Tag Archives: believable characters

When Gravity Departs, the World Scoffs

Happy almost Fourth of July! Fireworks, barbecue, family and friends… all in celebration of the birth of a nation!

I thought I’d share a writing piece based on the concept of something strange happening. Something that by all accounts shouldn’t be possible. This piece was a writing assignment I completed in graduate school, and it was challenging for me, because I’m so used to writing fantasy and futuristic science fiction. I couldn’t just jump into automatically suspending my disbelief. It’s a short piece, and I hope you enjoy the characterization.

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Without Gravity

At nine AM, Lena Delani sauntered past my cubicle. Her four-inch fireball red heels clip-clopped against the cream linoleum, while her multi-colored python satchel bag swished against her side. She entered Mr. Durham’s office. The glass door sealed shut silently behind her. He was on the phone, his back to the wall of glass separating him from the multitude of cubicles making up the refurbished warehouse turned office space.

Lena flung her bag onto the high-backed button tufted chair in the corner of the room and pounced on Mr. Durham’s back. Her arms wrapped around his neck and she kissed him. Her lips left a smear of red on his cheek.

Mr. Durham started, but when he saw it was Lena, he dropped the phone, twisted around, and grabbed her fully in his arms. He swung her around in a circle. Her heels cracked against the dark cherry desk. A chip of wood flew through the air, smacked into the wall of glass, and then thwacked onto the floor. Mr. Durham’s striped shirt slipped free of his belt and a thin layer of pudge wobbled.

“You’re staring again,” my coworker Annette said. Her head appeared over the lip of her cubicle. Bits of frizzy hair stuck up in all directions. The bun she’d tied her hair into had failed.

A sliver of blueberry was lodged between her two front teeth.

“No, I’m not.” I jabbed the keys on my keyboard. There was nothing on my computer screen, but the clacking of my fingers against the keys continued.

“He’s not going to leave her. Look at her.”

I didn’t.

Annette continued, “She’s got those legs and that hair and that skirt. And those boobs.”

My arm itched. My fingers slammed into the keys. Mr. Durham cared about more than looks. His first wife had been short and fat. His second wife had freckles, like me.

Lena was a break from his previous marriages. She was twenty-one, a model, if you called posing in a clothing catalog and a tattoo removal commercial modeling, and wore skirts that showed off her butt cheeks. Her butt cheeks didn’t sway as she walked. Nothing but her hips and hair swayed.

“Did you hear about that crazy story on the radio?” Annette asked.

I stopped typing. Lena’s fingernails were manicured. Her toenails were too, except they were painted either red or pink or sparkly. Mine were bare and one of them was breaking. If Lena were rated, she’d be a dime. A perfect ten. Me? I hit the delete button on my keyboard.

At Helly Marketing there was no need to be a dime. Forty some cubicles and a few floor-to-ceiling windows that showcased the employee parking lot, arriving at work in the dark, leaving work in the dark, people dressed more for comfort than looks.

And then Lena Delani strode in and morphed us all into pale, wrinkled wraiths.

“The radio? Mary, are you listening?”

Lena laughed, high-pitched and loud. Any louder and the wall of glass would rattle.

“What about the radio?” I asked.

“Some guy said he saw this homeless man float away.” Annette shoved her arm toward the ceiling. “One minute he was standing and the next he rose off the ground and into the air.”

“Lucky him.”

“Lucky? He floated away, and more his head caved in on one side.”

I tapped the Rosie the Riveter Bobblehead on my desk. Rosie squeaked as her head wobbled. “The story’s a hoax. The radio was trying to drum up ratings for their show. You know how it is.”

Annette worked for Helly Marketing for two years before I was hired. When I came in for the interview, Mr. Durham had been there. He wore a dark blue suit and shiny black dress shoes. No pudge, but that was seven years ago. I was still in the same cubicle as when I was hired.

Annette dropped her arm to her cubicle wall. “Maybe, but another radio show I listened to talked about a woman who witnessed two kids up and float away.”

If Lena floated away, her legs wouldn’t be wrapped around Mr. Durham’s waist. Her fingers wouldn’t be clawing at his hair. Her skirt wouldn’t be riding up. If she flew off into the sky, her hair would knot. She’d lose her four-inch heels. Her legs wouldn’t be so great then.

“I did some surfing and found more stories, all over the world. It’s not just people. Bits of ocean and fish. Trees. No one is paying attention, but something’s going on.”

I flicked Rosie harder. She toppled over. Her head clanked against my desk. “People don’t float away.”

Lena’s legs tightened around Mr. Durham’s waist. A stack of papers clattered to the floor. The glass orb Mr. Durham’s daughter made for him, when her sixth grade class went on a field trip to a glassblowing factory last year, teetered on the corner of his desk.

