Tag Archives: Character Development

Interconnectivity

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Interconnectivity

This weekend I led a singing workshop; at the time I was focused on the instrument as such, and the amazing, complex expressions the voice can produce.  I covered topics like anatomy, and the psychology of singing, as well as techniques and choices – the “paint palette” a singer can learn and use to produce a desired impact on the listener, painting an image before the mind’s eye through the choice of vocal colour and tone.  For me, the truest sense of interconnectivity in the context of vocals is that they are an expression not only of an individual’s anatomical uniqueness but also the personality, and even the spiritual condition.  I believe that we are created in the image of God – that is, a trinity:  We are body, soul, and spirit; and as such, when one area is facing challenges it will affect the other two areas, as well as the expression of the voice, tone, attitude and even the extent of the performer’s control over their vocals at any given moment.  [I also touch on this topic in my article about layering.]

Afterwards, the writer’s side of my brain kicked in and I began thinking of such things in terms of character development.  As I build a character’s profile, something must challenge that character or they’ll come across as flat and lifeless.  If a character had a traumatic experience with water as a child, they may have to face their fears through swimming across a lake, or getting into a rickety boat; if they’ve been abandoned by a parent, they may need to recognise a paralysing fear that keeps them from committing to relationships, and their arc may have primarily to do with overcoming that fear or not – it may be a side issue, but it will still add depth and humanity to the character.

Whatever weaknesses or challenges I decide on for a given character will guide the story to some extent; they will also influence their attitudes, responses and reactions in connecting with other characters.  These things will in turn influence the way they dress (rebellious, reserved, bold, fearful, quirky to keep people at a distance, etc.), the way they might walk or talk, or certain quirks like mannerisms or ways of speaking.  I might go through a list of a hundred related items (if they’re the main character, especially) to narrow down who the character is, even though most of it might not make it into the final cut.  The more I understand my character, the more consistent their responses, dialogues and actions will be throughout the story.

I just thought I’d share these thought processes with you, in the hopes that they can inspire you in your own characters’ developments.  Give them challenges, and find ways they can overcome (or be temporarily overwhelmed) in the midst of other more pressing issues, and (if you’ve chosen the path of hero-success over hero-failure) still find a way for them to triumph in the end.

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Novels Worth Reading

As a novel writer, I’m first and foremost a reader; I love to read, I love to buy books, smell them, feel them, upload them… any form is fine by me.  I want the books I read to be witty, intelligent, and well developed in terms of plots, characters and environments.

Kitchen Sink Realism

Everyone has different tastes – that’s why there are so many different genres; but for me personally, there’s also a list of things I don’t want in a novel:  I don’t want to be confronted with messy lives dealing with self-inflicted problem after problem; I don’t want tragic or sad or bitter endings; I don’t want to be confronted with the grit, grime, blood and gore of dysfunctional lives that end up learning nothing, making no character arcs, and end up in the mud by the end of the tale.   This genre description actually has a name:  Kitchen Sink Realism.  It was a cultural movement in Britain back in the ‘50s and ‘60s that was portrayed in films, books, plays, and art – the grit, grime, anger, disillusionment and harsh realities of realistic social scenarios.  It’s what might also be referred to as postmodernism.  My personal response to this kind of novel is, “If I wanted that kind of realistic tension, I could just go hang out at the nearest bar.”

A Tough Nut

I once had an English student, and our focus was medical English in preparation for their upcoming medical exams (two nurses came together for semi-private tutoring).  As part of the lesson we needed to work on basic conversational skills and sentence structures, and I find that the best way to bring in a wide variety of scenarios is usually to do a type of role play – nothing embarrassing, but each person is given a character to put themselves into a situation that they might not normally deal with:  They may be a chef, or a secretary, or a customer in a hardware store.  This particular student, when asked what kinds of books she read, said, “history and autobiographies or biographies”.  When asked what novels she read, she said she found such things ridiculous and a complete waste of time (this was back before I became an author!); she categorically refused to even try to put herself into someone else’s shoes for the scenarios.  My impression of her as a person was that she was narrow-minded, knew it, and was proud of that fact.  She was a hard character, and all the time I knew her or met her afterwards, I never saw a soft side emerge, either toward herself or toward others; I often found myself wondering why she’d gotten into the nursing profession in the first place – as a patient, I wouldn’t necessarily want her working on my ward…  A line from the novel I’m currently writing (Asunder, the third book in the Northing Trilogy) would have fit her life too:  “he has never had the propensity for engendering compassion; I pray he never needs it, as he never gives it.”  An epic love story might do her a world of good.

