Showing posts with label Characters. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Characters. Show all posts

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Mary Sue, I Can't Stand You!

Artwork by ~Neeja at
"Mary Sue" (or her male counterpart, "Marty Stu" or "Gary Stu") is a character who is perfect in nearly every measurable way. She is drop-dead gorgeous, amazingly intelligent, and highly skilled in whatever urgent task needs performing. Her biggest flaws are trivial, like being younger than every other character, or having a short-temper, or possessing powers so strong that she has trouble harnessing them. These flaws never stop her from saving the day or being admired by everyone who encounters her. Everyone, unfortunately, except the reader.

"In 1973, Paula Smith first coined the term Mary Sue by writing a piece in 'A Trekkie's Tale' in Menagerie #2. The piece was satirical in nature, lampooning the original Star Trek female characters who became love interests for the central characters in the story."(Source ) Since then, fanfiction as a genre has grown in popularity, and with the rise of the Internet, Mary Sue characters today are more prevalent, and more reviled by fans and critics, than ever before. This may be because the fanfiction genre attracts some authors who are first and foremost fans of book or television series, and not necessarily experienced writers. They may not understand the importance of crafting multidimensional characters who must overcome inner struggles in order to face the ultimate challenges they'll encounter in the story's climactic scenes. Fanfic authors who fall into this category are simply enamored by the original, canon characters, and they enjoy weaving their own tales where those beloved characters go on new adventures with a character(s) born from the fanfic author's imagination.

When the fanfiction author creates a one-dimensional character which is based on the ideal version of him or herself, a representation of the person the writer would most like to be, and puts this flawless character at the center of their universe so they may right all the wrongs in the world, they bring to life a Mary Sue. "Basically, (Mary Sue is) a character representing the author of the story, an avatar, the writer's projection into an interesting world full of interesting people whom she watches weekly and thinks about daily. Sometimes the projections get processed into interesting characters, themselves. Usually, though, they don't." (Source

But inexperienced fanfiction authors are not the only writers who are capable of producing a Mary Sue character. In fact, many contemporary authors have crafted Mary Sues in their original works. Two of the most widely recognized canon Mary Sues are Bella Swan from Twilight and Wesley Crusher from Star Trek, The Next Generation.

Bella Swan is everybody's darling, a straight-A student who is beautiful but clumsy and stubborn, and the only person on the planet with private mind powers. Though she does nothing more than show up, she is immediately popular in her new school, particularly with the male characters, two of whom fall desperately in love with her and battle for her affections. Bella's physical descriptions ("...very fair-skinned, with long, straight, dark brown hair and chocolate brown eyes. Her face is heart-shaped—a wide forehead with a widow's peak, large, wide-spaced eyes, prominent cheekbones, and then a thin nose and a narrow jaw with a pointed chin. Her lips are a little out of proportion, a bit too full for her jaw line..." Source) match Twilight author Stephanie Meyer's exactly, right down to her heart-shaped face and prominent widow's peak. (Check out the photo of Meyers below. ) 

Star Trek fans will remember young Wesley Crusher, son of Beverly Crusher. He is handsome and his intelligence is off the charts. Despite being brilliant and considered a child prodigy, he is unable to pass the Starfleet Academy entrance exams. Despite this "flaw," he saves the Enterprise-D on seven separate occasions, each time coming up with disaster-thwarting solutions that none of Starfleet's best and brightest crew members could figure out.

Overwhelming criticism of the Bella Swan and Wesley Crusher characters exemplifies the biggest problem with Mary Sue characters: Fans can't stand these too-good-to-be-true creatures of perfection. 

People don't want to read about perfect characters. We can't identify with their unrealistic abilities and freedom from challenging flaws. So what if a character has waist-length silver hair naturally streaked with purple, and gold-flecked, emerald eyes? Who cares is she's tall and willowy, with delicate hands and whimsical habits? We don't buy it, that her inability to remember to close the refrigerator door despite being telepathic, constitutes a character flaw.

Characters that readers want to embrace are three-dimensional. They have capabilities we admire and defects we can relate to. It is through the characters' struggles that we identify with something to root for, something of ourselves.

If you're unsure your original character is not a Mary Sue, there are several "Mary Sue Litmus Tests" available online to help you decide. I recommend this one: The Original Mary Sue Litmus Test. After all, a Mary Sue can be an annoying distraction from an author's heartfelt attempt to entertain his or her reading audience. With a few inner challenges though, woven into the fabric of the character that provoke angst and cause the character to battle with herself, Mary Sue will be forced down a path of personal growth, one that will draw cheering fans to her sidelines.

