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!

Wordsmith Wednesday–Cultivating Imagination

Children play

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Growing up when I did–a long, long time ago–I had abundant opportunities to cultivate my imagination. The games we played as children could not depend on media or even toys…with rare exceptions. Kitchen utensils and tin cans, my mom’s broom and a few cardboard boxes were all I needed to play house. I baked mud pies and used small swatches of material to make clothes for my doll. Sticks became arrows and we kicked a can. It was a wonderful childhood that provided plenty of exercise and ample opportunity for developing an active imagination.

Then along came adulthood. No more room for flights of fancy or escapes into other cultures…except perhaps in between the covers of a good book when there was time. Television took over relaxation and it was so easy to slip into modes of passive entertainment.

But for us, as writers, an active imagination is as important as pen and paper or a computer and keyboard. How often are you able to time travel to the Tudor era or the American West or hop a quick flight to Bangalore where your character may be following a lead on the tail of a criminal? Or, what if, you’re writing a scene in the middle of a blizzard while it’s 90 degrees Farenheit outside? We have to be able to mentally, emotionally, and physically transport ourselves to these times and places. We want to be able to think “outside the box.” Those of you who write Sci Fi even have to transcend dimensions.

So for this week’s post, I’m going to offer a few exercises to help flex your imagination muscles and then I want to ask you to either offer up an exercise of your own or share your response to one of the exercises that one of us posts. Or both. Go ahead and get in touch with that inner child and play!

Exercise I.
You are a small dog. How do you experience the world around you? Choose your own setting and characters.
Exercise II.
You are a reporter called upon to interview a great religious or political figure? Choose your own interviewee and describe one or two questions you would like to ask and their response to your question. Include setting and body language if you want.
Exercise III.
You live in (choose a country you have never visited). Describe the scents and tastes of the foods. This may take a bit of research.
Exercise IV.
You are dying and cannot speak. Who is with you and what is said?
Exercise V.
It is the opposite season of wherever you are now. Describe the scene you would see outside.

I’m anxious to see your response and I hope to use one of YOUR exercises to strengthen my own power of imagination. Now, go play.

Wordsmith Wednesday–Giving and Receiving Feedback

Group Discussion

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An important part of my writing experience and growth has been the process of giving and receiving critique. The first time my novel was accepted for work-shopping in a Writer’s Conference I was so sure I had passed a significant hurdle–if accepted, it must be that it was really good. Whoa, was I surprised! After that experience, I put the manuscript away and began think of an alternate plan for my second career. Thankfully, it didn’t take long for me to realize the value of honest feedback and I began the painstaking task of rewriting. When I revisit that initial draft I shudder to think I was oh-so-proud of it.

In this post I’d like to toss out some suggestions for giving and receiving feedback about your writing. Whether you participate in a Writing Critique Group, an Internet Forum, one-on-one sharing, working with a professional editor or workshopping through a University or Writer’s Conference, open yourself to enjoy…yes, enjoy the opportunity that such give-and-take provides.

In General:

  • Prepare yourself emotionally and mentally for the process of critique. Don’t go into a session expecting universal acclaim of your brilliance and form the intention to help your fellow writers.
  • Familiarize yourself with the process established by the group. If it includes pre-reading the work of other participants, be sure you have read and written comments on their submissions.
  • If required, have copies of your manuscript available for all participants.

Receiving Critique

  • Listen with an open mind to the comments of other members of the group.
  • Ask clarifying questions after the reviewer has completed their analysis.
  • Avoid becoming defensive. If requested, explain your point of view.
  • Take notes on all remarks.
  • Watch for similarities. If more than one member express the same idea, take a good, hard look at that suggestion.
  • Brainstorm with the members for solutions to problems with plot etc.
  • Do NOT make significant changes right away. However, go ahead and correct grammar and typos..
  • Remember that this is your work. You may be the only one who has the whole picture. Be careful about taking every suggestion to heart or you may lose your story or poem in the process.
  • Return the favor and give a well-thought-out review to other members of the group.

Giving Feedback

  • Preface the session with what you like most about the work.
  • Ask the author how they feel about their work, if they can identify strengths or areas needing improvement.
  • Be specific. Don’t just say, “This doesn’t work for me.” Give examples of where improvement is needed and how it can be accomplished. For example, “This would work better for me if, instead of telling me she feels scared, show me how it affects her using sensory detail.”
  • Give the author a chance to ask questions and/or to explain his point of view.

Now, for some discussion:

  • Do you participate in some sort of critique forum? What kind?
  • Does your group have any rules of engagement you would like to share?
  • Can you add suggestions to those I have outlined?
  • Do you have any anecdotes you would like to share about your experience with critique?

I hope you will join in with me helping your fellow writers and poets. Please leave your observations or suggestions in the comments section of this post. Happy Writing. Enjoy the process.

