Monday, June 15, 2015

Another Way to Build a Character

Another Way to Build a Character

Everyone of us approaches writing a little bit differently. What works for one may not work for someone else. That is why this eFile tosses out different ways to create characters. Whatever method we use, the underlying element is to spend some time getting to know them. A lot of the information generated won't be used directly, but will help establish a basis for why the behave a certain way, or what they say, and hopefully suggest plotting you might not have considered. 

 A sheep in Alpaca clothing?
(Not sorry. Couldn't resist)

Last week, while leaving Fresno, California to return to Northern Nevada (as fast as possible. It was 104 deg. there and 87 deg. in Reno) the radio was tuned to National Public Radio. The discussion was about interviewing people to get their spin on events that occurred in their life. Once home, I checked out the NPR link and found what could be a valuable list of questions. Using some of these as jump-off points, do a little role playing. Using a tape recorder or computer, ask a question, and then answer it as if you were the character. As most of us are certifiable or close to it, having a conversation with yourself should seem pretty normal to those who know us.

Great questions for anyone

  • Who has been the most important person in your life? Can you tell me about him or her?
  • What was the happiest moment of your life? The saddest?
  • Who has been the biggest influence on your life? What lessons did that person teach you?
  • Who has been the kindest to you in your life?
  • What are the most important lessons you’ve learned in life?
  • What is your earliest memory?
  • What is your favorite memory of me?
  • Are there any funny stories your family tells about you that come to mind?
  • Are there any funny stories or memories or characters from your life that you want to tell me about?
  • What are you proudest of?
  • When in life have you felt most alone?
  • If you could hold on to one memory from your life forever, what would that be?
  • How has your life been different than what you’d imagined?
  • How would you like to be remembered?
  • Do you have any regrets?
  • What does your future hold?
  • What are your hopes for what the future holds for me? For my children?
  • If this was to be our very last conversation, is there anything you’d want to say to me
  • For your great great grandchildren listening to this years from now: is there any wisdom you’d want to pass on to them? What would you want them to know?
  • Is there anything that you’ve never told me but want to tell me now?
  • Is there something about me that you’ve always wanted to know but have never asked?

Friends or Colleagues

  • If you could interview anyone from your life living or dead, but not a celebrity, who would it be and why?
  • What is your first memory of me?
  • Was there a time when you didn’t like me?
  • What makes us such good friends?
  • How would you describe me? How would you describe yourself?
  • Where will we be in 10 years? 20 years?
  • Do you think we’ll ever lose touch with each other?
  • Is there anything that you’ve always wanted to tell me but haven’t?


  • Where did you grow up?
  • What was your childhood like?
  • Who were your favorite relatives?
  • Do you remember any of the stories they used to tell you?
  • How did you and grandma/grandpa meet?
  • What was my mom/dad like growing up?
  • Do you remember any songs that you used to sing to her/him? Can you sing them now?
  • Was she/he well-behaved?
  • What is the worst thing she/he ever did?
  • What were your parents like?
  • What were your grandparents like?
  • How would you like to be remembered?
  • Are you proud of me?

Raising children

  • When did you first find out that you’d be a parent? How did you feel?
  • Can you describe the moment when you saw your child for the first time?
  • How has being a parent changed you?
  • What are your dreams for your children?
  • Do you remember when your last child left home for good?
  • Do you have any favorite stories about your kids?


  • Do you remember what was going through your head when you first saw me?
  • How did you choose my name?
  • What was I like as a baby? As a young child?
  • Do you remember any of the songs you used to sing to me? Can you sing them now?
  • What were my siblings like?
  • What were the hardest moments you had when I was growing up?
  • If you could do everything again, would you raise me differently?
  • What advice would you give me about raising my own kids?
  • What are your dreams for me?
  • How did you meet mom/dad?
  • Are you proud of me?

Growing up

  • When and where were you born?
  • Where did you grow up?
  • What was it like?
  • Who were your parents?
  • What were your parents like?
  • How was your relationship with your parents?
  • Did you get into trouble? What was the worst thing you did?
  • Do you have any siblings? What were they like growing up?
  • What did you look like?
  • How would you describe yourself as a child? Were you happy?
  • What is your best memory of childhood? Worst?
  • Did you have a nickname? How’d you get it?
  • Who were your best friends? What were they like?
  • How would you describe a perfect day when you were young?
  • What did you think your life would be like when you were older?
  • Do you have any favorite stories from your childhood?


