To tell a compelling story…

Archive for the ‘Characterization’ Category

This weekend, I had the incredible privilege of meeting author Eloisa James at my local RWA chapter meeting. As she spoke, my mind wandered – not in an Oh-not-another-boring-meeting way- but in a synapses-firing-at-warp-speed way. Eloisa admits she is a pantser not a plotter but likes to truly know her characters before she starts a story. Listening to her as well as the members sitting near me reminded me of a blog post (forgive me, I can’t remember whose) where we’d discussed ways to know your characters. I’d posted a comment about one technique I use to get to know my characters: I take them shopping.

Shopping tells you a lot about a person. Does your hero favor designer labels over knock-offs or simply doesn’t care if his clothes come from Armani or Costco? Does your heroine scour the clearance racks or spend outside her budget on whims? How do they manage long lines and crowded parking lots? Are they rude to store employees?

My two teenage sons would prefer to peel the skin off their bodies with a butter knife than go shopping with me. They’re content with any pair of jeans as long as they’re not Rap brands. (Since I twitch and shake when I see a guy with droopy-drawer jeans on, this makes me very happy.) They don’t care much for status labels, either. In many ways, this makes my life easy but since I frequently have to shop alone and return stuff later, it can also be inconvenient.

I jotted down all the ideas I had:

Put him on stage

Is your character comfortable in the spotlight or would he prefer to borrow the butter knife from my sons? Perhaps it’s not a stage but a business presentation. Does your heroine avoid public speaking, practice in front of a mirror for days, or just wing her presentation? Maybe it’s a swanky cocktail party. Does your hero hold up the walls or mingle? Does he work the room or is he busy plotting his early exit? Maybe it’s a speech at school for your YA characters. Gah!

Send them to therapy

What are the deep, dark secrets that haunt your characters? You know, the things that would come up in therapy, like parents that never understood her or expected too much. Did he witness a crime when he was a toddler that still causes flashbacks? Does she have any phobias like Triskaidekaphobia?

Work these into your plot.

Run the numbers

During a break in Eloisa’s speech, one of our members suggested numerology. Take your character’s name and visit a website like this. It may interest you to know that my full name, Patricia Ann Blount, totals 73 and that my soul urge number is 3. Here’s what the site has to say about that:

Word skills may be your thing; speaking, writing, (Hello!) acting, singing. In a positive sense, the 3 energy is friendly, outgoing and always very social.

Most of it is true for me, except the singing part. Dogs howl when I sing. Ears bleed. It’s …not pretty. Use numerology or astrology to gather traits for your characters. You could even use the meanings of names to guide you. I did this in SEND when my MC had to change his name. He chose Daniel because it means God is my judge.

Suffer the bureaucracy

How would your hero fare in line at your local motor vehicles department? What about navigating one of those automated phone systems that have him pressing 1 incessantly? Even the most patient people I know are frustrated by these experiences.

Load up the straws

Ever have a week or month where things go horribly, insanely awry? Not just a bad day, but a continuous string of bad, unexpected and bizarre things? Brakes go one fire on one car just as your spouse takes the other car for the day. Imagine the last time you experienced a period of extended bad luck and put your characters in the same situation. What’s the melt down like? My melt downs involve tears and chocolate. My husband’s involve colorful language and flying objects and credit card bills to replace the things that broke as he flung them across a room. My mother’s were rants accompanied by slamming doors.

Give them the flu

If you have children, think about how they behave when they’re sick. My sons only wanted to be held when they were little. All day. By me and nobody else. Now that they’re teens, they just stay in bed and sleep. There’s a commercial currently on TV that pokes fun at the “man cold” but my point is, you never really know someone until you have to care for them when they’re sick.

Live together

You know the old adage you never know someone until you have to live with them? Imagine your MCs as room mates. Does he leave the toilet seat up and toothpaste globs in the sink? Does she hang panties and bras on the shower rod and spend all her spare money on tabloids? Perhaps she NEVER eats at the table, but only in front of the TV? Does she get up early or stay up late? Does he hog the covers in bed? Can he operate the lawn mower or does he hire someone to keep the grass mowed?

