The Writing Process

Photo: The Writer Wizards

Photo: The Writer Wizards

(Note–this post is from my Website, Victoria C. Slotto. Would you stop by and follow me there–and tell others about it? Thank you!)

Welcome to The Writing Process I.

 In preparation for the upcoming release of The Sin of His Father, I’d like to share some insights into the process I followed in writing this novel.

My hope is, of course, to arouse some interest in the book—but also to offer suggestions to those of you who are writing books or short stories of your own, or who are considering jumping into the world of the writer.

I thought I’d begin with character development. There are many ways to approach this important step in writing a novel. In writing Winter is Past, I did nothing in way of preparation. I just sat down and wrote.

I suppose, subconsciously, the protagonist, Claire, became something of an alter-ego. Like me, she had a kidney transplant. She worked as a hospice physician—while I was hospice nurse. Likewise, her husband, Josh, bore many characteristics of my husband—a nurturer, a gourmet cook, a gardener.

There was a problem, however: both characters fell flat—Josh, scrubbed clean of flaws and Claire, weak and unsympathetic. It took a lot of insightful critique, offered by my writing buddies, as well as numerous rewrites, to achieve any depth.

In retrospect, I wish I had done it all differently. I wish I had planned, outlined. I can’t begin to imagine how much time I could have saved, how many edits and rewrites I could have avoided.

As I began the process of outlining The Sin of His Father I chose a much different approach to my characters. To begin with, I “created” a male protagonist—a bit daring for a woman, someone who had no brothers and who had minimal interactions with men.

Using Myers-Briggs Character and Temperament Types), I developed detailed profiles of every major and secondary character. These character types are useful in that they are predictors of how a person is likely to respond in a given situation—though a certain amount of the unexpected is desired.

The protagonist, Matt, is INTP—that is, introverted, intuitive, thinking and perceptive. (The opposites are extroverted, sensate, feeling and judgmental) In my next process note, I will explain a bit more about these characteristics and give you a peek into how I envisioned Matt.

Resource: Please Understand Me: Character and Temperament Types by David Keirsey and Marilyn Bates


Monday Meanderings–Character Development in Fiction

Photo Credit: Pinterest

Photo Credit: Pinterest

A while back, I attended a writer’s conference session about character development. The speaker suggested using astrological signs as a means to create believable, consistent characters. My knowledge of astrology is scant, but I tried to apply it to the characters in my first novel, Winter is Past. The results weren’t what I’d hoped for.

When I worked in the area of nursing education, human resources and spirituality, I had the opportunity to delve into Myers-Briggs…a personality evaluation tool that assesses behavior based on four areas of response: Introversion versus extraversion, Intuitive versus Sensate, Thinking versus Feeling and Perceptive versus Judgmental. The latter may not be so self-explanatory but I use the example of my parents: my dad would be ready to go somewhere 20 minutes ahead of time, while my mother would change her mind a few more times about what she wanted to wear. Think: structured versus easy-going.

I returned to my draft manuscript, and applied the Myers-Briggs, using this tool to help me re-create the major characters with the result of more consistent, believable players. For my second novel The Sin of His Father, I wrote out character profiles before I even began to write, again using the Myers-Briggs. It has made it so much easier.

Photo Credit:

Photo Credit:

There is an old book called Please Understand Me that explains all the possible profile combinations and how they play out in real life. If you can find it, it’s been a godsend.

I’m addicted to The Learning Company‘s Great Courses, university level programs presented by the highest quality professors. One of the courses, The Art of Reading is taught by Professor Timothy Spurgin of Lawrence University. The lectures are well-organized, clearly presented and as applicable to writers as to readers.

An important point from the lecture on characters addresses developing round characters. The concept of a round character, as opposed to a flat one, was presented by E. M. Forster in his book, Aspects of the Novel. Simply put, a round character is one who will capture the reader’s interest because of his unpredictability, his complexity and the changes he undergoes during the course of the story. And this is key: “The test of a round character is whether it is capable of surprising in a convincing way.” (Forster)

While a protagonist needs to draw the sympathy of the reader, he should have some character flaws. Inversely, your antagonist should have something that makes him, if not attractive, at least capable of being understood. Just like us–no one is all good or all bad.