What examples of Mary Sue or Gary Stu characters spring to mind from books you've read, television series you've enjoyed, or movies you've seen? 

Thanks for reading!

[I originally published this article in the July Newsletter at]


Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Characters that Capture the Imagination

Photo Source

         The gym where I work out is only slightly larger than a corner pharmacy. But the modern facility with state-of-the-art equipment, located a short drive from our house is my daily, early-morning haunt. The cardio stage faces the weight training area, so when I'm not conjuring new character ideas during treadmill workouts, I am people watching. As you can imagine, those two pastimes often overlap.

         Typically, the same crowd of early risers shows up Monday through Friday between 7:00 and 8:30 a.m. Among the regulars, there's the muscular girl whose shapely legs I covet. There's the man I silently cheer on ever since he told me he's already shed 150 of the 225 pounds he needs to lose to achieve his goal weight. And there's The Grunter, who dresses like he's in gym class, circa 1955, and who loudly clears his throat on average once every thirty seconds. Recently, though, an unfamiliar pair of members arrived on our scene. They showed up wearing the trademark bright, factory-fresh sneakers of motivated gym newbies. I haven't been able to keep my eyes off them since.

         Every day they arrive together and leave together, but while they are in the gym they work alone. Both appear to be in their fifties, and I assume they are a couple. They know their way around the equipment. Unlike timid newbies who steer clear of the complicated-looking apparatuses, their workouts entail far more than random sets on unrelated Nautilus machines. Instead, they target specific opposing-muscle groups -- like back and biceps, or chest and triceps. And they maintain good form while executing precise movements, thus avoiding the injury traps that more inexperienced members easily fall into.

         They rarely speak to each other, and I've neither seen them partner up nor spot one another. There's no air of anger or distain between them, though. They simply move around like people who are used to sharing the same space and are comfortable in their own silence. Every once in a while a quick smile passes between them.

         By now, you may have formed an image of these people in your mind. Close your eyes and take a moment to gaze upon them. What do they look like, to you? Earlier, I said I can't keep my eyes off them. Here's why:

         The man is scarecrow-skinny and easily over six feet tall. His wiry gray hair spills over his shoulders like a scraggly shawl, and his gaunt cheeks are covered by a dishwater gray beard that's so long its wispy ends reach south of his solar plexus. Though there is something graceful about his movements, he walks with the hunched gait of a man accustomed to manual labor. He wears the same ratty baseball cap every day.

         The woman is of medium height, though when walking next to the man she's dwarfed by his stature. Like him, she is very thin. She wears boxy t-shirts that hang on her frame and tend to draw my eyes to her pronounced elbows and knobby knees. She pulls her graying brown hair away from a weathered and make-up-free face, cinching it in a stubby ponytail at the base of her neck. Her mouth and chin are sunken in, as if her teeth were missing. A wristwatch or a pair of earrings would look conspicuously out-of-place on her.

         In short, they don't look at all like "gym people," which is why I find them so fascinating to watch. When they're working out, I don't even notice the muscular girl, the shrinking man or The Grunter. And that got my writer's brain thinking.

         As characters, all five gym members are unique - meaning they are each physically different from the others, and each must have interesting stories to tell. When all five share the same setting, they move around the space with equal aptitude and facility. But it's their visual paradoxes that make the new couple the center of my attention. They are the splashes of red on an all-blue canvas. They are interesting.

         A fictional character that is multi-dimensional or quirky captures our imaginations. Discovering and exploring a character's contradictions, illogicalities, and ironies bring depth and drama to any story. Inspiration for these characters is all around us, and looking for it is almost as enjoyable as crafting the characters and their stories.

         And it sure makes the time on a treadmill fly by!

[I originally published this article today at  Read it HERE. And to enjoy other regular newsletters and a slew of tools for writers, sign up HERE.  Membership is free!]


Thursday, November 11, 2010

Kill Your Darlings

William Faulkner's famous quote, "In writing, you must kill your darlings," is widely interpreted to mean an author has to be willing to cut out the brilliant, wise or lushly descriptive passages that aren't working for the paragraph (or manuscript) in which they appear.  But last week, this interpretation broadened for me.

Anyone who remembers visiting my blog during Jen Daiker's Guess That Character Blogfest may remember the girl in the above photo. It's Julie Knotts, the original main character and protagonist of my current WiP.  One of my darlings.

I had to let her go.  She just wasn't coming to life.  As a character-driven author, I've been increasingly frustrated by the disconnect between Julie's character arc and the plot.  I couldn't bridge the two together.  And after months and months of failed re-starts, I've come to the conclusion that Julie is the problem.

