worth the effort. Wan, with wilted brown leaves, the plants seemed as depressed as the people who tended them.

Still not much to go on. He seems to respect plants, or is at least careful enough not to step on them.  And he seems depressed or downcast. But we’re still not sure of his status. Is he a worker or not? We get our first clue two paragraphs later.

The skaa hovels loomed in the waning light. Already , Kelsier could see the mists beginning to form, clouding the air, and giving the moundlike buildings a surreal, intangible look. The hovels stood unguarded; there as no need for watchers, for no skaa would venture outside once night arrived. Their fear of the mists was far too strong.

I’ll have to sure them of that someday, Kelsier thought as he approached one of the larger buildings. But all things in their own time. He pulled open the door and slipped inside.

So it looks like he is a skaa. But we’re still not sure, because in the next paragraph his entrance causes everyone inside to stop what they’re doing. We get more setting description,  and then some dialog. Four paragraphs later we get our first, small dose of physical description:

“Fieldwork hasn’t ever really suited me,” Kelsier said. “It’s far too hard on my delicate skin.” He smiled, holding up hands and arms that were lined with layers and layers of thin scars. The covered his skin, running lengthwise, as if some beast had repeatedly raked its claws up and down his arms.

And so it continues, characterization details measured out in drips and drabs. By the time we reach the end of that section we still only really know what Kelsier is like, with only the barest inclination of this appearance.

The next character we are introduced to is Vin, a young woman. The first physical description we get of her is four pages into the chapter:

Theron eyed Vin, obviously noting her bloodied lip. She glanced away. Theron’s eyes lingered on her, however, running down the length of her body. She wore a simple white buttoned shirt and a pair of overalls. Indeed, she was hardly enticing; scrawny with a youthful face, she supposedly didn’t even look her sixteen years. Some men preferred such woman, however.

We don’t get a lot. Other than her bloodied lip, which is more setting than description, we know she’s wearing simple, workman-type clothing, she’s thin and looks young for sixteen. Not much to go on, really. Certainly not the “police sketch” writers often feel like they need to provide.

The thing is, readers have imaginations, and with even the most sketchy details provided we will start to fill in the missing data on our own. I picture Vin as being small, almost boyish, with dark bobbed hair and a cap like a Greek fisherman’s hat. The dark hair I likely got from the cover, but the hat? Where did that come from? It’s not mentioned, and it’s definitely not on the cover. I suspect it’s an unconscious connection; boyish worker-types in overalls have to have some kind of cap in my mind.

I suspect most of you, even with practically no physical description given, are starting to fill in an image of Kelsier as well. We get mostly personality clues from him, so clearly physical descriptions are not essential. The only physical clue we get is his scarred arms, and that’s it. And yet we don’t get thrown out of the story. We don’t feel a need to skip ahead in hopes of finding a scene where we get to see him from another character’s perspective in hopes of getting a rundown of his looks.

The long and short of this exercise is this: there’s no need to dump. We don’t need to know everything there is to know about a character condensed into two paragraphs. Clearly we can take our time, spinning the description out bit by bit, point by point as the story evolves organically.

That’s not to say there’s not a place for “police sketch” style description dumps. If it makes sense for your perspective character to notice such details, then go for it. Certainly it’s not out of the ordinary for a detective character to notice such details. They’re trained to observe. We’re not surprised when we get a string of details like, “She sauntered in the door slowly, like a panther, her long legs peeking out from the slit in her black silk dress, her high heels clicking steadily on the floor. Her blond hair was the color of cigar ash, her full lips were a little too dark. She wore a prim, red silk blouse that covered up to her neck, but her assets were too ample to provide much of a mystery. She was stacked, and she was dangerous. And she was headed straight for my desk.”

But some for some middle-aged city clerk who seldom even looks up from his work to suddenly wax so profuse in his observations would seem entirely out of place. Let the perspective of your characters determine who much and what kind of details to reveal, and don’t be afraid of being stingy with your description. It’s amazing how little you really need to provide without running the risk of losing readers. Give them even the smallest of cues and they’ll gladly do the work for you.

This is, of course, Brandon Sanderson’s style. Were this Bradbury you’d likely get several paragraphs of profuse, vivid detail elucidating not long their appearance but serving up a concise picture of their world view as well. That’s Bradbury’s style. He’s generous with the paint when he creates his word pictures.