What’s Worth Reading

What I want when I read a book is to be transported into another life, whether that’s in the past, present or future, on this earth, or on another planet, or in another dimension; I want to be entertained, made thoughtful, learn something about the world around me, and learn something about myself.  Ideally, I will come away from the experience having been changed, in even a small way.  I want to feel connected; somewhere out there is a person I can relate to – whether it be the author, or the character, or other readers that appreciate the same books.

Aside from places and times that are genre-specific, such as science fiction and alien planets in the future, or London in the 18th century, all of the elements of what I like in novels are universal.  Humans the world over, in every century, want to feel connected; to feel that they can relate to something someone else is going through; even to have parts of their own life’s experiences explained through someone else’s perspectives in similar circumstances.  Above all else, at the heart of every good novel – regardless of the genre – is a story of love; that is the ultimate connection between characters.  It may be a child finding the love of a family after being shoved through the knocks of life too much for their age; it may be the hero or heroine finding love; it may be a widow or widower finding love again, or reuniting with true loves; it may be someone coming to the point in their life that they accept and love themselves just the way they are.

On to You!

When you read novels, what is it you’re looking for?  I would love to hear about it – please comment below, even if it’s just a few key words!

novel-colin-firth

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The Thorny Issue of Horns

As an author and writer, I do a LOT of research.  I love history particularly, but then I could say the same thing about the topics of geology, astronomy, archaeology, science and technology, crafting, drawing, botany, and a dozen others.  As I apply my studies to my work, I am sometimes faced with the issue of horns – Viking helmet horns.

Real Viking Helmet

 

Accurate Viking helmet, reproduction.  Photo credit, Pinterest, unknown

 

While everyone seems to accept as a historically proven fact that Viking helmets had horns, the actual fact of the matter is that they didn’t.  While there were many horned helmets dating to before the rise of the Norse powers of Sweden, Norway and Denmark, most, if not all, were for religious or ceremonial purposes.  However, if I write a description of a Norse helmet and leave off the horns, someone will inevitably point it out.

Recently I spent a couple hours on Skype with one of my Beta readers for my current project, the third book in the Northing Trilogy (set in 18th century England).  Several of her comments were based on her knowledge of the 19th century as portrayed by Georgette Heyer, while others were based on her lack of historical knowledge that I, as the author, have amassed over time.  While some of that knowledge needs to seep into my writing to help the reader along, I have to continually remind myself (especially with this particular book in the trilogy, as it is centred around the Royal Navy) that I am not writing a history book but a novel, and anything I include needs to support the plot – the plot should never be forced to support a history lesson.  So it is that questions arose as to the behaviour and manners of the children of the time.

In any time period up until the mid-20th century, children in western societies matured far sooner than their modern counterparts, both out of necessity and out of cultural understanding of their roles in society.  Many families were dependent on the contribution made by the children in their household, whether it was housework, factory work, or working on the streets as beggars, shoe shiners, chimney sweeps, street sweepers, selling newspapers, or any other job they could earn money with (this is still true in many poorer countries of the world today).

If they came from a wealthy family, children were educated, but as to what extent and to which form it took very much depended on their particular circumstances:  They were educated either at home by tutors, or sent away to a boarding school.  Leaving school might be anywhere between ten and twenty; Jane Austen finished her formal education at the age of 10 or 11, whereas Charlotte Brontë’s character Jane Eyre left school at 18.  Boys who were second sons were often educated (after their basic education in either a college or at home) toward the military or toward a life as a minister (if their families held a high status in society, they might be trained toward politics; first-born sons, heirs, were rarely sent to the military due to the inherent dangers).

Midshipman Henry William Baynton, aged 13 -1780 - Wikipedia.jpg

Henry William Baynton, aged 13 years, 6 months, midshipman on the Cleopatra.  Photo Credit, Wikipedia.

