Category Archives: Creating Compelling Characters

Changing Goals and Emotions

The 4 kinds of characters:

  1. Those who never change, nor does their motivation (Stephanie Plum & James Bond)
  2. Those who don’t change  but their motivations change:  this character’s beliefs and personality don’t change, but what he wants changes as a result of the story events.  Heroes and villains.
  3. Those who change throughout the story although their motivation does not change: this character’s personality and overriding beliefs change regardless of the attainment of his goals. The single goal gives the work unity and comprehensibility while satisfying the reader with a comment on life. The character may get what he wants, but may be dissatisfied.
  4. Those who change along with their motivation: this character /plot is the most complex as his personality and beliefs are changes AND his desire changes as well. Aim toward this style: a progressive motivation (changing desire) and a character with internal changes.

Show motivations by:

-internal monolog

-dictated by another: detective novels

-dialog

-dialog between characters talking about the character in question

-the character’s action (try 2-3 attempts to attain the desire)

The key to juggling motivation and change is to dramatize it! Write in scenes.

Prompt: Write a short scene about the worst visitor who ever darkened your character’s doorway. How is the interaction between the host and guest going to change the host’s personality and desires? Dramatize it. (From Wood, The Pocket Muse)

Adapted from: Alice LaPlant, The Making of a Story, A Norton Guide to Creative Writing 2007, Nancy Kress, Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint, Writers Digest Books, 2005, Robert Olen Butler, From Where We Dream, Grove Press, 2005

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Mixed Emotions

Besides having conflicting desires, well-crafted characters have conflicting emotions and emotional responses toward each other. These emotions are not driven so much by the character’s values as by 1) cultural preferences, 2) previous experience, and 3) primitive drives, according to Nancy Cress. Examples she gives are 1) you secretly enjoy your boorish brother’s crude jokes, but you’re repelled by them too, 2) you like your boss but don’t trust her because of her reputation for firing people easily—and you want to keep your job, 3) you’ve become homeless and are starving, but you know stealing is wrong, yet you must eat.

How can you portray mixed emotions in fiction? By showing the differing emotions in separate scenes, show conflicting emotions in the same scene, and by using character thought and narration to explain the contradiction.

Here are a couple of possible scenarios:

-Alternating scenes of “I love you” with scenes of “I hate you.” (Read the Nanny Diaries)

-In one scene, I love you right now alternates with I hate you in the next minute. Do this with caution, as the characters need to be consistent to be believable. Don’t allow a character to act in a sloppy or confusing manner. Do this by showing each emotion separately in earlier scenes before combining contradictory feelings. Be sure that the motivations and forces creating the emotions are clear.

Depict emotion through  heated dialog, bodily responses, emotional actions  like a slap across the face, tears, a middle finger, or through character thoughts. These are all great for subtext. Read A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius to see much of this in action.

You will not depict emotion through telling narration, although you can narrate why a character feels as she does. Be careful with this because it can be detached and slow the pace  of your scene, although here the omniscient voice can work if the scene has been set-up and offers a fresh perspective. Be sure that you fully understand the contradictions in the minds of your characters and, without overwriting, make it more complex and dramatic. Metaphors are helpful with this.

Summary:

  • Identify what emotions your characters are feeling.
  • Have you prepared the groundwork for these mixed feelings by dramatizing the causes of the emotions?
  • Decide how best to portray the conflicting emotions—in separate scenes, in the same scene, through narration, or in a combination of these.
  • Have you included enough emotional indicators for the reader to share each  emotion the character feels?

Prompt:  Write a scene about a person whose reputation rests on the appearance of an inanimate object. (Wood, The Pocket Muse)

Adapted from: Alice LaPlant, The Making of a Story, Nancy Kress, Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint, Robert Olen Butler, From Where We Dream

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Values, Desires, and Choices

Your character wants more than one thing and probably her desires are in opposition. An example of this we can all understand: She values being slim—she’s a lifetime member of Weight Watchers. But she values rich sugar-laden desserts—she craves them in fact. She’d kill for a profiterole right now…. You get the idea! Conflicting desires are the heart of complex characterization and tense, compelling writing.

A plausible and complex character will have a couple of strong desires that are in conflict. This is like life. It feels real to the reader and gives you a chance to further characterize through showing how and which desire he chooses.