  • Did you enjoy school?
  • What kind of student were you?
  • What would you do for fun?
  • How would your classmates remember you?
  • Are you still friends with anyone from that time in your life?
  • What are your best memories of grade school/high school/college/graduate school? Worst memories?
  • Was there a teacher or teachers who had a particularly strong influence on your life? Tell me about them.
  • Do you have any favorite stories from school?

Love & Relationships

  • Do you have a love of your life?
  • When did you first fall in love?
  • Can you tell me about your first kiss?
  • What was your first serious relationship?
  • Do you believe in love at first sight?
  • Do you ever think about previous lovers?
  • What lessons have you learned from your relationships?

Marriage & Partnerships

  • How did you meet your husband/wife?
  • How did you know he/she was “the one”?
  • How did you propose?
  • What were the best times? The most difficult times?
  • Did you ever think of getting divorced?
  • Did you ever get divorced? Can you tell me about it?
  • What advice do you have for young couples?
  • Do you have any favorite stories from your marriage or about your husband/wife?


  • What do you do for a living?
  • Tell me about how you got into your line of work.
  • Do you like your job?
  • What did you think you were going to be when you grew up?
  • What did you want to be when you grew up?
  • What lessons has your work life taught you?
  • If you could do anything now, what would you do? Why?
  • Do you plan on retiring? If so, when? How do you feel about it?
  • Do you have any favorite stories from your work life?


  • Can you tell me about your religious beliefs/spiritual beliefs? What is your religion?
  • Have you experienced any miracles?
  • What was the most profound spiritual moment of your life?
  • Do you believe in God?
  • Do you believe in the after-life? What do you think it will be like?
  • When you meet God, what do you want to say to Him?

Serious Illness

  • Can you tell me about your illness?
  • Do you think about dying? Are you scared?
  • How do you imagine your death?
  • Do you believe in an after-life?
  • Do you regret anything?
  • Do you look at your life differently now than before you were diagnosed?
  • Do you have any last wishes?
  • If you were to give advice to me or my children, or even children to come in our family, what would it be?
  • What have you learned from life? The most important things?
  • Has this illness changed you? What have you learned?
  • How do you want to be remembered?

Family heritage

  • What is your ethnic background?
  • Where is your mom’s family from? Where is your dad’s family from?
  • Have you ever been there? What was that experience like?
  • What traditions have been passed down in your family?
  • Who were your favorite relatives?
  • Do you remember any of the stories they used to tell you?
  • What are the classic family stories? Jokes? Songs?


  • Were you in the military?
  • Did you go to war? What was it like?
  • How did war change you?
  • During your service, can you recall times when you were afraid?
  • What are your strongest memories from your time in the military?
  • What lessons did you learn from this time in your life?

Remembering a loved one

  • What was your relationship to _____?
  • Tell me about _____.
  • What is your first memory of _____?
  • What is your best memory of _____?
  • What is your most vivid memory of _____?
  • What did _____ mean to you?
  • Are you comfortable/ can you talk about _____’s death? How did _____ die?
  • What has been the hardest thing about losing _____?
  • What would you ask _____ if _____ were here today?
  • What do you miss most about _____?
  • How do you think _____ would want to be remembered?
  • Can you talk about the biggest obstacles _____ overcame in life?
  • Was there anything you and _____ disagreed about, fought over, or experienced some conflict around?
  • What about _____ makes you smile?
  • What was your relationship like?
  • What did _____ look like?
  • Did you have any favorite jokes _____ used to tell?
  • Do you have any stories you want to share about _____?
  • What were _____’s hopes and dreams for the future?
  • Is there something about _____ that you think no one else knows?
  • How are you different now than you were before you lost _____?
  • What is the image of _____ that persists?
  • Do you have any traditions to honor _____?
  • What has helped you the most in your grief?
  • What are the hardest times?

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Culture in Your Characters

Thanks to modern technology I literally start and finish a typical 18-hour day by reading the news on an android tablet, and when driving from from one location to another, the car radio is usually tuned to National Public Radio (NPR). Knowing what's going on is important to a writer—for there may be information useful in a scenario. (It's also good to know if and when to duck for cover.)

For instance, when the verdict was released concerning the Boston bomber, NPR carried a comment from Eastern Europe that Americans did not understand Chechnya culture. That struck a chord. How much attention do we give to culture when creating our characters? It certainly would have a bearing on their responses and actions.