If their fathers could afford to do so, these younger sons were often bought commissions in the military so that they would start off their career with some smidgen of position, such as a midshipman in the Royal Navy; the younger they entered, the sooner they could rise through the ranks, and thus it was not uncommon for lads of 7 or 8 to enter the navy.  Aboard ship they were trained in various skills, which included not only practical skills to do with the day-to-day running of the ship, but how to read navigational charts and how to use instruments such as sextants. How fast or slow they rose to higher ranks thereafter depended on their skills, intelligence, connections, and luck.

If poor children were either abandoned or given to workhouse orphanages because their families could not afford to keep them alive, they were also trained:  The girls were trained toward becoming servants (paying back society for the privilege of being alive), and the boys were trained for a life in the military (ditto).  They were taught to read using the Bible, and were expected to live by its principles.  Unfortunately, religion was often used as a guise for abuse and heavy-handed tyranny, but as the characters in Jane Eyre portrayed, some were true Christians in their behaviour toward her, such as her friend Helen, or the kind apothecary.  If the girls were going to become governesses, they would also be trained in more refined accomplishments such as French, drawing, needlework, history, etc.

All of this is to say that, were I to include all of this kind of information in a novel (and believe me, there’s a lot more where that came from!), it would get boring rather quickly.  And so I need to pick and choose what is used in the organic flow of the plot and character development that both serves those elements and also helps inform the reader; sometimes it’s a tricky balance.  So when the 11-year-old boy acts far more mature than a modern boy, unless the reader is aware of the historical context, I will inevitably get feedback to that effect.  Sometimes I can help their understanding by including e.g. the subjects he might be learning with his tutor, such as French, sciences, or elocution, but more than that might drag the story into the realm of a history lesson.

There are many modern myths, like the Viking horns, that people have accepted as historically accurate, when in fact they’re not.  One of my pet peeves is Christmas films that inevitably portray three kings showing up at the manger along with the shepherds in Bethlehem.  I won’t go into that here – if you’re interested in the historical details, read my article on History Undusted, here.  Other urban legends include:  We only use 10% of our brains; the full moon affects our behaviour; lightning never strikes the same place twice; cracking your knuckles gives you arthritis, and antibiotics kill viruses.  If I rankled any feathers there, or you said to yourself, “But that one is actually true,” then I would suggest you do your own research on the issue… I’ve got my plate full at the moment with the 18th century.

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Musings A to Z Challenge: V

Challenge:  Write a short paragraph (100 words or less) daily on a topic beginning with the sequential letter of the alphabet.

Vulnerability

Ashton Kutcher hits the nail on the head:  Vulnerability is the essence of romance.  No one wants a perfect, untouchable hero, heroine, or partner:  Iron Man has his shrapnel; Superman has his kryptonite; Bella Swan has her clumsiness; Peter Parker has a past that haunts him; Darcy and Lizzie have their pride and prejudice.  How the character deals with that vulnerability is what makes them relatable, and even what makes them the hero/heroine or the villain – for even villains have their flaws; it’s vulnerability in some shape that gives them enough depth to be loathed or sympathised with.

Vulnerability

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SWOT Analysis in Fiction

Writing fiction often brings the writer to a crossroads:  Should I take my character(s) down this road or that?  Will they decide this or that, and what will the consequences of either choice or decision be?  Which would fit best into my plot?  All of these questions can be answered by applying a corporate business tool called the SWOT analysis chart.  I have this baby hung on a magnet strip near my desk, along with other prompts such as the sensory image, and I apply it frequently.  Just last week I faced a crossroads:  Would A) my character run away, or would B) another character (or C) take her away?  On the latter question, I had another two options (thus, B & C); I needed the SWOT.

SWOT Analysis Chart, Watermark

This image shows you the variables of each option; internal vs. external influences or attributes of a situation or choice; helpful vs. harmful in reaching the character’s goals, or the consequences of the choices laid before you.  What are the Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats of each path at your character’s feet?

I’ll give you the example of my thought process as I applied it to my historical novel’s fictional situation:  If my character ran away (A) , the strength would be that she would be taking her destiny into her own hands – it’s what you want your main character to do; the threat would be that such an action might raise assumptions that would damage her reputation (was she pregnant?).  The opportunity of doing things in her own timing was overshadowed by the weakness of practicalities:  How would she, without support, get from her family’s estate to Portsmouth, at least a good half-day’s journey by carriage?  If the “B” character (her mother) took her to Portsmouth, the main character would be passive in the decision – the action would happen to her rather than her controlling or causing it.  The opportunity of solving the weakness of “A” by giving her a ride to Portsmouth was a strong incentive, but would raise a bigger threat in that it might seem like the mother was being just as manipulative as the father, forcing the main character into making a choice to suit the mother, which wasn’t the case.  If “C”, her future husband, came to sweep her away from the problems at home, again it would seem that the main female character wasn’t strong on her own two feet, or was too pliable and passive.

