Tag Archives: tips for writing

Know your characters…

I was recently asked by Elizabeth S. Craig (Mystery writer and author of the Memphis Barbeque series, Southern Quilting mysteries, and Myrtle Clover series. Check her out here: http://wp.me/P1SArc-2) to do an article on tips for character creation. I’ve been considering writing an article on this topic for some time, so this was a great opportunity!

So. Let’s talk character development. And I don’t mean that in the traditional sense, as in how the character is developed throughout the story. What I mean is: Let’s talk about the developmental process of crafting a character, and what you should know about your character prior to introducing them into your story. We’ll also discuss how to go about introducing them to the reader for the very first time! Let’s get to it!

Think about yourself. There are thousands of things that define you, events that have happened to you, reasons why you are the way you are. The same should be true about the characters in your book. Now, obviously, you aren’t going to be able to write about all of them. You’re going to have to choose what you reveal about your character to the audience very carefully, usually only the most important things. That being said, there are a few key areas that I find to be the most crucial in crafting a character- prior to ever putting them down on the page.

NAME– This is, in my opinion, the most important thing that you could ever decide about your character. Ever. This is the title with which your readers will identify them, and it has to fit the person that they are. I read once that Tolkien never created a character and then gave them a name. He created a name and gave that person a life. I found that to be inspiring. To know that one of the best character creators in the history of literature put this much emphasis on names showed me just how important they really are. So think hard about it! Create a name. Then, once you’ve found one you like, decide who this person is, what they’re like, what their life has been like, etc. I’ll be honest, I have created characters where I tacked on a name afterward. And I tell you, it was a terrible decision. The name just doesn’t feel… right. I find it hard to remember their name, feel as though it doesn’t suit their personality, and find it hard to become attached to them as a whole. Names are important. Pick good ones.

PERSONALITY– Is this person sly and clever? Are they dark and morose? Are they annoying and excitable? Get to know this character. Decide what kind of person you want them to be. THEN, figure out why they are this way. What makes them tick? Was it something that happened to them as a child? Is it their life right now that causes them to be this way? These are things that you may never explain in your book- but you don’t have to. If you understand a character this deeply, they will feel REAL on the page. They will be three dimensional. The way they speak and why they speak that way, or the actions they take, will feel natural. Understanding the complexities of each character will make them feel as though they had a life prior to the one on the page.

RELATIONSHIPS– How is this character related to the other characters in your work? Why is he here? Why, at this particular time, was he in this particular part of the world, doing this particular thing? If characters show up all willy-nilly, it will feel too convenient to the reader. It will feel as though that character’s being there isn’t justified. Think about this one. Figure out their reasons for being where they are, in relation to who they know, who they are related to, who they love- etc. Knowing the relationships of all your characters and how they intertwine will make your story feel organic, as if the things that are happening would have happened regardless of what you decided to write.

MOTIVATIONS: This is connected to both personality and relationships. Why is the character where he is, AND why does he not leave? That’s where the difference lies. Why, when the shit hits the fan, does this character not high tail it out of there? Understanding the reasons for a character’s behavior, his allegiances to other characters, and his overall drive in the story will make your character feel as though he is a living person, with real thoughts, real roles to fulfill, and real tugs of emotion. It’s all about creating a character that feels natural. And to do that, you must first understand each and every character that you create.

Now, there are plenty of other things that you need to decide about your character prior to writing them into a manuscript: What they look like, how they fit into the plot, when you’re going to kill them off, if they will be a good guy or a bad guy- the list goes on. However, these four topics are what I find to be the most crucial. These will make you understand your character. If you understand them, prior to understanding how they will fit into the story, they will fall into place in a very natural way.

 

So, now that you’ve got this amazing character that you know everything about; let’s talk about how you go about introducing them into the story. This is something that I struggle with. Because I know my characters SO well, I actually find it hard to introduce them. See, I know that Caster is arrogant, hates to lose, and is the leader of the group. But how do I SHOW that? How do I go about revealing that to the reader the FIRST time they see him?