Your style may be somewhere in between. You may need time to discover where your balance lies. You may learn to vary the amount of description in response to instincts telling you where to place your focus. There’s likely not any one or even a few “right” ways of approaching character description. We only know that you need to give your reader something, even if it’s almost entirely personality exposition rather than description.

Balancing your description is a writing skill we can all develop, and a good tool to have in your writers toolbox. It’ll be a different balance for nearly everyone, and that’s okay. But finding the balance that works for you is just one skill of many that writers need.

 

 

 

Thom Stratton

About Thom Stratton

Thom Stratton was born and raised in Idaho, and now lives in Utah with his Finnish wife, three amazing kids, three distinct cats, and a big, goofy dog. He works for a regional bank, and is part owner of a video game store. He enjoys writing, photography, war gaming, music, theater, building things, and reading. Though active in writing as a teen, he convinced himself it could never be a career. Decades later upon moving to Utah, where there’s something odd in the water, he has decided to get serious about writing. To date he has written five novels to be published posthumously by his greedy estate and is polishing a set of short stories to start submitting. Any day now…

A Thousand Stories

Why do I watch the Olympics? I’m as patriotic as the next guy, but USA’s medal count matters to me about as much as who wins the Super Bowl or World Series (other than knowing for watercooler convos the next day, not much). It’s as much for the stories as anything else. And the Olympics is full of stories.

Often the real story is what the athlete had to go through to get to the Olympics. Sometimes the story is the rivalries that arise during the games. It may be the moments of class, grace, and sportsmanship the occur during the games. It may be the personal struggles an athlete goes through on their way to the finals. Everywhere you look there are stories.

For every big story, like Lithuania knocking off the USA Dream Team, there are hundred little stories. An athlete struggles through Crone’s Disease to win a medal. A seasoned veteran mentors a rookie who becomes the partner that gets him on the medal stand. A coach pulls the goalie who put in a phenomenal first half to put in a less experienced goalie, who then gives up five goals to lose the game.

Every novel has its big stories we want our readers to care about. But one of the best ways to accomplish that is to build a foundation of a lot of smaller stories that make us care about the characters who make up the big story.  Yes, we might care about our interstellar naval captain who suddenly finds himself in the middle of a firefight with an unknown alien race, but we’ll like care even more if we know that this captain has been held back in his career after a brash decision went wrong, and now he second-guesses himself. Add to that a female first officer whose older brother’s shady dealings have put on pressure on her to be all that much more ‘by-the-book’, and a science officer whose father was aboard a ship destroyed by aliens two decades earlier, and you have just added a lot more tension to an already tense story.

So when writing your big story, don’t forget about all the little stories behind that story. It’s those littles stories that help us care about the big story.

Thom Stratton

About Thom Stratton

Thom Stratton was born and raised in Idaho, and now lives in Utah with his Finnish wife, three amazing kids, three distinct cats, and a big, goofy dog. He works for a regional bank, and is part owner of a video game store. He enjoys writing, photography, war gaming, music, theater, building things, and reading. Though active in writing as a teen, he convinced himself it could never be a career. Decades later upon moving to Utah, where there’s something odd in the water, he has decided to get serious about writing. To date he has written five novels to be published posthumously by his greedy estate and is polishing a set of short stories to start submitting. Any day now…

Deviating the Reader’s Experience from the Character’s

In my last post I talked about how subtext works and how to (not) write it. I mentioned that in some places, in some stories, you may want to make your reader’s experience deviate from your character’s experience.

Uh oh.

Does that not break a writing rule? Don’t we want to write our stories so our readers feel like they are experiencing what our characters are? After all, I wrote that whole post about writing empathetically instead of sympathetically and sentimentally, and before that I wrote this post about putting the emotional tension in your reader, instead of writing about it on the page.

So what gives?

There are some situations where making your reader experience something different (and sometimes the opposite) of your viewpoint character is exactly what you want and need to do. So let’s talk about how to break this writing rule properly.
Continue reading Deviating the Reader’s Experience from the Character’s

September C. Fawkes

About September C. Fawkes

Sometimes September C. Fawkes scares people with her enthusiasm for writing and reading. People may say she needs to get a social life. It'd be easier if her fictional one wasn't so interesting.

