Tag Archives: Jonathan Rogers

Preview: How To Develop A Character

Power Elements of Character Development sample cover2I will soon be releasing the second volume of the series Power Elements Of Fiction, this one all about characters. This book, like the first on story structure reworks and organizes things I’ve written over the years both here and on my personal blog.

The thing is, true to the nature of writing, the reworking of a post often means it has new examples or better cohesion. Plus, the juxtaposition of one topic to another can reinforce important things about developing characters.

All that to say, this post is a shameless advertisement for the coming book Power Elements Of Character Development. Watch this space for details.

And now, without further kerfuffle, Chapter Two, How To Develop A Character:

Fundamental to any good novel is a good character, but what makes a character “good”?

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 happen, but in turn, the events are the testing grounds which allow 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.

In developing main characters, a writer needs to give each something he wants and something he needs. The “want” is generally outside him (to destroy the One Ring, to marry Ashley Wilkes, to escape the Safe Lands), and the need is that internal thing that drives him (to find purpose, to do the right thing, to be loved). The internal may not be something the character is aware of consciously. For example, in Jonathan Rogers’s excellent middle grade novel The Charlatan’s Boy, young orphaned Grady doesn’t go around saying, I need to be loved and accepted, but the reader fairly quickly understands this about him.

Secondly, having given the protagonist a want and need, the author must also put him on a path to gain what he wants. However, as the story moves forward, this initial want may change. If the character wants to reach point A, he may discover upon arrival that his need is not met, so he now sets out to reach point B. Or, along the way he may realize that he only thought he wanted A, but in actuality wants B; consequently, he abandons the quest for A and aims for B.

Another important aspect of character development is the increase of a character’s self-awareness. The protagonist should have strengths and weaknesses, and as the story progresses, his understanding of how to use his strengths and/or change his weaknesses should expand.

Fourth, the character should make progress, both in achieving what he wants and acquiring what he needs. Yet success can’t come too easily or there really is no story. But to make no progress defeats the character and the reader, 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, the way he dresses, what he does with the hours in his day, the type of job he seeks, and so on.

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 from despair?

Notice that in either instance, the character is fighting. In contrast, a character who takes a passive approach to life as opposed to taking action, 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 herself a spectacle but would probably have a favorite get-away spot where she hides from the world.

Throughout the story, authors test their characters and grow them and change them so that in the end they do more than even they thought possible.

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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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Writing Style – The Jonathan Rogers Example

Recently Jonathan Rogers author of the middle grade Christian fantasy, The Wilderking Trilogy and the new release, The Charlatan’s Boy, discussed his writing style in a guest blog post at Speculative Faith.

By way of reminder, style, according to Mort Castle in a Writer’s Digest article earlier this year, is

the summation of “how” a story is presented.

I’d expand that line to say how a story or article is presented because non-fiction writers also have particular styles. Is the writing formal? Folksy? “With it” contemporary? Academic? Imaginative? Analytical? The list of possibilities is long.

Yet too often fiction and non-fiction writers alike give little thought about how they will deliver their content. Not so Dr. Rogers. He revealed in his blog post a refreshing deliberateness to his writing style.

Interestingly, he’s hit upon something that seems quite unique—an American fantasy. As he explains, much of the fantasy genre owes its greatest influence to stories from Europe, with castles and swords and other medieval imagery. What would fantasy be like if, in the telling, it had more in common with Mark Twain than J. R. R. Tolkien?

See for yourself.

The two boys regarded one another. At last the wild boy’s nasally voice broke the silence. “Are we going to tangle or not?”

Aidan stood flabbergasted. It had never occurred to him that this wild child of the river bottoms might speak a recognizable language. The feechie boy placed his hands on his hips and leaned in closer. “You heard me, young civilizer. Let’s tangle.”

Aidan blinked twice, not quite sure he understood. “T-tangle? Do you mean fight? You want to fight?”

“Sure, I reckon!” answered the river boy, bending into a slight crouch and raising his fists in front of him. For the first time a little smile flickered on his muddy face.

Aidan swallowed hard. He wasn’t feeling quite as wild and adventurous as he had a little while earlier. “Wh-why would we want to fight?”

The river boy straightened up and cocked his head. He seemed genuinely perplexed. “You want a reason? For fighting? Hmmm…I reckon I can think of something.”

He scratched his head with one hand, counted his fingers with the other, and after a short pause looked up again. “All right. Here goes. But I ain’t had a chance to polish it up yet, so don’t laugh.” He hummed a little to get his pitch, then sang to the same march tune Aidan had sung a few minutes earlier:

Dobro of the Tam I am
And I could whip you easy.
I’ll make you weep cause you smell like sheep,
And your looks are kind of greasy.

The verse was not up to Aidan’s standards, of course, but Dobro of the Tam seemed proud of it. “See,” he said, “you not the only rhyme-maker on this river.” A self-satisfied smile showed several greenish teeth, as well as three gaps where greenish teeth should have been.

Aidan thought he caught a glimpse of the feechie good humor his grandfather had told him about. The river boy was smiling. That was a good sign, wasn’t it? Perhaps he could escape without getting torn limb from limb. On the surface, Dobro’s song was a challenge and an insult, but for some reason it had put Aidan at ease. It was a funny song, made funnier by Dobro’s ridiculous gap-tooth grin. Being a poet himself, Aidan appreciated the boy’s effort. And considering it was spur-of-the-moment, it wasn’t all that bad.

“Good work,” Aidan laughed. He was starting to like this fellow, in spite of his boorish behavior. “But I’m surprised you’d make fun of my looks. You look like you were fished up from the river mud. And I may smell like sheep, but you smell like a…like a… well, you smell like you brush your teeth with mashed garlic. You smell like you use a rotten catfish for a pillow. Aidan was only warming up. “You smell like you slick your hair with eel slime.”
(Excerpt from The Bark of the Bog Owl, book one of The Wilderking Trilogy

By way of comparison, read the opening pages of The Charlatan’s Boy. I think you’ll quickly see a similar writing style.

One reviewer at Amazon said

If Huck Finn were the hero of a fantasy novel, the result would be The Charlatan’s Boy. The folksy, southern voice is a delight to read, and the setting is a rough-and-tumble frontier rather than fantasy’s usual (and tired) medieval village.

Style—something that can set a writer apart, and just maybe something we should create with a little more intention.

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