Posts Tagged ‘Characters’

Halloween: spooky inspiration for writers

Saturday, October 20th, 2012

First, some background. Halloween comes to us from ancient New Year festivals. The church, in A.D. 800’s, established All Saints’ Day–continuing a festival that was pre-Christian–and the evening before was All Hallow e’en.

Storytelling Traditions have included tales of ghosts, fortunetelling, and jack-o’-lanterns, turning the paranoia of past times into the paranormal of current times.

According to Irish legend, jack-o’-lanterns were named for a miser called Jack who couldn’t enter heaven or hell, and had to roam the earth, carrying a lantern, until Judgment Day. In the past, people in England and Ireland have carved beets, potatoes and turnips as the lanterns, but when the custom reached the U.S., pumpkins became the norm. Inspired by this, Ray Bradbury wrote The Halloween Tree.

Fortunetelling was popular, using coins, cards, and yarrow stalks (I Ching). It also often took the form of hiding objects in a cake: a ring, coin and thimble. The person who “found” the coin would become rich. The one who found the ring would marry soon, but the one who found the thimble would not.

People once believed that ghosts roamed the earth on Halloween, as though a chink in the netherworld opened briefly to let them all come out to play or wreak havoc. They also thought that witches gathered on that night to worship the devil.

All this is great foddor for stories. Many stories have opened with someone telling a story that was related to ghosts. Excellent examples are Rebecca, by Daphne Du Maurier, or The Woman in Black, by Susan Hill.

Fortunetelling has been used in novels as well, such as A Wild Ride, by Jennifer Crusie and Bob Mayer, or  The Stockholm Octavo, by Karen Engelmann.

Other books with ghosts and witches, etc. would be Regarding Avalon, by Dom Ossiah, Stardust by Neil Gaiman, and Touched by Cyn Balog, and books by Gregory Maguire, Wicked, and Out of Oz. There is also, of course, the very famous Harry Potter series about witches and warlocks by J.K. Rowling.

And Halloween can’t pass by without mentioning Vampires, those mythological and folkloric beings that were popularized in the early 18th century, coming to Western Europe from the Balkans and Eastern Europe. Books about vampires, of course, have become very popular, but some unique tomes that come to mind are Dracula, by Bram Stoker, The Twilight Saga, by Stephenie Meyer, Interview with a Vampire by Anne Rice, and the series beginning with Soulless by Gail Carriger.

And isn’t it interesting that the NANOWRIMO starts the day after Halloween.

So much to read. So much that could be written…


The Unsympathetic Protagonist–Characterization

Sunday, June 24th, 2012

Nearly every writer has heard about this character. From other writers, from editors, from agents. We know that editors and agents will reject a manuscript with an unsympathetic protagonist. They won’t want to read the novel; they believe, rightly so, that readers won’t like the protagonist, won’t want to spend 400 or more pages in close association with that character.

So who is this mysterious character that invades our prose? Who is this masked entity, this unsympathetic protagonist? … What is meant by this term and how can we, as writers, avoid this pitfall and create characters that are, instead, sympathetic? The answer is: By unmasking these characters, by peeling away the layers, by making them real. …

What can be done to change that character so that he or she is considered sympathetic? Three basic things related to characterization must occur to have the reader perceive a character as sympathetic:  (1) the characters must be rounded and believable; (2) the readers must like them and connect with them; thus, the author must reveal the right balance of the character’s good and bad traits for the story being told; and (3) the reader must understand how and why they are how they are; the author must, therefore, make the protagonist known to the reader. …

What are the techniques needed to make the unsympathetic protagonist sympathetic? As stated above, the main way to do this is to make the reader identify with, know and like the protagonist, preferably before any revelations of wrongdoing. …

In Shawshank Redemption, the character, Andy Dufresne,  has murdered his wife. If we’re introduced to Andy without knowing the extenuating circumstances, then we’re much less likely to try to excuse him and to like him when his good or interesting qualities are revealed. Thus, the storyteller immediately reveals that Andy was upset and drinking, that his wife was having an affair with another man, and that he tried to confront them when he was drunk. The audience can’t approve, but we know why it happened, and we can excuse him more, knowing those circumstances–he didn’t, for instance, murder her for the insurance or because she drank his last beer.  …

The following are 5 of the techniques to help make your protagonist sympathetic:

(Note: these techniques should not be used alone. They work best when several are combined  There are  9 techniques in the article.)