Take a peek inside the bathroom. Does she keep her cosmetics and feminine products scattered on every available surface or hide them neatly away? Is his toe fungus cream sitting on the toilet tank lid?

Armed with a list of traits and characteristics, look for places where conflict can be introduced. Perhaps you’ve discovered your MC is like my sons – he ABHORS shopping, but falls for a woman who is a buyer for a major designer, or owns an antique shop. Or, make the conflict internal – the character who hates to shop must now do so regularly for an ill parent.

Use Eloisa’s Character Bible suggestion to keep it all straight. And then, get to work.

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Beaver tail, ho! This month, my Bookhungry team reviews Natural Born Charmer by Susan Elizabeth Phillips.

Romantic comedies typically open with a stock ‘meet-cute’ scene in which hero and heroine exchange their first words. The meet-cute scene is always full of animosity and ends with one or both characters vowing “Not if you were the last (wo)man standing.”  Also typical in the meet-cute scene is that one character is shown in the worst light possible so that the attraction both hero and heroine are so busy denying grows more potent when that character gets his or her shit together.

Bad day doesn’t come close to describing SEP’s meet-cute scene. Dean Robillard, QB for a pro football team, king of endorsements and owner of the title moniker, drives past a headless beaver on a country road. Not a real beaver. A girl dressed as a beaver. Enter Blue Bailey, free spirit extraordinaire.  Hero gives heroine a lift back to her place where the beaver attacks her two-timing ex-boyfriend while the hero watches, completely bemused.

As meet-cutes go, this one was uniquely funny. I was hooked. Dean offers to take the dumped-and-now-broke Blue to Tennessee with him.  We spend the next several chapters learning how badly suited these characters are for each other. Dean is perfect – handsome, athletic, rich, and smart. The whole package! Blue is a nightmare of bad fashion sense, bad hair, bad attitude, no makeup, no money. The only thing she’s got going for her is a smart mouth. The dialogue between them is the best part of this book. During the meet-cute scene, Dean assures Blue he’s gay and she’s perfectly safe with him. This becomes a running joke throughout the book with some of the zingers inducing belly laughs in me. At the end, there is a line that Blue says to Dean that aligns so perfectly with this joke, I laughed hard enough to cry: “This is the [spoiler removed] you’ve dreamed about since you were a little girl.”

The title and the meet-cute set readers up to believe this book is pure mind-candy but nothing could be further from the truth. Blue, we soon learn, was raised and then abandoned by a series of care-givers while her activist mother bounced from one global crisis to the next. Blue’s mother is also the reason she’s now broke. Dean’s mother was a drug-addicted rock & roll groupie who ignored and mistreated him for most of his life. His father, a famous rock star, was completely absent. To say Dean and Blue have issues is a gross understatement. So, when Dean finally arrives at his new Tennessee farmhouse only to find out the housekeeper he’d hired via email is really is now-sober mother, Blue gets a glimpse into Dean’s scarred past.

Here’s where my problems with the story begin. I love that Dean is given the opportunity to fix his relationships with his parents. But I think Blue should have been given the same opportunity with her mother. Sadly, her mother remained “off camera” throughout the book.  We’re told over and over again how Blue is totally unsuitable for Dean but yet, he’s attracted. WHY he’s attracted was a mystery to me. In Chapter 1, as Dean helps Blue out of her beaver costume, we’re told how badly it smells and that her hair is plastered to her head. So… Dean’s erection at this moment seems a bit um, creepy. As the story progresses and their banter gets sharper, it becomes clear that seducing Blue is just the sort of competition this pro athlete thrives on. But it never really explains why he falls in love with her.