As you write, reflect upon your own reaction to the key characters in your manuscript. Are you able to identify with them to some degree? Are there things that, if you were that person, you might be ashamed of or want to change? Are there events or reactions which are surprising without being totally out-of-character (unconvincing)? Is your character someone you would want to know, or avoid?

One thing I find helpful when writing fiction is to base my characters on a composite of people I know or with whom I have been acquainted. You can even take someone who is in the public eye. I try not to use one person because I would never want anyone to say to me, “That’s me, isn’t it?” My mother once thought a character was her because I set a scene in a room in her house! And this secondary character was not, initially, a nice person.

I hope this brief reflection on characters will be helpful to those of you who have an interest in writing fiction. In a future post, I’ll share a character development worksheet that I prepared for  a character in novel #2 to give you something to hang your words on!

Happy writing; enjoy the process!

Perfect Family

Photo Credit: Benjamin Kinsland via Google Images

A Perfect Family lived next door—perfect mother and father—three perfect children—two boys and a girl.
They went to church every Sunday as we slept in—Bible Study on Thursday evenings while we drank beer and watched football.
They didn’t yell or curse like we did—like the couple on the other side of us—Their lawn was perfectly manicured.
The oldest son went off to college and was an honor student—my son went to work after high school at an auto repair shop.
The middle daughter was the star of the soccer team—she played the violin and practiced for hours in the evening and on Saturday.
The mother didn’t work because she cared for the toddler—and began home schooling when he was five years old.
On summer evenings the father would come home from work and change into his Ralph Lauren polo shirt and barbecue steaks or ribs.
The aroma invaded the neighborhood as the rest of us sat on our porches eating hot dogs with potato salad and baked beans.
One such evening my son was smoking a Marlboro and drinking a Bud—my daughter was pregnant and I wasn’t sure where my husband had gone.
Fireflies danced in the dusk before the shots rang out – five of them.
My dogs skittered into the house through the dog door as I grabbed the phone to call 911.
They called it a murder-suicide—the weight of perfection—too heavy to bear I guess. Everybody said so.

Today, over at dVerse Poets’ Pub, I have the honor of hosting Meeting the Bar. I’m discussing an important aspect of fiction/non-fiction writing with an eye to how it can be applied to poetry–that is, characterization.

In this poem, written years ago, I’m including snapshots of two families with the hope that the brief descriptions paint a picture of the tenor of both. Please bear in mind that I have the mind of a fiction writer and much of my poetry is fiction, as this one is. Sometimes people in my past (or present), newspaper articles and other snippets of news serve as a source of inspiration, so that something factual may be borrowed and embroidered.

I hope you will join us at the pub to read some incredible poetry and, hopefully, to offer up something of your own.  The doors open in forty-five minutes (1500 EDT). I look forward to reading your work.

Wordsmith Wednesday–Spice Up Your Characters!

Spices from Gujarat

Image by Sudhamshu via Flickr

No matter the genre you write, you want to create compelling characters. These are the companions that will accompany your reader on the journey throughout your novel or story, and if they lack interest or personality, who will want them as travel companions?

In previous posts, we spoke about character motivation, emotional expression, relationships, point of view, personality types, and the importance of avoiding stereotypes. Today, let’s review some of these and take a look at a few more spices you can throw in the mix to (as Emeril would say) kick it up a notch.

  • Don’t allow your characters to become predictable. Surprise your reader by having your introverted protagonist take center stage at a party. Allow your victim-martyr to throw a temper tantrum. Make your malleable co-dependent cling stubbornly to her opinion or stand firm for a cause she believes in.
  • Give your character a deep, dark secret. A secret will add dimension to one or more of your major characters. How about a hidden problem with addiction or a history of childhood sexual, emotional or physical abuse. Maybe an illicit liaison or desire, an unacknowledged sin or a pattern of self-deception will add complexity. Does your hero have an unmet desire or obsession? Any of these will influence his behavior in a number of ways and make the reader want to discover more.
  • Allow her to be vulnerable. Focus in on a fear or weakness with which your reader can identify and that may get in the way of your characters attaining their goals. Create empathy and identification.
  • Give them an enemy. You don’t want everyone in the story to be supportive of your protagonists on their road to achieving what they want. How about a boss who stands in the way of her success? A girlfriend who sabotages her? A lover who criticizes or demeans? Make sure there are some bumps on the road to success.
  • Identify major, secondary and minor characters and proceed accordingly. Spend more time and effort on those who play central roles in your work, but don’t neglect the nosy neighbor, the first wife or the usual suspect who turns out to be a false lead.