For instance, in the United States, how people from the southeast think, act, and talk (not the sound, but which and how words are used) is different than a person from New York City or in my native Wyoming. On a larger scale, culture is the the sum total of behaviors and beliefs characteristic of a particular social, ethnic, or age group, and transmitted from one generation to another. My paternal grandfather was German, so will share a few insights. Some of cultural things to consider are:

1. Work Ethic:
The writer, Hermann Eich, once said, "The Germans have a mania for work. They have no idea how to enjoy life." I spent much of my early youth on my uncles' farms in Western Nebraska. We started work early and quit late (hence, the 18-hour days), but we knew how to party. A German wedding ran three days around the clock with singing, dancing, talking, eating, and drinking.

2. Creative Energy:
How good is a person with their minds at inventiveness and/or with their hands to create? If lucky, your character likes Duck tape.

3. Thoroughness:The Germans have a saying: "Wenn schon, denn schon", which translate that if something is worth doing at all, it is worth doing right. That means never doing something half-way. This is accomplished by giving great attention to detail to the point of being fussy perfectionists.

4. Orderliness:
Another German saying: "Ordnung muß sein!". There must be order! Punctuality is paramount. Everything must go by the rules. (This drives my English wife nuts.)

5. Sincerity:
Fulfilling a promised is a matter of honor.

6. Loyalty:
How loyalty is the character to his organization, family, country, and comrades? (James Bond comes to mind. This was also the comment that came from the Chechnya community, the younger brother is loyal to the older brother, right or wrong.)

7. Song:
Every culture has its music. In my youth it was the Dutch Hop and Polka. Elsewhere in the United States it's Blue Grass, Rock, Country, what have you. Does your character like music? Do they sing/play. (In Master and Commander, both the English and French captains played an instrument.)

8. Attitude towards violence:
Some cultures hang on to violence tooth and nail, while others abhor it. Cultural attitudes change over time.

9. Love of nature:
Does your character have regard for wildlife, plant life, domesticated animals, world health?

10. Class consciousness:
Like it or not, rationalize it, inwardly fight to deny it, this exists and continues to be perpetrated around the world. I honestly don't know of a culture where classifying individuals does not exist.

11. Politeness:
With some cultures, as with Japan, politeness is an absolute necessity when so many people are crowded together. Politeness is expressed in language as well with formal and informal words and construct.

12. Posture:
This says a lot about where the character is from or his upbringing, upright or slouching.

13. Chewing Gum:
Chewing gum is American, brought to the United States in the 1860's and first distributed in New York in 1871. While it apparently has some positive cognitive effects, you won't see it used in many cultures.

14. Wedding Rings:
Did you know that on which hand a wedding ring is worn denotes marriage or engagement? At least in Germany, if wed, the ring is worn on the right hand, if engaged, it's on the left hand. And of course, some cultures don't wear one at all, while others have them hanging from unusual places.

 15. Eating:
How a person handles eating utensil is indicative of where they are from. (If they use them at all.)

16. Religion
Some cultures are bound tightly by religion—Jewish, Muslim, Shinto, Mormonism among many. Religion is a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, usually involving ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs. Even agnosticism and atheism could be classified as a religion. “Religion” has caused more wars, pain, suffering, and death than you'd care to count throughout history.

Often, such things do not cross a writer's mind, but can have a great bearing on how they think and act, and certainly add a depth the reader may like to see as a way to understand the character. The world is bigger, more diverse, and colorful than you think.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Clothes Can Make the Character

The Wardrobe is an online journal based out of the UK that focuses on a very specific subject: clothes. ( As they explain on their Internet page:

“Clothes are often overlooked in life and literature and considered frivolous, but they shape character, draw out concepts and connect you to your culture and landscape. As signals for who we are, where we are and what we are, clothes are invaluably transformative and revealing.”

Previous eFiles in this series have focused on characters, specifically their personalities and motives, and to some extent, physical attributes as they might pertain to those areas. This time around, let's talk about their what they look like above skin level.


There are a number of ways to describe a character. One method is the bare bones. The author gives very little in the way of physical descriptions, leaving the reader to fill in the blanks with whatever they imagine. Usually, this is the technique in short stories. It's a matter of space.

In another method, a frequently published author introduces a character and immediately sets out a physical description. To be honest, I don't like that approach because it disrupts the flow of the story. As example, the protagonist is following the antagonist when a woman steps in his path. She is a tall redhead . . . A paragraph later we find out why she got in the way and what happened to the bad guy.

