Tag Archives: character development

Confluence: Characters, Novels and Rivers, oh my!

Merging isn’t just for traffic.  Writers merge story ideas and characters all the time.  When one plot isn’t fully realized after furious bouts of writing, we have the tendency to throw other half-written stories into the mix to create one complete novel.

We also toss characters together in hopes that the minor roles they’ve played will morph into one robust MC.  Or, we try to marry two MC’s into a single entity.  I have mixed feelings about this practice, even though I’ve done it myself a time or two.

At times, the confluence is so obvious a reader can pick out the transition almost as easily as sightseers can see the merging of lake-cleaned rivers with silt-laden ones.  Characters can appear Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde-ish, while plots can seem like rough rapids instead of a smooth river of prose.

How about you?  Have you tried merging storylines, characters or plots?  If so, what tips do you have for making a smooth transition?  What struggles did you encounter?

Curious minds want to know.


Psychological Writing Series: Honesty and Truth

I know, I know.  You’re learning way too much about moi through this series, but please bear with me.  And promise not to hold any of my childhood naughtiness against me, as I have learned some restraint in the intervening years.

Honesty.  Or rather the lack of it–as my story goes.

I was the world’s biggest liar as a kid. 

“Did you lose your earring?”  Nope.  Really, that’s not it in the heater vent where I dropped it two days ago.  Even if it looks exactly the same as the one in my ear right now.  Even if I spent hours trying to fish it out before you noticed it was missing.

I lied my way into and out of things.  I also lied myself into the corner more often than I could count.  Seriously.  I might as well have had my name on the living room corner for all the time I spent with my nose in it.

According to Merriam-Webster, honesty is “adherence to the facts: sincerity.”  I could argue this point, as I was very sincere in every one of my lies.  But if I don’t try to twist the definition, it really comes down to this: honesty equals the truth. 

 Or does it?

I’ve worked as a child advocate for many years and the most eye-opening thing I’ve learned is this: there is no such thing as absolute truth.  Instead, we all bring our experiences to the table when we interpret and remember the facts of an incident. 

Example: ask five witnesses to a crime the same exact question and you will get five variations of the “facts.”  Sometimes these factual accounts can differ so tremendously as to ring false.  Yet each witness is providing the absolute truth–according to them.

Confused yet?

I’ll simplify.  Remember back to the last disagreement you had with your significant other, parent or friend.  Now, what happened?  That’s right, really think about what happened.  Try to remember the exact words that were used. Where you were standing.  How you crossed your arms over your chest or tapped your foot. 

Now what does that look like from your adversary’s perspective?  Will s/he remember the exact same words, the places you both stood, how you looked and what you did?  Maybe they didn’t watch your toe tap, but noticed the ear tug and scrunching eyebrows.

Did someone see or hear this conflict?  I bet s/he remembers something else as well.

And yet when recounting the incident, you will all swear your version is true because that’s what you remember. For realsies, people cannot recount the absolute truth.  Our personalities, past experiences, moods and focus all affect how we see and feel things at any given time.  I call this personal truth.

Conflicting personal truths can make navigating relationships extremely difficult both in real life and in fiction.  Especially when each party is sincere in his/her version of the truth.

Often, however, confused is what we want our characters to feel.  In romance novels, it benefits us to have our characters misinterpret intentions.  In thrillers, we need to plant seeds of doubt in our MC’s mind about what is happening and how it happened.  This confusion creates conflict.

As writers, it is our job to know the facts of our tale.  Only then can we effectively allow our characters to bend the truth to fit their life experiences and personalities.  When each character is sincere and honest in their version of events, our stories retain natural conflict just like in real life.  And this, my fellow scribes, is the absolute truth.

Does recounting a personal truth make someone a liar?  How do we, as writers, learn to see all the variations one truth has to offer?  How do we reconcile this for our characters and, in real life, for ourselves?  Can the ability to understand the inherent falsity of truth make us more honest?

Curious minds want to know.

PS: my spellchecker isn’t working at the moment, so please forgive any typos!

Personality Post on From the Write Angle

Please join me on From the Write Angle for a post on Nature and Nuture as I continue discussing the psychology of creating characters.

Thanks so much and see you back here tomorrow with another post  on my Psychological Writing Series.


Excuse me? What’s your name again?