Since I fired her, I've been brainstorming replacement characters.  I think I've found one.  Her name is Samantha Stiles.  She's vibrant, strong, beautiful, successful, and INTERESTING.  I like her.

Of course, the entire plot is changing  to accommodate this new cast member.  But there's new energy in my writing with the project metamorphosis.  It almost feels like a new book, which is a good thing.  When too much time goes by between when the story idea comes to you and when you finish the draft, you risk losing precious energy-driven momentum.  The story becomes lackluster.  Getting back that energy is difficult and sometimes impossible.

When I get to know Samantha a little better, I'll post a picture of her.  Until then, happy writing and best of luck to you and all your darlings!

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Calling all Opinions!! (...on Protags & Antags)

[Photo Source]
The obvious:

The Protagonist is the main character of the novel.  What the protagonist WANTS should be clear from the beginning.

The Antagonist is the character that (usually) represents the PROBLEM of the novel, that which the protagonist must ultimately conquer in order to get what she wants.

Now let's move on to the less obvious.

(For argument sake, let's imagine a hypothetical story where whole chapters are told from the third person POV of either the protagonist or the antagonist.)

The author's job the first time he introduces the protagonist is to make her likable and/or create reader empathy for her, while expressing what she WANTS.  This hooks the reader and makes him want to turn the page.  But, does this mean the first chapter must open with the protagonist?

What if the PROBLEM in the story is the antagonist's mental breakdown, the backlash of which sends him on a collision course with an unsuspecting stranger (the protagonist)?  Can the novel open with the first chapter about the antagonist?

I guess the question I put up for discussion is this:  Do you think it's always better to open the novel by introducing the protagonist; or, does every story need its own formula for success, even if that means opening with the antagonist?

Bonus question:  Can you think of a book you enjoyed that opened with the antagonist?

Can't wait to read your opinions on this topic!

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

She Said What??

I'm tightening up chapter one of my WiP this week.  The opening scene is pretty intense, introducing the main character in the grips of a frightening moment.  I feed the reader glimpses of what's transpired in the twenty minutes leading up to the first sentence, by weaving short, past perfect paragraphs into the action.

During one of these flashes, she has a quick verbal exchange with a woman in the store.  The woman addresses her, MC makes a comment, and the woman responds.  Then on to the action.

It has occurred to me that the MC's comment is important.  Yes, it's just one line of dialog that serves the purpose of establishing her guard is up, that she senses imminent danger, but it's more than that.  It's the first time the reader will hear her speak.

What she says, and how she says it, will leave an impression on the reader.  Her comment must reflect the person she is, and it must have a clever, larger-than-life quality that attracts her to the reading audience.   It's gotta have zing.

Auditioning possible lines has been a great exercise in character development.  When I found the right one, it clicked.  It felt right.  First time readers won't know her intimately after reading her first line, but I hope her comment works on them like a tantalizing smell coming from the oven, promising something delicious is about to be served.

How important to you, or to your story, is your main character's first line of dialog?

Monday, September 13, 2010

The Heroine Within

Artwork by the talented Marsha Maklaut

The protagonist has to be more than the main character of the novel.  She must be the heroine.  She needs to conquer her fears, rise above all adversity, and succeed despite insurmountable odds.  By the end of the novel, the protagonist should contrast significantly with her pre-evolved self, introduced in chapter one.

When the protagonist steps onto the book's stage in her opening scene, she will be riddled with the conflicts upon which the plot is launched.  It's important to present her in a way that makes the reader want to embrace her.

What happens in real life when you meet someone who is depressed?  Or bitter?  Or openly hostile with the world?  Does she make you want to hang out with her, get to know her better?  Probably not. see yourself in her.  If you can identify with her suffering, understand it in a way that generates a sense of camaraderie and puts you in her camp, then a relationship is born.  The same is true in fiction.

Craft the protagonist with at least one heroic characteristic.  No matter how damaged, afraid, prejudiced, or beaten down the character is, plant in her the quality she will need to succeed in the book's ultimate climactic scene.  Find at least one way, in the first chapter, for the protagonist to show a glimmer of this quality.

We want to read about heroes and heroines.  Hell, we want to be heroes and heroines.  Give the readers a main character to cheer on.  Let them see a little of themselves in the protagonist, a little of the hero inside.  Believe me, they will keep turning the page.  

Friday, August 20, 2010

Guess That Character Blogfest -- The Reveal

Day Two of Jen's from Unedited's Guess That Character Blogfest is the reveal of my spotlighted character!