I took each scenario through the SWOT rigorously, and in the end I decided – well, when the book comes out next year, you can find out for yourself!

Applying such tools helps you focus your energies on finding solutions, rather than finding yourself stuck in writer’s block.

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Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont

Writers love to read; I think there’s also a bit of a movie buff in each one of us!  I like to watch films for the entertainment, but also for the analytical aspects; to see how the plot is built, how characters are developed, how scenes unfold, and which camera angles work best in a particular moment (that translates in writing to the point of view in a given context).

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont“Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont” (2005) is a beautiful piece of cinematic craft in which characters are explored with a great deal of tenderness, wit and insight.  The film is based on the eponymous book by the English writer Elizabeth Taylor (1912-1975), considered one of the greatest British authors of the twentieth century.  There are a wide range of characters, from the calm and insightful Mrs Palfrey or the spontaneous and warm-hearted honorary grandson, to a collection of oddball characters all staying together in the same London hotel for better or worse, and the great minor characters such as the “bellboy”, the waitress, the ex-girlfriend or the real grandson.

It’s a gem of a film; if you haven’t seen it, consider getting your hands on it to watch!  It’s one to enjoy, and then re-watch and take notes on how it unfolds.  Be inspired, and keep writing!

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Writing Tip: “Sense” Your Scenes

I try to read a book a week; it’s usually on a Saturday, when I have time to sit down and read a good chunk at a time.  This past weekend I read a book which prompted thoughts around this concept of “sensing” a scene, and reading it aloud to hear any howlers that might have crept into the writing.  The author of that book obviously did neither, though her editor might have told her to beef up descriptives – so they were clumped all together, staggering me as a reader to a halt while I tried to figure out the context of the pages of descriptives before remembering what the characters were doing there in the first place, and often the dialogue sounded very stilted (e.g. using “vocalized” instead of “shouted” – the latter of the two would have fit into the character’s time and place far better) – a good reading-aloud editing session might have done wonders for the novel.

SensesThis image is one I have printed out on a card and hung near my desk when writing; it reminds me to apply all of my senses to a scene, to enrich the imagery and draw the reader in.  Describe the sights, smells, sounds, feelings and taste of a scene; make it a sensory experience and it will be far more memorable; this is done through sentence structure and the pacing of those elements, but sometimes also through “camera angle” – looking at the scene from a particular perspective.  How does your character feel in the moment?  What are their perceptions?  Does a smell remind them of something or someone?  Here are a few tips to achieving these goals:

  1. While adjectives are useful for adding colour or depth to a sentence, think of them as pepper; too much can spoil the scene.  If using more than one to describe a noun, familiarize yourself with the rule of order for adjectives.
  2. Use action verbs rather than passive/being verbs with adverbs.  E.g. “She stumbled down the hill” rather than “She went unsteadily down the hill”.
  3. Most importantly:  Read your sentences and scenes aloud!  I cannot stress this enough – if it sounds choppy or stilted to your ears, or doesn’t sound like something your character would say or do, then change it!

Writing is a dynamic process, and being a writer means constantly striving to improve oneself – building vocabulary and learning how to use words effectively, building your knowledge through research, studying, and reading, reading, reading!  Keep on writing!

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7 Steps to a Powerful Opening

bottle-opener - millennium-falcon-

A powerful opener…

Anyone who writes novels worth reading can tell you that, as with any relationship, the first impression you make is the most important.  You know that you need to get your character from A to Z through the story, but how you introduce A is more important than B through Z – in other words, if you lose your reader’s interest from the get-go, they might not stick around long enough to find out where you want to lead them.  Here are 7 steps to remember that will lead you to that great first impression:

