Category Archives: Character development

Going Deep

brick-passage
Don’t be afraid to explore the depths of your characters

As in deep point of view. Not necessarily sexy, historical or romantic, but choosing a POV is a crucial part of storytelling. First person, second person, third person. Authors have used all of them to craft unforgettable books.

Many writers enjoy using first person, because they feel like they can dig up all their protagonist’s emotions. For that reason, many readers enjoy stories told in first person. Confession time here: as a reader, I struggle with first person books. Exceptions have been The Martian, by Andy Weir and Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series.

First person isn’t a bad thing! It’s just a matter of personal preference. Like a kid at bedtime, I almost always want to know what the grown-ups are doing when I’m out of the room. Hence, I’m more comfortable reading third person, and a lot more comfortable writing in it. I like the freedom to move from character to character.

Even so, third person has its own pitfalls. I’m making my way through a book by a New York Times best-selling author, written in third person. It makes me want to poke pins in my eyes. Because it is All. Talking. Heads. Every last thought these characters have comes out in dialogue. Everything, including emotion, is on the surface — one of the hazards of writing in this POV.

Enter Deep Point of View

Deep POV, also known as third person limited, is a way to marry the intimacy of first person with the wider scope of third person. The reader is pulled into the head of a character from the first words of a scene, and experiences what it’s like to be that person as the story unfolds. Not just thoughts, but emotions and immediate physical sensations. The rush of first love, the burst of grief, the comforting squeeze of a friend’s hand on your arm. Making readers share those sensations gives them an investment in your story. Maybe even in you as a writer.

Going deep takes some work. For one thing, a writer can’t do it unless she or he knows his characters from the inside out. That means knowing more than their appearance and their basic goal, motivation and conflict. Where did they go to school? How do they view themselves? How do others view them? What was their birth family like? Do they speak formally? Swear a lot, or not at all? What are their wounds? For historical fiction, what are the customs, technology and language of their time and place?

The key to this point of view is that the writer is limited to what the current POV character can observed. (Limited third person, duh.) If you’re in your hero’s head, he cannot observe that the heroine thinks he’s hot. He can be aware when she flirts back at him, and can hear if she suggests going somewhere with less noise. But unless you’ve given him mind-reading powers, he cannot read her thoughts.

Besides, what if her ex is sitting in the corner and she’s trying to make him jealous by flirting with the first attractive man she sees? Mr. Hero doesn’t know this. The reader only finds out when the story moves into the heroine’s POV. (Things like this are why I love writing third person.)

Another thing to keep in mind is to avoid phrases such as ‘he thought’, ‘she noticed’, ‘he saw’, ‘she knew’. These place a distance between the story and the reader. Eliminating them will pull the reader in.

Consider the differences in these two examples:

Third person: She noticed a dark-colored splotch next to the building. When she stopped to touch it, her fingers came away sticky. She sniffed and recognized the coppery tang of blood.

Third person limited: A dark-colored splotch next to the building halted her. One touch left her with sticky fingers. She sniffed, then gagged at the coppery tang. Blood.

Ideally, the second passage makes readers share the character’s response to her surroundings. Plus they learn that the smell of blood makes her sick.

The more vivid we can make our writing, the more interesting it is to readers. Interested readers keep turning pages. ‘Nuff said, right?

Till next time,

Ann Stephens

 

 

 

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Cross-Training for Writers

I was asked in an interview once what I’d write if I couldn’t write romance. I didn’t have to think twice; the answer is fantasy. As in Old Skool, Middle Earth, build-up-your-alternate-universe-from-the-Void fantasy. I devoured the works of Tolkien, C. J. Cherryh, Orson Scott Card, and Marion Zimmer Bradley, and Isaac Asimov, among many others, years before I attempted writing a word of my own books. I loved the chance to escape into another world while I read those books. The best of the romances I gobbled up by the pageful provided the same effect. My entirely unscientific theory is that good writers care passionately about their own creations, whether it’s a planet or a pair of feuding lovers.

I write romance because I enjoy offering hope in the form of happy-ever-afters. I love writing smart heroines and the hunks they deserve. (And okay, this is the only genre that allows me to look at man candy and say with a straight face, “It’s research.”) But I do engage in a form of world-building. Mine is different from speculative fiction writing because I am constrained by the laws, customs, technologies and events of actual past eras. I can tweak the rules and bend them, but if I break them, the reader will be jerked right out of the story and might not be able get back into it.