Wordsmith Wednesday–Point of View

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I experience a certain amount of terror in approaching the subject of point of view because it’s a topic I find sometimes confusing and obscure. I know for a fact that, as a reader, I’m very conscious of shifting points of view that are not well-defined by the writer.

Your choice of point of view plays an important role in characterization. When I first began to write “Winter is Past” I chose first person point of view. One person doing a critique told me that agents want third person, so I dutifully (and foolishly) embarked upon the tedious task of rewriting the entire manuscript. In the process, I lost all emotional connection with my protagonist. Some of my early rejections were based on exactly that reason. Finally, after all but abandoning the novel, I put it back into first person and, able to climb into Claire’s mind, enabled the reader to get to know her again.

In both my novels I’ve written from the point of view of three different characters. To do this successfully, I believe there needs to be a definitive shift between characters such as spaces or chapter changes. To me there is nothing more muddling than scrambling around in more than one person’s head in just one or two paragraphs, and it happens.

A good reference when you are considering point of view choices for a novel or short story is James Frey’s book, “How to Write a Damn Good Novel.” He clarifies the various options available to you.

Wordsmith Wednesday–Setting and Description Revisited

As a writer of fiction and poetry, I believe part of my responsibility to the reader is to allow her to travel places she has never been or to revisit places that are familiar, thus evoking memories or heightening awareness.

Long descriptive paragraphs of setting may disenchant the reader of today who’s used to momentary flashes of multiple images across a screen within a few second. (Does this relate to the high incidence of attention deficit disorder in our culture?)

Above all, setting and the use of sensory description enriches the reader’s experience. One way to use this technique is to break up dialogue. Here’s a brief example from my novel, “Winter is Past”:

“I wonder how Michael’s handling it. Do you think I should I call him?” Josh asked me.

“Will it help?” Based on Kathryn’s assessment, I had my doubts.

Josh shook his head and fixed his eyes on a quail eating seeds he’d planted in the flower garden. “Maybe not, but I can try; I’ll call after we eat. Honey, why did Kathryn ask you to take her to her appointments instead of Michael?” Josh grabbed the meat with tongs, slid it onto a plate and headed back into the house.

Even more valuable, in my opinion, is the writer’s ability to convey emotion through setting. Consider this brief passage from “Winter is Past” as a means of eliciting fear, sadness and powerlessness:

I trotted after Kathryn who jogged along the brick path beside our house. My eye caught sight of a tiny wren, cowering in the dense foliage of a rambling juniper shrub. Overhead, a majestic red-tailed hawk circled, squawking a message of certain doom at the tiny bird. I felt tears well up in my eyes then turned my attention back to Kathryn who now disappeared through the redwood gate.

In a previous post, I described a practice I use off and on. In your writing journal, at the end of each day, describe 5-10 things you have noticed throughout the day. Return to these lists for ideas to supplement your own writing then return to a scene you have written in which you have “told” rather than “shown” an emotion. Try rewriting it using a bit of scenery or a background activity to elicit that same feeling. This is helpful to keep in mind when you are rewriting/revising your work as well.

Happy writing. Enjoy the process

Wordsmith Wednesday–Avoid Stereotypes in Writing Fiction

Stereotypes are generalizations about a group of people to whom we attribute a defined set of characteristics. Consider the images that come to mind when you think about certain racial or ethnic groups, sexes, religions. How do you define/visualize a liberal or a conservative? A fundamentalist or an atheist? A millionaire or someone living in a ghetto?

It’s important to pepper your writing with a diverse cast of characters and one way to accomplish this is to throw in people of varying backgrounds and belief systems. However, if you stick to stereotypical roles you risk boring your reader and losing the element of surprise. That’s when it can be helpful to break ranks and create a character who defies the norm.

Here’s an example from my novel “The Sin of His Father.” Matt, the protagonist is studying to be a Franciscan priest. He has tumbled into alcoholism. His mentor, Uriah, an old Franciscan, is taking him to meet the man who will become his AA sponsor:

A man, about the size of Goliath, emerged from the back of the house. “Hey, old man, you bringin’ me another one?”

Hog, as Uriah called him, appeared to be about forty years old, going on ninety. Hog’s raspy voice was small for his size. At about three hundred pounds, the six-foot-something man towered over the two Franciscans but everything in his manner deferred to Uriah. A scar shot down the man’s unshaven face like a bolt of lightning. His muscular arms flexed under a complex of tattoos and his stained tee-shirt bore a Harley-Davidson logo and barely covered an immense belly. Half moons of sweat bled out under Hog’s arms and the smell mingled with all the other odors in the house.

Okay. Stop here and think about who this man might be. What does the description so far tell you? Here’s where the twist comes in:

A stereotype of an ex-con came to mind, so that when Uriah completed the introduction, Matt gasped as though someone had knocked the wind out of him.

“Matt, meet my friend, Hog. He was a Franciscan brother for eighteen years and has been my friend for longer than that. Now he works with the poor at our homeless shelter over on the west side. He’s helped a lot of men. He’ll help you too, won’t you, Hog?”