For example, he’s a man with deep and understandable abandonment issues yet can’t resist a girl so ready to bolt, he actually takes all the money from her wallet in one scene just to keep her tied to him.  I also had some difficulty accepting their first love scene. After a particularly bad moment with his parents, Dean wakes up a sleeping Blue and orders her, “Give it up.” Astonishingly, she does. This felt like the total opposite of what Blue, given what we know about her to this point, would do.

On the other hand, it was also a selfless move on Blue’s part. Dean was hurting, she knew it; readers knew it. So instead of fighting with him, she decides to love him. I would have bought that had she not run away in the very next scene.

Overall, it was a bittersweet story with a lot of surprises, laughs and even a few tears. I enjoyed the quirky characters, each with their own back story, but found it a bit intrusive switching among them all. I’d give it 4 out of 5 beaver tails –  er, I mean, stars. But don’t take my word on it. Please read the rest of the Bookhungry reviews. Just follow the links on your right.

While waiting for my mother, who was undergoing oral surgery, I spent forty minutes observing the oral surgeon’s office staff working it, if you know what I mean.

The staff, all women in their twenties, and probably all intelligent women under usual circumstances, completely dissolved into four giggling, tittering morons in the presence of a good-looking patient. I sat in the waiting room, hoping the floor would swallow me whole, while the group turned periodontal care into a flirtation. Apparently, the word ‘spit’ is sexy. Who knew?

But I digress. The girls’ antics reminded me of a book I’d just finished in which the heroine couldn’t string together two words in front of her boyfriend’s rockstar dad. This got me thinking… why are women reduced to a bowl of Jello around male coolness? Are we really hard-wired for dumbness or are we just perpetuating the stereotype?

I considered this for a few minutes. Hell, anything to prevent gagging over the floor show. I’m smart. My IQ is higher than my shoe size. I win at Jeopardy often. I have never feigned ignorance of a subject in which I excelled just to please a guy.  While sitting there, patting myself on the back, it dawned on me with all the horror of checking my reflection on a date only to discover I’d spent the whole night with a big ol’ spot of lettuce in my teeth that I’d permitted a character to behave in just this way.

I should be publicly flogged and I hang my head in shame.

The lead character in my current WIP wants desperately to be judged on her aptitude, not her looks. Kind of hard to do when she keeps forgetting how to speak in front of the hero.  Watching the office assistants trip over their own tongues in front of Hot Dental Patient, I vowed to go straight home and revise the entire meet-cute scene.

Phew. That was close.

Where do you find cliches and stereotypes sneaking into your writing? Discuss. I promise not to gag.

Cardboard characters. They’re flat. Uninspiring. We forget them as soon as we put the book down.

Inspired by both our Book Hungry Book Club’s recent review of THE HUNGER GAMES as well as by a slew of outside-my-comfort-zone reading, today’s blog post is devoted to what makes a character leap from the page and stick in our minds long after we put down the book.  Katniss Everdeen, the main character in The Hunger Games, isn’t perfect. She’s dirty and unkempt, likely to hold long grudges, not above manipulating circumstances to her own advantage and prone to immature outbursts with a bow and arrow, and yet – it’s unanimous – we ADORE her.

Say what you will about TWILIGHT, Edward Cullen is a compelling character.  The man’s a monster in love with his food source. I promise you, were I ever to stumble across a walking, talking Hershey Kiss, there would be no conflict, no attempt to deny my nature as the world’s worst chocoholic. I’d have devoured my “Bella” from the first whiff of chocolatey goodness.  End of story.

Jeff Somers’ Avery Cates is a character I can’t seem to stop thinking about. Jeff blushes at this, but I’ve had dreams about this guy (uh, that would be Avery, not Jeff. Sorry!) and there is nothing remotely romantic about him. He’s a killer, a hired assassin who will shoot his best friend, not because he likes it, but because it’s necessary. This killer-with-morals thing works so well for Cates, I closed book 4 and immediately emailed Jeff, demanding and threatening politely inquiring if there will be a book 5.

