Tag Archives: character traits

Psychological Writing Series: Honor

Once upon a time, I provided child care as my day job.  It allowed to me to stay home and raise my family in the way I wanted to.  After all, I had a lifetime ahead of me to work.

When my oldest kids were about four and two, I had taken my little crew of daycare children on a field trip to the store.  After purchasing our items, we prepared to leave.  Just before we walked out, the dismal sky opened up in a torrential downpour.  While I debated whether to wait it out or drag six kids into the rain, the tornado sirens went off.

We hustled back inside and gathered with the other patrons in the home goods’ section.  We cuddled pillows and prepared to pull sleeping bags over our heads to protect us from the impending disaster.

The news reported the path of the tornado over the loudspeakers. 

“…sighting four miles from town…”

“…touched down…”

“…two miles and moving fast…”

All the while, I sat on the floor with six kids in the circle of my outstretched legs.  On the outside, I talked with them, sang to them and laughed with them.  But inside, I wrestled with the greatest question of my life.

If the tornado hit the store, which children would I hold onto the tightest?  Would I hug my two babies to my chest and pray that the other four wouldn’t get swept away?  Or, would I cling to the four children in my care who didn’t have their own parents to protect them and ask God to save my own when I didn’t have the ability to do it myself?

And where is the honor in any of those answers?

Honor = integrity, respect and adherence to ethical standards.

Honor can be a huge motivator for the characters we love.  And yet, it often feels stilted, as if the writer tried too hard to make his character too noble, too good, too perfect. 

Readers often scream, “No way.  She’d never do that.” 

What we really mean is, “No way.  I’d never do that.”

You see, people are inherently flawed.  We are selfish and proprietary where our wants and needs are concerned.  It is very hard for us to set aside what we desire to do something honorable.  It’s counter-intuitive to be a loving parent and hold onto someone else’s children.  Yet, it’s unethical to vow to protect another’s child and fail to do the absolute most you can when danger swoops down from the sky.

But people do make hard choices in life and honor often leads the way.  We have firemen who walk into burning buildings.  We have police officers who take a bullet and we have everyday citizens who step forward to rescue others at grave danger to themselves. 

Honor is making a name for yourself and adhering to the standard you set out to achieve.  Sometimes we do this unintentionally and don’t even realize that living up to that name is nearly impossible.  Whose children do we hold onto, indeed?

The more integrity a character has, the more she has to lose.  This makes for great conflict in a novel.  Likewise, the realization that a seemingly average character has honor can drive a novel forward and create a satisfying climax…but only if done well.

I think too often, we have honorable characters without other flaws.  Nobody loves a goody-two-shoes in real life, and having a perfect MC will do nothing but incite a riot in our readers.  On the other hand, suddenly allowing our MCs to jump through burning hoops and plow through blizzards in a t-shirt without laying the groundwork will ring false and have readers tossing our novels in disgust.   

Readers: who is the most honorable character you’ve ever read and why do you think so?  Is it possible to have a fabulous novel with an outstanding and lovable Main Character who is not honorable?

Writers: what tips do you have for balancing a character’s personality to include a strong sense of honor?  How can we create believable honor in an unexpected hero?

All: Whose children would have gotten the tightest grip from you?  (You don’t really need to answer this.)  Is honor even possible in a situation where no matter what you choose the consequences will lead to heartache?

Curious minds want to know.

Character Motivation

My oldest son used to shower to wake up.  Now he showers to style his hair.  Did I mention he has a girlfriend?

My Dear Daughter began wearing make up the moment she really, really, really liked a boy.

Middle is growing his hair out.  Self expression is big in the third grade and says, “Hey, I’m as cool as you and I refused to cut my hair when Mom wanted me to.”

Youngest, who irrationally cries long and hard at the thought of wearing anything besides swishy pants and a t-shirt, bought three dress shirts during our school shopping endeavor.  Tony Hawk has a lot of pull and I feel like sending him a personal thank you for expanding my son’s wardrobe.