Julie Knotts is a young woman in her mid-twenties who is living on her own for the first time, without family or room mate.  It's a scary time for her, because unresolved issues from a childhood tragedy compromise her sense of security in the world.  Most of the time, she's just plain paranoid that the worse case scenario is destined to play out.  She's carefree by nature, so the forced conditioning her personality suffers from fear is her greatest inner conflict.

So, without further ado, here is Julie:


She's highly artistic, but lacks the self-confidence to pursue her talents (What if no one thinks I'm any good? What if I can't pay my bills? What if I have an accident and hurt my hands, or my eyes, and can't paint or play music anymore?  What if...?  What if...?)

Thanks everyone who visited my blog and made a guess.  There were a lot of participants!  I wasn't able to visit everyone's entry.  I think I fell short by about 15.  I'm going to try to get around to those I missed yesterday!!

A LOT of you guessed correctly!  I was very impressed :D

Thanks, Jen, for the fun time! *hugs*

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Guess That Character Blogfest!

Thanks to Jen at Unedited for hosting one of the most enjoyable blogfests evah!  Her ingenious idea is this: Based on the character's voice as you read the short excerpt below from my current WiP, tell me in the comment section what you imagine the character looks like.  Tomorrow I'll post her "photo," and we'll both get a kick out of learning: how closely you guessed her physical characteristics; and how successful I was at infusing her essence into the writing.

Keep in mind this is rough, rough, rough -- first draft, for real!  Not a lot of literary magic in there (YET) :D  Okay, disclaimer aside, here goes:

When the digital clock alarm sounded the next morning, Julie was already washing her face in the bathroom.  Early morning was her favorite time of day.  The air always smelled fresher, and her energy was always the highest, just after the sun came up.  If reincarnation was real, and she suspected it was, Julie was quite certain she was once a bird who soared across dawn skies, heralding each new day with twitters and chirps.

She switched the alarm to off and changed out of pajamas and into a cut-off pair of jean shorts and boxy white tee shirt.  She gathered the bottles and tubes from the ledge around the bathroom sink in her one laundry basket, lay the towels from the racks on top, and placed the framed mixed medium collage she’d done in a college art class on top.  She spent the minimum amount of time necessary to prep the room, mostly running a dust rag along the baseboards and window sash.  She prided herself with having a steady hand, plus she’d be armed with the ten dollar detail paintbrush, so she skipped taping off the trim entirely.

When she pried off the paint can lid and stirred the Toasted Pine paint, her excitement grew.  Pouring the thick paint into the roller pan doubled her elation.  But when she drew the roller across the middle of the wall, a swathe of silvery moss-colored paint covering the uninspired perfection of beige, her heart sang.  Within minutes, she was lost in her project and her joy.

So what do you think Julie Knotts looks like? 
Swing by tomorrow when I'll post her photo!  

Also click HERE to read all the excerpts by Guess That Character Blogfests participants!

Friday, August 13, 2010

The Truth Is in the Eye of the POV

I'm a fan of stories told from multiple viewpoints.  

(Note: To clarify, I do not enjoy omniscient POV.  When I say multiple viewpoints, I'm referring to novels where there is a clear shift in POV, ie: at the beginning of a new chapter or scene.  Head-hopping causes me to throw the book across the room.)  

For me, a central conflict is infinitely more interesting when I'm able to sympathize, or at least understand, different characters' interpretations of the situation.  In the end, there are very few truths in life.  Perceptions, ideologies, right verses wrong: all are highly subjective and relative notions.

I was thinking  this morning about it while watching Good Morning America.  The show highlighted yet another side to what's becoming the multi-faceted story of "modern folk hero" Steven Slater.  He is the Jet Blue flight attendant who lost his cool on August 9th, cussed out the entire plane of passengers, grabbed his carry-on luggage and a couple brew-skis, deployed the inflatable emergency exit slide, and used it to deplane.

The original story, told from Slater's POV, alleged that upon arriving and taxiing to the gate, a passenger stood and opened the overhead luggage bin before the fasten seatbelt light was turned off.  According to Slater, the passenger argued with him and her luggage fell from the bin, striking him on the forehead.  He snapped, fed up with a career of dealing with rude, unruly passengers, and acted out the climactic scene of his original production "Take This Job and Shove It."

Today, Good Morning America interviewed a passenger from that flight, who told a different story.  As the GMA website recapped, "Witnesses have also told police that it was Slater who was rude to passengers, and the cut on his forehead came at the beginning of the flight, not during an altercation with a surly passenger after the plane landed, as Slater has claimed."