What’s the secret? What’s the magic ingredient in building characters so strong, you can imagine yourself hanging out with them?  In a word – flaws.  The more flawed the hero is, the more we like him, want to be with him, feel for him.

Flaws intrigue us, capture our imaginations. And then, our imaginations take over. We imagine (delude?) ourselves capable of fixing those flaws, that we are the only woman in a hundred years that a vampire can’t drink, the only job since Unification that Avery Cates turns down.  (Poor, deluded Patty.)

Sounds simple enough, so I tried it.

In my first novel, a YA hockey-dad-murder mystery, I gave my eighteen-year-old hero traits like arrogance and stubbornness and thought he was flawed.  Uh-uh. He missed the mark.  My sons, and a number of seventh-graders who’d received special permission to use this story as the subject of their book reports, didn’t like Jared. They called him – wait for it – arrogant, stubborn, and selfish.

Not what I was going for. I mistakenly thought giving him some negative traits meant he was more lifelike. But I failed to provide any reason for his traits. I never connected them to his back story nor cultivated any conflict out of them in the present.

What are flaws, anyway?

I’ve learned since then that character flaws aren’t the same things as traits or even bad habits. Flaws are deeper, more systemic and therefore, that much more compelling.  For example, if your character complains a lot, that’s a habit, a surface detail. If she’s a glass-half-empty person, that’s a trait and maybe goes skin-deep. But if you write her in such a way that her every interaction with the world is filtered through a deep belief that she’s unworthy, now you’ve got a flaw that goes all the way to her core.

Flaws emerge from a character’s background and from flaws, the story’s central conflict emerges. If Cates lacked his code of morals, he’d simply be a psychotic mass murderer and there would be no point in reading further.  But he questions and wonders and struggles.  Likewise, if Edward were a normal vampire, one who never questioned the point of drinking human blood, who murdered without guilt or regret, Bella would have died and there would have been no story.  Katniss Everdeen has done some pretty harsh things in her short life to survive.  But she is not a murderer. When thrust into a last-one-standing-wins competition, she has a very basic choice to make – kill or be killed.  How she fights that battle INTERNALLY is why this story is so good.

Flaws guide your character’s responses to a situation. Vampires drink human blood to survive. That’s a normal situation. Vampires who feel guilty over murdering innocent humans do not drink human blood.  This is a flaw. When this vampire meets a delicious-smelling human, BAM! Instant conflict.

Likewise, assassins kill. That would be a normal situation.  Assassins who feel guilty about all the people they’ve killed are flawed. When this assassin is recognized by a reporter he has not been sent to kill, will he kill her or not? Cates spares her life, telling her he’s not completely uncivilized. And that had me choking up.

Truly compelling flaws don’t even have to be flaws… at first. Think Mr. Spock from Star Trek. Is the pursuit of logic a bad thing? Nope (and I’m certain many men wish their wives lived less by emotion and more by cold, hard, reasoning). Yet, Spock’s devotion to logic often led him to heartless decisions.

In my current WIP, main character Dan is a compulsive liar. He does not lie because he enjoys it. In fact, the more he lies, the more guilt he feels. So why lie? He lies because he believes he must to protect his family and continues enduring the guilt.  His background supports the need to lie and from the lying, the rest of the story emerges. I find him compelling and hope my readers will, too.

What say you about cardboard characters?


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Hi! Welcome to my blog. I’m Patty.

I'm a writer represented by Denise Little, The Ethan Ellenberg Agency. I love to tell stories, to boast about my sons, to indulge in a serious chocolate obsession. (I often combine these passions.)

During the day, I write software user guides, but at night, I let my hair down... and write whatever I want. (I know. You expected something else. Sorry.) I'm currently working on a YA story about sexting gone horribly bad called SEND. I use this blog to explore my passions.

Contact me at pattyblount3 at gmail dot com.

You're also welcome to link to, quote, or cite anything you find here. You're NOT welcome to copy it outright for your own use. 'Cause that's plagiarism, no matter what you heard on the internet.

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