Stay true to your character’s character

Stay true to your character’s character

A couple of years ago I heard someone say that people do not change. At first I was put off by this remark, seemingly so cynical, so dark. If people don’t change then what is the point in trying to live a better life? But it echoed repeatedly in my head since the moment I heard it. And soon I had to come to the conclusion that, for the most part people remain constant, true to their character. In other words who you are is who you will always be. Now mind you, this is not to say that what you do is what you will always do. Who you are and what you do are two different elements. Your nature, your personality, your true spirit will remain intact. Introverts will be introverts no matter how much public speaking they do because their internal dialogue will always outweigh the external. Extroverts will always have a need to express themselves socially, no matter how their tongues are bridled. You are who you are. And as your life progresses, the real you becomes more apparent.

 

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Nicolas Cage and Tye Sheridan

 

The same is true for characters of fiction. That is why character development is so essential. Establish in the beginning as much as you can about your character; know their upbringing, including those experiences that have tarnished them in so way. Know their deepest desires, their darkest fears and childhood experiences. Write out the time and place in which they were born. All of these things play a part in the makeup of a person’s character. It is possible that you may not mention in detail every aspect of their experiences—that could make for a tedious book, especially if you have a lot of characters—but it will add authenticity to your writing. As your story progresses it will be easier to see and feel which way your character should move, act and think. Don’t characters grow and learn from their experiences? You may ask. Yes, they do. But learning and growing is more about realizing and expressing what is already there, whether it is strength or courage or even jealousy. In the Bible when Cain killed Abel out of jealousy, this wasn’t a new character trait; he wasn’t less of himself. He was already selfish and absorbed with his own desires. This was apparent by the sacrifice he brought to God (which is what led to his desperate situation in the first place).

But then, perhaps in your story the character remains stagnant; he was a mean drunk in the beginning and remained a mean drunk until the end, as in the movie Joe starring Nicholas Cage. Gary Poulter played a rancorous, abusive, alcoholic and remained one until the end. But situations around him changed, other characters grew and developed and in the end what he was became more apparent, and obvious. His  personality became stronger and the intensity increased by the stark changes that were taking place around him.

What you do want to avoid is a character whose personality suddenly shifts, changes without an apparent reason. That is not the nature of human development. When I first saw the movie, The Godfather, it took me a minute to analyze Michael Corleone’s characteristics. In the beginning he is an enigma. He has just come home from military duty. He at this point is a man who honors his country and is determined to do what is right despite his family’s business. Later on in the story when he is completely entrenched in the very business he shunned it seems that he has lost it and taken a path so far from his truth. But let’s take a second look; Michael was dedicated, committed—common traits of those who commit to military duty. Michael also had a heart for his family, even in the beginning. You see that heart as he embraced their presence at his sister’s wedding. And then of course, we see those characteristics even more evident after the death of his father. And even as he becomes ruthless and cold those were not ‘new or unlikely character traits. They were dormant, breeding. He was, in fact a product of his environment. It was his intense commitment and dedication that lead to his perpetual struggle to remain dedicated to his family, mainly his father. He kept that commitment to his father even in death, even while destroying those who dared to block his path. That is why it is important to know your character to the extent that you can in the beginning. And as you write, your characters will talk to you and reveal themselves to you as their circumstances change; through tragedies, highs, lows, moments of confusion and despair they will whisper to you-revealing what you need to know. They will be true to themselves. It is up to you to be true to them.

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Your Novel’s Characters are Real People

Your Novel’s Characters are Real People

I love having conversations with people who have lived exciting lives; they’ve leapt from waterfalls with an 80-foot drop, fought Texas Longhorns and lived in the Sahara. Ok, I don’t personally know any of those kinds of people. But I do know those who, are in unconventional living situations, overcame fierce personal battles and are living their dreams. It is always interesting to talk with them.

funny bullfighting

 

But honestly what I love more are those conversations with ordinary people, on ordinary subjects. You know, they are unpretentious, unassuming souls living their lives in simple fashion. It is from these people that I’ve learned the subtleties, the idiosyncrasies that make people who they are. For the most part it has been these folks who have taken precedence in my work. Their mannerisms are not calculated or contrived; they are simply being themselves. If you can capture the essence of this group in your writing you can create clear, vivid pictures of any character you develop. In these people lay the core of who we all are—even those waterfall jumping, bull-fighting folk.