As many of you know, my Dear Hubby recently purchased a hunting dog. Her name was Sage which the entire family hated. In fact, New Dog didn’t even know her own name, she despised it so much.

We opted for Bailey. It has a nice ring while I’m standing on the driveway shouting her name across the neighborhood. “Baaaaay-leeeee! Come home, you stupid little….”

Yeah, she has other names besides Bailey.

Dumb dog.
Pain in the rear.

But only after she does something stupid. Like feed her sock addiction. Seriously, socks are like crack to her. She ferrets them out and can’t swallow them fast enough. I won’t mention what we call her when said socks pass through the digestive system onto our lawn.

Somedays we refer to both our hunting dogs as a unit.

Blanco. Because her coat contrasts nicely to our geriatric lab’s who has since earned the Spanish name el Negro after the color of her fur.

And if we’re really giddy, we lump them together as Schwarz und Weiss. DH and I both took German in highschool. Ebony and Ivory.

And then there’s Kallie. Kallie Cakes. Tubby. Chubby. Tootsie (when she lays down her legs stick out like toothpicks shoved into a tootsie roll) and Grandma Kallie. Did I mention she’s old?

Anyone listening to our family on a given day would think we have 207 dogs. Way too many to squeeze into our home. Both for sanity’s sake and space.

Novels can be that way too. When too many characters wander the pages readers get confused and can lose interest.

As writers, we must assess who we introduce to our audience, when we do so and why. If we can combine characters to make our manuscripts less crowded, readers will notice when characters piddle on the floor. Otherwise, important details may simply get lost in the chaos of having too many dogs in the house.

How many characters are essential to a good story? At what point do readers get character-overload? How do you combine and/or eliminate minor or peripheral roles in your manuscript? What’s the trick to knowing who actually needs to reside within your novel?

A Little Taste of SCBWI Love

So, I finally made it to the other end of the world.  Seriously, from the West Corner of Minnesota to the East side of Iowa is a freakin’ haul.  But, I’m glad I made the journey.

Bubbly, humorous and oh-so-kind (she helped me fill my water glass) Editor Molly O’Neill presented two mini workshops for us today.  One was a writer’s boot camp to help us get to know our characters better.  The second was an in-depth look at 25 book beginnings that caught her eye.  It was fabulous to  hear her express why each of these first words made her editor’s heart go pitter patter.

In the end, it was all about connection.  Yes, there are more kinds of connection than simple character connection.  Many more kinds.  To name a few: setting, familiarity and tone.  And once she connects, there is one sure-fire way to get her more deeply engaged in a story.

In her words: “It delights me when a character does something unexpected, but in character.” 

The moral: Writer, know thy character.  Henceforth the boot camp.

On Rejection: It doesn’t mean the story isn’t any good or that a writer can’t writer.  It just means “I personally didn’t react to this in a way that makes me the best advocate.”

So there.  No does not mean we have failed.  I just means our story failed to create a stong enough connection with one particular agent/editor.

And on a whole new level: I met Agent Awesome–sat by him at the opening, as a matter of fact.  I also met another one of his clients.  Imagine that, two clients within six hours of each other.  That’s a pretty big deal when you consider writers the sheer miles it took to get here!  And she’s super sweet.

Well, really, all writers who attend SCBWI conferences are sweet.  I’ve been to five over the years and never once have I found any highschool drama.  There are no prom queens among us.  We are all working toward our dream of putting our writing into the hands of children.  And that is enough to humble the published and support the newbies.

SCBWI rocks…and not just because their directions were impeccable.

Okay, time to decompress with a good book and a little sleep.  More to come tomorrow.  Also, you can follow me in real-time @catewoods on twitter breaks.

hugs and good night

The Not-So-Perfect Character

It was a dark and stormy night.

Okay, not stormy, but dark.  All shades of dark, actually, when I read the last words on Carrie Ryan’s The Forest of Hands and Teeth.  I won’t lie to you, this isn’t a book for the casual reader.  It has zombies–the Unconsecrated–who roam the land and feed off the flesh of living humans. 

I started at 8:00pm while my youngest wept his way through Harry and the Hendersons.  I closed the back cover shortly after midnight and flicked off the basement light to make my way upstairs.

