Monthly Archives: November 2010

How To Develop A Character

Fundamental to any good novel is a good character, but what makes a character “good”? I’ve discussed characters in the past (archived posts on the topic are here). However, I don’t think I’ve thought so much about how a writer creates a character from scratch.

When I first started writing, I had a story in mind, and my characters were almost incidentals. Since then, I’ve learned how flat such a story is. Characters make readers care about the events that are about to happen, even as the events are the testing ground which allows characters to grow.

So which comes first? I believe that’s an immaterial question. A good story must have both a good plot and good characters—the non-flat kind.

To develop these characters, a writer needs to give each something he or she wants and something he or she needs. This latter may not be something the character is aware of consciously. In Jonathan Rogers’s excellent book The Charlatan’s Boy, young orphaned Grady doesn’t go around saying, I need to be loved and accepted, but the reader understands this about him fairly quickly.

The next part of developing a character is to put him on a path to gain what he wants. As the story moves forward, the initial want may change. If the character wants to reach point A, he may discover when he arrives, that now he wants to reach point B. Or, along the way to A he may realize that he only thought he wanted A, but now realizes he really needs B. Consequently, he abandons the quest for A and sets his sights anew for B.

A second important part of character development is to increase the character’s self-awareness. He needs to have strengths and weaknesses, and he should have an increasing understanding of how he needs to use his strengths and how he should work to change his weaknesses.

Third, the character should make progress, both in achieving what he wants and acquiring what he needs. The “want” is generally something outside him, and the need is that internal something that drives him. Yes, getting what he wants and needs can’t come too easily or there really is no story. But to make no progress defeats the character and the reader early on, dyeing the story in hopelessness.

Notice that all these first character development points have little to do with hair style or eye color. Often those are the things writers settle on as the most important when they start putting a character together. Is he tall? Does he like football? Is she a shopper?

Those things are secondary to the wants/needs understanding. If a character like Grady wants to be loved, then how does that affect his choices—his aspirations, but also the way he dresses and what he does with the hours in his day, the type of job he seeks.

Part of understanding these aspects of the character depends on the personality of this individual. Is he a “can do” sort, so he looks at obstacles as challenges, or is he burdened by his wants and needs, fighting to keep his head above water?

Notice that in either instance, the character is fighting. A passive character is not someone readers will connect with easily.

One more important element—a writer needs to think of his character as an individual. What are the quirks that he has that no one else has? Or the gestures, the speech patterns, the thinking style?

Know your character, inside and out. Then put him in any circumstance you wish, and you will know what he will do. Someone as spacey as your character would do something silly when the pressure’s on. Someone shy and retiring would never make such a spectacle of herself. But throughout the story, you test them and grow them and change them so that in the end they do more than even they thought possible. And you know exactly what they thought because you made them just that introspective.

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Exclamations And Their Points

When I first started writing full time, I received a shock: all that I knew about punctuation wasn’t necessarily so. As an English teacher, I had approached punctuation in a clinical, analytical, black-and-white manner. There was a right way, called “standard” in the textbook, and a wrong way, referred to as “nonstandard.”

Then I discovered that writers working for newspapers used a different “style book” (and what was a “style book,” I wondered) from the one schools typically used. Fiction editors favored a third different style book. According to those guides, the “right” way wasn’t always right.

For example, from different writing instruction books such as Self-editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King I learned that the fiction style books discouraged the use of the exclamation point. Discouraged it!

When I began my work as an editor, with the latest and greatest style book recommended for fiction, The Chicago Manual of Style, Fifteenth Edition, I found this statement about exclamation points: “An exclamation point (which should be used sparingly to be effective) marks an outcry or an emphatic or ironic comment” (6.76, emphasis mine).

The craft books explained the rationale. A good fiction writer chose words that conveyed emotion and didn’t need to rely on punctuation to tell the reader how to interpret the text.

I filed this piece of information away and proceeded to stop using exclamation points. Until one day I received a comment from a critique partner about the matter. My dialogue, she said, indicated great emotion, but the use of a comma instead of an exclamation point seemed to contradict the words.

She was right, I realized.

When in the writing world, I wondered, did “use sparingly” become “never use”?

Imagine my happiness when The Chicago Manual of Style tweeted the link to an article about the use of exclamation points: “The exclamation point revisited”. The author of this Chicago Tribune opinion piece, Nancy E. Anderson, experienced a similar exclamation-point journey to mine and has now made peace with its use, at least in more informal communication formats such as email.

I agree with Ms. Anderson and even think exclamation points may have a purpose in blog posts or comments. But one thing I’d like to hold to—that exclamation points don’t come in multiples (!!!), especially in fiction, even in YA fiction in which the characters and the readers might not be over fifteen (see the article mentioned above for the context to fully appreciate that line 😉 ).