Fantasy readers are familiar with maps, spaceship diagrams and/or genealogical charts in the front or back of books. I use those tools too, as do most other writers serious about their craft. Maps are a sticky issue for me. The posh area of London isn’t large now, and it was smaller in the 19th century. If we had to squeeze in every London mansion, gaming hell, bordello and alley devised by historical romance writers, the metropolis might have taken up as much space as it does in 2012. On the other hand, I do write fiction. It’s kind of my job to make stuff up. While scholars may howl if I place someone’s home where a tobacconist’s shop existed according to the census of EighteenWhatever, if I make the rest of the street historically accurate, and the furnishings and design of the house, most readers will be okay with that.

Along with hunting for man candy, I do research actual maps, and furnishings, and when people stopped using quills and started using pens, and the beginnings of railway travel in England. Most of the time, I enjoy research, but when I can’t find a crucial piece of information, I wish I could make up my own rules!

I do get to make up my own genealogy charts at least, and that’ s another part of writing prep I enjoy. Speculative writers have to come up with naming systems, and I don’t envy them the task. It’s hard enough to find the exact match of first, middle and last names that scans well and conveys the character’s status as hero or supporting character. Throwing in issues like spaceship allegiance or Elvish naming customs would make my brain explode. Genealogy tells us a lot about family culture and values, personal traits that may be encouraged or not and even diseases that can affect a character. Take a page from fantasy writers and make a family tree or two for your manuscript.

I learned about the importance of creating a historical background for one’s books from the Appendices at the end of The Lord of the Rings. They fascinated me; I would go back and forth from them to favorite passages. I realized that such a deep background gave Middle Earth its breath-taking vision. My history is based in fact, not speculation, but it’s crucial for writers to understand the places and times in which they place their stories. Timelines and calendars are an essential tool of all writers, either to track fictional events or intertwine fictional with real events.

So, writers and readers out there…what do you enjoy about your second favorite genres?

What’s Your Favorite Fairy Tale?

Actually, I’m talking about what kind of romantic plots people enjoy most. One of my favorite writing books is Victoria Lynn Schmidt’s Story Structure Architect. In it, she goes over the traditional elements of Western fiction, then looks at the variations within different genres. It’s a helpful resource for novelists, playwrights and screenwriters alike. For romance, she divides stories into three general types of structure, based on fairy tales. (Cause like romance, fairy tales are universal. 🙂 ) She also goes more detailed plot structure under each category — as I said, the book is a valuable resource.

In the Cinderella structure, the heroine falls in love with the hero first. This emotional response makes her vulnerable to him, even if she’s strong and independent in all other areas of her life. Schmidt notes that one of the hallmarks of this particular plot is that much of the focus is on the hero’s emotions. To get an idea of this plot, read Nicole Jordan’s excellent and steamy To Tame a Dangerous Lord.

Schmidt lists the Beauty and the Beast structure next. It mirrors the previous type plot in that the hero falls in love first, which makes him the more vulnerable of the couple. The focus here is on the heroine’s growing emotional bond to him. There is a bit less rescuing by the hero in these stories and a bit more self-awareness (eventually, anyway) on the part of the heroine. Then Came You by Lisa Kleypas is a classic example.

The final structure is based on Sleeping Beauty. The hero and heroine fall in love at the same time, which gives them equal footing emotionally, although their feelings may see-saw a bit as they deal with the conflicts standing in the way of their Happy Ever After. The couple in these books recognize their feelings all right, but their mutual love faces a series struggles, internal and/or external, before they can get together. Many ‘second chance’ love stories are found in this category, or stories of already-married couples, as in Victoria Alexander’s My Wicked Little Lies.

So what kind of romances do you like best? She falls first, he falls first, or they both fall and have to work it out together? Which fairy tail describes your favorite romance ?

I’ve attempted a first with this post and added a poll! And now you can rate all my posts, too.

The Play’s the Thing

I earned my bachelor’s in Theatre Arts and I’m not sorry. As a writer, I still use what I learned in acting, criticism, and theater history. Playwrights and actors, like writers, are storytellers at heart, and books, screenplays and stage plays all share similarities. But the best thing about spending years during and after college immersed in theater is that I learned how to talk.

Yes, I could speak before I started college. But plays depend on the spoken word for every aspect of the story: character development; setting up Goal, Motivation and Conflict; description; and back story. Most actions on a stage are rooted in the dialogue between characters. (The italicized stage directions are, in most cases, notes taken by the stage manager of the play’s original production.)