1) Make the protagonist someone who is perceived as more likable and less reprehensible within that group of characters. For example, in Pirates of the Carribean [1st movie in the series], Captain Jack Sparrow is not the worst character among those in the film; we see he has a better standard of behavior than the other pirates and that he’s smarter. He’s not perfect, but we can accept him and like him anyway. Early in the film, he saves the heroine, who we have come to like–and he’s funny, rather charming & smart. …

2. ) Make the anatagonist less likable — someone you’d hate more and whose actions/ words make the audience sympathetic to the protagonist. …

4.) Show that the protagonist has … been wronged, betrayed or hurt by someone–something that will get the readers’ sympathy. For example, in Bodyguard of Lies, by Robert Doherty [Bob Mayer], the protagonist Neeley discovers she has been betrayed: “When had she finally known that the man she loved had handed her a bomb to carry onboard a plane full of people.” …

8.) Show in what ways the protagonists might be admired or have them do something readers would admire. This includes doing something really well, or being a leader of some sort…something that makes the character special. …

9.) Show how the protagonist is the underdog within the group of characters. Examples of this are Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte; the Titanic  [James Cameron’s movie] hero Jack Dawson; and the protagonist Rye Forrester in A Reason to Believe by Maureen McKade. …

How does your protagonist compare with other protagonists & to real-life people?

To grow in our craft, we need to be objective and learn from other writers and from life.  … Analyze why you like certain protagonists. What are their flaws? What do you find endearing or interesting about them?  .. Look at people who you like in real life. What are their flaws? What do you like about them, despite their flaws? Analyzing other protagonists will help you create better characters and increase your repertoire of narrative techniques.

[Excerpt from “The Unsympathetic Protagonist,” an article by Janice Hussein, Document Driven, which appears in Writer’s Digest’s 2010 Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market. Pages 46 – 50. Link to full excerpt of article’s opening: on my website]


Do you have any techniques or tips for other writers about how to  make a character likable–having readers identify with, like, and connect with a character?

The Opening — Doorway to a Novel

Saturday, March 31st, 2012

Last week, I promised some authors that I’d write a post about craft. And having just completed one of my  online Submissions Workshops yesterday–query, synopsis, opening, and first 3 chapters–I’m going to write about openings. Having stayed up (way-too) late last night, this may be fairly brief this time.

For readers, the opening is one of a series of doorways–it’s about first impressions. The question, should I read this particular book or another one? Somewhat like a sifting process–the title, author, cover, and  blurb/review–along with word-of-mouth–and not always, of course, in that particular order–and then comes that opening.

(Everything in the novel is related to everything else, affects everything else, so the question with a  post on craft is always, where  to start  😉  …(and stop). )

The opening should establish these things:

1.) Type of book or genre – A mystery starts differently from a mainstream or a romance, for example.

2.) Voice –  Voice includes the POV, the way you write, the characters and their personalities–how they express themselves.

3.) POV – Who is the story about and from whose perspective(s) will readers be experiencing this story, as well as how intimately readers experience the characters–i.e., first person is more intimate than third.

4.) Setting — Where is the action taking place, as well as tone and how description of setting contributes to the type of book, to atmosphere.

5.) Time period – When is the action taking place: historical period, date, time of day.

6.) Characters – Establishing who the main characters will be (depending on the novel). Who is the protagonist(s),  the antagonist? Who are the subplot characters? Fears, desires, and so on.

7.) Goal – What is the initial goal of the protagonist? How does this change with events?

8.) Motivation – What is (at least) the initial motivation for the main characters?

9.) Inciting Incident – What happens to set off the major events in the novel?

10.) Ordinary World – The ordinary world must be established in some way so that readers see what the protag’s world was before “the change”–what s/he has lost, who s/he was at the beginning of the novel–so readers have a reference point for how the protag changes over the course of the novel.

11.) Conflict – What is the conflict? For the scene(s), for the novel? How are the protag and antagonist related to the conflict?

12.) And the opening should in some way foreshadow the ending.

Wishing everyone a great writing week!!

Mystery reference & resources

Saturday, March 3rd, 2012

For the mystery and crime writers out there–or whoever writes crime into their books–here are some of the reference books I’ve had on hand:

Police Procedure & Investigation: A Guide for Writers, by Lee Lofland, published by Writer’s Digest Books.

Private Eyes: A Writer’s Guide to Private Investigators, by Hal Blythe, Charlie Sweet, and John Landreth, published by Writer’s Digest Books.

Police Officer’s Guide, by Bill Clede, published by Stackpole Books.

Postmortem: Establishing the Cause of Death, by Dr. Steven A. Koehler and Dr. Cyril H. Wecht, published by Firefly Books.

The Mystery Writer’s Source Book: Where to Sell Your Manuscripts, published by Writer’s Digest Books.

And a website that’s excellent for forensic information, which I discovered through bestselling author, Vickie Hinze: Forensics4Fiction, with retired senior criminalist Tom Adair. (This past year, Tom Adair published a debut novel, The Scent of Fear.)

He has 15 years of forensic experience, a Bachelor’s degree in Anthropology and a Master’s degree in Entomology. He was triple board certified in forensic related fields & one of only 40 board-certified bloodstain pattern analysts & 80 board-certified footwear examiners worldwide. Plus a list of other great qualifications, listed on his website.