These are just a handful of devices to make your characters more textured and appealing to those who will travel with them. I find it helpful to harvest personality characteristics from people I’ve known throughout my lifetime, being careful, of course, to keep them unidentifiable.

I invite you to take a look at some of the older posts in Wordsmith Wednesday that deal with characterization. I believe that writing complex, compelling characters is one of the most important keys to successful fiction.Have fun with the people you create!

Wordsmith Wednesday–Character Motivation

White Books

Image by Vicki's Pics via Flickr

Have you ever met someone who doesn’t seem to want to go anywhere in life? We might call these people lazy. A risk of retirement (as I’ve encountered among some people of my generation) is the failure to develop goals or interests they will pursue when their time is no longer dominated by the demands of the workplace. People who have no sense of direction in life can come across as b-o-r-i-n-g. The same can be true of fictional characters we develop if they fail to show motivation.

Have you ever set aside a novel or short story on account of a character who falls flat? Chances are, that’s because the author has not engaged you right off the bat by presenting a protagonist who has to face challenges in order to get something he or she wants. The driving force behind a character needs to show up early in the manuscript–I’d say within the first chapter at the latest. A novel that begins with lengthy description or back story is likely to be abandoned.

How do you, as a writer, define a character’s motivation? You should have a sense of a story arc, of the beginning and end of the novel (if not all the stuff in between). You want to see that the protagonist will have changed in some way by the end of the story. You want him to meet obstacles that he will face in order to obtain what he wants. So, ask yourself, What drives him forward?

Let’s consider some of the very basic character motivators:

Solving a mystery
Finding love
Avoiding death or pain
Saving the world
Overcoming a handicap or limitation
Achieving success
Growing up
and…you name it!
If you are unable to define your character’s motivation, perhaps you are not ready to write that novel. Be clear about the desires and needs that underlie his actions.

Don’t forget, it’s not only the protagonist who needs to have motivation. Consider this: if your hero is a detective and wants to catch the bad guy, what does that antagonist want? To avoid being caught? To get away with his crime? Maybe to kill the detective? Peoples motives conflict and that adds to the tension of the story.

Finally, when you are in the process of revising and editing your manuscript, ask yourself as you review each and every scene, How does this play into my characters’ motives? If you are unable to define the purpose of the scene with clarity, chances are you need to delete it. Or rewrite it to give it relevance in the context of the story.

By becoming aware of the play of motivation in your story and character development, you will have more success in creating a manuscript that moves the plot forward with characters who capture the attention of the reader. You will not be boring.

Previously posted October, 2010. Due to WordPress issues, I’ve had limited access to my blog this week. Hopefully, this is new to many of you. Victoria

Wordsmith Wednesday–10 Suggestions to Improve your Fiction Writing

Underwood Typewriter

Image via Wikipedia

I’m in a bullet point mood. That is to say, I feel like posting a list of short, unrelated tidbits that aim to help you improve your writing. Some, I’ve already mentioned. Others are new but don’t need a thesis.

  • To create a bit of drama in the relationships of your fictional characters, triangulate. Add a third party to a friendship or love relationship…someone who threatens to disturb the balance.
  • Within the first few pages of your novel (or first few paragraphs of your short story) create a destabilizing event–something that creates an obstacle to the goals of your protagonist.
  • Take two steps forward and one step backward. The path to resolution should be full of obstacles. As the story advances, allow your hero to solve a problem, but introduce another one in its wake. Keep the reader on edge and turning pages.
  • Embrace realism. We ask our readers to suspend disbelief, but there must be a thread of truth in what you write, even if you write sci-fi or fantasy. Your audience should be able to say, “If we were invaded by Martians, it is not improbable that humans would react like….”
  • Create multidimensional scenes. Don’t relay solely on one sense to describe a setting. What does it look like? Smell like? Sound like. The more you are able to engage the readers senses, the better able will you be to hurl them into the story.
  • Read aloud. Whether you edit/revise as you go along or as one unit (or both, like I do) be sure to read your manuscript aloud. You will catch typos, stilted dialogue, echos, or odd syntax when you go through that exercise. If you can find someone to read with you, especially portions of dialogue, all the better.
  • Be objective. If you use a familiar setting, for example, make sure your descriptions are clear to the reader. You may be able to envision the details of a scene but have you written it so that anyone can picture the progression of the action?
  • Connect with your reader. Identify the demographics of your target audience and write to them. Use appropriate language for age, gender, education level etc.
  • Allow a theme to emerge from your story–don’t force the story to fit the theme.
  • And, finally, whenever possible, substitute an active verb for an adverb or adjective.