“I’m telling you, there’s something wrong with gravity.”

–The assignment wasn’t to write an entire story, but maybe one day I’ll use this within a larger context…or perhaps it’ll remain as it was originally intended: a writing exercise.

Have a wonderful holiday tomorrow!

(Photo courtesy of Guillaume Delebarre.)

 

Do Everything But Kill Your Characters: Why Struggle is Vital for Character Development

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When we write, we all have characters that we love. We don’t want anything bad to happen to them. They’re our children, and like all good parents, we want to keep our kids safe. However, when characters are safe, they’re not interesting. More so, readers, and ourselves, don’t get to know who these characters are. We can’t discover what lies at their core. It’s only through the tough times that we get to truly know our characters.

Not long ago, I provided feedback on several chapters for a fantasy novel. These chapters were about midway through the novel, and after having read from chapter one to this point, I found myself not knowing who the protagonist was. Sure, she was a princess, the last of her family (the rest of them having died in peculiar accidents), and was on the run from evil fairies and a traitorous royal court. But her two loyal companions were always there to save her from any attack.

So, while the princess constantly thought about how she had to be brave and kind and show that she deserved the crown, I never got to see her in action. She was always standing around, waiting for her companions to fight off various sinister creatures. I got to a point where I asked the author, “What would happen if the princess was attacked, when there was no one around to save her?”

It turned out that the princess could take care of herself.

It’s easy for characters to think or say they’d act/react one way, but eventually something bad has to happen to them. Only when our characters are forced to act do we uncover their true personalities.

And, once characters face hardship—and the more that they confront—they grow. They can only become better people if what they care about is shredded to tiny pieces. Rip characters’ souls apart and they’ll be forced to build more resilient hopes, dreams, and spirits.

It’s not easy to knock down your characters, not only because you care about them, but because it’s emotionally taxing on you. Some of the hardest scenes I’ve written are when I’m ripping apart my protagonist. I become so emotionally invested in the story that I experience what my protagonist experiences, so by the end of stressful scenes, I am emotionally and physically spent.

But, I continue to write those scenes, because of all the books I’ve read, the best ones are usually those where the characters are torn down. Even if the book is fantasy or science fiction, I can relate to the core of the hardships they face, and that makes me care about the characters.

(Photo courtesy of Ewan Cross.)

Make Readers Care: Creating Emotions in Readers

7977102431_1b9d99abf5_zYesterday, I finished a novel where I felt that the author kept me at arm’s length for the entire book. This made me ambivalent about the characters, even though the setting and plot were incredibly unique. But since I didn’t care for the characters my overall enjoyment of the story went down and it was relatively easy for me to stop reading and do other things.

On the other hand, I’ve read books where the plot was unoriginal and the setting vague, however since the characters were engaging I enjoyed the books immensely more than I did the novel I finished a day ago.

Why?

Because I cared about the characters. They made me emotional. I laughed, sometimes cried, got angry, etc. I felt their emotions.

The story moved me.

How can you make readers feel emotions?

One way is to write in such a way that readers can picture what is happening. It’s one thing to state, “Jeffery was sad.” It’s another thing to show Jeffery sitting on the edge of his bed, the shades drawn to block the sunlight, and staring at a half-crumpled photograph of his deceased wife.

Another way is to make sure readers sympathize with the characters. Readers won’t care if Jeffery is sad if he’s a serial killer. They will care about him if he’s a hard-working dad, whose wife – his high school sweetheart and the love of his life – just died of cancer last week.

Readers need to be able to identify with the characters. This doesn’t mean that readers have to literally share experiences with the characters. Not everyone has had a wife that’s died of cancer. However, people can relate to a lost love, whether that’s a parent, a sibling, a friend, a spouse, etc.

An important point to note is that readers won’t identify emotionally with a character from the get-go. First, readers must become tied in some way with the characters. They must be grounded in the story. This includes knowing the setting, picturing the characters, understanding at least the beginning of the plot, and getting to know the characters’ hobbies, goals, fears, etc.

What are some of the ways you create emotions in readers?

(Photo courtesy of Kevin Conor Keller.)

Yikes! My Character’s Bipolar: Keeping Characters Consistent

2438792982_6e89624d17_zWriting a novel is a long process. Not only that, but when you’re writing 80,000 or more words, there are numerous chances for inconsistencies to crop up. This includes character inconsistences. The best example I can give you is from a novel I read over a year ago. The protagonist is falling for Character B. Introduce Character C. Character C is a much more likeable character than B, so much so that I wanted B to disappear. The author must have realized that she made C too likeable because from one page to the next (and I mean this literally, as in from page 126 to page 127) C went from nice caring guy to arrogant bad guy. The change was abrupt, made no sense, and made me question the author’s writing ability. In other words, I no longer trusted the author.