Dramatize small incidents of conflicting values in scenes. Build these small choices to foreshadow the larger choices to come. She is going to choose values or desires that demonstrate her personality. Be sure to write-in the character’s attitude toward the choice. Think, mixed feelings. Remember, narration and back story will help here, but the riskiest way to inform the reader is through narration. Be sure that the narration doesn’t just recap what the reader already knows. It needs to deliver new information or a new perspective. Dialog is a good medium to use. Try having your secondary characters talk about the character with the conundrum.

Tips:

  1. Identify what emotions the character is feeling.
  2. Double check that you’ve laid the groundwork for the mixed feelings by dramatizing the causes of each in earlier scenes.
  3. Decide how you want to portray two contradictory feelings: in the same scene, in alternate scenes, through narrative, through character thoughts, or through some combination of techniques.
  4. Include emotional indicators (sensory language, gesture, expression, etc.) for the reader to share in each emotion the character feels.

Prompt:          What if you really did what you want to do? (Wood, The Pocket Muse)

Write a flash fiction or short story in the first person on what would happen if the character went ahead and did what (s)he always secretly wanted to do. Show your reader how this big desire might be in direct conflict with the character’s values and develop the process of choosing.

 “I want to satisfy the undisclosed desires in your heart”

MUSE~Undisclosed Desires

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Reveal Character through Dialog

Notes from my Redwood Writers Conference breakout session  April 28th, 2012

Adapted from: Alice LaPlant, The Making of a Story, A Norton Guide to Creative Writing 2007 and Nancy Kress, Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint, Writers Digest Books, 2005

What a character says in dialog is powerful characterization. How she says it is critical to knowing the character: her vocabulary, syntax, diction (think ideolect), use and misuse of words, even gestures, tone, and how emotionally charged the speech is. Just as important is what the character doesn’t say or avoids  to define her character.

What does dialog do?

  1. adds to the reader’s knowledge of the situation  (facts vs knowledge)
  2. keeps the piece moving forward
  3.  reveals something about the speakers personalities both directly and indirectly  (subtext—what’s not said)
  4. dramatizes relationships between characters

EVERYTHING THAT AFFECTS A CHARACTER WILL AFFECT THE DIALOG!

We’re interested in how dialog reveals character.  What are some of the ways this is done?

   Syntax, accent, idiolect, cadence, rhythm, dialect 

How do you do it?  Elements of dialog:

-Dialog is what characters do to one another/verbal sparring a physical exchange

-Gesture—shows how something is said

-Silence is part of dialog—part of a verbal communication to pause, look away, refuse to respond. Very powerful.

-Dialog may not be grammatically correct—let the character’s music show

-The surrounding world is part of dialog—use it . Keep us grounded in the real world. No talking heads

-attribution: said! Don’t overburden your writing with substitutes and try to avoid adverbs

How do you write silence?

–Sensory clues about what happened in the silence: dog barks.

–Write a descriptive passage about the setting the dialog takes place in.

–Provide the character with thoughts in reaction to something said.

–Provide the character with a reaction to the dialog in a memory or flashback.

What isn’t said is called subtext. DIALOG EXISTS ON TWO LEVELS: THE SAID AND THE UNSAID.  Characters reveal themselves through what they conceal. They lie. They obfuscate.  What’s said must pertain to the plot or the general events of the story.  What is implied through subtext is the emotional story. The two go hand in hand.

Dialog Tips

–Dialog is not a source of facts about a piece: “You’ve missed the 8:35 ferry to the City and I’m not going to drive you the 35 miles to your job at 100 Bush St.”

–Dialog is not good for describing anything: “Wow, don’t you look great in that royal purple gown trimmed in white marabou around the plunging neckline.”

–Dialog is not a substitute for narrative. Facts need to be revealed in narrative—summarized in narrative.

–Dialog is not a place for extended brooding soliloquy.

Characteristics of dialog:

  1. each character should speak differently
  2. none of the characters should sound exactly like the author!
  3. characters speak differently with different characters
  4. characters speak differently in private than in public
  5. characters speak in manners that reflect their moods (loving vs angry)
  6. characters talk to their friends differently than to their mothers
  7. characters generally are not talking about the same thing in a conversation
  8. dialog sounds realistic, but is not written as people speak in life

Anatomy of dialog:

Dialog is what characters do to one another. It’s a verbal sparring, a physical exchange.

-Talk   (Dialog may not be grammatically correct)

-Gesture—shows how something is said.

-Silence—pause, look away, refuse to respond

-The surrounding world is part of dialog—keep the reader grounded in the real world. No talking heads.

-Attribution: use said. Don’t overburden your writing with substitutes; try to avoid adverbs. A strong verb will trump an adverb.