Soon after this, Matt learns that Hog has a Master’s degree in English Literature. Who would’ve guessed it?

Writing Exercise: Take a look at one of your short stories or novels that you think could use some spicing up. Select a character who is pretty well-defined by his gender or race or whatever. Now write a description of that character and add an element of surprise. What does that do for your story? Let me know how it works for you.


A Danger of Goal-Setting

Earlier this week, I began to rewrite and revise “The Sin of His Father.” I set a goal of reading aloud and reworking the story line for five chapters daily. Yesterday, I had fallen behind by a few chapters and was working furiously to try to catch up. In order to do that, I almost succumbed to the temptation to ignore a glaring gap in the story line that called for more extensive narration in order to better expose the internal conflicts of the protagonist.

This morning I realized the error of that thought process and understand that the goal of five chapters a day could serve to undermine the purpose of revision. Far better, perhaps, to set a goal related to the amount of time each week spent rewriting. Quality supercedes quantity.

Wordsmith Wednesday–Sensory Description

I am a visual, hands-on learner. My husband is more auditory. If I’m sitting through a lecture, I need to take notes in order to incorporate the key points being delivered. David will just sit, listen and absorb.

In the same way, people differ in their favored modes of sensory perception. You may want to touch or taste, while your friend will associate sounds, colors or aromas with a place or event. That’s why it’s important to evaluate your descriptions in terms of the senses. Make sure you haven’t just focused on those things that speak to you.

I’d like to share with you some examples from the opening chapter of my novel, “The Sin of His Father.” The protagonist is at the deathbed of his mother. Here’s how I’ve tried to incorporate the senses:

Sight: “The dim light threw his mother’s profile into an eerie silhouette. It was as though someone had let the air out of a grotesque balloon–the parody of an Irish washer woman paraded down Columbus Drive in downtown Chicago on St. Paddy’s day…”

Taste: “…the taste of bitter coffee he’d sipped a few hours earlier crept up his esophagus and caused him to gag.”

Hearing: “Ellen’s roommate breathed slowly before turning in her sleep. That was the only sound Matt heard, aside from his mother’s raspy breathing, the bubbles of the oxygen humidifier and the gentle hiss of the gas escaping around the small prongs sticking in her nose.”

Touch: “He fondled the smooth bowl of the pipe that waited for his attention in the pocket of his jacket and longed to step outside to indulge his habit.”

Smell: “His mother’s fetid breath stroked his cheek. He wanted to flee the close air of the room and take off into the night.”

Attention to sensory descriptions throughout the process of rewriting is an excellent way to enrich your manuscript.

Writing exercise. Select a key scene from one of your stories or a poem and rewrite it, utilizing all of the senses in your descriptions.

Wordsmith Wednesday–Word Choice

I’ve read varying opinions on the use of a thesaurus when word-painting. Some writers will tell you not to even go there. Others swear by this reference book as an adjunct to their writing experience. I think the bottom line is–choose words that flow within the context of your narrative. If a word sounds stilted, if it forces the average reader (based on your intended audience) to run for a dictionary, if it’s out-of-character to the speaker or your narrative, then I say, forget it.

I do like to consult the thesaurus and from time to time will go to Rodale’s “The Synonym Finder” or Kipfer’s “Flip Dictionary.” That may be a function of the aging process, I’ll admit, when that word is just hankering to jump out of your brain but you can’t catch it.

Back to the litmus test for word choice. How does it sound? Does it fit into your style and is it suitable for your intended audience?

Much, much better to go with something simple and unnoticed than a word that screams “Look at me reader! Ain’t I something?”

Wordsmith Wednesday–Dialogue Again

A common mistake in writing dialogue is to include conversation that does nothing to move the story forward. Example:
“Hi,” I said. “How are you?”
“Okay thanks, and you?”
“Couldn’t be better. Looking forward to the weekend.”
“It’s been a long week.”
… and on and on.

A short meaningless phrase may be okay to get the action going, but your second character better have something meaningful to say pretty soon or the reader will disengage. That answer to “How are you?” needs to have a punch or just ignore the question. Or tell us why the week seemed so long and don’t delay about it.

Here’s a short example from “Winter is Past.” Mundane conversation, but it carries the story another step forward.

Kathryn sat on the edge of the bed and sipped apple juice from a cardboard container. The curtains were drawn, blocking the light. “What time is it?” she asked.
“Just after one. You okay?”
“I’ve got to be. I plan to go to work tomorrow. There’s only a few days to get things squared away. Brian scheduled the surgery for next Monday.”

Review one of your own short stories and try to identify snippets of conversation that go nowhere. Eliminate them entirely or add something that gives the reader a reason to be involved…something that moves the plot along, expresses emotion or mood, establishes a sense of place. Anything that gives it a raison d’etre.