Another method is to give a quick description and add more detail at a later time or sprinkled throughout the story as is pertinent. I tend to this method so that the plot flows uninterrupted. As example, this is one of the crewmen aboard the protagonist's ship:

"[The stowaways were] assigned a teacher. That it was the Irishman, Cochran, was a pleasing choice. He'd instruct them well." (p.23 early)
"Cochran's laugh was not mean, but the boys weren't sure how to take him. He had a light way about himself." (p.23 late)
"“The name's Mr. Cochran. Just Mr. Cochran. When we be socializin' ye can call me Dónall.”" (p.24)
"“They have good eyes, too, just like blue-eyed Cochran.”" [p.26] (reference to being a lookout)
". . . being pink-skinned like Cochran" [p.26]
". . . the inveterate storyteller." [p.31]

"Cochran was thirty-six, young-looking with a light-hearted, carefree demeanor people liked to be around. Unlike Pasquel whose dark skin tolerated the sun, Cochran was fair skinned with a splash of freckles across the nose and a perpetual reddish glow, so he always wore a shirt and hat when working in the sunlight. He was slender, never seeming to put on weight as hard as Mr. Lytle tried. A hard worker, he was one of the few who could give [the captain] a good match with the cutlass and keep up as the two swam alongside the Raven. Any attempt at growing a beard was a disaster. Apparently some ancestry kept him clean as if newly shaved. The only mark on his smooth skin was the ugly scar on the left shoulder from [the captain's] knife. It saved him from losing the arm when he'd been injured in battle six years before." [p.96]

Dónall Cochran is a re-occurring actor throughout the story, and obviously appeared in a previous novel. His physical appearance comes in bits and pieces as they become important without disrupting the flow of the story or as a boost to other actors or events.

When describing a character, physical details are important because they can say a great deal about them.

1.  Think of hair—straight, wavy, curled, kinky, thick, thin, bald fuzz, halo, long, short, color.

2.  Think of eyes—round, oval, almond, recessed, dark, bright, overhung by a thick brow, (which could be thin, thick, long like an old man).

3.  Think of noses, mouths, ears, facial hair. Each detail shapes the personality of your character and we haven't even gotten below the shoulders which are . . .

And what about those clothes? What a character wears, how, and why can be important. In a story under construct, the antagonist usually is seen with a chest-length, powered wig and all the rest of a 15th Century English peacock's attire. The protagonist (a ship captain) tends to be casual, hat, loose-fitting shirt, short trousers, seldom with shoes. The natives they encounter group themselves into classes which can be identified by what they wear—the length of the breach cloth, from short for low class to ankle length for the chief. Older and married women wear a short breach cloth while unmarried girls and children wear nothing. And not only what they wear, but how the clothes look—clean, pressed, wrinkled, soiled, torn, worn thin, dull to bright colors, the kinds of fabrics, how they are made.

Your sources can come from a person walking down the street or research. If writing historically-based novels the focus is on research since hardly anyone dresses like that—go online, books, museums, photo collections. Writing about clothing in futuristic stories could go from whimsical to best guess.

The external appearance of your actors can be as important as their physicals, internal thoughts, and behaviors to present a complete picture. Whatever you write, consider the importance of clothing along with all those other things that bring the character and story alive.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Basics for Beginning Writers – and the Rest of Us

In another life, I had the opportunity to conduct driver safety seminars for a Federal agency. Attendees ranged from twenty-year-olds who had received high school drivers ed, and had been driving for maybe five years, to persons who had been driving since the invention of the rubber tire. Everyone thought they were pretty good. Not one of them left class without having a different assessment of their skills—especially the long-term drivers who had not reviewed those skills since Andre and Edouard Michelin mounted the first pneumatic, rubber tire in 1895.

Like the driver's safety course reviewed fundamentals, this eFile takes a look at some basic elements of writing. While on the surface the content appears intended for the beginner, those serious about writing might want to review some of these.

1.  The Talent Factor

Writing is a gift. You either have the talent, or you don't, or fall somewhere in between.  Liken it to an artist who has a eye for color and the coordination to draw. Without at least those basics, whatever the project, it's just scribbles. That's me. Frankly, my drawing sucks, but I'm good at fashioning clay objects and at graphic layouts. Falling into the “in between area,” those talents could be greatly enhanced if I were to study and work at improving them. That applies to the in between writers. Study, write, study, write, study, write. Interesting, that is the same formula for those who have major talent. The old adage applies, “Use it, or lose it.”