That is a problem.

Even if your goal is to have an unreliable narrator, readers need to trust you as the author. But that’s a blog post for another time.

Character consistency is when a character acts in line with how he is expected to act. If your character has an extreme fear of heights, he will not cross a thirty foot high swinging bridge over a gorge (unless there is an excellent reason for him to do so, say if he is protective of his little sister and she is trapped on the bridge and panicking/about to fall to her death).

How do you ensure your characters are consistent?

The best way is to keep track of your characters. Use a separate Word document or a notebook and jot down relevant character details. This includes important events that happen to them.

A cool thing to do is to think of several situations and then dump your character into the middle of them to see how he’d react. For example, your character witnesses two people assaulting a third person. What would your character do? Perhaps this situation would never occur in your novel. It’s still important to know how your character reacts because you need to know what sets your character off, etc. You need to know your character’s core personality – what makes your character believable as a unique, stable individual – and the only truly effective way to do that is to put your character in pressure-filled situations.

There’s a reason many authors say that they don’t know their characters until a third of the way through their novel (and then have to go back and edit the beginning of the novel). Figure out who your character is ahead of time and your chances of running into character inconsistencies while writing your novel will decrease.

(If you think character inconsistencies aren’t a big deal, they are. Readers will notice when a person acts out of character, and if there’s not a good reason for that breach in character, readers will be annoyed/angered/confused…they’ll experience some sort of negative emotion that might be strong enough to make them put the novel down.)

Other ways to keep your characters consistent include character motivation (knowing your character’s goals, what they want and need), knowing the direction of the story (where is the plot going, how is the story going to end), and being aware of your character’s limits (what would break your character). To achieve these things requires you to write at least elementary character and plot outlines, which may seem like a waste of time where you could be working on your novel, but by taking the time to get to know your characters beforehand, you’ll make your life much easier in the long run.

Writing a novel is fun. Going back and ripping it apart because of a tremendous number of inconsistencies (perhaps having to rewrite huge swaths of your novel), not so much.

How do you keep your characters consistent?

(Photo courtesy of David Yu.)

Heroes Need Flaws Too: Creating a Believable Hero

5572308074_fd3dbc34c6_zWhen we think of heroes, we think of Superman, marines, firefighters, etc. Often heroes are made to be unstoppable forces that are held up on pedestals. But this perfection makes heroes unbelievable. They become characters readers can’t relate to. Since the hero is usually the protagonist of the story, they must draw readers in. The best way to do that is to make the hero human. Give them flaws.

In real life, no one is perfect. We all have things in our past that have effected who we are now. We are all scarred in some way or another. The same goes for our fictional heroes. The first page of a story isn’t the beginning of a character’s life. There’s backstory. A hero’s past can create a compelling character, and for the most part, the hero wasn’t always a hero. Perhaps the character grew up in the inner city and ended up killing a person for a gang initiation. This murder haunted the character, and so to atone, he became a vigilante fighting to save innocent lives and punishing those who deserve it.

Backstory also shows readers what motivates the hero, what choices they’ll make (how they’ll behave), what emotional scars a hero has, what are their quirks, etc.

Flaws make a character believable. When a character is flawed, they make mistakes, sometimes their emotions overpower their reasoning, occasionally they overreact, and with every poor choice they make, they have to deal with the consequences. Readers empathize with this because readers know what it’s like to mess up. But, what really makes readers fall in love with heroes is when heroes struggle to move past their faults, when they grow as characters.

Flaws create conflict (both conflict within the character and conflict with other characters). Conflict within a character is also known as internal conflict. It occurs within a character’s mind. Many people may admire the character, but internally the character believes that they aren’t worthy, and never will be.

Conflict with other characters is known as external conflict. It’s the forces outside of the hero that are trying to prevent the hero from obtaining their goal. External conflict also disrupts relationships between characters, and will be something they have to work through in order to succeed.

The more conflict there is, the more tension increases within a story. But, if the conflict doesn’t make sense, then it will seem random and distance readers from the story. For example, a character can’t simply wake up one day and have women crying make him angry. There has to be a reason for this reaction, which circles back to a character’s past.

If a hero starts out being perfect, then there’s no room for growth, and despite all the external conflicts that occur, it’s the internal conflicts, and the accompanying personal growth, that makes a story appealing to readers.

What flaws do you give your characters?

(Photo courtesy of amanda tipton.)

