That Boy Needs To Build Some Character!

Not so long ago a friend asked how I go about creating characters. Her son is an aspiring writer and she’s noticed he puts a little bit of himself into at least one character in everything he writes. It’s not always a main character, but he’s in there. I told her I do the same thing.

In a sense, my stories are my children and as such, the characters are natural extensions of myself.  Why wouldn’t I put part of who I am into everything? With some characters it’s very obvious. For others, it may not be detectable to anyone but me. There are, of course, the characters that do not resemble me in the slightest but may be based on family and friends or no one at all. None of them are exactly like the real people. A look is borrowed from one, an attitude from another, a fear, a past, or a quirk may come from yet a third.  I don’t go into a book knowing everything there is to know about my characters any more than you would know everything there is to know about someone you meet on the street. Who they are unfolds page by page, moment by moment. But how, exactly, is a character, especially a totally fictional one, created? To be honest, I don’t have a real cut and dry answer for that, but I can give you an idea of the process that I go through.

You’ve Got The Look

First impressions are often based on physical appearance. Even without speaking to a person or knowing anything about them, you can see them. You can see the way they dress and move. There’s always body language to consider. You can hear their voice. You can smell the scents that waft around them, for good or bad. You may, if you get close enough, even be able to taste that individual. It’s no different when creating a fictional character. Sometimes looks mean absolutely nothing holding true that old saying that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but when writing you need to consider how a person comes across in these ways and the impression you want to give to your readers.

What’s Your Story?

Creating characters involves creating stories within your story. For my novel “No Rest For The Wicked”, I use the tagline, “Every ghost has a story. Not all of them want it told.” This may be true for ghosts, but when it comes to creating your characters, you better know their history if you want to give them any depth at all.  Why do they act like they do? Why does he walk with a limp? Why is that fifty-year-old man still afraid of the dark? What happened to this person before you came along to make them say and do the things they are saying and doing now? You can find Character Sheets online to help you sort all this out. These will ask you questions about your character that you may never have considered. I’ve only filled out a few of these that, in the end, I never referred back to once I got into the story. Some people swear by them and their use really can’t hurt. I tend to work a lot more organically.  Don’t think of your characters as just characters. Think of them as people. Listen to them. They’ll tell you everything you need to know… eventually.

Becoming An Environmentalist

The setting of the story plays a huge part in what sorts of people are going to populate your world. And those people will play a role in who your specific characters are.  Past, Present, or Future? Rural or Urban? Poverty, wealth, or somewhere in between? A loving home or one full of violence and pain?  Are they messy or a neat freak? What is your characters relationship to the other members of the family, their neighbors, and where do they fit in to the community as a whole? Are they native to the area or a newcomer? Does your character even like where he or she lives? If not, maybe that’s part of their problem and their motivation. Use those things to find out more and propel your plot forward. I do a fair amount of research on the settings in my books. I want my readers to BE THERE! I want them to see where all this is going on as vividly as I can.

Lastly, Show Don’t Tell

I’m told there are no rules when writing, but I firmly believe that “Show, Don’t Tell” is a rule and it’s something EVERY writer of fiction needs to understand and do. Years ago my daughter had to write something for English class and she came to me for help. Her story started out something like, “Ethan Havoc walked down the road. It was raining. He had headphones on listening to his favorite band. He sang every word of the song out loud not caring who heard him.” This is an example of TELLING the reader what’s happening. It doesn’t show me much. I asked her a few questions about Ethan, his appearance, posture, how he’s walking (body language).  Then I asked about the rain (environment). Is it raining hard or just misting?  Does he have an umbrella? Next, we moved on to what kind of music Ethan is listening to. It could be anything from Anthrax to Beethoven. We can’t tell from what is given and knowing a character’s choice of ‘favorite band’ is going help us understand him better (backstory). After our talk, she came up with this, “Aiden Havoc scuffed his feet as he walked home. Water dripped off the ends of his hair and soaked the back of his hoodie. School had just let out for the day and his headphones blared loud shreds of The Misfits in his ears. He sang every word of the song out loud not caring who heard him or saw him shake his greasy black hair to the music.”  Ah, ha! We know Ethan and his surroundings a WHOLE lot better now, don’t we?

So, there you have it, my take on character creation. There’s a lot more to it than this, but that’s something that I can’t explain in words without sounding certifiably insane. As the story moves along, the characters reveal more through their thoughts and actions based on whatever it is they are facing in their environment. It’s not always something I consciously decide. It just happens. And that’s when the real magic of writing takes place. I hope this has answered some questions for readers and if you’re a writer, I hope it helps you become a better one!

Write On!

On Being An Organic Writer

Since August of last year I’ve been working my way through Stephen King’s DARK TOWER series. I started the final book last week and will post a general review of the series once I’m finished. That aside, in book #6 we meet Stephen King himself. Yes, he’s made himself a character in his own book. I’m not sure how I feel about that, but what I did enjoy was getting another glimpse into his mind as a writer and how he works.

Since reading his other book “On Writing…” many years ago, I’ve felt a certain distant kinship to King. We’d always been taught in school that you need to outline your whole story before you begin, that you should know ahead of time what the climax and resolution is going to be. How can you get to the end if you don’t even know what the ending is going to be? It seemed to makes sense at the time, but I always struggled with outlining in school. My characters sometimes didn’t want to fit into the plot I’d constructed nor did they like when I reigned them in. I was cramping their style.