I hope that you will find one or more of these suggestions helpful to you in your writing and revision process. I would love any feedback you have to offer. Above all, enjoy what you do!

Wordsmith Wednesday: Another Reflection on Character Development

Writing samples: Parker 75

Image by churl via Flickr

While driving from Reno to Palm Desert I listened to some CD’s presented by The Learning Company‘s Great Courses. If you have access to these, I strongly recommend them to you. The particular series I’m addressing is called The Art of Reading and is presented by Professor Timothy Spurgin of Lawrence University. The lectures are well-organized, clearly presented and as applicable to writers as to readers.

Today, I want to share an important point from the lecture on characters about developing round characters.

The concept of a round character, as opposed to a flat one, was presented by E. M. Forster in his book, Aspects of the Novel. Simply put, a round character is one who will capture the reader’s interest because of his unpredictability, his complexity and the changes he undergoes during the course of the story. And this is key: “The test of a round character is whether it is capable of surprising in a convincing way.” (Forster)

We’ve previously discussed the fact that, while your protagonist needs to draw the sympathy of the reader, he should have some character flaws. Inversely, your antagonist should have something that makes him, if not attractive, at least capable of being understood.  Just like us–no one is all good or all bad.

As you write, reflect upon your own reaction to the key characters in your manuscript. Are you able to identify with them to some degree? Are there things that, if you were that person, you might be ashamed of or want to change? Are there events or reactions which are surprising without being totally out-of-character (unconvincing)? Is your character someone you would want to know, or avoid?

One thing I find helpful when writing fiction is to base my characters on a composite of people I know or with whom I have been acquainted. You can even take someone who is in the public eye. I try not to use one person because I would never want anyone to say to me, “That’s me, isn’t it?” My mother once thought a character was her because I set the scene in a room in her house!

I suggest referring back to a couple of posts I’ve written on character development using the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator or the Enneagram because these personality profile systems help you to identify how a character might react in a given situation as well as their strengths and weakness. This can suggest a source of surprise as well, since none of us is a perfect fit to any one personality type.

I plan on using the round/flat character definition to help in rewriting my second novel…a goal I’ve set for my visit here in the desert.

Happy writing–enjoy the process.

Wordsmith Wednesday–Character Development, A Sample

My "Seven Swords" Novel Writing Nook

Image by mshea via Flickr

In previous posts I’ve addressed character development using the Myers-Briggs Personality Profile. I thought in this post I would share with you specifics on how to use it.

Before I put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) for my second novel, The Sin of His Father, I took the time to create a complete profile of each of the main and secondary characters. I wrote these prior to even outlining the plot, since, in literary fiction, the story is driven by the characters. I included a few descriptive phrases (which I didn’t use). The benefit of having a clear picture of your characters it that it will allow you to create a “round” versus “flat” character, to introduce both strengths and weaknesses, to create an element of surprise that is non-the-less believable and to help you predict how your character might react in a given circumstance.

Here is the profile I created for my protagonist, Matt:


1. Matthew McKinley Maxwell – Point of View Character
• Nickname: Matt, Mattie (by his Mom only)
• Birth date: April 2, 1979 (Aries)
• Character Role: Protagonist
• Protagonist, Private Investigator, Franciscan Novice/Monk, Seminarian
• Think young Jerry Orbach

Physical Description
• Age: 36 at beginning of novel
• Race: Irish American-white
• Eye color: brown
• Hair: dark brown
• Build: 6’2” 182 lbs
• Skin tone: dark: “Black” Irish
• Style of dress: clean, but not stylish. Mismatched colors. Baggy pants. Franciscan habit. Safety pin on belt loop to pick pipe tobacco out of his teeth.