What's fascinating about this story is the incident took place within the tight confines of an airplane, yet it's very difficult to sort out what really happened.  How could one person claim the suitcase conked Slater on the head, and others claim it didn't happen?

And around the globe, news audiences are interpreting this unfolding story according to their own past experiences and  personal codes of ethics.  Flight attendants have been quoted as applauding Slater's actions, understanding how much they have to put up with in their service-oriented careers.  Others feel dealing with rude customers is part of the job and those in service industries have to handle themselves with professionalism, at all costs.  Whether Slater is a hero or a villain is becoming a lively debate.

In fiction, we should remember that no conflict exists in black and white.  Life is like that: complicated, subjective, and messy.   By allowing the reading into the minds and hearts of different characters, we explore the shades of gray in every incident.  In turn, the emotional impact on the reader will elevate, and the story with ring true with authenticity.

So what do you think?  Is Steven Slater the hero or the villain of his story? 

Thursday, May 6, 2010

She said, She said...

Conflict is vital to fiction.  No one wants to read a story about happy people who have their lives figured out.  How boring.  And people expect authenticity in the stories they read.  Everyone has issues in life.  Everyone's struggling to work through their problems.  People read fiction both to escape their own lives for a moment and to get lost in a world of other people's problems.

Conflict comes in different forms: with self, with others, with the environment, with society, etc.  Today, because I'm chin deep in conflict with another person in my inner circle, I'll only talk about conflict with others.  Hey, blogging is cheaper than therapy.

When crafting conflict between two characters, keep in mind that there will be more going on besides the central problem facing the characters.  Hone in on the characters' fundamental differences.  Consider the things in their personalities that are inherently contradictory, the things neither see as a problem nor think should be changed.  These are the things that complicate problem-solving and contribute to convincing conflict.

For example, you have a central problem brewing between Character #1 and Character #2, perhaps one accused the other of betraying her confidence in some way.  You can deepen the fictional problem by mimicking reality.  In real life, people hold against each other certain aspects of their personalities or psyches, which become factors when trying to resolve the central problem. 

What if Character #1 is a person who was so affected by her chaotic upbringing, that she developed a strong work ethic, an appreciation for material objects she worked hard to obtain, and a low tolerance for disorganization in herself and others.  Enter the second character, who is spoiled by a life of ease and financial abundance, so that Character #2 is careless with her belongings since there will always be a maid to clean up behind her or a credit card to replace what's missing or broken.  These characters are dealing with a breech in confidence, but their fundamental differences, in real life, would come into play.  Write them into your fiction and you'll have a riveting, believable conflict.

One possible direction to take this example is to have Character #2 feel justified in breaking confidence, because Character #1 is, in her opinion, a judgmental witch.  You could write frustration into Character #1, who feels that Character #2 always plays the "judgement" card.  Character #1 would have been exasperated in the past with Character #2's habitual behavior: always late for get-togethers, forgets to wish Character #1 a happy birthday year after year, offers Character #1 the guest bedroom that's normally where the dog lives (shed fur everywhere, smelly and stained rug, etc.), etc.  Character #2 would, in turn, hate always feeling like she has to apologize for herself to "Miss Perfect" Character #1.

Real life is like this, isn't it?  When there's conflict between people, a fight never stays within the perimeters of the immediate problem.  The past gets dragged into it, personalities and "isms" come into play, and anger just stirs up old, smoldering coals until a new bonfire is blazing.

Conflict in fiction that feels the most authentic mimics real life.  It pays in the long run to spend time writing scenes or short stories about the characters' past interactions, their history together, and the reasons they act and react the way they do in the present.  Even if you don't use those stories verbatim in the novel, your knowledge of the characters' experiences, in life in general and in their history together, will create realistic conflicts and problem-solving.  Readers will readily buy into the characters' predicaments when they mirror both the compassion and the ugly realities of interpersonal relationships.

In preparation of a new WiP, do you write short fiction or vignettes about your characters' experiences outside the time frame of the novel?  Do you write from each character's first person POV, (despite the eventual POV choices of the novel), letting them talk about the other characters?  Is writing therapeutic for you, too?

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Open Wide

I submitted myself today to the semiannual joy of professional teeth cleaning.  In wrapping up her gig, the hygienist handed me a new toothbrush and sample floss, and I noticed the angry, purple dents along the sides of my fingers where my vice-like grip of entwined digits pitted bone against bone.  My shoulders, only now beginning to relax, ache to the blades.  I've sworn off coffee and red wine.  Damn them and the stains they leave behind.  My dentist is wonderful, but I won't miss her these next six months.