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How To Start A Novel

Over the past few years, I’ve discovered some excellent writers whose novels, from my perspective, would be stronger if the story structure were stronger.

Many writers may believe that their story hangs on the plot sequence. Hence they work hard to develop an opening scene of intrigue or danger that will draw readers in. Certainly the opening to a novel is important, but for readers to care about the intrigue or danger, they must care about the characters involved.

For example, I watched part of a TV show the other night that opened with an off-duty policeman chasing a man who apparently had been in the midst of committing a crime. During the chase, the perpetrator was hit by a car and died.

Did this scene increase my interest? Draw me into the story? Somewhat. Not because of the virtually unknown man who died but because of the ramifications it held for the police officer, one of the show’s stars.

So how should a novelist begin a story? Above all else, he should conceive of a character that has something she wants or needs. This character’s longing must become striving.

A good story does not happen to a character. The character initiates events in an attempt to satisfy the want or need that drives him.

Often this driving desire does not surface immediately, but the writer must know what this character desire is. The opening scene may present a more transient, less significant want or need, then as the story unfolds the character’s outer and inner struggles will crystallize the deeper desire.

Not only must the writer begin with a character in want, he must also conceive of an antagonist who will serve as a foil. This character is not necessarily an opponent. He might be a business partner who holds a different vision from the protagonist or a homeless man who initiates guilty feelings every time he pushes his cart down the street.

The point is, when beginning a story, knowing who will be the chief character to throw up roadblocks, difficulties, questions, doubts, is just as important as knowing what the main character wants. These two are the twin cornerstones of story structure.

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Vocabulary And Word Choice

An author’s vocabulary and word choice are closely associated, as I recently realized when reading Stephen R. Lawhead‘s newest release, The Skin Map, Book 1 of the Bright Empires series.

Vocabulary is at the heart of language, and therefore, of writing. An author cannot use words he does not know. Consequently, it seems prudent for any serious writer to do whatever he can to improve his vocabulary.

The easiest method, perhaps, is to read widely. However, some writers take such pleasure in words, they regularly study them. Christian suspense author Brandilyn Collins is just such a writer, weekly sharing a new set of words on her blog, Forensics and Faith (see for example her most recent vocabulary post) and daily tweeting Today’s Word.

In The Skin Map, I encountered a steady offering of new words—conurbation, telluric, feculent, aubergine, imprimatur. Often the meaning of these words was clear in context. On occasion, I paused in my reading to look up a new offering.

And there is the question—should an author include words that might not be widely understood, chancing that a break in comprehension will damage the “fictive dream” to the extent that the reader won’t want to continue, or will, at least, pause before again buying a book by that author?

The answer to this question actually brings the discussion to word choice. Presumably an author such as Mr. Lawhead who would use a word like feculent could just as easily have chosen to write foul, filthy, or polluted instead. He did not, meaning that he chose a more precise, though less used, word for a reason.

What should an author consider when making such word choices? I don’t think “most common” should be the hard and fast rule, or books will all descend to the level of fifth grade readers, much as TV writing has. At the same time, peppering a story with “fifty dollar” words for the sake of sounding erudite is foolish.

Writing is first and foremost communication. Words that obscure meaning must go. Words that may be difficult can stay as long as the author has a reason for them and creates a context that makes their meaning accessible. Look, for example, at Mr. Lawhead’s use of telluric.

    Into the invisible square the old man drew a straight diagonal line. “A ley line,” he said, speaking slowly—as one might to a dog, or dull-wited child, “is what might be called a field of force, a trail of telluric energy. There are hundreds of them, perhaps thousands, all over Britain, and they have been around since the Stone Age.”

    – from The Skin Map, p. 18

Notice that the word I’ve labeled “difficult” is describing a type of energy and is renaming “a field of force.” Though this passage may not give a reader enough to come up with a synonym for “telluric,” it nevertheless gives enough for someone unfamiliar with the word to keep reading without having missed anything central to the scene.

In addition, the word appears in dialogue. Much of word choice in fiction must be made in relation to the characters. Is a word too sophisticated for a street urchin? To common for an aristocrat? Too antiquated for a twenty-first century teen?

Choosing words with characters in mind is especially important when writing in a close third person narrative. An author has more latitude when writing, as Mr. Lawhead was in The Skin Map, in an omniscient point of view with an unseen narrator. He could choose words that fit with the narrator persona or with the main character of each particular scene.

In summary, an author when making word choices from the wealth of his vocabulary must consider how clearly his words communicate as well as how consistently they represent his characters.

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