King, I learned decades later, doesn’t generally outline. He has a premise and an inspiration and off he goes. His characters tell their stories and as I felt towards my characters over my many years of writing as well, King’s characters take over. We are but the scribes who write at a feverish pace, doing our best to put down what they are telling and showing us. I liken it to watching a movie you’ve never seen before and trying to write it all down as it plays. I’ve discovered other writers who work in the same way and from one of them I learned the term “Organic Writer”.

All of my erotica titles were written in this way. The opening scene was usually crystal clear. I sometimes had an ending in mind, but everything in between was driven by the characters as they rambled on  in my ear and showed me everything they wanted me to see. People look at you weird when you tell them that’s how you write. The whole voices-in-your-head thing seems a bit crazy, right? It probably would be if I didn’t listen and didn’t write it all down. I honestly don’t know what’s going to happen all that far in advance and if I do, it’s only because THEY have whispered it to me.

I ran into trouble when I decided to quit writing the erotica and switched to my true love of the supernatural, horror, and murder-mysteries. I wrote my first mystery, THE SECRET WELL, when I was ten. Writing SECRETS OF THE SCARECROW MOON was a whole lot harder. I’ve read a lot of murder-mysteries, but writing one in my traditional Organic Writer way wasn’t ideal.  Every suspect needed a secret. Every suspect needed an opportunity. Every suspect needed a motive. Every suspect, save for the killer, needed an alibi. I had to know all that in advance which wasn’t easy when the guilty party didn’t want to give up any of that information! I was finally able to wrestle it out of them about half way through the book which meant I had to go back and fix a few things once I knew what was really going on.

I learned a lot from “…Scarecrow Moon” and  THAT’S WHAT SHADOWS ARE MADE OF proved easier. I knew who did it right from the start. I lined up my suspects and gave them each a secret right off the bat. All I had to do was remain within the confines of that information and then I let them lose. There was still a lot I did NOT know, but it was enough of a mystery to me to also be surprised sometimes at what happened next. In fact, one suspect showed up that I hadn’t planned on which made it even more fun.

NO REST FOR THE WICKED isn’t a murder-mystery, though there certainly is (was) a fair amount of killing going on, nor is DARK HOLLOW ROAD. In fact, at the moment I don’t have another murder-mystery in the works, but in doing those that I have, it’s truly been a great learning process and I’ve grown to appreciate the premise of an outline to help you along. I’d still rather have my characters running amok and telling me what’s next on their own. It’s amazing to sit back after pounding out a few thousands words and saying to yourself, “Huh, I never saw that one coming!” If I didn’t see it coming then surely the readers won’t and that’s a good thing. I like the surprises and the weird twists and turns things take.

The folks down on DARK HOLLOW ROAD have been pretty quiet lately, but I sense them starting to whisper again. That’s a good thing. It’s been too long since I’ve escaped into the strange, paranormal, and taboo-infested world they live in. I’m eager to get back there to see what happens next, just as eager as I am to get back into Stephen King’s world of The Dark Tower.

 

 

I Think I’m Haunted

Haunted / Murder-Mystery / Poetry / Writer's Life

Last year was an incredibly active year for me as far as writing poetry is concerned. Oh, I jotted down a wee bit of fiction here and there but poetry was off the chart. With poetry I am able to convey more intense emotions and the whole business of falling in love swept me away. It was also about getting over the crap in the past that I still struggle with now and then. The stories and poems I write often help me get through those struggles in a safe and legal way.  What with all these new gun debates, rules and regulations, I get the feeling society might frown a wee bit on me shooting someone that has done me wrong. And besides, I really am a peaceful person.

However, I can have one of my characters kidnap, tortures, shoot, stab, dismember or what have you another character who might – kinda sorta – resemble either physically or personality-wise folks I’ve developed a certain dislike for, shall we say? On the other hand, there are also characters based on the people in my life I am very fond of. Thank God there are more of those than the other.

The aspect of all this that surprises me the most are the characters that appear like a ghost out of thin air. How they approach me varies. One may give me its name first. Another might tell me what it looks like. Others are more emotional. There was one who told me its occupation long before it ever had any of the other things. The real tough ones are those that don’t let me know much of anything about themselves and just leap at me with a story to tell. If I’m lucky I’ll at least have a first initial to work with. It’s a little like ghost hunting.

In the past couple weeks a new character has started to get brave enough to present herself to me. She was actually introduced to me by my boyfriend while I was visiting him out in Texas. In passing he mentioned that the name “Liberty Hill” would be great for a character in a book. It’s the name of a very small, central Texas town we passed through on one of our jaunts. I agreed and didn’t give it too much thought after; back burner stuff. I already had two novels in progress and didn’t really want to put any energy into thinking about who this Liberty woman might be. Recently, Liberty has had other ideas about that.

I bumped into her in a book store about six days ago. I think she did it on purpose. At any rate, we’d not been in the place five minutes before this phrase flashed before me – as if I was looking at a book title. Liberty was quick to inform me that that’s the title I needed to use when telling her story. As I always carry a small note pad and pen with me, I immediately got both out and wrote the title down. It was rather hard to concentrate on browsing after that. My first thought about the title was that it wasn’t very good for a murder-mystery.

Come to find out, Liberty’s story isn’t a murder mystery. It’s a ghost story. I was only told that yesterday.

I don’t think I’ll be writing much poetry this year. Liberty & Choice, Nell & Lydia, Clint & Bea and Grace & Eric all have other ideas about how I should be spending my time in 2013. Each one is going to nag at me ruthlessly like the ghosts that some of them are, until I tell the world about them and put them to rest – hopefully between the covers of a published novel.