2.  Be True to Yourself
Every person on this planet and beyond is unique—how they think, how they act are the results of interaction with other unique people and events. This could be painful, but a writer really needs to come to grips as to who they really are, not what they want others to believe. What makes you, a writer, smile, laugh, cry, scream, become angry, hold back, become aggressive, ignore, abhor, desire, crave, fantasize? A writer then uses their talents and perspectives to create a successful story populated by characters who possess some of those things in their makeup written in their style or voice. Never lose sight of  “Be yourself. Everyone else is taken.”

3.  Slavery is a Crime

When a house is erected, there is a framework built upon a foundation. That part is designed to hold the shape and details together. There is a framework to stories as well called “structure.” There needs to be a beginning, a middle, an end, and a plot through which characters move. Another author once said that structure is like a wave upon which characters ride. Television and movies have become a slave to formulation. From  opening credits to “The End,” a viewer soon recognizes how all the pieces fit and can predict the outcome before the first commercial. That's like reading the last chapter of a book first. In the 1950's and on, contractors built tract homes. Block after block, each house looked like its neighbor with very little variation. Owners then did things inside and out to make their home appear different. Same basic structure, but very different tweaks. Structure is necessary to hold a story together and help guide it along, but it is not the master.

4. Where Did That Come From?

Recently a media conversation asked, “Where do I find ideas that I can write about?”  Ideas
are a basic element of talent. If a person can't think of anything to write about, it's time to find a different hobby. The individual with writing talent has no end of ideas, whether they are for a full-fledged story or a simple scene. Just about any and everything can spontaneously trigger an idea in such people, and when that happens it is important to log it in as much detail as possible. The idea may not be applicable to the current project, but certainly may work in something else down the road. On the other hand, it may be just the needed piece to flesh out a scene, or take it in a different, more interesting direction. Rule of thumb: Never toss an idea without recording it somewhere.

5.  Learn to Write From Others . . .

but for cryin' out loud, don't copy them. An excellent way to learn writing is to look at successful stories, just don't fall into the trap of trying to duplicate them. Agents, editors, and the like review hundreds of manuscripts every year that contain the same elements. There should be no surprises here. The story that stands out from the crowd gets noticed. Case in point. I'm not a fan of vampire stories because they have been overdone like a burnt steak. I don't read them. Period. And then . . . an author asked me to review his book. From paragraph one, I was fascinated because the plot picked up from where Charles Dickens left off in “Oliver Twist.” Same characters a bit later in life, same writing style slightly updated. From the opening, I found the story fascinating and entertaining, and then BAM! The plot became a vampire story made believable by a very plausible, scientific explanation for the existence of vampires. The story is a stand-out.
 Pirates are depicted as rude, crude, bloody, bullies—until Jack Sparrow stepped off his sinking longboat. Private Eyes are hard-nosed, cigarette smoking toughs—until Jessica Fletcher walked on the scene clutching her novel, “Murder, She Wrote.” Aliens are ugly, grotesque things—until Mr. Spock joined the Enterprise. Prince Charming came to rescue Rapunzel on a white horse—with some serious identity issues.
Write the story, but write it in such a way that it will stand out and be noticed. Throw convention to the wind to see where it might land.

6.  Avoid Falling into the Box Trap

Why does it seem every body and every thing has to carry a label? Be pinned in a niche? In
this profession, that's writing to a genre. The novice uses genre as reference points that must be touched along the race to the end, and then wonder why their manuscript never gets noticed. Think of genre as an artist's pallet with daubs of primary colors. Using a brush, Rembrandt took a little of this, a little of that, swirled it around to blend, and then added another color until finding just the right shade. The writer who wants to break free and create a stand-out story will use genres like primary colors, to pick and choose elements for the story at hand, thus creating something with a very different personality, creating an experience unlike all the others. Creating something that leaps out from all the rest.

7.  Go Back to the Roots

Becoming a success has its pits. Caught up in the whirlwind of promotions and pressed to write the next, great best seller, we think it too mundane, a waste of time to review the basics of writing. Maybe that's why that next novel didn't quite measure up. Where is your writing? Good? Better? Best ???