First impressions are everything. The first time your character comes on screen, the reader needs to know several things (usually): His name, his personality, and what he looks like. This is SHOWN through how he enters the scene, what he does there, and how he speaks. When a character first enters into your readers lives, the first actions they take should immediately show their personality, as should the WAY they say whatever it is they say. Rather than try to explain this, I’ll just show you.

This is the character (created a few seconds ago for the sake of this blog): Bill Flaxton. Awkward guy, glasses, very tall, bow tie. Think typical genius, socially awkward but incredibly smart. Thin, nervous, etc. You get the idea.

Now, you could introduce this character like so:

               The door creaked open and a man walked in. He was tall, wore a suit and bowtie, and had glasses. He crossed the floor to me and extended his hand.

               “I’m Bill Flaxton. Pleased to meet you,” he said with an awkward smile.

 

With me so far? Now, that ^ just showed you everything I said in my description, right? Oh, WAIT! I didn’t show you anything about his personality, did I? Let’s try that again:

 

               The door creaked open and a man slinked through it, his suit at least two sizes too big for him. He wore a bowtie, and though I’m no expert, it seemed as though it was too tight around his thin neck, the collar of his shirt bunching up around his throat. He crossed the floor, his lips curled upward in what looked to be an attempt at a smile, and stopped directly in front of me.

               After adjusting his glasses from the tip of his nose, he held out a sweaty hand. “Bill Flaxton. Pleased to meet ya.”

               I shook the lanky man’s hand, which he shook vigorously, then wiped my palm on my pants. “Charmed.”

 

Now, as you can see, you got a much clearer image of the man in that second attempt. It’s all about the WAY he enters the room. Saying that he enters the room doesn’t really say anything. Did he barge in? Did he slam the door open? Did he creep in? These are the kinds of things that will give your reader an understanding of that character from the very beginning. Remember: You know everything there is to know about this character. How would he enter a room, and how should you vividly describe that to the reader? How EXACTLY would he say his first line? Think about the typical ways in which your characters do things, and explain them as best you can. It’s all about showing your reader who this person is. You don’t want to have to list his qualities and traits, but you do want your reader to have a vivid image of the person you are describing. It’s a delicate balance, I know. But if you follow my tips of learning all there is to know about your character prior to writing them into your story, their actions and mannerisms should come naturally. When you introduce your character for the first time, you want to show the reader that this is an individual, someone who is all their own, who is unlike any of your other characters. The first introduction of a character is always hard, but by taking the time to properly craft your characters, I think you’ll be able to nail it every time!

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Let’s talk about dumping…

That’s right. It’s time to talk about the infodump. Are they a good thing? Are they a terrible thing? I’ve been asked to talk about them, what I think about them, and the pros and cons of using them. This seems like one of those topics of writing that everyone has a very strong opinion on, either good or bad, and I honestly think both sides have valid points. I sort of ride the fence on whether infodumps are acceptable or not. If you want a quick answer as to how I feel about them: I used two in my novel. Couldn’t get around it. But I made it work. And if you want to dump, you have to make it work too.

So are they okay?

Much like everything else in writing, and I do mean everything, it really just depends on the situation. So let’s say you’re talking about using an info dump when describing something. Like, your character sees the super important castle for the first time. And there are all of these things about the castle that your reader just has to know, right? Well, calm down. This is probably not the best time to do an infodump. Like I explained in my article about setting, there’s no point in just dropping all of the details in one sentence, or even one page. For that matter, if you’re talking about the super important castle, you’re probably going to be revealing things about that place over the entire course of your novel. Which is good! If you had infodumped all of those things on the reader at the beginning of the novel, the character would have nothing to discover alongside the reader. So, when it comes to description, don’t infodump. Just don’t.

