Building Character

Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved.

Helen Keller

In fiction, much like real life, character is built by one’s life experience.  The ability to engage with a character without showing their life story  right up front is a basic skill ever writer learns. Sometimes the hard way.

Short stories differ from novels and novellas in that  the time to establish character is less in a short story and therefore, a different type of telling is used, usually dialogue exchange.  Characters can tell you a lot about their fellow travelers on the fictional journey and should be used accordingly.

But in the longer piece of fiction, characters are built, and many aspects must be addressed.  Such as, physical description.  What does your character look like and how will you let the readers know?

What does your character sound like?  Is the voice strong?  Commanding?  Authoritative? Or is the voice meek, mild, submissive, or even absent?

Is the character a person with a gentle touch, or more like a” bull in a china shop”? Is the behavior which determines their presence intentional or accidental?  Are they aggressive or just clumsy?

For the more intimate moments, the writer should let us know how others respond to the characters we build.  Reaction, though limited and more focused, is often poorly interpreted.  This is a significant problem with single or first person point of view.  Your narrator is often reactive to the behavior of other characters and can easily misinterpret the behavior or intentions of others.

During the intimate physical exchange or even during the “dance of attraction” don’t forget to let us know how your hero and heroine stimulate each other, touch, sight, or smell.

Olfactory response is the earliest indicator of recognition for us humans, and often invokes powerful memories which in turn stimulate neurological responses.  Intimate and even unknown fears are sometimes triggered by the sense of smell.  So if you’re looking for an opportunity to motivate your character to one of those little “turn around ” a deep-seated fear connected with a specific odor might serve.

Don’t forget the motivation comes from the history of the character you built,  and that is the path through which the great story is achieved.  You can only hope to thoroughly engage your reader with a spell binding character, well motivated, and easily identified  with, before you can craft a story that won’t be put aside.

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Who decides?

Never allow a person to tell you no who doesn’t have the power to say yes.

― Eleanor Roosevelt

Sometimes we have difficulty with finding the correct audience for our writing.  Beta readers are not easy to come by, and as introverts– generally speaking– we are not likely to approach strangers to solicit critiques of our writing.  Certainly never for first or rough draft.

But sometimes, we elicit the overall negative response which incites others to tell us something just isn’t working.  If the reviews are mixed, let’s say 50-50 division on when a turn in the writing is working, or when it isn’t, it’s up to the writer to decide.

But let’s address the endless number of people who are quick to point out flaws, foibles, and faux pas in a genre they do not normally read, or are wholly unfamiliar with, even on a good day.  Those people are not your friends.  They are not seeking to help you.  Let me say this again, not helpful.

When you ask for help with a writing project, ask the appropriate person.  Someone who knows the genre, by virtue of being a long-term avid reader.  Or someone with a proven track record, preferably someone publishing– and publishing well, in the same genre. This is the type of author who can give you valuable advice about readers of the genre. This is they type of help you need, and you should always be specific about the type of reader you’re looking for on a project.

Do you want a line edit?  Ask for help from someone who does line edits, or purchase the service.

Do you want someone to read for content?  Then ask some one who reads for pleasure, hopefully an avid reader, to just read and please tell me where and when you put the book down and why.  If the baby was crying, they needed to put the book down.  If it became slow or boring, you need to examine the portion of the manuscript in the next editing pass. These readers will also tell you “I just didn’t believe he/she would do that, it didn’t seem realistic.”  Now that is a motivation problem, and also is easily fixed.

Just plain beta readers, those who are not aspiring authors, are sometimes they people who help you to correct the worst of the manuscript mistakes.  They will tell you the important things, like “Not believable”, or ask the ever important question of “How could she?”   These readers also better with pin pointing POV problems that new and aspiring writers don’t see.

Most often when we ask for help, we get exactly what we ask for, but it is also unpleasant to know you’ve made a mistake.  The wrong thinking in having your mistakes pointed out is the inability to just fix what’s wrong and move on.  Fixing is learning, and we don’t usually repeat the mistakes we correct.  Sometimes, but not always.

In the end, only you can decide.  Who will be your beta readers, those who can and do help you?  Or those who just want you to know how much they know. You decide.

Inspiration

“Where do you get your ideas?”

A question all too familiar to most writers, whether they are seasoned professional with a hard track record of novels multi-pubbed in many foreign languages or the aspiring writer  who has just — mistakenly– shared their aspiration to a career of full-time writing.

This is a common question for two very good reasons; 1) people are genuinely interested in how your process works or, 2) the can’t think of anything else intelligent to say to someone who makes their living as a writer.  After all, full-time author isn’t a real job, is it?