Sunday, March 15, 2015


Revising Your Manuscript
(Revised, of course) 

Tom Clancy quipped at a recent conference, "What's a rewrite? I write them pretty much the way you guys read them and I turn in a fairly clean product." Clancy feels he is the exception to the rule although I've seen a fair share of places his story needed help. At the other end of the spectrum most of us go through many drafts before we're done; However, after reading a work ten or more times, it can become too familiar, making it next to impossible to flush out mistakes and recognize areas that could use some rework. At some point, each reading seems to accomplish less than the one before. Here's a tip to help make your revision time more productive. Take a piece of paper and list the problems you hope to discover and correct. Your list could look something like this:
  • 1. Look for the deadwood, the unnecessary bits that don't move the story forward.
  • 2. Check the first paragraph of each chapter for "hooks."
  • 3. Check the end of each chapter for "cliffhangers."
  • 4. Examine each page for balance between dialogue, action, introspection, and description.
  • 5. Find places to build in more character traits.
  • 6. Look for inconsistencies.
  • 7. Look for repetition, words (and ideas) repeated too often, or too close to each other.
  • 8. Find typos and grammatical errors.
This is a sample applicable to one of my stories under construction. There would be other things more important to your story. Determine what you want, write them down, and then work through the list. Each time you read your manuscript, choose one point from your list and ignore the others. A reading needs to accomplish something specific, a set goal. By knowing what it is you plan to accomplish, your reading time will accomplish more.


After drafting this eFile, I returned to begin the 4th edit of a novel under construction, but something had bothered me since the first edit. Something just didn't feel right. Something was missing.  As this edit began that something became obvious. I did not feel the plot sufficiently supported the protagonist's character--his hopes, desires, and flaws, in particular the latter which are important to understanding why he behaves in certain ways that seem self-destructive. That had to be drafted more clearly, and thus intensify the drama. So, it was back to the drawing board to research more deeply into the selected flaws. 

What does that mean? It means ripping whole chunks of story apart and re-crafting them to develop and richer story. 

That is, in part, what a comprehensive edit should do. Write it right, something too many writers fail to do in their rush to publish. The consequence is that instead of handing this manuscript off to the publisher in May as planned, it will be closer to June, which in turn delays another project, but such is the life of a serious author who takes control of their artistic endeavors and not someone else.

Friday, February 27, 2015

The Protagonist: A Need For Backstory

In your mind and hopefully in your reader's mind, the characters in your story are real. That means they are not the most glamorous, intelligent, adept, perfect-in-every-way people with the capability to walk on water unless your setting is Ancient Greece. Real people are a complex mix of strengths, weaknesses, talents, and flaws, things that will have a big impact on them and the story. Flaws are especially important because they create biases leading to the way people act, react, think, and behave. However, assembling your character(s) is not like mixing up a cake—throwing a bunch of ingredients in a bowl then stirred or shaken.

Time and again ad nausea, writers are warned to avoid backstory. As it pertains to your characters a backstory is vital to his, her's, or its creation. It describes, if to no one else but you, WHY a character behaves the way they do. Generally, you won't use it, or a little sprinkled throughout the story.

When inspiration smacks the back of my head, the first thing is to write down a quick synopsis with an eye on what the main character is to accomplish (the goal). Here is an example of a story being researched for the National November Writing Month challenge coming up this November. (Write a 50,000+ word novel in 30 days).

While searching illustrations for another story, this picture popped up and just as quickly a story began to develop. A Boy, His Mule and Their Dog. “A boy living in post-Civil War, backwoods Missouri is orphaned when his mother dies of cholera. His father and older brother were killed during the war. The middle brother with whom he had a close relationship, left to join the Confederacy in Texas. There is no word of his being killed. With his mother's death, he sets out to find this brother.”

As this is based on historical facts and events, research is mandatory. A few days online found this boy would be traveling from central Missouri to Tucson, Arizona. How would he get there? The quest to answer that question brought me to Tucson and the Arizona State Museum library. It will take me further east to El Paso. I am already familiar with Missouri to Texas portion from previous travels. The Internet has provided a wealth of information and placed me in contact with historians along his travel route (the Butterfield Stagecoach Trail.)

As details come together it becomes obvious this young man is going to face challenges. That means it is time to assemble the character and a timeline by asking and answering some questions.

1.  How old is he?  12 
2.  He became an orphan at 12 when his mother died. What happened to the father and two brothers?
3.  The brother who went to Texas was not heard from so is presumed alive, so he sets out to find him.
3.  How can a 12-year-old realistically travel alone to Texas (eventually to Arizona) alone?
4.  He has never been further than a small town a few miles from their home. He doesn't even know which way Texas lies. He's going to need help. Who? Where?
5.  By following the Butterfield Trail, it is possible to track daily movements and obstacles.