Immediately, I was plunged into total blackness.  The tiny orange rectangle outlining the light switch did nothing but beckon me to flip it back on.  Instantly, the hairs on the back of my neck fluffed up like a German Shepard’s scruff. 

Reality is that Miss Ryan’s book wasn’t scary at all while I read it.  Not one iota.  Nor do I believe in zombies in any way shape or form.  And truly, if they are as shufflingly slow as they are portrayed across media in general and this book in particular, I had nothing to fear.  Even if they were real.  Sheesh, I could outwalk them on a good day. 

And yet, this knowledge didn’t stop me from wanting to sprint up the stair to my DH slumbering in bed.  Rather than give in to it, I forced myself to walk up each step.  It didn’t help that the night was cloudy with no moon or stars spilling through the windows.  The pitch black played right into my zombie induced imagination.  A feat worthy of noting since I am not easily spooked.

Which makes me believe that Miss Ryan did something right.  Even after closing the pages of her book, her characters stayed with me.  And not just the Unconsecrated.  While brushing my teeth (safely in the bathroom with DH between me and the zombies), I couldn’t let go of the MC. 

She was an anomaly to me.  At times brave, yet selfish.  She was motivated by the haunting memories of her beloved mother’s childhood stories.  Even as death and desctruction ripped through the tiny band of survivors, she pushed on.  Even when love…well, I can’t say any more for fear of spoiling the book. 

I don’t even know if I like Mary.  Yet she was so well fleshed out: such a contradiction of actions, so truly a teen in distress living for herself and something bigger than herself all at once.  She was real.  More real than the zombies who followed me upstairs.  More real because she wasn’t perfect.

Most of the time I like the MC’s of my favorite books.  Nay, I love them.  Not so with Mary.  Instead, I felt a deep connection with her and her drive to believe, to hope, to dream.  Her ability to push forward against insurmountable odds.  Her strength in motivating others to follow.

We would not be friends in real life, me and this Mary.  She is far too selfish.  And yet, I would respect her and her ability to throw herself in the middle of a dark and stormy night.  Zombies be damned.

As a reader, have you ever run across a character you don’t like, but connect with anyway?  What makes a good character?

As a writer, have you ever written an MC you don’t like?  If so, why?  And more importantly, how?  How do you pen an entire novel about a character you would not invite to your slumber party?

And for everyone: what value is there in not glamming up the MC? 

I, for one, get tired of the cliched characters.  The beautiful.  The smart.  The perfect size six and the uber-buff surfer dude in a suit.  The MC’s that are more wonderful than I will ever be who just seem a little down on their luck for the sake of a story. 

Whether Miss Ryan intended for Mary to be a bit selfish or not, it worked.  The companion book now calls to me from my night stand.

Introducing: Miss MC

Last Saturday night at a banquet for DH’s work, I was told that I was intimidating to approach.  I snorted water out my nose, slapped the table in front of me (with my head) and laughed until I couldn’t breathe. 

Me, intimidating?  In whose world?

Granted the young lady who said that is so teeny I could fold her up and put her in my back pocket.  So, in the physical sense that might be the case.  Yet her reasoning was, “You just have it all together.”

Repeat the first paragraph and add choking to the list of reactions.  In case you’re new to my blog, I am a hot mess.  If you’ve been following me for any length of time, you are well aware that I am an entire-stick-of-butter-on-a-hot-frying-pan mess.

Petite&Adorable continued, “But once I met you, you’re the sweetest person ever.”

This entire conversation got me thinking about characters and how we introduce them in our writing.  My MC’s come to me with attitude.  Sometimes I like them.  Sometimes I don’t.  I would equate this to the initial perception that P&A had of me.  First impressions are vital to character/reader connections.  It’s the reason readers turn pages.

If I don’t like the character, I quit reading on page one and don’t buy the book.  However, if said MC has a quality I like, I will continue reading as enthusiastically as our Geriatric Lab chases after pheasant scent. 

In writing, our characters must be multi-dimensional.  They need to have layers of personality that overlap and sometimes contradict, but always make sense.  If they don’t, they will feel false and be unreadable.  Yet we can’t put all this into the first page. 

