Writing Tips: Create an Interesting Character Part 2

If you missed it, you can read part 1 here.

So, you’ve figured out a major event that shaped who your character is, and you’ve thought through what they want in this scene. That’s good! Here’s a couple of additional questions to tackle.

Who were/are their parents?

My acting coach always used to ask me the names of my characters parents. It seemed ridiculous. But her point was, who doesn’t know the names of their own parents? Naming your characters parents may not bring anything of value to your story, but knowing about them will. Like it or not, all of us have been shaped by our parents. Some of us were shaped by never knowing them. Others were shaped by the incredible love their parents showed them, or perhaps by neglect or abuse. Whether your character’s parents impacted them positively or negatively, they add a vital layer to who your character is now, and what they’re about to do.

This gets into your character’s background. Where have they been and how does it shape who they are now? Much of this detail may never be revealed in the context of your story, but it’s important because it shapes the choices your character will make.

Where are they conflicted?

I’m not asking where they face conflict. Your story should be rife with that. I mean, where are they at war with themselves? Take me, for example. I’m a very honest person. Being truthful is something I deeply value. Except on those rare occasions when I lie. I love my wife. She’s amazing. My passion for her is hard to quantify. Except in those moments where I put myself first. We humans are a writhing bag of contradictions. When creating a character, my natural impulse is to point them in a straight line, wind them up and let them go. But real people aren’t like that. Somewhere we all have those hooks, those wounds, those bits of damage that will pull us off course. And there are other things, issues about which we just can’t make up our mind. Give your characters those sorts of contradictions and struggles.

What weird things do they do?

Hobbies are great. Your character should have one. And mannerisms. What do they do that’s kind of odd? What are their compulsions? I’m loath to admit this publicly, but good writing is all about honesty and self revelation, right? I have a difficult time bypassing a q-tip. If I see one, I’m compelled to clean my ears. It doesn’t matter if I just did it. And if I don’t see one, I could go a month without cleaning them. Here’s another one: I grew up with parents who told me to clean my plate. When I was in elementary school there was a terrible famine in Ethiopia and a lot of people were starving to death. In my mind, I still have a responsibility to eat everything served to me, and not throw away food. I’ll often catch myself scraping at my plate trying to get everything off of it.

Maybe your character bites their tongue when they concentrate, or they make little whistling sounds without realizing they’re doing it. These traits do two vital things for you. First, they help your audience to tell your characters apart. Don’t be Robert Jordan and make every female sniff in annoyance and pull her braid. (I’m a huge Jordan fan — but that was one of the weaknesses of his books) Let each character have their own unique quirks. It helps us keep track of who is who. The second thing this does for you, is it reveals something about who they are. If you do this right, their quicks give us hints at the things that shaped and drive them. And that can become another mystery we want to unravel. So we turn to the next page and keep reading.

Of course, there’s a ton more that goes into creating a good character, but I don’t want to commit to another episode right now. I’ll probably circle back to this eventually, though.

In the mean time, what questions do you ask yourself as you seek to make compelling and interesting characters? Please share them in the comments.

Thanksgiving

We celebrated Thanksgiving tonight. It’s kind of early, but then Thanksgiving isn’t really a holiday here. It’s one of the many small little adjustments to life overseas.

Instead of a long weekend spent with family, we have to do something a bit different. We keep the holiday in spirit. We come together with our fellow expat colleagues, and we have a little pot luck dinner. All the usual traditions are represented. Turkey, mashed potatoes… you know the drill. One of the fixtures that wasn’t so familiar in the U.S. is the exchange of traditions. Someone always asks, “what did your family do back home?” Another, is that inevitably, someone at the table is from Canada. Comparisons are made. This year we had an interesting conversation about how the Canadian Thanksgiving (which lands in October) is likely influenced by the colder weather, and thus the earlier end to the harvest season.

It’s different. And yet… kind of the same. Coming together with people who are dear to us, sharing amazing food, and remembering just how good we have it.

I hope all of you have much to be thankful for this year.

Writing Tips: Create an Interesting Character Part 1

I dropped out of college to go be an actor. For year, I apprenticed myself to an incredible actress who relentlessly demanded I understand my character.

I use the same techniques when I’m writing. In fact, I go a little overboard and feel what the characters are feeling… it’s exhausting. But the fundamentals are sound.

Who is this person?

Hopefully, they already have a purpose in your story. Don’t think this only applies to your main characters, either. I think this is worth asking regardless. The ragged bum who shares a drunken glance with your hero, as he staggers from the tavern — he has a purpose. He has goals. What are they?

Why are they the way they are?

Years ago, I played Max in a production of Sound of Music. Like a good little actor, I spent weeks learning everything I could about the politics and history of Austria in the 1920s and 30s. What I learned is than the Anschluss wasn’t really a singular event. Austria experienced lots of violent political upheaval following the first World War. Max is a politician. So naturally, his primary motivation is to keep the knives from coming for him. Once I understood that, his every choice and action in the rest of the show make sense. Max wants to be on the winning side, because that’s his only hope of surviving.

You may not need to do that level of research, but you do need to know what the formative events are that shape your character’s choices. They need not all be huge or dramatic. At this moment in my life, I’m trying to get a handle on a dust mite allergy. It’s new. I don’t know how to properly manage it. And sometimes I’m not getting a decent night’s sleep for a week at a time. In those moments almost everything in my life is filtered through a foggy, reactive lens of exhaustion. I just want to sleep!

What do they want?