Motivation.  For every action, there is a reason.  If not, go back for a rewrite.  Your characters should never act willy-nilly, but should have some reason that motivates them.

It doesn’t have to be big.  Nor does it have to be life-changing.  But if your MC suddenly starts bathing, there better be a reason for this drastic, albeit fabulous, behavior modification.

Still not convinced?  Why do you shop at a specific grocery store?  Why do you line the shoes up in the coat closet? 

In real life, our every move is molded by our experiences.  Every change in behavior is dictated by a conscious or unconscious decision.  Nothing we do is random.  Even if everything we do seems random. 

Do you know what moves your characters, or did you simply give them a trait that sounded cool?  How can we as writers consciously learn the motives behind the movements?

I bet you’ll think twice the next time you pull on your swishy pants while your Significant Other buckles up his/her khakis.

Writing Lessons from a Mannequin

While in Chicago, DH and I awoke one night to a very loud, bothersome and still-unidentified vibration.  It was 4:30 in the morning.  My courageous DH braved the boogey man and opened our hotel door. 

“You have to see this.”

I braved the hotel hall in my nightie only to be confronted by a slim porcelain leg.  Actually four.  I would post a pic of the mannequins outside our door, but they were lounging in a rather compromised position. 

Needless to say, we giggled ourselves back to sleep and shared the hysterical pictures of the motionless mannequins that soundlessly made their way throughout the hall (and poses) over the following days.

Then I got to thinking about characters. 

To me, they are the essence of a great book.  I would rather read a dull plot with exciting characters than an inspiring plot with motionless mannequins. 

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed Mister and Missus Mann E. Quin’s Chicago antics.  I just don’t want to read about them for an entire novel.  In fact, following lifeless, expressionless characters through the twists and turns of a riveting story is the fastest way to get bumped from my TBR list.

And so I give you:

Lessons from a Mannequin

  • Give your characters a head.  Seriously, Mister and Missus were headless wonders.  I suppose it’s so we don’t get freaked out by finding our neighbor’s mug on an overgrown doll, but still.  In real life, MCs need to have the tools to succeed.  They shouldn’t necessarily utilize them or even realize they have them immediately.  But they should possess some sort of strength that gives them an edge.  As an FYI, brains come in handy.
  • But, if you want to go brawn, I ask that you give your characters some flaws.  The perfectly sculpted creatures in the hall were a bit nerve-wracking.  I mean who wants to gaze at flawless wonders?  No scars were visible.  No wrinkles or stretch marks or love handles could be found.  Not a single mole or ingrown toenail existed between the lovely couple.  Ugh.  Make your MCs real.  
  • Don’t forget the details that make your MCs unique.  Mister and Missus Mann E. Quin were barely distinguishable from each other.  Granted Mister had more muscle tone and Missus had larger…pecs.  But all in all, a slimmer build doth not set characters apart.  Nothing about Mister indicated his penchant for scotch and water, and we had no clue that Missus was a bit capricious with a loyalty stronger than our aging black lab’s.  All we knew was that clothes were hard to come by and they enjoyed frolicking in the halls of a very prestigious hotel.
  • Throw in a little intrigue.  Aside from obvious character traits, it’s fun to give your MC a bit of mystery.  Provide a quirk of some kind that plays into the larger picture.  One that subtly speaks of the past and promises interest in the future.  Yep, our otherwise silent friends did have one quirk that made DH and I scratch our heads in wonder.  Mann E. wore a hard hat.  One day it was yellow.  Another day it was white.  Sometimes there was writing on it and other times it was blank.  Intriguing to say the least.

I hope you enjoyed this lovely tutorial.  I only wish I could illustrate it so you could truly experience the humor behind this post.  However, as I do write for younguns, I’ll leave the pictures to your imagination.

What other tips do you have for building strong characters?  Or, if you feel so inclined, please share your mannequin moments with the rest of us.  We could all use a good clean laugh.