In order to accomplish the goal, it is necessary to understand the boy's past and what events prepared him for this undertaking. First of all, a 12-year-old raised on frontier American is going to have skills to help survive and succeed, like a 12-year-old will have the needed skills to survive on the streets of Detroit. And then, there will be individuals to step in when needed, but let's not make this easy.

During brainstorming, it was decided to make his father and older brother abusive—the reason for a scar on his cheek. That brings to play potentially dangerous behaviors that could undermine his efforts to achieve the goal. He is likely to distrust adult men. This would be revealed through interactions with those who want to help. (Flaw #1 – he is a product of abuse.) Having grown up under the influence of the middle brother and his mother he will have learned to be conservative. (Flaw #2 – No-nonsense, level-headed) That means he will not be needlessly foolhardy and careless with disregard for consequences, but he is a child with a child's mind and will make some poor decision. (Flaw #3 – Stubbornness.) He has one goal in mind with the determined resolve to find his brother, no matter what.

What does it mean to b e an abused child? The answer suggests behaviors like avoiding or resisting comforting, and have difficulty forming relationships--withdrawn. He will suffer from depression and anxiety. He could seek the approval of others which translates into his mind as “love,” even if those others are not “saints.” He will have nightmares (a great way to sneak in snippets of backstory.) Finally, there is some display of violent behavior (getting back for being hurt by his father and brother.)

As you see, the protagonist is becoming a “real” complex person whose makeup dictates action and reaction. Handled in appropriate ways these build empathy for him in the reader.

There are a number of web sites providing long lists of character flaws from which to choose, but don't stop research with those brief descriptors. Dig deeper to better understand the causes, actions, and ramifications of the chosen flaw. In the current story, when abuse was chosen for this character, a search to understand the repercussions of abuse provided extensive information to suggest appropriate reaction to events.

Therefore, some steps that should be taken in your story are:

1.  Give the protagonist (and those closely associated in achieving or blocking the goal)  flaws demonstrated through their actions.
2.  Give the protagonist more than one weakness.
3.  Provide a moral weakness—an inner conflict of acting contrary to one's beliefs.
4.  Gradually reveal character flaws through the character's actions.
5.  Show how the character has changed by the end of story.

By researching and writing an extensive backstory about a character the writer comes to know them intimately, even to entering into a symbiotic relationship. That can bring out some very powerful writing.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Where is Waldo?

The most important element of a story is the character, whether animate or inanimate because it carries the plot from beginning to end. Simply put, like Cadbury chocolates, the richer the character, the more delicious the story. There have been numerous posts addressing this issue, so this list is not original by any means, and certainly can be expanded upon. The writer's goal is make characters stand out. They should evoke love, hate, sympathy, some kind of emotion in the reader that will make them stand out in a crowd.

When writing I have this list, along with other technique reminders posted near where I am working. A first draft is like an artist's sketch. Such reminders are the color pallets to give realistic depth and make characters stand out. While it's good to have these around during the draft phase, the best time to review these reminders is when starting the first and subsequent edits.

 Characters should evoke some kind of emotion

Character Development

1) Allow to make mistakes.
2) Stand up and be counted.
3) Struggle with choices. If you can show your character being mentally torn apart,
especially if his choice adversely affects himself or someone he cares about, you've
created a compelling inner conflict that will make readers sympathize.
4) Acting consistent within the world you've created.
5) Struggles.
6) Weave physical details into the story where they legitimately belong.
7) Can smell, hear, feel, taste, and see the environment around him.
8) Universal, human qualities. Does the character laugh or cry? Experience frustration,
disappointment, joy, anger, shame, guilt, ambivalence? Will readers be able to relate to
these reactions?
9) Quirks, idiosyncrasies; funny, little habits.
10) Convictions, ethics and beliefs.
11) Behave logically, use common sense, have worthy goals.
12) Is the character a stereotype or an individual.
13) Arced – shows growth.
14) Direct and indirect characterizations vs. info dump.
15) Take any scene, imagine yourself as the POV character and start telling the story as they would tell it.

Ask yourself these questions as you write:
(a) What does character notice? 
(b) How does character see other people?
(c) What thoughts are running through his or her head as events unfold?
(d) What past events influence my character in the present? What future events does my
character anticipate?
(e) What does my character want? What motivates my character to act?
(f) What is my character’s deepest fear?