A mop of thick black hair marked him as Black Irish. Crossed on the left, swooping across his smooth forehead, Matt struggled with that one unruly lock that tangled with his heavy brows.

Matt’s forehead protruded like that of a Bald Eagle. Thick brows, perched above his beak, hooded deep-set brown eyes. He avoided catching the priests glance. His mother had told him, time and time again, “Look people in straight in the eyes, Mattie. Look at them. Show them you have nothing to hide. Show them you’re a man.” But this man’s eyes were different. It seemed like they pierced his sorrow.

Matt sucked in his upper lip, guiding the razor in short downward strokes. He’d thought about growing a mustache before.

Matt’s dimples deepened when he smiled, which wasn’t often, the Novice Master realized. What sort of burden did this man carry?
What was it about him that was so elusive?

He chewed on his thick lower lip, longed for the comforting touch of the smooth pipe stem in the corner of his mouth. (Research websites on favorites about pipes, tobacco.)

He heaved his 6’2’’ frame into the El. At 182 lbs, he kept promising himself he’d drop five. “Do ya think I can do it?” he would ask Monica. ¶“Not here,” she’d answered, wrestling with the extra cheese on a pepperoni from Pizzeria Uno. ¶“But I build in my exercise walking to and from the El.”

• Quick wit, dry sense of humor

• Smokes a pipe and has an aroma of tobacco smoke about him. Dresses shoddily, but clean. Keeps a safety-pin in a belt loop to pick flecks of tobacco out of his teeth

Raised as an only child by his mother who was first generation Irish. Raised in the South Side of Chicago. Never knew his father. His mother told him that his father split before he was born but never gave him any details. He would ask her “Why don’t you get married, Mom. Why don’t you get me a daddy?” She would answer, “You know why. You know we’re Catholic.” Matt always assumed that she had been married and divorced from his father. Whenever he would ask about his father, his mother would answer, “You don’t want to know about him, Mattie. He wasn’t a good man. But you, you don’t need to be like him, you know. You’re your own person. It’s good you don’t have him in your life.”

o Matt attended 8 years of Catholic School in the South Side, but then had to go to Public School. He was intelligent and always got good grades. He never mixed in well. There was a mix of blacks in his neighborhood and parish and that’s where he became friends with (detective). They became buddies in High School and decided to go to 2-year college to study criminal justice. Both graduated and his buddy went on to the police academy. Matt decided that he didn’t want to be a cop because he had no stomach for violence, blood and guts. But his buddy encouraged him to be a PI because of his analytical mind. Bachelors in Criminal Justice, then Theology. Studying in the Seminary for Doctoral Degree before leaving monastery

Matt stopped going to church when he went to the community college. He didn’t believe you should have to answer to any human, but to directly to God. Every once in a while he would slip into the Catholic Church in downtown Chicago and spend some time with God. He liked to be alone and think. He just didn’t like the structure and authority of the church. He continued to carry his rosary with him. His mother would plea with him to return to the sacraments, telling him that that’s where she got the strength to go through life alone. He would explain to her that he still felt close to God in his own way.

As far as relationships go, Matt had a series of monogamous relationships with women his age. He liked sex but as soon as the women began to talk to him about commitment, he’d drop out. He had a fear of showing his emotions. He wasn’t sure what it was that bothered him, but thought it had something to do with his mother’s bad experience with marriage. Matt was precise and wanted to do everything precisely, including marriage. But then, he finds himself falling in love with Monica, wanting to be with her for the rest of his life. He’s not able to tell her, and in the middle of their relationship, tells her he can’t have sex with her anymore. He doesn’t feel guilt about sex, but somehow felt he would hurt the one woman he had begun to care about. Monica was confused and told him she couldn’t see him anymore.

Matt always had dogs when he was growing up, always Black Labrador Retrievers and always named Bones. At the beginning of the story, this is his third dog. Matt needs to rise early to exercise his dog before daily activities. Then, after work, he takes him for a run along Lake Michigan. Throughout novel, Matt can talk to Bones, review his thoughts and conflicts aloud with his confident. See description of Bones, below.