Happily or sadly, dependent on which side of the argument you fall, people do make a living at nothing but the writing.

So back to the question, where do the good ideas come from?

They are all around us.  The good ideas are in the people we know and those we don’t know, the folks we’ve grown up with and those we pass on the street.  The good ideas are everywhere if you know how to mine them out of your everyday life.

What will you do when faced with a life changing decision?  What do you think the people you know really well– your nearest and dearest do, when faced with a life altering choice?  Would they sacrifice one loved one for another?  Would they sacrifice their own life for someone else?  Or would they sacrifice another in order to live?

The choices we make on our best day as human beings is not usually the choice we offer our characters in a novel.  Those choices are much more difficult.  The things we know– or think we know about ourselves can all be called into question in our fiction.  This is what we mean when we talk about writing what we know.

In fiction we build characters who help us tell our stories, of what we think we would do– or hope we could do, or even help us tell of the better person we would like to be, if we aren’t telling the cautionary tale of  history which shows us the path others have chosen, much to their regret.

That is what fiction is all about, after all.  Telling the story.  Choosing the path for our characters, writing what we know and asking –” What if?”

So share with me, where do your good ideas come from?

Working on craft / Pacing

Working on craft for a writer is a lifetime achievement.  We each continue to pursue the art of writing as we continue to study the craft.

Not an easy trick.

With career advancement comes so many bids for time and attention, especially in the age of too many promotions and fewer people willing to spend money on your book.  Remember, with the immediacy of self publishing, with the ever-present offer of “free reads” and the expansion of ebooks making the market so much more challenging, we all need to continue to improve our craft.

Needless to say, the art of craft had become an ongoing pursuit for me.  So recently  I decided I needed to work on the pacing of my current novel.  To the in house library I went, seeing which famous and accomplished author could enlighten me on this point and help to improve my writing.

Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel By Hallie Ephron mentions pacing once.  That’s correct, a single entry, a two paragraph entry.  I’ll sum up– keep an eye on  your pacing– controlling and modulating the speed and intensity of your story.

On Writing Well By William Zinssner, no mention of pacing ; not found in the index.

Novelist’s Boot Camp 101 Ways to Take  Your Book from Boring to Bestseller By Todd A. Stone,  no mention of pacing.

No plot, no problem! By Chris Baty, no pacing either, of any kind.  No mention of pacing.

But let’s digress just for a moment and look at  a writer who makes his living as a writer of fiction.

The Novel Writers Toolkit By Bob Mayer, and finally we have arrived.  He not only mentions pacing twice but references it with the timeline.  Very important information for the new writer and also for those with more experience.  He addresses overall pacing and its need to be smooth.  He cautions against jerking your reader a round, and spending too much time on scenes you enjoy writing and giving short shrift on the scenes which are more work for the writer.  He writes about overall pace and also speaks to pacing within each chapter.  All good advice and I highly recommend this book.

The First Five Pages By Noah Lukeman.  Finally, an entire chapter which addresses Pacing and Progression, not counting the huge rewrite of   Robert McKee’s Story, Lukeman takes six pages to tell us and to show us the problems of too fast/too slow pacing and not only to give examples but exercises to increase our own expertise.

Making a Scene By Jordan E. Rosenfeld deals more effectively with pacing than any other craft entry on the shelves.  He addressed pacing and scene length and its influence on the mood and tone of individual scenes.  He deals in specifics,  addressing where pacing counts, dealing in precise chapter by chapter distinction of how to deal with pacing in different types of scene; contemplative, dramatic, first and final.

Last but not least–

The Everything Guide to Writing a Romance Novel By Christie Craig & Faye Hughes.  The two successful romance authors suggest reading a scene aloud to determine a number of incorrect uses that are pacing, those which escape not only newbie authors but experienced writers also.  They discuss “upping the stakes” and” increasing the suspense”.  They address tweaking story arcs and give tips for faster pacing, speeding up the story and keeping it moving.  These two successful romance authors give specific examples of what should stay and what should go, and also recommend Scene & Structure, By Jack Bickham.  (While writing this, my copy was out of the library on loan, but I do own it and it is a keeper.)

I need to mention I find it interesting the authors of genre specific fiction had more to say about pacing than many writing teachers.  Notice the romance authors– those who own roughly 70% of all fiction sold market in the USA today– also teach writing, Mayer, Craig and Hughes, and are very successful in multiple genres.

So tell me, how do you gauge if you’ve effectively plotted and paced your novel?