A new dentist's sign went up in a neighboring town, on the opposite end of the recently constructed plaza that houses a just-opened Mexican restaurant.  The new dental offices look clean, sleek and modern, from the outside, of course.  I won't step foot inside, so I will never be able to comment on the office interior or on the good dentist's services.  Why, you ask?  Because according to the sign, the dentist's name is Justin Payne, DDS.

Justin Payne?  Really?  As in:  Just In Pain?  Who in their right mind goes to a dentist with a name like that?  For that matter, what man chooses dentistry with a name like that!  If it had been me, and I was passionate about working inside the general public's mouthes, I would at least use only my first initial.  J. Payne, Super Dentist.  Throw in the middle initial even: J.S/T/W/P/Whatever it is. Payne.

Whether it's fair or not, names give us immediate impressions of the people who bear them.  Choosing character names for fiction is a fun and delicate business for this reason.  I once participated in a workshop on Characterization, and we spent a session discussing character names.  We were given an interesting assignment to open creative doors and raise awareness where names are concerned.  I'll print the assignment here, and anyone who wishes to give it a go should do so before reading the rest of this post, where I'll include my own answers:

Typically, all characters have at least a first name. Because of our own experiences, cultural or social background, age, etc., we often hold opinions about certain names. Names can suggest courage, sophistication, clownishness, intelligence, sex, race, class, religion etc. Here is a little exercise. Tell me what the names below mean to you, what we might deduce about the character.

1) Loyd (the author spelled the character’s name incorrectly for a reason, why would she do this?)
2) Marie Huguenot (this one is tricky)
3) Dr. Selim Sengor
4) Zeph
5) Colin Glass
6) Colie Bluestone

Note: The workshop was offered in 2008 through a writers group I belong to called Rising Stars.  The workshop leader's handle was Purivada, and I'm crediting this exercise to her, although I don't know whether she is the original author or not.  She has been an inactive member of WDC since May 2008, but you can view samples of her writing HERE.

My answers to this exercise in January 2008 were:

I love thinking about characters' names. Here are my immediate thoughts about these:

Loyd ~ He wants to stand out in a crowd he feels swallowed up in. He lacks self-confidence even though he has talents hidden in his heart.
Marie Huguenot ~ Married a wealthy man, keeping her in the social class she is accustomed to.
Dr. Selim Sengor ~ Brilliant man who was unable to prosper in the poor country he grew up in. Worked hard to get an education abroad, but doesn't see the respect he deserves in the eyes of his peers.
Zeph ~ Spiritually guided man who marches to the beat of his own drum. Regarded as a throwback but enjoys the edge he feels this gives him as a nonconformist.
Colin Glass ~ Work-a-holic who plays by the rules, striving for what he's been told defines 'success', but is emotionally shallow and out of touch in interpersonal relationships.
Colie Bluestone ~ Hhmmmmm ... Not sure. The only visual I'm getting is being played by Matthew Mcconaughey.

Do you enjoy finding names that represent, or contradict, your characters' personalities?  Do you find you change characters' names as your MS progresses and you learn more about them?  Do you hate the dentist?

Saturday, April 3, 2010

You can't quit, you're FIRED!

The characters I cast in my novel aren't who I thought they were. I don't know why I'm so surprised. Anytime I meet someone for the first time, the new acquaintance smiles a lot, flatters me with complimentary politeness, chooses her words carefully. I do the same thing. It's only through subsequent meetings, time spent hanging out together, that guarded moments give way to natural reactions, and the façade begins to crumble.

In the time I've hung out with my characters this week, they have begun to shown me their authentic selves. I learned the antagonist has a lifelong fascination for electroshock weaponry. And here, I thought fire was his thing. Another character informed me I had it all wrong, that he never wanted to marry his fiancée. One character up and altogether quit the project! And an Asian dude I'd pegged from the start as a wicked man turned out to be a student and a young fellow of incredible honor. It's a shame what's going to happen to him. However, it was only when he revealed himself to me that the big climactic scene -- the one I just couldn't figure out for weeks and weeks and weeks -- finally played out in my mind. Maybe I'll make it up to him by mentioning him in the book's dedication blurb...

So, I made my first self-imposed deadline: Step Six of the Snowflake Method is complete, on time today, April 3.

The steps in this method of plotting a novel are extremely well designed. For example, in Step Five I wrote a one-page narration of each major character and a half-page narration of each minor character. The exercise was to write in first person from the POV of that character, letting him or her explain his or her role in the book (relationship to other characters, goals, motivations, etc.) Then this week, in Step Six, I expanded the one-page plot synopsis of the novel I wrote for Step Four to a four-page synopsis. Today I begin Step Seven which shifts focus back to the characters and asks me to create detailed character charts for each character. It's brilliant, because I know so much more about the characters after working through Step Six, including how wrong some of my original interpretations of the characters were. I'm excited to dive into this exercise and fully flesh these people out.