We can’t act as the go between and say, “Hey, have you met Miss MC?  Even though she’s beautiful, smart and funny, she is insecure about herself.  She likes dogs, hangs out with her friends and eats anchovies on her pizza.  In the summer she water skis and swims in the lake, but won’t sit around the bonfire because she’s allergic to mosiquitoes to the point where she gets physically sick and swells up like a water balloon.  Did I mention she’s the sweetest girl ever?  You would love her.  Oh yeah, and she has a really great story, so I hope you stick around.”

The question becomes: how do we introduce our characters to our readers? 

Roz Morris explains how to make readers root for our MC from the get-go.  Once you get started, Lynn Price sheds some light on keeping our characters in character.   

And for more opinions on the subject at hand: how do you introduce your characters?  What traits ensnare you and entice you to keep turning pages?  What are introductory no-no’s that keep MC’s aloof, unapproachable and unreadable?

Without a Paddle

I rock.  At least in my house where I hold the dubious title of Bop It Queen.  I’m also the reigning Scrabble Champion (DH actually marked the calendar the ONE time he beat me) and a pretty mean contender when it comes to Trivial Pursuit.

Give me a basketball, however, and I’ll stand on the free-throw line for two years before sinking a shot.  Celebrity trivia will trip me up every time and I stink at Rock, Paper, Scissors.  I’ve had to pick the kids up in the cold and dark so often after losing that I just grab for the keys instead of debating my “move”.

We all have strengths and weaknesses, and it’s a good thing to know what they are.  Especially for a writer.  If we fail to properly assess our techniques, we will find ourselves

Up Submission Creek without a PADDLE.

PLOT: Even the most rudimentary writing needs a plot.  The story must go somewhere, or there is no purpose.  Not for our MC, not for our story and certainly not for our readers.  The Encyclopaedia Brittanica states that plot is ” …the structure of interrelated actions…” 

James Scott Bell writes about his LOCK system in regards to a satisfying plot.  Lead Character.  Objective.  Confrontation and Knock Out.  These same components have been summarized in many different ways, but in essence they all mean the same thing.  A reader wants to be transported from Real Life into a story that has conflict, a climax and a resolution. 

AUDIENCE: Writer, know thy audience.  After hanging out on writing forums for a year and engaging face to face with other writers and their work, I have learned that we often fail to understand who we are writing for.  I have seen YA’s written with picture book themes and manuscripts for adventure-seeking men obviously penned by women. 

Each age group and genre has vastly different expectations.  As a rule, men do not want to read touchy feely dialogue and teens no longer care about talking bunnies in search of their mommies.  Not sure what you’re writing?  Check out Anne R. Allen’s Blog .  Once you know your audience, read a couple dozen books to get familiar with the style and language they seem to like.

DEVELOPMENT as in Character: Flat Stanley is an awesome book.  Yet most writers should strive hard to make their characters anything but flat.  To keep our readers invested, we need characters they care about.  Lynn Price tells how.   

DIALOGUE: Kill me now if your characters hold actual conversations.  Readers DO NOT want “Hello.”  “How are you today?”  “Good.”  “Great.”  “So…it’s cold outside.  Did you get the driveway shoveled?” 

Repeat after me.  “Ninety percent of what we say in life is really boring.”

The key to great dialogue is imparting character, not information.  It moves the story forward.  Don’t make your characters talk the same.  Likewise, don’t let them all have quirky speech patterns.  Keep in mind things like age, sex and genre when writing.  For a giggle, read here.

LANGUAGE: This goes hand in hand with dialogue and audience.  Write for your readers, not at them.  Don’t condescend and don’t use big words you yourself had to look up.  Both of these will kill a reader’s love for you faster than dumping your spouse for the waitress on your tenth anniversary. 

Sentence length and structure, as well as paragraph development, belong in this category.  Don’t confuse your audience with poorly constructed writing and Harvard words.  Rather, gently stretch their skills.  Teach, don’t preach.

EXPOSITION: AKA, back story.  If you have never heard of an information dump, now is the time to learn that agents, editors and the reading public despise this technique.  Why?  Read for yourself.

So how does one provide necessary information?  Artfully, I suppose.  I should be able to show you it is cold, the wind is blowing and a storm is moving in without telling you.  An example: 

She shivered and zipped her jacket against the wind.  Her tears froze on her cheeks as she screamed at the snow-filled sky. 