Fawkes wrote her first story on a whim during a school break when she was seven. Crayon-drawn, poorly spelled, and edited so that it contained huge, fat, blacked-out lines, the story (about chickens seeking water) changed her life. Growing up, she had a very active imagination; one of her best friends accused her of playing Barbies wrong when she turned Ken into a Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde mad scientist love interest. Her passion for stories led to her playing "pretend" longer than is socially acceptable. It was partially a symptom of never wanting to become an adult. Luckily she never did. She became a writer instead.

Fawkes has a soft spot for fantasy and science fiction, but she explores and reads anything well crafted. She has a passion for dissecting stories and likes to learn from a variety of genres, so you may find her discussing classics in one blog post animated shows in anotherTry not to be afraid of either. (And do be sensitive to the fact she never did reach adulthood.)


September C. Fawkes graduated with an English degree with honors from Dixie State University, where she was the managing editor of The Southern Quill literary journal and had the pleasure of writing her thesis on Harry Potter. She was also able to complete an internship in which she wrote promotional pieces for events held in Southern Utah, like the National Cowboy Poetry Rodeo, and she participated in a creative open mic night, met some lovely people in a writers’ group, and worked as a tutor at the Writing Center. Her college experience, although demanding, was rewarding.
She liked it enough to consider getting her M.F.A., and she got accepted into a couple of programs, but decided to pass on it.

Since then, she has had the opportunity to work as an assistant for the New York Times bestselling author David Farland, while (rarely now) critiquing novels or proofreading promotional pieces on the side, and she even had the chance to meet J.K. Rowling in New York City, but mostly she hides out in her room, applies her butt to her chair, and writes. Other than that she reads fiction and books about writing fiction.

She has had poems, short fiction, and nonfiction published.  Her main writing project right now is a young adult fantasy novel she plans to publish traditionally.

Some of her favorite things include, but are not limited to, Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, Les Miserables, The X-Files, The Office, Spider-Man, Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, rock concerts, Creed, ballet, pugs, cherry blossoms, Ethel M. Chocolates, and anything yellow.

How to Write What’s Not Written (Subtext)



Subtext: *tries to be invisible*

 

I’ve been seeing a number of stories lately that are lacking in subtext. And honestly, it’s no surprise. Writing subtext (or, I guess not writing it) is flipping difficult to 1) understand 2) do. I had read about writing subtext like over two years ago, and only now do I feel like I’m starting to understand it and have conscious control over it. So, I’m going to attempt to try to explain how to do it.

What is Subtext?

The best definition of subtext, in my opinion, is this: subtext is what’s not said; it is what is implied.
Remember my humor post from a few weeks back? I talked about how Lemony Snicket had a specific technique he employed for some of his humor. He states the obvious. And then strongly implies the un-obvious.
So subtext is what is implied. Look at this example of it that I just made up:

Robert, not bothering to raise his hand, spouted out an inappropriate joke.

“Robert, I don’t want to hear that kind of language in my class,” Mr. Henderson said, but the ends of his lips twitched up. “That’s very offensive.” He failed to suppress a full-blown grin.

Here, we can tell that the teacher found whatever Robert said funny, but neither he nor the narrator comes out and tells the reader that. Instead it’s implied by his body language and behavior–what he doesn’t say. What Mr. Henderson actually says to Robert is at odds with how Mr. Henderson acts.

Continue reading How to Write What’s Not Written (Subtext)

September C. Fawkes

About September C. Fawkes

Sometimes September C. Fawkes scares people with her enthusiasm for writing and reading. People may say she needs to get a social life. It'd be easier if her fictional one wasn't so interesting.

Fawkes wrote her first story on a whim during a school break when she was seven. Crayon-drawn, poorly spelled, and edited so that it contained huge, fat, blacked-out lines, the story (about chickens seeking water) changed her life. Growing up, she had a very active imagination; one of her best friends accused her of playing Barbies wrong when she turned Ken into a Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde mad scientist love interest. Her passion for stories led to her playing "pretend" longer than is socially acceptable. It was partially a symptom of never wanting to become an adult. Luckily she never did. She became a writer instead.

Fawkes has a soft spot for fantasy and science fiction, but she explores and reads anything well crafted. She has a passion for dissecting stories and likes to learn from a variety of genres, so you may find her discussing classics in one blog post animated shows in anotherTry not to be afraid of either. (And do be sensitive to the fact she never did reach adulthood.)


