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Did I dazzle you?

“Did I dazzle you? Did I jump off the page?”

Those two lines are from the movie 21, which my husband and I watched over the weekend. I actually liked it, but what really stuck with me were those two lines.

In the movie, those words are thrown back in the face of a professor looking for scholarship recipients with more than just academic achievements. He wants students with “life experience”. After making hundreds of thousands of dollars by counting cards at blackjack tables in Vegas, the main character definitely has it.

The whole scene reminded me of trying to get into Berkeley (which I didn't even want to attend, but my dad hoped I'd get in so I could live at home). Not only did I not have a 4.5 GPA, but my parents were alive, I'm white, I wasn't an Olympian, I hadn't started my own company, and I didn't want to be an astronaut. Let's just say my dad coughed up some dorm fees elsewhere.

Anyway, here's my point. (I know, finally, right?) Those lines made me think about writing good characters. If we do our job well, shouldn't the characters dazzle our readers? Shouldn't they jump off the page as if they were real?

The challenge for us as writers is imbuing our characters with the qualities that make them unforgettable. The life experience that they would have if they were real people. If I were an expert on this, I think I'd be writing on deadline and too busy to blog almost daily, so I won't claim to have the answer.

I do have a couple of good resources, though. The book I just finished–and I highly recommend–is The Plot Thickens by Noah Lukeman. He got me thinking about my characters and their circumstances in a way I hadn't before. There are plenty of thought-provoking exercises at the end of each chapter to start you on your journey.

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Debra Dixon's Goal, Motivation, and Conflict. Her book was the subject of my very first blog post, and understanding her concepts represented a real turning point in my writing career. More than any one idea, GMC has had the most profound effect on how I write.

Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint by Nancy Kress is another good primer for character development. Kress also includes end-of-chapter exercises.

I just started reading The Three Dimensions of a Character by Larry Brooks, so I can't speak to it yet, but it looks good so far. Just like with his book Story Structure Demystified, he excels at the “how to” of writing, and I'm looking forward to his forthcoming book from Writer's Digest.

What are some of your tricks for bringing characters to life, and do you have any other must-have books on the subject to recommend?

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What’s the big(ger) idea?

How do you write a “bigger book”? Yes, I've blogged about this before, but a recent series by one of my new favorite writing resources–yes, Larry Brooks over at storyfix.com–helped the concept of “writing big” finally click in my brain.

He seems to be helping things click a lot lately. Not sure if it's Mr. Brooks' style, that my brain is finally ready, or a bit of both. Maybe it's that old line: “when the student is ready the teacher will appear”. Hmm.

Anyway, here's my take on the idea of writing a bigger book.

The author takes ordinary people and shows them in extraordinary roles. We can relate to the emotional core of a character, and be thrilled by the chance to participate in a job or situation that many of us have no experience with. (And probably wouldn't want to in real life.)

They say and do the things most of us only wish we had the guts to say or do. When faced with a terrifying challenge, they rise to the occasion (eventually), the way we'd like to think we would.

Those larger-than-life characters are operating in an environment that is both foreign and fascinating to the average reader, so we're drawn into the experience for the vicarious ride through their world. Think special ops forces, spies behind enemy lines, hostage situations, medieval times, the Regency period, a school for wizards, NYC with vampires.

The same way a roller coaster simulates the thrill of a death-defying ride, big books let us experience scary and exciting worlds and situations through the adventures of the characters that we've grown attached to. We feel the fear, the joy, the heartache, and the bravery as if it were our own. We can have the emotions without the risk.

Bigger books usually also often have larger stakes. The threat isn't just to the heroine's daughter, but to the entire school, or the whole city. The villain isn't just a terrorist, he's the head terrorist. The stakes are personal, but also universal.

So now that I “get it”–I hope–my goals are to work it into Slow Burn, which I'm getting ready to put through its first major plot revision, and to apply the concept to Blind Fury which is in the throes of nascency.

How about you? Any thoughts on what makes a “bigger book”?

What a character

I admire how writers like Suzanne Brockmann can make characters who seem so real they practically step out of the book and shake your hand. They're like old friends by the time the book is done.

I was lucky enough to attend a chapter meeting on Saturday where another master writer, Linda Howard, presented a workshop on characterization. What she calls creating the character's voice (not to be confused with the writer's voice). Basically, learning to write so that your characters' personalities come through.

She took paragraphs sent in by chapter members, and added her own words to them to create a short scene that left no doubt of the character's world view. Were they sarcastic, lacking confidence, egotistical? She nailed it every time.

Her word choices made it clear how that character viewed the situation, gave them attitude, thoughts, and individuality

Along the way, she also gave some good tidbits of advice that I thought I'd pass along (in my own words).

  • Don't be afraid to go off on tangents because those are what tell the reader about your character.
  • Your word choice should be specific to each mood and character. The reader should be able to tell whose POV the scene is in, even if you leave their name out.
  • Characterization is most important early on in the book when you're trying to capture and hold the reader's interest. The best plot in the world won't hold a reader if they don't care about the characters moving through it.
  • Don't shortchange the emotion in a scene. If she loved it, tell us why. If he hated it, tell us why.

Writing characters who live and breath on the page is my number one goal. It's where I'll be concentrating my efforts in my MS, and in the Sunday Squirrel over the next few weeks. Good luck with your own efforts.

Write on.

What does he want?

I've started my next MS. Actually, I'm working on two of them at once–a first for me. Not sure it's a good idea, but we'll see what happens. My contemporary is coming along nicely. I have GMC pretty well in hand, and I've written the first few scenes.