But, if you can’t infodump when you’re describing something, when would it ever be useful and acceptable? Here’s where I think the infodump can be a very necessary thing. For instance, in my personal work, there are actually a few times that I use the info dump. I think that when it’s used to reveal plot details that can’t really be revealed in any other way, you just have to go for it. There are ways to make it interesting and not just feel like you’re dumping the life story of your world on the reader. Take my story for example. At some point, the main character is interrogated about his world, it’s history, etc. This is, technically, an info dump. I’m telling the reader everything that the character knows about his planet in a rather short scene. However, by setting it up in the way that I have, it comes across as interesting, continues to build the tension of the scene, and moves the plot forward. So in this case, it works. That’s basically all it comes down to. Does it work? If so, awesome! If not, fix it.

So, now that I’ve said a lot without saying a lot, let’s try to hammer out some do’s and don’ts for dumping.

  • DON’T use the infodump when you’re simply describing a setting. It’s lazy and you should be ashamed of yourself. Integrate all of those details throughout the scene, not in one lump sum at the beginning! Bad writer. *scolds with a rolled up newspaper. For more info on setting, check out my article on how to create a good one.
  • DON’T use the infodump because it’s the easiest thing to do. I know you want to. It would be so much easier to just tell the reader everything about that place, or person, or event, than try to work it into the story as you go. But that’s why you can’t do it. It feels like you copped out. And the reader picks up on it, trust me. In general- infodumps feel lazy. If you’re going to do it, you better make it work.
  • DON’T just info dump at the beginning of your story. I realize that your world has a LOT going on. Of course it does. It’s a world with millions of people and events, with years of history, and blah blah blah. I get that. But dumping all of that on your reader at the beginning is two things. A) it’s lazy. It’s lazy and it’s boring to read. I mean, don’t get me wrong, there are cases where the writer just lays it all out there and tells you everything there is to know before actually getting into the story and makes it work (somehow). But, generally I’d say to steer clear. And B) it’s confusing. Do you honestly think that if you give your reader five thousand years of history in a split second that they’re going to remember it all? Unless you want them to be coming back to that paragraph through the book to brush up on their history (And I’ve had to do this before), just don’t dump everything in that one place. Start in the action. Then make your way through the history.
  • DO make it interesting. If you’re going to give the reader a TON of information in a very short amount of time, do it in a way that moves the story forward, that makes the reader want to keep reading, and that doesn’t feel like an infodump. If it’s not interesting to write, it’s not going to be interesting to read. And if it’s not interesting, toss it. There has to be a better way to introduce that information.
  • DO think about leaving some crucial details out of your dump. This will open up opportunities for twists and turns later, and if characters needed to know everything and weren’t told, it can make for some seriously interesting scenes. They may feel betrayed that their friend didn’t tell them everything about the situation, or they may feel tricked, or whatever. It’s a cool way to create conflict whilst dumping. I mean, if there has been tension building around something, something that the character doesn’t understand, and you finally let it all out at a climax, the reader will be grateful. They had been waiting for that information for so long! But BAM! Five chapters later they realize that there was more to the story. Now they’re really hooked, and want to know the truth about the stuff you dumped about.
  • DO use the info dump as a last resort. Honestly, I don’t hate them. I don’t. I think that they can be extremely effective if done correctly. But still, the odds are stacked against you. There are so many wrong ways to use the infodump (Which are probably what you’re wanting to use them for), and not a lot of right ways. If there is absolutely no way that you can tell the reader this information in another way (which is the problem I ran into), go ahead and go for it. But you better make it interesting! If you’re reader feels like they’re witnessing an info dump- you probably did it wrong.

Wow. I honestly thought this was going to be a short article. I think it turned out to be my longest. I guess I had a lot to say about dumping! (HA!) My point here is, you can make the infodump work if you have to. As a general rule, I think most people agree to find an alternative solution to it because it generally feels lazy. Which it is. But, sometimes there’s just no getting around it, and that’s okay. I like to think that there are no “rules” to writing, and that everything you’ve ever been told about “don’t do this and do do this”, is in some way flawed. Everything that you have been told “not” to do has been done effectively at some point by somebody. So I guess my final verdict on the infodump is:

If you have no other choice, can make it interesting and effective, and it moves your story forward- dump.

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