Snowflake Method author Randy Ingermanson says in Step Seven notes: "You will probably go back and revise steps (1-6) as your characters become "real" to you and begin making petulant demands on the story. This is good -- great fiction is character-driven. Take as much time as you need to do this, because you're just saving time downstream."

Blogger Jana Hutcheson @ All I'm Saying... wrote a wonderful post last Wednesday about interviewing characters as a technique for figuring out what makes them tick. She included several excellent website links with character interview questionnaires to use. Check it out by clicking HERE. [Jana is new to Blogger this year. While you're there, why not sign on as a follower? (*smile*)]

How do you get to know your characters? Have you ever interviewed them? Have your ever had a character quit your novel?

Monday, March 22, 2010

Life is a Subway

A subway car is a microcosm of life. Its riders are a random sampling of society, the characters in that scene from life's novel. Look at this picture. Who are these people? What would happen if a disaster struck, if the train jumped its tracks the moment after this picture was snapped? The answer depends on the personalities of the people thrown together and what they carry with them in terms of priorities and their life experiences.

I'm a virgin novelist, as many of you know. I may be approaching this project backwards, but it's occurred to me that assembling my first cast of characters is a little like walking onto a subway train and picking a handful of people. As I get to know the strangers I've invited into my project, I'm reminded of a great truth in life: We're all struggling down our life paths.

Nobody has it easy in life. You can take five people, for example, and in the group have:

  • A successful Marketing Rep
  • A gorgeous fitness model
  • A creative storyteller
  • A well-known entertainer
  • A Martha Stewart-style homemaker

But within that same group and in shuffled order, you also have:

  • A person paralyzed by fear of failure
  • A woman who kicked her cheating husband out but is afraid to divorce him and truly be on her own
  • A drug addict, in and out of rehap
  • A blind person
  • A first-time mother transitioning to the new life of parenthood

If you were sitting on a subway train with these five people, you probably couldn't guess which description from each list went with what person (unless New Mom had Baby with her!).

As I flesh out the characters for my novel, I appreciate the importance of acknowledging all the successes and failures with which a character is dealing, within the timeframe of the novel. How a person acts and reacts in a scene is dependent on the combination of their conflicts and what they've experienced in life. I'm enjoying exploring what those things are and deciding how they will impact the plot of the novel.

What about you? When you start a project, are you more apt to know the personalities you need and build characters around them? Or are you like me and create characters who then reveal themselves in ways you didn't anticipate, so that you have to adapt the plot to accomodate them?

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Human Personality Traits and Character Development

The more you know about your character, the better your reader will understand and identify with him. The character’s name and physical appearance are important and will help the reader visualize the character you’ve created. But how the character speaks, moves his body, thinks, acts and reacts is what makes the character come alive in the reader’s imagination. Capturing the essence of your character is one of the challenges you must overcome to achieve a story that is engaging and entertaining.

For inspiration, some writers turn to personality profile typing charts. Leaders in the field of psychology have studied human behavior and determined that people fall into personality categories based on how they systematically act and react to social situations. Two such researchers were the mother and daughter team of Katharine Cook Briggs and Isabel Briggs Myers.

Myers and Briggs developed the MBTI, a psychometric questionnaire consisting of seventy-five yes/no questions based on Carl Jung's theories on human personalities. They first published it in 1962. A taker’s answers are tabulated and indicate which of the sixteen personality types the taker falls into.

I have taken the MBTI test several times over the past couple years, and every time I’m typed as ENFJ (Extraverted, Intuitive, Feeling, Judging). To give you an idea of how the personality types can inspire your characterizations, listen to how an ENFJ character would be described: Warm, empathetic, responsive, and responsible. Highly attuned to the emotions, needs, and motivations of others. Find potential in everyone, want to help others fulfill their potential. May act as a catalyst for individual and group growth. Loyal, responsive to praise and criticism. Sociable, facilitate others in a group, and provide inspiring leadership. Exclaim My wheels are turning already; aren’t yours?