16) Using more than one point of view. A single point of view is limiting.
(a) Depart from a single point of view in order to divulge information that the reader
couldn't learn from the primary point of view character.
(b) Drop clues in the environment of your viewpoint character - clues that
the reader would understand, but that the character wouldn't necessarily draw
conclusions from.
(c) It might be a good idea:
(i) to show how the protagonist appears to others.
(ii) the main viewpoint character is unreliable.
(iii) the contrast between your protagonist's viewpoint and another person's
viewpoint is central to the story conflict.
(iv) show precisely how dangerous your antagonist is.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Starting With The Basics - 101

If you are itching to write a story don't let me get in the way. Get that story out of your system and clean it up later. However, while appeasing that itch, there are some things to consider. The first is – How long should it be? That depends on the various types of writing. In this, think fiction, but these types apply to non-fiction as well. They just have different names.
  • Vignette
    • This is a short scene focusing on one moment or gives a sharply defined or clear-cut impression about a character, idea, setting, or object. Liken it to taking a photo, say of a friend. It shows them, their emotion, and what they are doing in one second of time.
      • My dog has leaped into a wading pool, rolled around, and now looks at the people laughing at him with a big, panting smile just before shaking.
  • Flash Fiction
    • This typically maxes out around 300 words, but could go up to 1,000 words. Flash Fiction often contains the classic story elements of a protagonist (this will be explained in a later lesson), conflict, obstacles or complications, and resolution of the conflict. Because of the limited length, the writer is often forced to only hinted at these elements or imply them.
      • See stories by O. Henry, Aesop's Fables, Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury, and Ernest Hemingway.
  • Short Story
    • The classic definition of a short story is something that should be read it in one sitting. In today's world that could be a lot shorter than a hundred years ago when life was more leisurely. To put a number on it, the length seems to run from 1,000 to 20,000 words. Here story elements have a bit more space to evolve and be filled out. However, if writing for publication, you will find an upper limitation around 7,500 words.
      • I try to keep the story around 3,000 to 4,000 words, but that is a personal preference allowing for expanding or shrinking to appease the publisher.
  • Novella or Novelette
    • This form is longer than a short story, but shorter than a novel. Because of its length the conflicts are fewer than in a novel, but more complicated than in a short story. Where novels are typically divided into chapters, Novellas often use white space to divide sections.
      • The length recognized by publishers tends to be all over the place as shown in the table below. Generally, the Novella falls somewhere between 20,000 and 40,000 words.
Nebula Award for Best Novelette
Science Fiction or Fantasy
17,499 or 39,999
Hugo Award for Best Novelette
Science Fiction or Fantasy
17,500 or 40,000
RITA Award for best novella
British Fantasy Award for Novella
Paris Literary Prize
Literary Fiction
Black Orchid Novella Award
Shirley Jackson Award for best novelette
Psychological suspense, Horror, or Dark Fantasy
7,500 or 17,500
17,499 or 39,999
  1. (abbreviated)
  • Novel
    • This is the most familiar form where the writer can go into great detail to describe characters and events, not necessarily in a sequential format. The length starts around 40K and has been known to top out at 2,100,00 words. (Realistically, 300,000 to 500,000 words catches most of the upper end), while more sane novels run about 100,000 words, but the number can vary according to genre. Each November, the Office of Lights and Letters holds an International challenge to write a 50,000 word novel in 30-days. This is not a bad length for a first draft. A novel's finished length is entirely up to the writer who choses over what period of time the story covers and how much detail to include.
      • J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series looks like this:
          Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone - 76,944 words
          Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets - 85,141 words
          Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban - 107,253 words
          Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire - 190,637 words
          Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix - 257,045 words
          Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince - 168,923
          Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Approximately 198,227
My writing career has span some 55 years starting in high school (I was telling stories before that, but they usually got me into trouble rather than out.) Upon graduation, I began professional writing as a cub reporter for a metropolitan newspaper. That style is Vignette or Flash writing. The offerings had to be short and concise so not take up valuable ad space. Looking back, that was a great introduction to writing.
From there, I graduated to short stories, crafting that skill over the next 35-years. Publishers, like newspapers, have only so much space, so I became very comfortable writing a story around 3,500 words. The challenge was when requested to cut the word count to 1,500 to 2,000 words, a great game for testing and sharpening skills.
In 2002 I was encouraged to try a novel. Since then I have published ten novels ranging from 70,000 to 100,000 words.
The point is, don't let your writing jump out of the starting gate at the Kentucky Derby. Start small, learn the trade, and let your abilities grow into whatever size you feel necessary to tell your story.