 

Is This Sexist? The Bechdel and Mako Mori Tests Are Here to Help

The other day I was reading an agent’s blog and came across two types of tests she prefers that novels pass before queries are submitted to her. I’d never heard of either one of these tests, so I was curious and looked them up.

The first is the Bechdel Test. This test was introduced back in 1985 through a comic strip. 521f82bc22887

Dykes to Watch Out For Comic Strip

In order to pass this test a movie, story, etc. must have (1) at least two female characters, (2) these female characters must talk to each other, and (3) they need to talk to each other about a topic other than a man.

Basically, this test is meant to show whether or not a story is gender biased. It indicates that women’s relationships are more complex than being a man’s sidekick or love interest, and that women do not exist solely in relation to men.

The second test is the Mako Mori Test. Mako Mori is the leading female character in the movie Pacific Rim. 521f8027f17e4

Mako Mori

When the movie came out a lot of people were upset that it did not pass the Bechdel Test. Mako Mori was nearly the only female character in the movie, and she never talked to the other much smaller supporting female character.

However, Mako Mori was not the stereotypical female character. She didn’t pose on a car in skimpy clothes. Her life didn’t revolve around a man. She fought for her place within the hierarchy and was overall a strong female lead.

Thus was born the Mako Mori Test. To pass this test a film or story must have (1) at least one female character, (2) this character must get her own narrative story arc, and (3) her story arc is not about supporting a man’s story arc.

Both the Bechdel and Mako Mori Tests are simplistic. Critics of the Bechdel Test have stated that all the requirements can be fulfilled and the story can still be sexist. None of the requirements for the Bechdel Test state that women must have character development. Technically, there could be two women in a film, who are inseparable best friends, and who only talk about shopping. That scenario passes the Bechdel Test, but it’s stereotypical and not at all empowering to women.

As for the Mako Mori Test, there can be an incredibly independent and strong female lead, but still contain sexism. In the movie Avengers, there are two female characters, however they’re rarely on the screen at the same time and don’t talk to each other (thus failing the Bechdel Test). The movie does pass the Mako Mori Test because of Black Widow, who is a major force within the movie. Yet, she is a sex symbol, which is stereotypical for Hollywood films.

I love the idea of creating tests to ensure women are something other than supporting characters for men, but creating such a test is harder than it seems and neither the Bechdel Test nor the Mako Mori Test ensure independent female characters. What might be a better alternative than having one test is to combine the Bechdel and Mako Mori tests.

What do you think?

[Photos courtesy of Bust.]

Developing that Photograph: Knowing Your Characters

ws_Developing_a_film_1440x900Just as it takes time to get to know a friend, it takes times to get to know your characters.

Every single person on this planet is different. We are all born with a set of personality traits and then the environment, our experiences and how we interpret and respond to them, affect our personality. An easy way to think of this is that each personality trait we have, whether it’s agreeableness, adaptability, or domineering, is a ruler. Our genetics set the ends of that ruler, while our environment gives us an exact position on that ruler.

For instance, let’s look at trustfulness of others. Zero centimeters equals one-hundred percent trustful. Twenty centimeters equals one-hundred percent distrustful. You may have been born at zero (completely trusting of others), but your life experiences (and your interpretation of those experiences) have shifted you to fifteen centimeters. You are now pretty distrustful of others.

But your maternal twin sibling, who has the same genetics as you hasn’t had the same life experiences. Therefore, your sibling, though starting at zero is now at an eight. Your sibling is a lot more trustful of others than you are.

The same applies to characters. They begin at one point and as they continue on in life (during the course of the story) they change. The best way to have them change? Let bad things happen to them.

There’s nothing stronger than good characters being forced to take action against bad things. Just as people make mistakes and don’t have the perfect responses to every situation, so do characters. Each action has a consequence, and with each decision a character makes, and each ramification that character must then face, you get to know that character a little bit more.

When you begin a story, there are certain things you must know about your characters.shutterstock_101695738-Medium-491x300

You don’t have to know their souls right off the bat. The essence of a character gets revealed through the difficult decisions they have to make, and you probably won’t be able to figure out what decision they’ll make until they’re faced with it. However, some things to know from the start are:

  • What does your character look like? Age?
  • What’s the first impression they give off? (If a stranger was walking down the street and spotted your character, what impression would that stranger get of your character?)
  • What does your character care most about in the world?
  • What’s their personality at the beginning of the story?

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What your character does and says is a direct result of who they are. If your image of your character is fuzzy, it will be fuzzy for readers.

Like a photograph, make sure your characters are fully developed before you show them off to the world. After all, your characters hold the story together.

How do you get to know your characters?

(Photos courtesy of WallPaperStock, Selling ASAP, and CareerDirections, LLC)