To take the Myers Briggs Test yourself, Click Here

To read a description of each of the sixteen personality traits, Click Here

David Keirsley, PhD also studied human behavior. His description of the Four Temperaments of the human psyche gained him international acclaim. He, too, devised a test to determine personality types called The Keirsey Temperament Sorter®-II (KTS®-II). According to his website, “(The KTS-II) is the most widely used personality instrument in the world. It is a powerful 70 question personality instrument that helps individuals discover their personality type. The KTS-II is based on Keirsey Temperament Theory™, published in the best selling books, Please Understand Me® and Please Understand Me II, by Dr. David Keirsey.” Keirsley claims every person falls into one of four temperament categories: The Guardians, The Idealists, The Rationals, or The Artisans.

[I took The Keirsey Temperament Sorter on 1/12/2010, and was typed an Idealist. In paranthesis were the letters (NF), or "Intuited Feeling." This is exactly in line with my results for the MBTI: (ENFJ).]

To learn about each temperament, Click Here

And to take the KTS-II, Click Here

Exploring personality types is a fascinating way to create and develop fictional characters. Let the type descriptions spark your imagination, lead you down unexpected storylines, and inspire you to write authentic, life-like characters.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Character Development

Writers come up with many interesting ways to develop a new character. Techniques I've explored include filling out character questionnaires, interviewing my characters, and sketching pictures of them. Sometimes the inspiration for a character comes from a word or phrase, but I'm a very visual person so more often than not, I see a person in my mind's eye.

A questionnaire is a useful tool for making decisions on what I'll call the character's "surfaces," their external and internal "shells." The character's name is very important to me, but I often can't name the character until I know other things about him or her. A questionnaire directs my thinking about the character's "outer shell": How old is this character? What color hair and eyes does she have? What's her physical stature? What's her ethnicity and religion? From contemplating and deciding these things, I can better answer questions further down on the list. For example, what are her physicality traits? Is she graceful or awkward? How does she move her body when she's relaxed? When she's stressed? Does she appear introverted or extroverted?

A questionnaire also helps me gather information about the character's "inner shell" that may move the story in interesting, unexpected directions. Is she single or married? Does she have children? What was her upbringing like? Does she have strong ties with her parents and siblings? What's her education level or profession? Does she live where she grew up, or did she move far away when she left home?

I found this free worksheet on the Web. Check it out: Character Development Worksheet

Another good technique for developing a character is to interview her. I, the writer, become the interviewer. I follow a formal list of prepared questions, and I let the character answer each one. Like any good interviewer, I listen closely to her answers. If something she says triggers another question, not on my list, I go ahead and ask it, noting both the question and the character's answer. It's important to let the character speak freely during this exercise. Don't censor her. And don't be shocked by what she says! Sometimes I have to remind myself that she isn't me. If she doesn't like babies, or chocolate, or if she's carelessly promiscuous, that's neither a reflection on me, nor on my likes and dislikes, or my personal code of ethics.

Laura Cushing and Rich Taylor have come up with a list of 100 great questions to ask your character. Check it out: Character Interview Questions

As I worked through the first draft of my novel, I was struck by the similarities between developing a character and meeting a real-life person. When I'm introduced to someone for the first time, I note their name and their physical appearance. I hear the person talk and gather information throughout the conversation, from the person's speech patterns and word choices, facial expressions and gestures. But first encounters don't tell you that much about a person. People are on their best behaviors when they first meet, their conversations are guarded and polite, and oftentimes people mirror each other's mannerisms and body language. The initial steps in creating a character for fiction are very much like being introduced to a person for the first time.

If you spend time with a new acquaintence, you learn more about him or her. Guards come down as people develop a sense of trust and security with one another. Moments of stress or challenge reveal the inner workings of a person's psyche, and over time you find out what really makes them tick.

As I wrote each chapter and I put my characters into diverse situations where they were faced by conflict and personal demons, I was often amazed at how they acted and reacted. I realized I wasn't really writing them, I was channeling them. It was a fascinating revelation, one that represented a turning point in my journey from the short story genre to that of novel.

With the desire to push that revelation to new levels of understanding, my newest trick for discovering how my characters think and what makes them tick involves this blog. I plan to do this: one day a week I'll give the keyboard over to one of my characters. Every Friday, I'll take one character on an outing. I may run errands, go to the gym, or just go for a walk. During that time, I'll observe the world around me through the eyes of that character. I'll think like he thinks, perceive each moment through the filter of his prejudices and life experiences. When I blog about it, the entry will come through my fingers but from the lips of that character.

I can't wait to get started tomorrow. I hope you'll join me to hear what my first guest blogger, Julie Knotts (protagonist of "Overcome" [WIP]; click here to read the novel's synopsis and an excerpt) has to say.

Until then, what's your favorite method for getting to know your character? I'd love to hear what works for you and what doesn't.

Thanks for reading, and have a pleasant day!