Tag Archives: mc’s

Chemically Balanced: building even characters

We have a pool.  It’s refreshing on hot days, fun when the kids want to hang and a great way to get exercise.  It’s also work.  We have to clean it (amazing how much dirt and leaves get in the water even with a cover) and maintain the chemical levels.

Chlorine is the biggy.  If this level is off, it doesn’t even pay to try to balance the ph.  Often, successfully perfecting the chlorine to water ratio is enough to pull the other levels into balance.  Yet Chlorine can’t keep the pool clean solo. 

Sounds a bit like our MCs, doesn’t it?

As writers, we must balance the development of our characters.  If the super fabulous MC ends up with a wimpy best friend or love interest, readers will mutiny.  As a whole, characters must be a good fit, but not necessarily in obvious ways.

They must complete each other like puzzle pieces. 

MC has an Achilles heel.  Counterpart must somehow make up for that.

Sounds easy, right?  Logically, yes.  Execution-wise?  Not so much.  Balancing our characters is a nuanced process.  Readers are tired of the cheerleader falling in love with the science geek because he treats her better than the quarterback.  That kind of nerd-gets-awesome mentality is so 80’s.

Get creative with your chemistry.

I recently beta read an amazing novel about two science geeks.  The MCs were balanced, yet complementary.  The power inequality wasn’t there, as is so often the case in work by aspiring writers.

In my opinion–whatever that’s worth–here’s a few common traps to avoid.

  • Poor meets rich and all is well.
  • Social geek woos social goddess.
  • Big and buff protects fragile flower.

I understand that readers need to root for their MCs, but I’m inclined to enjoy a more balanced union between characters that doesn’t feel so against-all-odds-underdog-comes-out-on-top just because it makes for good conflict. 

In real life, we don’t buy into these relationships.  Those that form because it’s cool and exciting usually fade to nothingness in a short time.  Unless, of course, there is something more.  Relationships must be realistic, even in fiction.  Each partner must give and take.  Each counterpart must fulfil a need for the other half.  And each need must be something more than having the rich dude, the super goddess or the quarterback.

Having a super strong MC who outshines all supporting characters is a bit like dumping a gallon of bleach into a pool when the ph level is off.  It is not refreshing, fun or helpful in any way.  It simply throws the balance so far out of whack, as to make the pool–our stories–unusable.

Readers, are you tired of one-sided relationships that feel more fantastical than a sci-fi novel?  What kinds of relationships do you like to read about?

Writers, how do you balance your characters to keep the end relationships realistic and satisfying?

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. 

Fresh Garlic, Fresh Writing and a Winner

While working on a major project for our church, I had the wonderful opportunity to strike up conversations with dozens upon dozens of people I had never conversed with before.  One of the hot topics became cooking.

Hands down, my favorite ingredient is fresh garlic.  A clove or three, minced and sauteed in a bit of extra virgin olive oil, can push  a tasty dish to the next level. 

One of the ladies (who is an amazing  cook with over 50 years experience in the kitchen) claimed she had NEVER used fresh garlic to cook with.  EVER.

That confession  was akin to blasphemy in my book. 

But it got me thinking.  Writing is like cooking.  We get stuck in a rut.  We cook the same dishes over and over again because we know our families will eat them.  We use the same ingredients and cook them in the same ways, never venturing too far out of the box for fear that our kids will turn their noses up and our spouses will no longer declare us Top Chef.

When we write, we tend to fall into the same patterns.  Our MC’s are of similar ages with the same fundamental personality traits.  We strike up boy/girl relationships, throw in a conflict or two and add a bully for good measure.

In essence, we cook up a story using the same ingredients.

Our job is to keep our writing fresh.  We need to strip our manuscripts of the canned phrases and salted story lines.  We need to give up on processed plots and go with the freshest ingredients available to us.

Instead of changing our fifteen year-old, female’s hair color from blonde to auburn and making her two inches taller, we need to infuse our MC with a flavor all her own.  She may pick her cuticles until they bleed when she’s nervous.  She might have a habit stepping over every crack in the sidewalk because she truly believes the old childhood ditty–even though she doesn’t believe in anything else.  She might have a touch of OCD.

Whatever the case, we need to write outside the box. 

