Reflecting on Characterization

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20160502_174723So I went for a walk, and spring is definitely springing. We had rain the other day, and as you can see, there were soggy triangles of puddles reflecting a cloud-mottled sky. The grass is here, and the leaves unfurling.

I wasn’t the only one; the park was packed with cyclists and joggers and strollers; the tennis courts squeaking under use; the softball diamonds sending up soft wafts of sand as players did drills.

But my idyllic interaction with the great outdoors darkened along with the sky when a man ran past me wearing shorts. I caught sight of the tattoo on his calf.

It was a lightning bolt.

Now, I don’t know this man, and I have no idea of his process in deciding on that particular tattoo, but as you may or may not know, a lightning bolt is often a symbol of the so-called white power movement.

On the other hand, maybe he felt it was a symbol of how fast he runs. Though he was really only running medium-fast, but that’s not the point.

It made me wonder about a person who — if indeed it was a loud’n’proud symbol of his contempt for anyone not like him — felt the need to put it out on display. My mind turned, as it often does, to writing.

Let’s be clear here. As I had no conversation with this man, and I had nothing more than a glimpse of his leg as he passed me on a running path, he’s really little more than a person I’ve constructed in my head. But if he were a character in one of my novels, I would find that tattoo far too much “tell” and not enough “show.” With one symbol, you put his essence right out there.

Sometimes you might want that. If you have a character with a bit part, and you want to establish him in few words, that’s a really quick and easy way to do it.

On the other hand, if he got that tattoo without understanding the larger possible implications, that’s a potential source of humor and conflict, which works for both minor and major characters.

But if it’s a character with substance and a penchant for racial superiority, take the longer route there, and let your readers notice the reflections.

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5 Tips for Zingy Characters

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You can’t have a fictional world without characters. Well, you could, but it would be an awfully empty one. Characters are the centers of our imaginary universes; they drive our plots, connect to our readers, and add fun, fear, intrigue or perhaps all of the above.

Sounds great, right? Sign me up. I like characters. But how do you make characters in a two-dimensional medium feel completely real? Here are 5 quick tips to keep in mind while populating your stories.

1. What do they say? How do you get to know someone when you meet him or her in real life? Through conversation, right? Unless you’re a creepy stalker, in which case characters aren’t your biggest issue. You find out about people through what they say, and, sometimes more importantly, what they don’t say. If someone doesn’t mention a significant other in a first meeting, there could be a wealth of reasons. They don’t have one. They just lost one. They’re in pursuit of one. They’re trying to get rid of one. They’re interested in the other person. Each possibility creates a different dimension for the character, and says something about the person talking or withholding information.

2. How do they say it? Does your main character only look at his shoes when he talks to other people? Does she dart around from task to task, the conversation having to follow her? How do other people react to what they say? Do they listen? Do they ignore it? Do they feel slighted they’re not getting full attention? What is happening while people are talking can make a big difference in terms of the feel of the characters and their world.

3. What is their motivation? This one should be first, really, on any list. It’s vital not only to character, but to driving the plot as well. What do the characters want, and why do they want it? Every single fictional person in your story must have a motivation to do whatever they do, or they won’t ring true. That doesn’t mean that you spell it out, as in “The janitor was anxious to finish his work to get home to watch the game so he pushed the broom quickly.” Rather, describing the janitor as he hurries through his tasks, perhaps missing something vital in the process, can push the story without condescending to the reader. The reader doesn’t have to know why the janitor hurried, but the fact that the janitor was in a rush gives him an added dimension, (mediocre attention to detail), the story an added tension (missed task) and plot point (consequences for the missed task).

4. What are their limits? People are often defined by what they might be willing to do to reach their goals, but what about what they are not willing to do? Where do they draw the line? If there is no line, then that says a lot about the character. If they would lie but not steal, that says something. If they would cheat but not divorce, that says something as well. What does your character think is OK? What does she or he think is justifiable though maybe questionable? What will he rationalize? What won’t she?