I have no sympathy for the villian explaining his evil plot to the tied up victim.  I’ve had an entire novel to show my villian’s motives through action, character development and dialogue.  He had forty-seven chapters to visit his mom’s grave, sift through his old diary, threaten his shrink for saying the wrong thing and generally act unstable in certain situations.  If I haven’t managed to convey the message by chapter forty-eight, my book shouldn’t be in your hands. 

If you’ve made it this far up Submission Creek with only one paddle, I’ll throw you another one to make your trip a little easier.

SETTING: Description of characters and places often comes in the form of exposition.  A good writer can bypass this tendency by choosing his words carefully.  Adverbs and adjectives do not create setting, nor do they qualify as good descriptors.  In fact, they can detract from our writing significantly. 

Not sure what I mean?  Robert K. Lewis will explain.

So there you have it.  Two paddles to help you navigate the publishing waters.  Plot, Audience, Development, Dialogue, Language, Exposition and Setting.  The key to making it work, however, is knowing how to use them. 

What are your writing strengths?  Do you consiously tackle your weaknesses?  If so, how?

~happy canoeing!

Realism: It’s in the Details

Last night I snuck found a small bag of Whoppers in the left-over Halloween stash.  I don’t really like malted milk balls.  Yet, when I popped one in my mouth, I was instantly transported back in time.

In my youth, Whoppers meant movie marathons with my uncles, shoveling manure with my cousins and having more freedom than children should be allowed to have.  They were the best of times…

The worst of times centered around my third grade teacher.  I’m not sure if she was a real one, but she sat in the desk and we called her Teacher.  I think she was a failed musician.  My clue?  The fact that we all had to learn Twinkle Twinkle Little Star on the violin–everyday–after which Teacher would cry at her desk and leave us on our own to tell time, count money and not beat each other up.

Okay, maybe that’s not entirely accurate, but it is what I remember.  That and going across the monkey bars so many times my palms would blister into huge water pockets and I would walk around with them bandaged.  Those bandages were a matter of pride.  I lost so many layers of skin I’m surprised there are lines left to read.

The point of all this reminiscing is that the best things in life are chock full of details.  So, too, is great writing.  Just ask editor, Lynn Price.

On an AQ chat, we pondered how much of ourselves we should put into our writing.  My answer: the details.  Nothing brings characters or situations to life better than small details.

In one of my middle grade novels, I have a boy who associates learning to read with his weepy, whiney violin-playing teacher.  My beta readers loved this detail.  It’s also something I could’t have made up.   Thankfully, I didn’t have to, as my life is full of tiny experiences that breathe realism into my writing.

I did miss a plane once because my uncle had to stop for his Pepsi fix.  I know that you can run someone’s head over with a blue, banana seat bicycle and leave a nice tire track, but no lasting damage.  I have felt the stark terror of waking up with DH’s hands wrapped around my neck in his sleep-induced attempt to thwart a bad guy. 

If necessary, I can accurately portray how mind-numbing physical fatigue is.  Seriously, after an eighteen-game volleyball tourney that spanned seven hours, I was so exhausted I left the gym with fewer brain cells than I had going in.  I was quarrelsome, defensive and unmotivated.  I had no problem blaming others for my mistakes.  And no, I’m not usually like that.

The flip side of that is the adrenaline rush of being the hunter and the hunted.  After one stint on the course with my youth group, I’m a paintball addict.  Just thinking about it is energizing.

As writers, we should never memoir-ize our novels.  Quite simply, our lives are not that interesting.  Our readers would yawn their way through the first few pages before chucking our books into the nearest burn barrel. 

Yet, well-place details, taken from our experiences, can make the difference between flat characters and ones we cry for at the end of a book.  They can turn mediocre scenes into compelling reads.  They make fiction feel real and allow us to fall whole-heartedly into the pages.

I have no problem picturing my MC running to catch her plane after driving around town to assuage her Pepsi fix–her one weakness in an otherwise highly regimented life.  Suddenly she is thrust into a life-changing situation.  Maybe it’s sitting next to Mr. Wrong instead of having a seat to herself in first-class.  Or maybe she missed the plane that crashed.  Or maybe an airport cashier read her aura, making her question her entire life and everything she’s ever believed in.

While the possibilities are endless, the details make it fly. 

For my readers: What makes a character feel real to you?

For my writers: How much of yourself do you put into your work?