• INTP on Myers-Briggs (Introverted, Intuitive, Thinking, Perceptive
• Precise–Reviews his reports several times
• Asks a lot of questions for clarification, “Now, did I get this right?”
• Strong ability to concentrate
• Is oblivious of his surroundings when he’s reading. People will say something and he won’t even hear them.
• Logical
• Keeps his cool, externally, when things are chaotic around him. Shows good problem-solving skills.
• Shuns external authority
• Show his struggles when he’s a novice. Use lots of interior dialogue. Now what’s the purpose of that? That doesn’t make sense. Has to bite his tongue when he wants to make a smartass remark, but keeps it inside of himself.
• Curious about universe, about how things work
• Tie into above. Have him ask why? All the time.
• Need to understand behavior
• Again, asking lots of questions. His novice master and others in the novitiate can go crazy with his questioning, tell him, Enough already, just do it. This can be a big point of contention in his conversations with his superiors.
• Intellectual, impatient with those who are not
• Consider adding another novice. The kid could be dull, younger than Matt and in the end, drops out before vows. Matt could try to befriend him, but it’s a hopeless case. Again, could be an instance in which he has to bite his tongue, only have him chew down on his empty pipe which he carries with him all the time. (Ask Fr. JP: Are novices allowed a pipe? Could paint him going through nicotine withdrawal at first.)
• Perceived as arrogant
• Novice Master could have this discussion with him. Perhaps he doesn’t relate well to the other friars.
• Must understand everything, irrelevant to them if others don’t understand their truth
• Covered in above descriptions
• Lives in the world of theory, not able to make things happen
• This could be apparent in his dealings with his friend, the detective.
• Dosen’t like social activity or disorder in his environment
• Describe some part of his apartment, office, cell that he’s compulsive about, bearing in mind that these kind of people “give up” if the situation is impossible. Maybe everything that he files away has to be in perfect order. That’s why he has piles around. He can’t put stuff away if it’s not in the right place.
• Re: social activity, just have him respond as an introvert
• Easy to live with
• Doesn’t confront. Can have Novice Master probe him about his inner feelings, saying he always gives in. Matt would deny that’s a problem.
• Forget things, not grounded in daily living
• What can he be absent-minded about? As novice, doesn’t show up to community prayer/activities. Always late. As PI, sometimes forgets to get off El at the right stop.
• Difficulty expressing emotions verbally Show in his relationship with his mother, when she’s dying, with Monica and his reflection back on his other relationships. These can happen in conversations with the novice master. Tie in to “easy to get along with.
• Strongest quality is thinking, but they don’t appear to others as intellectuals. Show in his absent-mindedness. Maybe a discussion between the prior and the novice master.
• Often misunderstood, their reserve is difficult to penetrate
• Not adaptable if principles are violated. Think of a scene when this is shown. Maybe his interior struggle related to his secret drinking. Show conflict and guilt. Have someone compliment him on his discipline and have him react to the deception he has undertaken. Can also be shown in a scene with his detective friend. Maybe he wants to do something illegal-bribe a police detective or…?
• Think in a complicated fashion. This can come out in conversations with the novice master and the detective. Maybe even with the old priest.
• May be unaware of feelings of others. Show in context of community life. Also have him question how he could have missed the signs that his mother lived a tortured existence.

Internal Conflicts
• Central internal conflict is related to his fear that he has genetic influence from his father who raped his mother.
• Morally sound man who hates the fact that he’s living a lie. He has entered the monastery to escape his fear that he’s a sexual predator. He values the truth but knows the he is deceptive in his reasons for being in the monastery.
• He secretly battles alcoholism. Again, this adds to his sense of self-deception. While he is able to deceive others, he is never able to lie to himself. He watches his act as a detached observer. His passion for the truth makes it even more deceptive.
• He’s puzzled by his inability to form a strong relationship. He’s madly in love with Monica, but cannot bring himself to tell her. He’s a bundle of emotions that he holds under close wraps.

External Conflicts
• Matt is assailed by the fear that he will be discovered for the liar he is.
• He lives under the dread that he will develop into someone who is prone to violence and/or sexual deviancy.
• He doesn’t know what he’ll do when and if he will find his father.

Private investigator, Franciscan postulant, seminarian, student, novice, friar, works in soup kitchen.

Wordsmith Wednesday–Character Development

Early drafts of my first novel fell flat. When I began to participate in writing critique groups, it became apparent that my boring characters lacked dimension and played out unresolved aspects of my own personality or only the positive traits of people I love. For example, Claire—the protagonist in “Winter is Past”—was fear-based and narcissistic, while her husband, Josh, was way too perfect.