Compare it to an artist who draws a straight illustration (like the kind a developing artist would create) and contrast it to one who shadows and shades to catch the nuances of attitude and demeanor. It is this capturing of character that is crucial our work. It means that we allow people to… be and to express themselves as we watch, listen and take note. It allows us to move away from the cookie-cutter characters based on some T.V. show or some cliché. If you want to know what a dumb blonde is really like, watch one. Listen to what they say. You may find yourself observing a dumb brunette or someone who isn’t dumb at all, but just perceived as such. O.K., you’re writing about Laura’s rapper boyfriend Ty. Well, insist on meeting one (or someone like him). You might discover that when he opens his mouth and speaks that he is not the empty-headed, one-dimensional thug you originally thought him to be but is indeed quite intelligent, maybe even a Yale graduate? Capture the rapid blinking of the eyes when someone is nervous, the way she continuously clicks her nails together or picks at a pimple on her face.

 

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Capture the totality of the characters. Write about their scent–too much perfume, the scent of perspiration mingled with fading cologne. Write about how she never gives a full toothy smile as she is hiding some disfigured or bad teeth. Talk about her thinning hair and how she keeps it in a bun but hints of her scalp peek through the thin strands like the moon light through thread-bare curtains.

Am I the only one who looks at people and find myself writing a full-fledge description of their appearance and mannerisms (It’s fun and a little annoying when you can turn it off.)?  Remember unless you are writing about aliens or vampires your characters are real people. And even vampires are real people—sort of.

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Do a personalized sketch of your protagonist. What makes him tick? Why is he always angry? Is it because his mother was verbally abusive? Is this why his anger is mostly geared towards women? Tell us about his mother. What was she like? Was she slow moving? Were her words spat sarcastically? Was she condescending? Describe the specifics that make her stand out—or not, for that matter. Show us the relationship between mother and son. Describe how his palms would become sweaty when she entered the room and how he could never raise his eyes to her. Build your character block by block. It doesn’t have to be described in one long expository paragraph (please don’t) Take your time. Interweave it into the story. Have fun with it. And most of all make us believe it!

They’re Alive! How to Give Life to Your Characters

They’re Alive! How to Give Life to Your Characters

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The thing that I love about literary fiction, in its truest sense is that there is such a heavy focus on character development. The characters drive the story; they instruct it on how it should be told, if you will. Commercial fiction, or as many call it– plot-driven fiction, is just that. There is more focus on what is happening than who it is happening to.

Yet, in fact all stories should have well developed, multi-dimensional characters. When I am talking about my work to someone sometimes I am hesitant to use the word, characters to label them, because in a sense, they are people–if I’ve written the story correctly. Characterization takes the basics of what the eye can see and builds on it. In many cases the appearance is secondary and we begin to build immediately on the person. We describe what they do for a living, the choice of words they use or the amount of makeup they wear. Kathryn Stockett does this so well with The Help until you settle comfortably in the fact that it is a white woman giving voice to these Black characters. She gives authenticity without being condescending, truth, without being over the top. Here are a few points to keep in mind when developing characters:

Avoid cookie-cutter characters and stereotypes. Remember, people aren’t made using cookie-cutters; your characters should not be either. Maybe your main guy is tall, dark and… not so handsome. Or maybe she is a not-so-hot looking blonde but she thinks she’s very hot. Contradict your characters.

Add dimensions to what you already “know” about them. Start with character sketches. As you see them began to add dimensions (like putting clothes on paper dolls); layer upon layer, adding complexity and multi-dimensions. Remember characters, like people are more than just a compilation of eye, hair and skin color.

Characterization takes time. Pace your development. You don’t know a person in one fell swoop, so your characters should be developed over time likewise. As the story progresses we should, at an even pace learn more about them until we’re fully engaged and we’re saying things like: Please let Sally get away, she doesn’t deserve to die! Author Victoria Christopher Murray  says, “Characters are like friends; the more time you spend with them, the better you get to know them; the better you can transfer all of their words, gestures and emotions to the page.”  This is so true.

Practice, practice, practice.  The next time you hit the streets pick a person, any person will do. Begin to characterize them (careful here, stalker rules do apply). Then ask yourself, where were they born and how did they get (fill in the blank for wherever you live)? Give them a voice. Using your creative juices this way is a great exercise. Continue until you feel as though you know them intimately.

As you add things your characters will begin to speak to you; some things will feel authentic and you will go with those. Others will feel forced and unrealistic and you will dismiss those. No matter what kind of fiction you write, draw your reader into the story by developing characters that keep them reading.