September C. Fawkes graduated with an English degree with honors from Dixie State University, where she was the managing editor of The Southern Quill literary journal and had the pleasure of writing her thesis on Harry Potter. She was also able to complete an internship in which she wrote promotional pieces for events held in Southern Utah, like the National Cowboy Poetry Rodeo, and she participated in a creative open mic night, met some lovely people in a writers’ group, and worked as a tutor at the Writing Center. Her college experience, although demanding, was rewarding.
She liked it enough to consider getting her M.F.A., and she got accepted into a couple of programs, but decided to pass on it.

Since then, she has had the opportunity to work as an assistant for the New York Times bestselling author David Farland, while (rarely now) critiquing novels or proofreading promotional pieces on the side, and she even had the chance to meet J.K. Rowling in New York City, but mostly she hides out in her room, applies her butt to her chair, and writes. Other than that she reads fiction and books about writing fiction.

She has had poems, short fiction, and nonfiction published.  Her main writing project right now is a young adult fantasy novel she plans to publish traditionally.

Some of her favorite things include, but are not limited to, Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, Les Miserables, The X-Files, The Office, Spider-Man, Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, rock concerts, Creed, ballet, pugs, cherry blossoms, Ethel M. Chocolates, and anything yellow.

3 Tweaks that Keep Details Interesting

Over the last six months or so, I’ve learned a few new things about writing scenes. Today, specifically I’m going to share some techniques that can tweak your scene here and there to make it more interesting and to keep it from going stale. They are: expand, deepen, and create motion.

First, you should know that one of David Farland’s writing tips led me to come up with the contents of today’s post. This is just like a little hypothesis of mine that has developed over the last few months.
Continue reading 3 Tweaks that Keep Details Interesting

September C. Fawkes

About September C. Fawkes

Sometimes September C. Fawkes scares people with her enthusiasm for writing and reading. People may say she needs to get a social life. It'd be easier if her fictional one wasn't so interesting.

Fawkes wrote her first story on a whim during a school break when she was seven. Crayon-drawn, poorly spelled, and edited so that it contained huge, fat, blacked-out lines, the story (about chickens seeking water) changed her life. Growing up, she had a very active imagination; one of her best friends accused her of playing Barbies wrong when she turned Ken into a Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde mad scientist love interest. Her passion for stories led to her playing "pretend" longer than is socially acceptable. It was partially a symptom of never wanting to become an adult. Luckily she never did. She became a writer instead.

Fawkes has a soft spot for fantasy and science fiction, but she explores and reads anything well crafted. She has a passion for dissecting stories and likes to learn from a variety of genres, so you may find her discussing classics in one blog post animated shows in anotherTry not to be afraid of either. (And do be sensitive to the fact she never did reach adulthood.)


September C. Fawkes graduated with an English degree with honors from Dixie State University, where she was the managing editor of The Southern Quill literary journal and had the pleasure of writing her thesis on Harry Potter. She was also able to complete an internship in which she wrote promotional pieces for events held in Southern Utah, like the National Cowboy Poetry Rodeo, and she participated in a creative open mic night, met some lovely people in a writers’ group, and worked as a tutor at the Writing Center. Her college experience, although demanding, was rewarding.
She liked it enough to consider getting her M.F.A., and she got accepted into a couple of programs, but decided to pass on it.

Since then, she has had the opportunity to work as an assistant for the New York Times bestselling author David Farland, while (rarely now) critiquing novels or proofreading promotional pieces on the side, and she even had the chance to meet J.K. Rowling in New York City, but mostly she hides out in her room, applies her butt to her chair, and writes. Other than that she reads fiction and books about writing fiction.

She has had poems, short fiction, and nonfiction published.  Her main writing project right now is a young adult fantasy novel she plans to publish traditionally.

Some of her favorite things include, but are not limited to, Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, Les Miserables, The X-Files, The Office, Spider-Man, Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, rock concerts, Creed, ballet, pugs, cherry blossoms, Ethel M. Chocolates, and anything yellow.

Your results may vary

My daughter is rereading a series that she and I have both read before. It’s been a source of fascination to her to recall just how much she’s forgotten. And, as she reports these things to me, it’s been interesting to me for other reasons: the characters she describes don’t always match my own mental image.