Any other great resources–books or websites? Please feel welcome to share them.

Bringing your characters into focus, Part II

Thursday, July 14th, 2011

In the same way that the cameraman brings characters to life  frame by frame in movies, the novelist brings their characters to life–we just use more words. We create scenes to illuminate our characters for the reader, to involve readers in our story. Bringing those characters into focus is the topic of this blog post. Adjusting that lense for maximum effect. 

After we’re developed our character sketches on paper and in our imagination [see the previous post, Characterization Part 1, for some tips on doing this], we know, basically, who our characters are–

Then the writing begins. Keep in mind that often it is only when we begin to write the novel, that we really begin to feel the characters as living, breathing full-life characters. Elizabeth Bowen once said, “The novelist’s perceptions of his characters take place in the course of actual writing of the novel.”

If you’re a writer, then we don’t have to ask or answer, Why is character important? Why is revealing character important? It’s because character drives plot and plot drives character. And because it is often the really great characters that keep us reading [or in movies, watching], and that stay in our memory, long after we’ve read a book.

There are several ways to reveal character:

1) Exposition—the last resort—the author telling the readers about the characters. Exposition works to explain the characters conflicts, once you’re dramatized it and offers a different perspective–on the conflict, on the characters’ reactions to the conflict, and on the characters involved.  Small amounts of back story can help us understand the characters’ choices. And the words we use to describe a character will develop mood, theme, foreshadowing.

2) Actions of characters: That maxim of “Show, Don’t Tell”–although there is a place for telling, but that’s another post. Characters usually become vivid only as seen in action [including dialogue].

Through what they do, how they do it–how passionately, etc., and with whom.

Through how they treat themselves and others.

Through their reactions to obstacles and events, including their physical reactions.

In some ways, revealing character initially should be like first dates—what kind of an impression do we want to create, given our characters and plot. During real life dates, those people/characters who open the door for us and listen to us give a different impression than the ones who are rude or who immediately try to stick their tongue down our throat.  🙂

3) Dialogue:
The specific characters dialogue—not only what they say, but how they say it. It’s better when a reader knows who is speaking by the words used, the way a character talks–their tone and diction.

This includes other characters’ dialogue about them or to them. The opinion, expressed by one character about another character, says something about both the speaker and the person the speaker is talking about.

4) Interior dialogue—Thoughts.
In general, use this technique less than the others. Though this can be used more in some kinds of books and for some kinds of characters, such as YA, but again, it depends on the character and story.  Keep in mind that interior dialogue tends to stop the action.

The details that are included—to reveal character, to build plot–must serve a purpose. The “characters” are just a group of character traits with no life if those traits don’t imply or reveal something about the character or story. These details/scenes are better revealed in motion, by appealing to the senses, and must forward the story, build characters–it is this process of learning about the characters that interests readers/us.

What have you found are the most effective ways to reveal character? What kinds of characters do you find the most compelling, the most enthralling?


More on revealing characters in later posts.
Character Arc: Part 3 of this series on characterization.

I will be posting about twice a week, generally Mondays and Thursdays, on craft, the writing life, publishing, nonfiction… With reviews, guest authors…

Copyright © 2011 Document Driven

Characterization: Pt 1

Thursday, July 7th, 2011

Who is inhabiting our fictional world?  Creating characters…

Your protagonists and villain, especially, must be fully developed characters, with a detailed biography, even if only part of that biography is used in the story.  Your characters drive your story; thus, to write a great story, you have to get to know your characters. 

There are many methods to do this: the interview; profiling; astrology; character questionnaires; Myers-Briggs; Enneagrams; role-playing; and so on. Your characters, your story, your choice.

As much as possible, get to know your characters before you start writing.

  • What are the characters’ three most enduring, defining characteristics?
  • What do your characters want?
  • What are their secrets?
  • What are the key influences in their lives?
  • What are they afraid of?
  • What events in their lives have made them who they are?
  • What are the things that make them emotional, maybe even unreasonable?
  • What are their best traits, their worst traits?
  • Ambitions?
  • Philosophy of life?
  • Sense of humor…or lack of one?

Just as you and I are defined by our reactions to things that happen in our lives, this is also the case with our characters. Does your character react with humor, with anger, with silence? Knowing your characters means you’ll  know what they would say or do in reaction to obstacles to their goals, to frustrations, and so on.  Who they are drives the choices they would make when faced with those obstacles–this means the character will “ring true” for readers.

According to the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, 2nd Edit, characterization is the creation and [emphasis added] convincing representation of fictitious characters.  Part 2 of this series on Characterization will be about revealing character.

What method do you use to create your characters? Do you have any key questions that you use to “profile” your characters?