Writers … We love you. But you drive us nuts when you make simple mistakes. It makes editors work harder, and it makes you work harder because you have to rewrite stuff that is easy enough to get right in the first place. Join Scott Morgan on Thursday, July 19, at 9 p.m. EDT for my free 30-minute webinar on some things you can do to make the writing process smoother and more rewarding for all.
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So what better place to look for inspiration for your characters than among the dearly departed?
Character Development from the Inside Out is my book, due November, 2011, from Open Door Publications. It is the user’s manual to developing great characters for your fiction.
Check in at my website, www.write-hook.com, for exclusive updates and excerpts, and for news on how to pre-order your copy.
Start with the following set up: How do you feel about:
Then write down five items — baseball, maybe. Clint Eastwood movies. Italian food. Throw in one or two hot-button subjects like immigration or capital punishment.
Then force all of your characters to answer them. All characters, all questions.
Try to steer clear of the likes it/hates it/doesn’t care paradigm. Don’t just say: Loves baseball, hates Clint movies, rarely eats Italian food. Let your characters tell you what they think:
- Your protagonist loves baseball, especially the Orioles. He remembers his first game at Camden Yard, when his dad almost caught a foul ball,but it skipped over the railing.
- He can’t stand Clint Eastwood movies because he thinks Dirty Harry is a fascist. He prefers the cinema of Ingmar Bergman — quiet and introspective.
- He doesn’t get much Italian food because he grew up on Air Force food, following his dad around when he was a kid. And boy, the stories he could tell you about moving around the world …
Don’t be afraid of controversy. These are your characters’ opinions, not your own. This is why you should have a controversial question in the mix. Your characters might not be real people, but they need to feel real to us while we experience them. Like a dream. As simulations of real people, they need to have real-people opinions. And people feel strongly on matters like capital punishment, assisted suicide, flag burning, and Guantanamo Bay. And baseball.
Let your characters duke it out. Let them disagree. Hell, they’re not real anyway, let them kill each other over it. Just get them to open up.
What’s fun about this exercise is that it affords you surprises. You were just asking about baseball and suddenly your hero is talking about time with his dad. This exercise forces you to think and take control, but it also forces you to listen. Let your characters be true. If your main guy used to be a Marine, he’s going to really oppose flag burning; but his girlfriend, a journalist, is adamant about the right to free speech and expression. What, after all, she asks, are the Marines fighting for?
That’ll get them talking. Just make sure you listen to them. Our characters always know more than we do about who they are.
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To get right to the point, a strong villain creates a better hero. It’s simple mechanics — the way to get stronger is to lift weights that increasingly get heavier. The bad guy, then, must throw ever-worse obstacles at the hero, making the problem greater and greater as the story goes on. The villain must strip everything from the good guy except his resolve. Every comfort, every safe path, every familiarity, every exit.
If you want to stick with the exercise metaphor, it’s a lot like muscle confusion. Throw your body a never-ending series of curves and your muscles will grow stronger in order to keep up. Your hero must be thrown curve after curve if his resolve and his character are to grow. He has to outsmart the villain, in new ways that even he as the once foot-sure expert never thought possible.
The badder the bad guy, the better. It’s the duality of the universe, and the truth is universal. Good is defined by evil and evil by good. The stronger the evil, the more malevolent the presence, the stronger the negative, the better the good will have to be to overcome it.
Use your bad guy wisely. Use him to tear down everything the hero took for granted. Then let your hero step up. If he’s really the hero, he’ll show you what to do.
I haven’t done that in at least a couple weeks now, but I know how I would feel if the entire government was after me for a crime I didn’t commit. I’d feel like running home to mommy and hiding under my bed.
Now re-read what I just wrote and consider which of the two ideas you most relate to — the flight from misguided (and probably fatal) federal justice or the feeling of being regressed to baby talk under your binky.
Odds are, you’ve never been a federal fugitive on the wanted end of a 24-hour manhunt, but you have been afraid. You’ve been mugged; you’ve been pulled over by the police; you’ve been caught cheating on a test.
We all know fear the same way we all know joy and love and regret and hope. They’re all emotions and they, more than most of us like to admit, carry us through our days.
In fiction, emotions carry us through the story. You’ve heard of suspension of disbelief, yes? Well, the reason we’re able to suspend disbelief is because we relate to the characters — NOT the action and NOT the character’s job or training. Every main character in fiction has a better job than you and me. What propels a reader through a story, the reason people say, “Boy, that was a good story!” is how well we relate to the hero (or heroine).
Character relation is best achieved through emotion. What makes us sit through a movie like Face/Off is not because it’s believable (because it isn’t), it’s because we empathize with the good guy’s emotions. He’s hurt and angry and wants to bring down the guy who killed his son. And he is, under all his flaws, so upstanding and moral that he puts his entire life on the line to keep the bad guy from winning. Part of him is something we relate to (a sense of outrage and justice and revenge) and part of him is something we want to relate to (his unswerving ethics and his ability to keep going in the face of overwhelming adversity).
Returning to books, ask yourself — did you stick with The Da Vinci Code because of the potboiler plot? No, you stuck with it because you felt the excitement the characters felt, the fear the characters felt, the loneliness and despair the characters felt while going through the plot. Their journey was entertaining and enlightening, but you rooted for Robert and feared the Monk. You felt what they felt as the situation spiraled out of control.
This stuff holds true for quieter, more dramatic stuff too. Romance novels usually don’t have a lot of high-octane action and adventure, they’re built on the emotional tension between the heroine and the guy she’s going to end up with. Similar to something like Jurassic Park, in that you’re unlikely to run afoul of an island full of dinosaurs, you’re probably not pressing your heaving bosom against m’lord’s ample, quivering lance on a dark and stormy night along the moors while the king sleeps one room over. What holds you in a romance novel is how the heroine reacts to her unlikely situation, because if we were ever in a similar situation we would react — or, as importantly, we would like to react — the same way.
The moral of this story? Make sure that no matter how outlandish the story is, your characters must react like real people. It’s OK for them to be scared, to make mistakes, and to have bad aim. It’s OK for them to give into temptation, to take the money, and to fall in love. Because we would want to do that too.