Through the process of many, many rewrites I’ve picked up a few tricks to add depth in developing characters:

• Dig into the archive of your life. (It helps that I have many years of accumulated “documents.”) Choose people who are memorable: family members, co-workers, bosses, friends… Identify positive and negative personality traits. Mix them up in such a way that Aunt Millie can’t say That’s me, isn’t it?—but make sure that your character has some modicum of consistency in his/her responses. For that purpose, I use the Myers-Briggs personality measure. (Refer to my post of January 18, 2010: Fictional Character Development).
• Be sure that each main player has something that endears the reader, as well as some defect that illustrates the frail side of human nature. Your hero shouldn’t be all good, nor should the villain be totally despicable.
• Pay attention to point of view (POV). At first I tried to write everything from the POV of my protagonist. That’s what I had read you should do and that’s what my fellow writers told me to do. But it just didn’t work. Writer, beware: if you do shift POV, limit the number of characters whose mind you enter and be sure to mark a clear separation between POVs. I use separate scenes or chapters. Don’t shift in one paragraph unless you want to lose the reader—in more ways than one.
• Consider ways to go outside your comfort zone. In my second novel, I wrote from a male perspective. Even though Matt, the protagonist, shares some of my life experiences I’ve tried to deal with them as a man would.

I hope that some of these ideas are useful to you and that I can spare you a dozen or more rewrites.

Wordsmith Wednesday–Creating Complex Characters

I took this photograph while climbing Angora R...

Image via Wikipedia

One of the reasons novels (or short stories) are rejected is that characters lack depth. If you have a protagonist who’s too good or a villain who’s all bad, your reader will be unable to relate to them. In an earlier post we talked about the importance of bestowing a few flaws or weird mannerisms on the hero and of making sure that the antagonist has some endearing charcteristic…or at least something in his background to arouse a little sympathy.

Another way to create a complex character is to play with his or her emotions. Think about it. Do you know someone who’s always happy and optimistic (Pollyanna, maybe?) or a person who emanates only negativity? Not likely. Consider your own feelings. Sure, you may love someone dearly, but at times you will experience hurt or anger in response to a word or action. We live with conflicting emotions all the time, all at once. In crafting your characters, be sure to consider ambivalence, moods and conflicting reactions.

Another important point: show emotional complexity. Don’t just tell us about it. Expose your fictional character through dramatization so that your reader will feel that she is a part of the story.

I’d like to share an example from “Winter is Past,” that shows a range of emotions in just a snippet of a scene:

Josh drove up Mt. Rose, while I soaked in the beauty of junipers, conifers and wild bursts of early fall color splashing the sides of the highway. When we crested the mountain, crystalline splendor greeted us. Lake Tahoe splayed like a sheet of glass on the horizon. A late-season  cut through the stillness, sending ripples of contentment across the surface of the water and into my spirit. I wanted to hold on to the moment and never let go.

“Did you ever ask your mother anything more about your dream?”

Josh’s question jolted me out of my reverie. I blew out a lungful of air. “Nope. I’m waiting to see her face-to-face.”

“I think it’s gonna be important to get a grasp on whatever happened.” Josh signaled a right turn and eased onto the road circling the lake and headed toward North Shore.

“Why do you say that?” A gnawing feeling stirred in my gut. I stared straight ahead at the winding road.

“No special reason—but something weighs on you and I think you need to figure it out.”

“Weighs on me? What the hell do you mean by that?” I turned to face Josh. He’d thrown a stone onto the surface of my peacefulness, casting waves that spread into the center of my being.

“Easy, honey,” Josh patted me on the knee as though I were a little child. “You’re the one who keeps bringing up some elusive memory—it’s like you’re possessed by fear.”

“Don’t you think there’s reason for fear?” I looked straight ahead again, my eyes following the broken white line that separated us from on-coming traffic. Anger began to build up inside me.

You may want to take a scene that’s given from your own work, assess it in relation to character complexity and see what you can do with it. Try it…it’s fun!

Note: If  you’re looking for One Stop Wednesday or Sensational Haiku Wednesday, they are posted under separate entries! Thanks for stopping by.