Each character in a play has his or her own voice, made up of vocabulary, speech patterns, and slang; influences include but aren’t limited to education, economic status, occupation, gender and historical era. Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire speaks differently not only from Stanley Kowalski, her brother-in-law, but from Stanley’s wife Stella, who is her sister. In Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women, three actors play the same character at different stages in her life. You will think, and thus speak, differently at 90 than you do at 52, or than you did at 26, as Albee’s dialogue for A, B, and C makes clear.

Whether it’s on the stage or the page, dialogue shows how a character thinks or how they respond to other characters. If a conversation or a line of dialogue — especially interior dialogue, a luxury playwrights don’t have — doesn’t convey something about the characters or advance the plot, cut it. Tight writing keeps the reader engaged in the story and turning the page.

And the spoken word has a rhythm all its own. Listen to the people around you next time you’re standing in line. We repeat each others’ words, emphasize points by slowing our speech down, and convey ideas with a brief phrase.  We use slang from our workplaces or ethnic backgrounds. Even geography affects dialogue. A New Yorker is likelier to start a conversation by stating what he or she wants right away, as opposed to someone from the American South, where even business conversations begin with “How are you doing today?”

The best playwrights of every nationality and era capture the language they hear (or heard) around them. The vitality of Elizabethan English lives on in Shakespeare’s plays, as do the drawls and flutterings of the mid-20th century American South in the those of Tennessee Williams. English plays one of my most valuable resources for grasping the syntax and slang of both the nobility and commoners through the centuries.

If you’d rather rent a movie of a play, that’s great! Although film is much more visual than stage plays are, many are a good introduction to dramatic dialogue and characterization. Plays were meant to be seen and heard. I haven’t tried looking on Netflix to see if any of my favorites can be streamed, but there are a lot of DVDs of plays out there. Some library systems have good collections. Or best of all, support your local community theater! Go see a play!!

If you could pick any play,stage or movie version, to see today, what would it be? Shakespeare wrote my all favorite body of work, but my all time favorite play is Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac.

Stages of Character Love

I am shamelessly fickle. My relationships with my main characters go through several stages. The first is infatuation, when this fabulous new person presents him- or herself in my mind, and I’m thinking about all the neat things that he or she could do and be. It’s a rush of excitement and, well, not exactly lust, since we are speaking of fictional entities here — but desire and hope. As in I want to write about these characters and I hope I can sustain their development through an entire book.

The second part of the Infatuation Stage is when I pull out my character worksheet to write down concrete details.  This is one of my favorite parts of writing! Does he have blue eyes to die for or big brown bedroom eyes? Is she tall and lanky or short and curvy? I tend to develop my hero and heroine at the same time, but that’s just me. As long as the writer gets to know the characters intimately, how she does it doesn’t matter.  There are a lot of questions to answer: Who is his best friend or closest confidant? Does she get along with her family? And what do they want more than anything else in the entire universe? Why can’t they get that thing/situation/person? What choices are they willing to make to get their Heart’s Desire?

Of course, this process can lead to dimmed enthusiasm about the characters as I go off into tangents about how their traits are going to affect the choices the characters make.  Must he have his large smelly dog with him all the time? What if she’s allergic? Did they even have allergies in the Victorian era? How did they treat them? And her hobby is needlework? Really? That’s not nearly as exciting as say, sword-fighting. But where would a well-bred female learn to fence? For that matter, where would a not-s0-well bred female learn to fence?

In case you haven’t noticed, I am the kind of person who makes mountains out of molehills.  Fortunately, in the fictional world, there are these nifty things called ‘erasers’. Give me a few minutes and I can come up with a better hobby for her (probably not needlework or sword-fighting), and she won’t be allergic to his dog, either. (Although she may not particularly enjoy the dog’s trail of hair and mud.)

Suppose I get out of the Infatuation Stage and I’m still willing to make a commitment to these characters? Then I have to sit down and really think about what they’re going to do over the course of the manuscript. This is the long haul. I’m going spend hours at a time, for months, with this couple. I will lay awake nights because a scene isn’t quite right, or because their story needs more conflict, or I’ve lost sight of their goals. But I’m in the Commitment Stage, by golly! I will stick it out through multiple drafts!

Sadly, this leads to the Break-Up Stage. By the time I finish writing a book, I am fed up with both the hero and heroine. All I’ve done for weeks is deal with their problems.  (Okay, I invented their problems, but that’s beside the point!) I feel suffocated because their needs are taking up so much of my time and energy. I secretly want to see other characters. For a writer this is the dangerous time of rushed endings. I’ve learned the hard way that the characters must be allowed to finish their own stories out.

At last, at last, the final sentence is written and I can put this couple out of my thoughts for awhile. I can move on, to the next couple that has caught my mind’s eye. And the cycle begins again…