Hair color, distinguishing features, height, age–it seems more often than not I’m wrong on at least a couple details. And yet I have a fairly clear image in my mind what they look like. Did I just misread the descriptions in the book? Did the lack of regular reinforcement of those details throughout the novel allow erroneous imagery to take root? And does it really matter?

Perhaps I’m not typical, but I’ve found that my brain is quick to take a few salient details and run with them. I don’t need or even want a lengthy police sketch of character descriptions. Just give me something memorable and a vague idea of age and my imagination will fill in the rest. I’m not consciously trying to picture the characters in my mind as I read. And yet as the book progresses I do find my subconscious picturing scenes and supplying them with characters. Sometimes the really match their descriptions, sometimes they don’t.

The lesson here is that character description doesn’t have to be difficult. What matters most is what features make them different from those around them. I have a character who comes from a race that tends to have red hair. And yet there are not a lot of characters from this race populating my story, so I can focus in on his red hair as a key feature without much risk of getting him confused in readers’ minds with other redheads.

On the other hand, many of my other characters have dark hair. So unless it’s shot through with gray, abnormally short, or an unusual color of brown I probably won’t want to focus on their hair color so much as other features where they are more unique. Thick flowing tresses, or permanent beard stubble, or always sticking up at weird angles might be more memorable descriptions for hair.

Of course you don’t even need to describe their hair if you won’t want. A missing ear, a peg leg, a permanent limp, effeminate hands, unusual choices of clothing are all details that will stand out in a reader’s mind much more than a checklist of hair color, eye color, build, or height.

Chances are even if you give your reader that checklist they’ll still fill in any missing data on their own and perhaps even overwrite your bland details with their own.  Do don’t stress about describing your characters in detail. Focus instead on distinguishing features, and let your readers to the rest of the work.

Thom Stratton

About Thom Stratton

Thom Stratton was born and raised in Idaho, and now lives in Utah with his Finnish wife, three amazing kids, three distinct cats, and a big, goofy dog. He works for a regional bank, and is part owner of a video game store. He enjoys writing, photography, war gaming, music, theater, building things, and reading. Though active in writing as a teen, he convinced himself it could never be a career. Decades later upon moving to Utah, where there’s something odd in the water, he has decided to get serious about writing. To date he has written five novels to be published posthumously by his greedy estate and is polishing a set of short stories to start submitting. Any day now…

Bending reality

My family and I were watching an old episode of “Little House on the Prairie” the other night when it occurred to me that the character we were introduced to for that episode made no sense. A banker had moved to town and set up a bank, and yet seemed completely unwilling to do business with anyone.

Anyone who tried to be nice or neighborly was immediately suspected of ulterior motives–they had to want something from him! Pa had asked him for a loan, and when Ma went in to ask him to contribute to a charity drive for the school, the banker accused her of trying to use her feminine wiles to influence him to approve her husband’s loan.

Now, I’ve run my own business, and I work for a bank, and you don’t get very far if you’re immediately suspicious of everyone who could be a customer. Banks make money by loaning it out, not by hanging onto it, and businesses of all kinds have to be willing to trust people at least a little. This character seemed to be determined to think the worst of everyone and anyone.

Now granted, this was a 45-minute TV show, and there wasn’t much time for further character development. If we could see his past and all the people who have tried to use him for his money, perhaps we’d understand more. But that’s not the point of this article.

The point is that while I realized the man was doomed to fail as a banker with that attitude, it didn’t really matter. My kids didn’t notice the problem, and even my wife, who realized how terrible his attitude was for business, didn’t think too deeply about the long-term consequences of the banker’s behavior. I did, but I’m a writer. That’s my job.

Most readers, so long as we don’t twist reality too hard, will be patient with us if we bend common sense a little to serve the story. While we can’t be reckless about it, they’ll forgive us when they know what kind of a story we’re trying to tell.

In the case of the banker, we could tell this was a redemption story (the episode was titled “Ebenezer Sprague”, after all). So we had to see a character who was terribly flawed and unsympathetic. We knew the type and therefore didn’t question too much whether a person like that could actually survive in business. We knew he’d be redeemed by the end and everything would be okay anyway. And we weren’t disappointed. Laura, with a little help from Pa, was able to get past his exterior defensiveness and help bring him around.