5. Who or what do they care about? If your character doesn’t care about anyone, she or he might be a misanthrope. Or a psychopath. If your character doesn’t care about anyone or anything, he might be depressed. If your character cares about everything and everyone too much, that shows a whole other side of personality. Does she like animals or hate animals? Does he get along with his brother or detest him? Is she going to get on student council at any cost?

You don’t create convincing characters by describing them to your readers. Not only is that the worst of telling rather than showing, it’s not that interesting to read. Instead, let your readers get to know them the way you get to know people, and they’ll spring to life.

Check out  my full-length novels,  Her Cousin Much Removed,  The Great Paradox and the Innies and Outies of Time Management and Aunty Ida’s Full-Service Mental Institution (by Invitation Only), and the sequel, Aunty Ida’s Holey Amazing Sleeping Preparation (Not Doctor Recommended) which is now available!

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Four Rules for Fully-Formed Characters

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Contest ends Friday!

So how are your characters doing? Everybody doing well? Yes? Hmm, that’s a problem. While things going smoothly and everyone liking everyone else is great in real life, in writing it’s a one-way ticket to Boringtown with no layovers. How do you avoid the Boringtown Express? Here are four suggestions.

1. You’ve got to torture your babies. But let’s be clear: only your fictional ones. Do not torture real babies, it’s just not nice. Back to characters. Yes, part of the fun of writing is escaping into this lovely–or not-so-lovely–world you’ve created. But if your characters don’t have problems, if the worst never happens to them, your story goes absolutely nowhere. A story is a journey, and your characters have to take it, or they can’t grow.

2. Your characters can’t be good at everything. You’ve seen this character in books and in movies, the one who has a skill for every occasion. Sometimes that pan-adeptness is fueled by the plot, but most of the time, it’s simple fantasy fulfillment on the part of the writer. Take yourself out of your work to get some objective distance from your character. Is there a reason your character has that skill? Does your character have a background that supports her knowing that information? Weak spots make characters, and your plot, interesting. Without them, you risk veering into caricature.

3. Your characters can’t be liked by everyone. If you don’t pay attention to this one, you’ll be heading straight to Mary Sue or Marty Stu territory. Every real person has idiosyncrasies, and sometimes they rub people the wrong way. Your characters should be as rounded as real people, and that means that not everyone is going to like them, want to help them, or even much care about them. Sometimes the character flaws are vital to your plot; sometimes they simply give depth to your made-up humans. Either way, just as they say there’s someone for everyone, there’s also someone who isn’t so into everyone.

4. Your characters have to show some growth. This one might be a controversial, but it’s essential to why you are showing the reader this chunk of your character’s life. If your character is not changed by his experience, then make that a deliberate choice, as that, too, can say much about character.

Have a minute? Watch this video.

Rather read? Check out  Her Cousin Much Removed,  The Great Paradox and the Innies and Outies of Time Management and Aunty Ida’s Full-Service Mental Institution (by Invitation Only) .

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Supporting Characters Are Like Blueberries

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Blueberries aren’t a star-of-the-show fruit. I’ve never liked them on their own. In muffins, yes. I love them in muffins, blueberry muffins are amazing. Blueberry pancakes, blueberry waffles, they’re all winners. And you can throw them into cereal, into oatmeal, or, my favorite, into yogurt, and they’re awesome.

But on their own?

Not so much. Raspberries can stand alone. So can blackberries, and strawberries, though I prefer them cut to whole. Don’t ask me why, but I think they taste better when they’ve been cut. I’m sure there’s a scientific explanation, even if that science is psychology.

But I’ve never been one to sit down to a bowl of blueberries. By themselves, I find them, well, bland. They enhance other things, but don’t really do much alone.

They’re kind of a supporting character of fruit. That’s not to say that supporting characters can’t have their own flavor, and that’s not to say that sometimes they don’t outshine your protagonist or your yogurt. But primarily, they aren’t meant to be the only thing in the bowl.

And that’s OK.

The characters surrounding your protagonist should still feel like whole people. There’s a big difference between blueberry powder and blueberries. But sometimes, even whole people, like whole fruits, are better when paired with something else.

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