Blind Fury on the other hand, is giving me fits. I'm trying to work through the GMC for the characters before I go any further with the project (hence, the stagnating word count). I think I have the heroine fairly well pegged, but the hero is not cooperating. His internal goal is good, but externally, he has no idea what he wants.

He's not after excessive wealth, he likes his job, he has good friends, he likes to play the field (for now ;-)). Sure, he might like a newer car, or to win a race, or to date the prettiest woman on the block, but those aren't story-worthy goals.

Clearly, I need to re-evaluate his cushy lifestyle. He needs some past traumas to give him reasons for wanting…something. Not only that but what he wants should conflict with the heroine's goals.

(Yes, I've been skimming Deb Dixon's Goal, Motivation, & Conflict again. Great book.)

Okay, so maybe I have an idea after all. This is like when your kids come to you for help with a problem, and by the time they explain it to you, they've figured it out without your help at all.

Wow, you guys are the best! 🙂

What you can learn from children and Toyota

What do kids and Toyota have in common? They ask “why?” a lot. If you've ever spent time around a child, you've probably experienced the phenomenon of endless whys. Children are masters at digging deep.

In the world of manufacturing, Toyota and its world-renowned manufacturing system are the same way. (In spite of their recent problems, I still worship the ground that Toyota's founders walk on.) One of the four tools that Toyota quality specialists use to solve quality problems, is to ask “why?” five times in order to reach the root cause.

So, what does this have to do with writing? Well, I believe that if we force ourselves to continually ask why our characters are doing, saying, or feeling whatever it is they're doing, saying, or feeling, we'll find the holes and inconsistencies that often plague our stories. Asking why will also help us develop a deeper understanding of the characters' motivations.

Let's say you've determined that your character's goal in the scene is to acquire money to save her company from financial ruin. Now you need her motivations. You can either ask each why of the original goal, or ask subsequent whys to follow up on the previous question.

For example, here's a list where each why is directed back to the original goal (money to save her company).

1. Why?  The company is her life.

2. Why?  She doesn't want to lay off her employees.

3. Why?  She wants to prove to her father that she can succeed in business without his help.

4. Why?  If her business fails, she'll lose everything.

5. Why?  If the business fails, her employees will lose their health insurance, and one of them has a very sick child.

Here's an example where each why builds on the previous one.

1. Why?  The company is her life.

2. Why?  She has spent all her time building the company, at the expense of her social life.

3. Why?  She believes the men who ask her out just want her family's money, so she avoids dating altogether.

4. Why?  She doesn't think men can see beyond the scar on her face to fall in love with the woman inside.

5. Why?  Her previous boyfriend cheated on her.

Notice the second example could create a large branching tree of why lists, one branch for each of the questions in the first list. You can take it as deep as you want, but even a little digging may reveal surprising insight into your characters' motivations.

So foster your childish, Toyota-like need to get to the bottom of things. Go forth and ask, “why?”

Put it in perspective

I was commenting on Larry Brooks' upcoming deconstruction of Avatar over at storyfix.com, when I realized something about characterization: it's all about perspective.

Yeah, I know this is nothing new, but for some reason it clicked. You see, I didn't expect to like Avatar. I'd heard that there was no plot, just pretty special effects. Well, I went anyway, and really, really liked it. And because I'd heard there was no plot, I found myself analyzing it on the way home.

I believe the naysayers were wrong. There was a pretty strong plot, complete with character GMC, turning points, black moment, climax, everything.

Okay, that's another post, or just check out storyfix.com this week…

Back to perspectives. I made a comment that I had been analyzing the plot, “much to my husband's dismay”. And then it made me think about how he points out engineering stuff all the time. Like why a certain structure works, or why a ship in space wouldn't “fall” after it's been blown up, etc… And I tend to turn over plastic containers so I can see if they're injection blow molded or extrusion blow molded. If you want I can show you the ejection pin mark on your toothbrush, too. 😉

Yes, I taught the plastics lab during grad school.

So, what's my point? It's that our backgrounds and interests color how we look at the world, and if our characters are rich they'll be the same way. The things they'll notice about the world around them are determined by their background, personality, and experiences.

Not that I've necessarily done this with my MCs yet. Give me a break, I just thought of it!

So, how do you find opportunities to show your character's perspective?

The next dimension

Now that my (very) rough draft is complete, I'm working my way through Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook by Donald Maass, and applying it to my current MS. Chapter 2 is called Opening Extra Character Dimensions, and it is a real eye opener.

It's a great exercise–similar to one I did at a workshop by Mary Buckham and Dianna Love–where you identify a strong character trait for your protagonist. Then, you determine the opposite of it, and write a paragraph where your protagonist demonstrates that opposing quality.

Repeat four times.

For my hero, I found this fairly easy. In fact, I had done this already in many instances throughout my MS. Yay me, right? But wait. What about the heroine?

I failed. Not only did I make her as multi-dimensional as a piece of cardboard, I had a much harder time coming up with four personality traits for which to find antonyms. I didn't realize she was that boring, but she could probably use some work.

I think I'm biased. I like men, so I spend a lot of time working on my hero and making him amazing, but human. I want the reader to fall in love with him as much as I do.

But ideally, the heroine is just as human and complex as the man. The reader needs to like her enough to feel that she deserves our beloved hero after all.

None of this was conscious on my part, so going through the exercise was enlightening.

How do you bring out the many dimensions of your characters to make them complex and compelling?