Exercise:   Write a dialog . Try to incorporate as many of the elements of dialog as possible to reveal your character’s natures.

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Character Desire

What do you want from life?  ~The Tubes

 Characters want things. They need things. Some are the mundane: food, shelter.

Other things are less essential: friends, stuff. The key to a good, well-rounded and complex character is in her wants and needs. The foundation for all characterization is the character’s desire.  It gives him the strength to keep on keeping on against the odds. It drives her actions so that she can realize her desire.

In the story, “Friendly Skies” by TC Boyle, the character only wants one thing: to land back on solid ground. Her need for safety puts the entire story into motion and we, the reader, can’t imagine things working out any differently than they do.

Think about Kafka’s “The Metamorphasis” where the main character had transformed into a cockroach over night. More than anything else, he doesn’t want to burden his family.

Look at your work. Can you write one sentence that conveys the deep desire of your character? Do it now.

The above description is a bit simplistic. A complex character will have more than one desire. She’ll have many, and here’s where it gets interesting. Some desires may fly in the face of the character’s or society’s values, creating conflict, or the character may hold two equally, but conflicting desires. This is what life is about. If we want our characters to appear real to our readers, they must be complex and conflicted. Little Miss Sunshine only holds an audience for a very short time!

How do we learn about these desires? Through the character’s choices, what he has to say to other characters, what he withholds from other characters, how he behaves, and through his thoughts and narration.

Remember that desire is packed with emotion. Desire is emotion, and human emotions are not neat. They are conflicting and mutable. Be cautions of making your character’s emotion too messy or you’ll end up with an unbelievable character. We want to be surprised but trust the character at the same time.

There are many ways to portray  your character’s desire. One excellent solution is to show how characters feel, think and behave in relationship with other characters. People think and act differently, depending who they are around and so with characters. Through different interactions, the reader can learn the facets of your characters’ person.

Compelling characters:

Hold two or more conflicting values/desires

Personalities are depicted by which value or desire the character chooses.

The character’s attitude about his choices builds characterization.

Small choices should be consistent with larger desires and can act as foreshadowing of the larger choices to come.

 

Write a back story for your protagonist as a short story or flash fiction. What has shaped her/him? How is her/his current desires driven by their past? Now do the same for your antagonist, if possible. Memoir writers, you can do this too. How has your past informed your present in relation to the story you are writing?

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Characters Drive Plot

Emotion drives behavior, behavior drives story. ~Nancy Kress

What’s happening in a story is most often happening to a character. Characters and plot intersect in several ways:

A character can create a plot point through action—the character does something and the story is a step closer to completion. (This applies to creative non-fiction too.)

A character can be acted upon by others, by nature, by God, and can create another plot point by reacting.

A character can remember things. Flashbacks are character-rich plotting devices that can give the reader information from the character’s backstory. Flashbacks don’t need to be told in chronological order.

Plot points can also be created by the imagining of the character. This could be a dream, a fantasy, a daydream, or a projection. An excellent example of this device can be seen in Flannery O’Conner’s Everything that Rises Must Converge. Notice how the son’s wild imaginings affect the plot.

Using your own list of characters, write or rewrite a story from the POV of a minor character. How does the plot change?

More reading: Junot Diaz The Sun The Moon The Stars
Tobias Wolff The Rich Brother
Julia Alvarez The Rudy Elmhurst Story

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Some Ways to Reveal a Character

I’m using the word “reveal” because a compelling character emerges from a combination of narration, dramatization and action in scenes—show AND tell. James Frey says a character has 3 dimensions: physiological, sociological and psychological. Do your homework and create full lives for your characters (backstory.) A compelling character is a complex character.

Describing what a character looks like, what his or her environment is like, and what kinds of possessions the character owns is the most basic way to define a character and is usually done through narration. Choose physical details that underscore her personality traits. Choose those character traits that have a bearing on the character’s emotion and behavior in the story.

What a character says in dialog is powerful characterization. How she says it is critical to knowing the character: her vocabulary, syntax, diction, use and misuse of words, even gestures, tone, and how emotionally charged the speech is. Just as important is what the character doesn’t say or avoids (subtext) to define her character.

Characters can’t only talk, they must act. A character’s behavior, both with other characters and alone, shows the reader a great deal. What the character does is tied in with who he is.

Characters reveal themselves directly or indirectly on the page, depending on the point of view, through their thoughts. It is particularly effective for characterization when the character thinks differently than he or she acts or speaks. An example of character revealed through thoughts can be seen in Bharati Mukherjee’s The Tenant. Notice how the association of her thoughts follow each other, and notice how much we learn about her through this association.