So figure it out. Every time your character walks into a scene, ask yourself: what do they want out of this interaction, this conversation, this moment. Ideally, it should run squarely against the desires and goals of the other characters they’re interacting with. Nobody wants to read a novel about how much everyone agrees.

There’s a second useful layer to this one. In addition to determining what the character wants in each scene, determine what they say they want. That doesn’t mean they should always explicitly state their goals. The point is, that most of us go into things with mixed motives. We put our good guy face on, and make every effort to pursue what we perceive as the public good. But there’s also an underlying motive. The one we don’t want to tell people. So hopefully you’ve got the underlying motive worked out. But don’t skip the excuse. What’s their justification? How would they make this goal sound noble? If you’re writing dialog, there’s a good chance that as the conflict rises, some of those justifications are going to come tumbling out.

 

There’s lots more that goes into making a compelling character, but this is already a long post. So I’ll toss out some more questions in a few days.

How do you schedule your life?

I needed to schedule a meeting today. There were eight calendars I had to review, just to determine when I was available, and eleven other people invited to the meeting. We live in a crazy world.

So I used Doodle. If you’re not familiar, doodle is a website/app combination that allows you to block out periods on a calendar so everyone can vote for what days/times work for them. Great! And the best part is that none of the people voting had to create accounts. Just me.

Then I got an email from a colleague asking me to use his online scheduling system to set up a meeting with him. (Yes, I have a lot of meetings at this point in my life) He used Acuity Scheduling. And then, I considered how many emails went back and forth today trying to schedule other meetings.

Does this time work for you? No, how about this other time? Nope, that one won’t work for me.

You get the picture. These scheduling systems are becoming essential to our lives. I don’t love it, to be honest, I feel like these scheduling systems feel a bit pretentious. But I get the need for them.

So what are you using for your scheduling? What works for you? What doesn’t?

Tips for Writers: 8 Tips to Get You Writing, Right Now!


It’s NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month for the uninitiated). My word counts this year aren’t that great. In fact, I don’t think I’ve quite hit 10k words this month, but I’m close to that, and I think my total time investment is only around 6 hours. So I’m at well over 1000 words an hour. 🙂 Maybe that’s good, maybe not. But, sometimes the hardest part is getting started. So, I thought I’d share some of the tips that have set me free to write in years past. Without further ado, here’s my top 8 tips to get you writing, right now:

  1. Write now, fix later. I know. I want the perfect word too. But I can come back and put in the perfect word when I’m editing. When I’m trying to get the story down on the page, I have to stop worrying about the fact that I just used the word “resolved” four times in the previous paragraph, or that “empty” isn’t quite as good as “hollow.” For now, focus on getting the ideas onto the page. You can clean up the mess later.
  2. Hold it loosely. It’s your baby. Every word is pure gold — even though you’re writing quickly and not choosing the right words. For me, I’m a discovery writer. So I run down roads and pathways that go nowhere. I love them. But they still will often need to hit the cutting room floor. So don’t be afraid to just start throwing words on the page and see what happens.
  3. Make a backup so you can wreck it. Sometimes, I’m afraid to add, to change, to do the next thing because it might be worse than what I already have. When I feel that way, and even when I don’t, I just make a backup and keep going. I always know that backup is there, and if I really make a mess of things, I can return to it.
  4. Structure is good. One of the great lessons of screenwriting is how critical structure is to good story telling. When I’m constrained to a tight limit of minutes, I have to be incredibly precise in when and how the dramatic arc of the story builds and lands. While a novel is a vastly different bird, it’s not particularly different in this regard. You may not need to chart out every moment of the story before you start — I would never get a word written if I did that — but it helps a lot to have a loose map of the story before you start. I actually break the main events of my story into three acts.
  5. Use good tools. Sometimes you do get hung up on a word or a phrase. See point one and keep going. But if you can’t, grab a thesaurus or a reverse dictionary. Get the word you need and keep going. Also, Word and Google Docs aren’t ideal for long form documents like novels (or heavily formatted ones like screenplays). Personally, I love Scrivener. It provides me all the critical data I need, allows me to easily format and organize my writing, my research — everything I need. I wish I could get a commission every time I tell someone about it. 🙂
  6. Write somewhere else. You’ve got your favorite work spaces, the places where you do your day job, or you pay the bills at the house, maybe where you play a computer game or your favorite living room chair. When it’s time to get serious writing done, go somewhere else. All those places have a host of built in distractions, ties to all those other activities. So go somewhere that doesn’t, and enjoy all the new mental focus you can find there. Now don’t mess it up and bring in of those other activities into you new space!
  7. Protect your writing time. If you’ve set aside time to write, it can feel impossible sometimes to get started. That’s okay. Write garbage if you have to, but start writing. If you absolutely can’t write, do some research for your writing project. (Even if you’re writing a work of fiction that takes place in it’s own universe there are stories from history, bits of science, traits of human psychology that you’ll want to carry into your world.) Or, read some writing tips. The internet is filled with suggestions from excellent writers that will help you be better. If you can’t get anything accomplished in service of your project, at least use the time to become a better writer.
  8. WWcD? What would <your character> do? I know, you’ve got important plot points to hit, but this is a novel. The straight line is almost never the right call. So, at this moment in the story, instead of worrying about what needs to happen next, work on what your character would do. I may want him to give some vital exposition, or take a stand against the bad guy. Or maybe, I want him to be nice and do the right thing, but… the circumstances don’t make that likely. Let your character lead you on a merry chase, and see where it takes you. Worst case scenario, you can always fall back on number 2.