  1. Dive in! Hit the ground running!  Begin your story in the middle of an action scene, or in the middle of a conversation.  Let your reader feel like they’re eavesdropping on a decisive moment in your character’s life.  Make them wonder, make them ask questions they want answers to!  Who’s speaking?  What’s the context?  Why is there X problem / challenge / discussion?
  2. Make your character human: Give them sympathetic traits, a relatable nature, and attitudes that readers can identify with.  Do this through dialogue and actions, or by internalization (getting inside the character’s head, an “inner dialogue”).  It will help you to prepare your main characters by writing out a biography for them.  Give them memorable names (not complicated ones, or names that are difficult to work out how to pronounce).  The main character must be somewhat larger than life (more interesting than the average person in some way); do this through giving them idiosyncrasies, habits, a quirky sense of humour, etc.
  3. Romance: If your character is real, there will be romance – some kind of heart-to-heart relationship that touches that key human emotion.  I’m not talking about slutty romance novels; I’m talking about real human connection and rich emotional landscapes, whether it’s a small-town story, a science fiction planet, or a war zone.
  4. Supporting character: This might be a sidekick, a friend, partner, companion, or even an object or pet.  It is someone or something for the main character to share their experiences with.  The supporting character should contrast your main character – perhaps someone who asks the reader’s questions, or wants explanation of terms or concepts the reader might not be familiar with, without becoming “teach-y”.  They might be the voice of reason to an impulsive main character, or the voice of adventure to a staid hero/heroine.
  5. Antagonist: This opponent is an obstruction to the main character’s goals.  They create problems, sometimes danger.  They may be human, or non-human (e.g. man vs. nature), or may be an internal struggle of the main character (haunted by their past, or an addiction, a weakness such as impatience, etc.).
  6. Emotion: Build an emotional landscape (this links closely with # 3).  Show the main character as life-like, and develop relationships, or show struggles the character has with particular issues that give them depth and breadth.
  7. Style: Bring it all together in a style unique to your character’s voice and biography.  Show their feelings, conflicts, adding complications and subplots to take it deeper.  In your first chapter the goal of your character should come out – what their desires are, their determination, problems to solve, etc. – without making the arrival at that goal all too obvious!

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Novel Writing Pyramid

Novel Pyramid

When writing or drafting a new story, sometimes it’s easy to get lost in the forest due to the trees – in the myriad of ideas that flash up in a brainstorm.  The pyramid above helps remind me of the emphasis each area needs in the overall structure:

If a story is too complex, you’ll lose or confuse your readers; but if it’s too simple, it becomes predictable and therefore no challenge to the mind of the adventurer who’s picked up your book to get lost in another world.  Most of the best stories are, at their heart, quite simple – “boy meets girl”, or “person achieves goal”.

If you don’t know what your settings and themes are, how can you effectively work toward the final outcome?  If you don’t know who your character is, and what your basic plot (goal and how it’s achieved) is, how can you guide the reader through dialogue or prose toward the desired conclusion?  Diction is important because it is central to creating the voice of each character, and sticking to genre-specific vocabulary and expressions (i.e. no proverbial airplanes through the scenes of a historical novel).  As Mark Twain once wrote,

“The difference between the right word and the almost-right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”

And if you have the top four slices of the pyramid in place, but don’t have proper foundations – in other words, know your grammar, spelling, punctuation and syntax (sentence structures, tense usage, etc.) then no matter how brilliant your plot might be, or your character development, if readers can’t get past your bad diction and grammar, you’ve lost them as present and future readers!

I’d like to encourage you to know your weaknesses, and develop them into strengths!  If grammar or spelling is a weakness, work on it – invest time into reviewing the rules – Wikipedia is an excellent source for articles on how to use punctuation, etc.  Buy a good grammar book, or even a grammar practice book with an answer key at the back (The “English Grammar in Use” series is one I used for years with EFLA students).  If plot or character development is a weakness, then make a list of questions for each, and take the time to think about and answer them.

Good writing is about quality; it’s about solid foundations and constant development, the honing of your skills; it’s about research, thinking outside the box, and being able to convey in words the images born in your mind.  Just as sharpening a pencil makes it easier to write, so does sharpening your mind and skills.

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On Letting Characters Loose

Mark Twain 3“If you invent two or three people and turn them loose in your manuscript, something is bound to happen to them – you can’t help it; and then it will take you the rest of the book to get them out of the natural consequences of that occurrence, and so first thing you know, there’s your book all finished up and never cost you an idea.”            Mark Twain

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