Go back to those lists you made of important people in your life, the creepy ones too, and pick a number. See that person in your mind’s eye. What’s she like? Zoom-in. Write about her skin, and the way her hair straggles unevenly around her ears, a combination of mousy brown and silver. Notice how she moves, how she flutters her hands when she feels nervous or perplexed. Smell her breath. Has she tippled the tequila today? Is she still wearing that Indian print bedspread she sewed into a granny skirt in 1968 and huaraches? What does her natural expression say about her? Look at what she’s doing. Is it routine, sweeping the floors, or something she loves. She plays the piano, doesn’t she? Where is she? On that slumping screened back porch she loves so much, or in the formal living room. Write about this person until you own her. Carolyn See says, “And from now on, it’s a combination of what he does and what you want him to do that’s going to make this character come alive.”

If you’re having trouble visualizing your character, interview her.

Adapted from: Alice LaPlant, The Making of a Story, A Norton Guide to Creative Writing 2007, Carolyn See, Making a Literary Life: Advice for Writers and Other Dreamers 2002, and James N. Frey, How to Write a Damn Good Novel, St. 1987

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Surprise Your Reader

Characters are the stars that everything else in your story orbits around: the plot, the dialog, the details, the themes. Even “show don’t tell” is all about character. Characters are central to what we writers do every time we apply pressure to those keyboard keys! And our goal is to create real people (in memoir too) who live on the pages, act in ways the reader believes and whom the reader can care about.

But there’s something else. A character must convince us that he or she is real, and he or she must surprise us. We aren’t going to care about flat, predicable characters.

Flat vs. Round Characters (Thanks to E. M Forster!)
When we read, we focus in on characters, whether or not we realize it, and we see them as human beings with all the features, attributes, foibles and peccadilloes of a real person: black curly hair, size six shoes, a limp, a history, memories, an aversion to clowns, hair trigger tempers, hopes, dreams—although we may not read about all of these things, a (main) character has ‘em and the reader can feel the character breathing on the page. If she doesn’t, the character is flat, lifeless, and not believable.

Not to say a flat character isn’t allowed. We want a few flat characters in our work. These are stereotypes. They act in a consistent and prescribed manner. They lack complexity. They serve cocktails in the Beastly Bar. They rat to the teacher, putting our protagonist into hot water. They might be a loving mother or an evil boss, but they don’t surprise us and we, as readers, don’t care about them.

The round character is the opposite. He surprises us with his passion for reptiles, or his kindness toward foreigners, or his caustic eye on the world. The round character might be our friend. Something to keep in mind, the round character doesn’t need to be likeable, just compelling! E.M. Forster says, “if a character never surprises us, then he or she is flat; if they surprise but do not convince us, they are only flat pretending to be round.”
(Gurov in Chekhov’s “The Lady with the Little Dog” is a round character.)

Some tips for creating compelling characters:
~Be specific, particular and precise when writing character. Real people don’t act in general ways. Your flat character may cry at a wedding along with half the guests, but your round character is going to surprise us.
~A round character will not act consistently, nor will she act crazy, all the time.

Strive for complexity. Humans are multifaceted, unpredictable, and infinitely interesting!

Carolyn See in Making a Literary Life: Advice for Writers and Other Dreamers
says, “Until the rest of us have time to sit down for cucumber sandwiches [like E. M. Forster–Ed.,] there are other ways to look at the characters who are going to be important in our lives and our work.” Here’s how:

Make a list of the ten most important people in your life. “Without thinking about it, or trying to make a good impression on anyone, or a bad impression either. Whom do you love? Who betrayed you? Whom did you betray? Who drives you nuts? Who’s out of your reach? Who’s your role model? Who’s your benchmark for insanity?” Write the list. Now, quickly, write the list of the “other” important people you knew and why—the ones who creep you out.

These are your characters. Carolyn says, “…the ones you know something about. You may even have said to them, in a quarrel, ‘I know you better than you know yourself!’…But they give you—in a form of cosmic refraction—unique access to your own soul and vision of life.”

Save your lists. You’ve got work to do!

Adapted from: Alice LaPlant, The Making of a Story, A Norton Guide to Creative Writing 2007 and Nancy Kress, Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint, Writers Digest Books, 2005 and Carolyn See, Making a Literary Life: Advice for Writers and Other Dreamers 2002

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