So the message here is that, while we should endeavor as much as possible to make our characters and plots make sense and conform to reality as we know it (within the parameters of the genre), our readers will allow a little room to tweak things toward the improbable if it serves the story. We don’t have to sit there and stew about how to continue writing just because it’s hard to imagine how the character reached that point with the weaknesses they’ve got.

Just don’t veer off into the impossible. We can accept a character who is blind being able to fist fight with bad guys, for example, but we’d better take at least a little time explaining how she does it. We don’t need to know so much how a grumpy, suspicious person could ever acquire the money to open a bank–or why he’d even want to. It’s improbable, but not impossible.

So don’t stress too much about explaining everything. Just make sure you explain the things that would most distract the reader otherwise and let them just accept the things that aren’t so hard to believe. It’s a balancing act, to be sure, but it can be learned.

Thom Stratton

About Thom Stratton

Thom Stratton was born and raised in Idaho, and now lives in Utah with his Finnish wife, three amazing kids, three distinct cats, and a big, goofy dog. He works for a regional bank, and is part owner of a video game store. He enjoys writing, photography, war gaming, music, theater, building things, and reading. Though active in writing as a teen, he convinced himself it could never be a career. Decades later upon moving to Utah, where there’s something odd in the water, he has decided to get serious about writing. To date he has written five novels to be published posthumously by his greedy estate and is polishing a set of short stories to start submitting. Any day now…

Two-dimensional tools for three-dimensional characters

I’m still in pre-writing for my next project. I’m focusing on characters at the moment, and I’m struggling. I’ve felt for some time now that characterization is one of my weak-points, and I’d really like to fix that, so I’m trying to do a much deeper dive into my characters.

I’ve done the easy part–and for me the most fun–of finding a picture I feel best represents each major character. I’m a face collector. Not in some Michaelbrent Collings sort of way, mind you. I just like to poke around online and whenever I come across an interesting picture I save it to my “morgue”. Then when I need to create a character I’ll browse through my pictures and find one I think most fits what I have in mind. But as I said, that’s the easy part. I still need to define who they are, what they’re like, how they act, etc.

Previously I’ve been using the character profile template that came with my copy of Scrivener. This time around I’ve come to the conclusion that the template doesn’t go deep enough. It’s too simplistic–it doesn’t give me enough prompts to really feel like I’m understanding my character. So I did what anyone does these days and did a quick search online for character templates. Here is a sampling of some of what’s out there:

Epiguide.com – Link to template

This one seems like overkill to me. There looks to be over a hundred fields you could fill out. In their defense, they offer this disclaimer:

IMPORTANT: Note that all fields are optional and should be used simply as a guide; character charts should inspire you to think about your character in new ways, rather than constrain your writing. Fill in only as much info as you choose. Have fun getting to know your character!

I can see this for your main characters perhaps, especially if you have no real feel for who they are at all. But doing this for characters who show up for at most a couple of scenes would be a waste of time, I think.

Eclectics.comLink to template

This, too, seems a bit much, though there are some interesting prompts that could be helpful in digging deeper. It seems oriented to contemporary settings, but that shouldn’t deter genre writers.

Cthreepo.comLink to wizard

This tool is actually something of a wizard, walking you through all the inputs to create your character and then give you a fully-realized character profile sheet upon completion. I haven’t followed it all the way through, but if you find the above templates overwhelming this might be better, as you only see a few questions at a time.

The Imaginings of a Creative WriterLink to template

This one seems a little more reasonable in length, but is definitely geared to contemporary characters. Where this one stood out to me was in that the creator includes a fully-realized template for a character in which she answers all the questions as if she were the character filling out the template on herself. I had never considered that before, and it might be a helpful exercise.

The Writer’s CraftLink to template page – Link to the character template

The page linked contains links to several different templates for developing characters, scenes, and settings. Of all the templates I looked at, this was the one I liked most. It was also the most intimidating at first, as it looks almost like a character sheet for a role-playing game. If I use it I’ll likely distill it down into something less…boxy?

What I liked most was that the prompts here encourage you to seriously consider the character’s role in the story and how it unfolds. It’s less concerned with description and factoids and more about developing the character and their arc. Even if I don’t use this one outright I intend to borrow some ideas.