What happens when the requisite love triange includes a same-sex friendship instead of two hot hunks?  What if the bully is the scrawny, smart kid instead of the lumbering idiot?  What happens when it’s the spouse who has committment issues instead of the detective?

These are small changes–a bit like adding fresh garlic instead of garlic powder–yet they can have a big impact on how our characters act and react.  In essence tiny details can change the entire flavor of a story. 

They can also make the difference between another formulaic storyline or the fresh manuscript that agents and editors are clammering to bite into. 

What do you have cookin’?  What are the most commonly used “ingredients” in your writing?  Can you tweak them in a fresh way to enhance your story as a whole? 

After writing this, I realized my bullies are so yesterday: the petite, cute cheerleader and the blundering idiot.  It is not until my NaNo YA that the bully is a braniac hottie with a penchant for misusing those around him. 

Why is it so hard to take your own advice?!?!?

And so, I shall heed the words of wisdom written by successful authors before me, including Rick Frishman and Robyn Freedman Spizman. 

I hope Lisa finds something useful too.  Lisa Gibson posted the winning comment for my Slumber Party Bash contest.  For her awesome entry and great party idea she will receive a copy of Author 101: Bestselling Secrets from Top Agents.

If you have never visited Lisa’s blog, you should do so today.  Her blog is one of peace and inspiration.  Thanks, Lisa!

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.

Am I dreaming

Last night I was visited by Mr. Toad from the Wind and the Willows.  The night before, the Weasles sang their way through my nocturnal musings.  I’m not strange, I’m just a very vidid dreamer who appears to incorporate the characters around me into my subconscious for later digestion.  In fact, I can not read Jurassic Park or The Lost World without being chased by dinos.  For weeks.

Other memorable characters have been Cassie Logan from Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry, the demon Bartimaeus from his named trilogy and White Fang.  Jules Verne constantly led me on adventures as a child.  Most recently, Kristin Cashore’s Gracelings have blessed my slumbers.

I love when these characters debut for me in my own personal stories. 

Do characters haunt your dreams?  If so, who are the most Famous MC’s that have romped through your night?  What have they done?

The Final Curtain

This weekend marked my DD’s last performance for our local children’s theater.  In the eighth grade, she is too old to act in next year’s spring production.  Over the years, she’s been a swamp monster, a gansta, a maid a wife, a jitterbug, a…well, you get the picture.  She’s been there a while and is a natural performer.

Sunday was tough.  True to my usual, emotional self, I cried when that final curtain closed.  It is an era I will greatly miss. 

This sense of finality is the same one I get upon finishing a good book.  I lament the loss of the characters and wish I could follow them for just a bit longer.  Just one more play, please.  A line or two to make departure not quite so harsh. 

I don’t want to watch my characters disappear behind a curtain, knowing I will never hear from them again. 

However, writing on and on long after the climax peaks is never the right answer to maintaining a relationship with favorite characters.  Nor is trying to resurrect them in sequels, trilogies or series after the story is spent. 

Instead, we have to learn to graciously dim the lights and let the curtain fall.  Hoping, praying, knowing that a new character will take the stage, and with it, our hearts.

At least I know that’s the case in real life.  You see, my Middle Son has been in plays for the last two years.  Youngest wants to join him in the spotlight next year when he comes of age (1st grade).  They will bring new humor, drama, animation, character and talent to the theater.  Different?  Definitely.  And that’s a good thing.

I shall gladly welcome in the new cast of performers. 

Both on the stage and in my books.  For the last curtain never truly falls as long as we live with fertile imaginations, task-master muses and prolific plot bunnies.

By ending each story at–well–the end, we can keep our favorite characters vibrant and alive in our minds.  These successess pave the way for ferreting out the next generation of actors.  Our stories will not get dulled by hanging on to our favorite MC’s with unrequited love.

I have often heard aspiring writers talk about their sequels, trilogies or series.  The next eight books….  Even I am guilty of fostering a love affair with a particular pirate family and have scads of ideas for a series.  The second book is already half written.  I don’t want to release them.

So how do we know when The End is really the end?  When do we drop the final curtain on a story? 

Ar you guilty of adding scenes, chapters or epilogues because you simply can’t say good bye?  Or, do you cut off the action immediately after the climax, leaving readers to feel cheated out of a standing ovation?  How do you wrap up just before typing the end?