Creative Writing NowLink to template

This is another template that seems to hit the “sweet spot” with me; not too long, but not too brief. It’s actually two templates with bonus material. Use one for adult characters, the other for child characters, and the bonus material for added development. These templates seem less “time-sensitive”, as well.

 

I still don’t know if any of these are “just right” for what I need, but they’re a good place to start. In the end I’ll probably develop my own template, borrowing ideas from many of these.

This was also just scratching the surface. I’m certain I could have gone on indefinitely searching through template after template in the search results, but this is a good overview of what’s out there. Feel free to dig deeper.

Now I turn to you, fellow “Tankers”: What templates do you use? What elements do you need to define in order to feel you have sufficient depth to your characters? What resources have you used that you find helpful? Drop a comment here or on Facebook and let us know what you use!

Thom Stratton

About Thom Stratton

Thom Stratton was born and raised in Idaho, and now lives in Utah with his Finnish wife, three amazing kids, three distinct cats, and a big, goofy dog. He works for a regional bank, and is part owner of a video game store. He enjoys writing, photography, war gaming, music, theater, building things, and reading. Though active in writing as a teen, he convinced himself it could never be a career. Decades later upon moving to Utah, where there’s something odd in the water, he has decided to get serious about writing. To date he has written five novels to be published posthumously by his greedy estate and is polishing a set of short stories to start submitting. Any day now…

“Loss”

I don’t really think my father ever understood me very well. He was an outdoorsy type, and a business man. He kept himself busy, in spare moments, making, designing, or inventing things. He invented what the family always called his “Gold Machine”. He took his schematic, with all its specifications, to a machinist shop in Hawaii, where we were living at the time, and asked them to manufacture the prototype, which they did. This was some time before I’d turned ten. For the rest of his life, he traveled ‑‑‑ for business ‑‑‑ all around the western states, and sometimes even farther. He would stop by a river and take a sand sample from the banks, have it assayed to determine possible gold content, etc. He never was able to get a patent, as the Patent Office claimed that every part of his machine was already covered, piece by piece, by other patents. Nothing “original” here (but nothing copied either), it’s just that he put all the parts together for a different purpose. It became his life‑long hobby.

He was my pal, my dad, my protector and the family jokester. He loved me. And I loved him back. But I don’t think he really “got” me.

Meanwhile, my mother liked fashion. Movies. Movie stars. She should have become a buyer for a store: she had impeccable taste in what would suit this woman or that and was never wrong to my recollection. Relatives in California kept credit cards active in Utah for stores like the old ZCMI, so that she could buy clothes for my three female cousins and have them sent to Berkeley. She loved musicals (on film, though occasionally managed to go to a live production with me or my younger brother).

When I was in grad school, in the theater department, and had already taught English, speech, drama and debate in high schools for several years, I got the lead at my college in a main stage production of “The Little Foxes.” (See the old Bette Davis movie if you’re curious.). Somehow, she managed to cajole my father into bringing her to Provo for my opening night of a two‑week run.

The only reason they could come that night was because, ill as she was, they were waiting for a “bed” to open up at the hospital, which it did the next day. She died in that hospital, at age 63, after five weeks of every system in her body trying to shut down.

I was divorced by then, from a 6‑year, uncomfortable marriage. No children. I finally remarried a couple of years later, the same year my brother got married for the first and only time. But I never got over the fact that my mother ‑‑‑ a woman meant to “mother” and nurture ‑‑‑ never got to see either of my children, nor any of my brother’s six, nor any of our combined 20‑something grandchildren, or of my four‑or‑so (or so‑far) great‑grands. What a loss for them. What a loss for all of us.

And now, this week, my husband of not‑quite‑four years and I have lost HIS lovely and loving mother in Alabama. That lovely 88‑year‑old “Honey,” nurturer, model, stalwart is gone from our lives. Which brought all the above to my mind again.

What has your MC lost? Parents? Siblings? Dear friends? An important job? A limb or two?

Which of his or her losses hurt the most? Hurt for the longest time? Have NEVER been overcome?

How can that part of that‑which‑is‑humanity be expressed in your book? As a memory? As an ache? As a gut‑wrenching loss which can never be fully overcome? As a block to his her progress? As the ONE hurdle he or she MUST overcome?

How can you show your reader the REAL character of your MC? What can take the reader’s breath away with it’s beauty, or simplicity, or pathos, or humanity?