Posted in Exercises, writing

Exercise: Defining Unique Characters

Characters are people, and like people, they should have unique qualities to them that help them stand apart from anyone around them. This might be a bad habit, or a particular turn of phrase, but something should help your characters stand out. A quirk or a habit they have.

Building these quirks and habits doesn’t need to be hard. It also makes characterization easier when you have a bank of features to fall back on for each character.

As an exercise: To help you build a bank of features, make a list of characters you want to flesh out more and answer these questions:

  • What’s one bad habit they have?
  • What’s one item they always have on them?
  • What do they call their grandparents, aunts, uncles and parents? Which set of grandparents gets fun names like Grammy and Gramps, and which ones get Grandad and Grandmom?
  • What is their favorite treat?
  • What do they do when they’re nervous? (Think about this one carefully, some people stammer, others fidget, and some people even flush when they’re nervous. Your characters should reflect this.)
  • How do they react to being shouted at suddenly? (Again, think about this, but don’t forget to reflect on their background. Someone who’s been abused will react very differently to someone who’s grown up in a safe, noisy household).
  • What are they likely to collect? Books, stamps, figurines, coins, stuffed animals, etc.
  • What do they usually say to greet someone?
  • What do they say when they’re saying goodbye to a friend?
  • How do they communicate affection without speaking? this
Posted in writing

Balanced Characters

Characters are at the heart of every story.  Whether it’s high fantasty full-on dragons breathing fire and magic spells or crime fiction with despicable crimes and grieving victims, the one thing readers connect with are characters. A realistic, believable character is easier to connect with than one who only exists as an exaggerated stereotype (the exception here being that satire is rife with well-done examples of how this can be effective to send a message).

One way to create a believable character is to make sure they’re balanced. People have both positive and negative traits, and your characters should too.  There’s a few ways to achieve balance in a character.

Flaws. Everyone has flaws–whether this is our tendency to get impatient with others, poor listening skills, or generally being a little too selfish about some things, everyone has flaws. Characters should have at least a few flaws, but avoid throwing them in as an afterthought.

A common example of poorly developed flaws is the Mary Sue character. She’s pretty, smart, skilled at the one thing that is vital to the story, popular. By all appearances she’s perfect. And the most common ‘flaw’ is that she’s clumsy. Clumsy so of course she trips into the love interest. Clumsy so when it’s important for her to be saved by someone else, she drops something, or stumbles. The afterthought becomes less of a flaw and more of a plot device, making it hard to like and relate to her because inevitably the rest of her perfection saves her somehow.

So, how do you avoid making that flaw an afterthought? Look at her positive traits and turn them against her. She’s pretty, but could it be that she’s pretty because she’s vain and works hard on her appearance? If she’s smart, she could also be arrogant or even entitled because she knows these things. Skill also typically isn’t gained by sudden happenstance, and if it does, there’s going to be a resulting emotional trauma. How does she handle having this newfound power? Is she prone to dramatic overreactions, or to trying to deny it exists? What happens when she discovers she can’t use it on command?

Lack Thereof. If your character excels in certain areas–magic, sports, leadership–then make the areas they lack in things that they need. An inability to clearly communicate can hurt your character when they ask for help. Similarly, someone who’s still learning a necessary skill might feel out of place around others who have already mastered that skill, bringing in self-doubt and opening up places for internal conflict.

This doesn’t just apply to skills either. Characters might also be lacking traits like trustworthiness, loyalty, confidence or a host of other things. Those missing traits can make it harder for other characters to get things done around them. After all, passing information to someone who isn’t trustworthy might mean that information gets into the wrong hands. A character lacking confidence can be deterred by having their qualities attacked, not because the attack is true, but because it plays off the thing they’re missing and feeds into that lack.

Give them problems. Everyone has struggles. It might be a problem with body image, it might be a problem with time management, it might be a problem with mental health. Everyone in the world has problems. Some are personal, and some are clear and public. Perhaps your MC has a problem with a cheating girlfriend and as a result is conflicted over whether or not to confront her. Perhaps your supporting character is struggling with health problems that limit the amount they can, in turn playing into a problem with mental health.

By forcing your characters to struggle with something relatively mundane, you make their imperfections clear. Giving them personal struggles also provides more routes for conflict and subplots. Think, what will make them lose their patience? What would finally turn them against their friends? This gives you opportunities to show where their breaking point is on their ‘positive’ trait and as a result, provides a balance to characters who might otherwise seem ‘too much’ of something.

What are some of your favorite ways to balance your characters?

Posted in General

Creating Last Names

I’ve touched on names a couple of times before, but in this case, I want specifically focus on family names. Family or inherited names can be used to help trace genealogy, but when it comes to writing and creating characters, they also serve to help flesh out your world.

For those stories set in the real, or near-real worlds, last names become incredibly easy. Searching for a surname is as easy as check with Behind the Name, or running a search for common last names of the appropriate nationality. Location names such as Alamanni, Appleton, Yorkshire, Caivano and others are also useful and tie back to real world places. Occupation names also provide easy options. Names like Baker, Cooper and Shepherd give you a clue as to what the family has done historically.

For those who need to create names, things get a little harder. Depending on your setting, occupational names are still very much a possibility. If you’ve created or are using a fictional language, occupation names can be made by translating your given occupation into the language of your choice. Keep in mind that not all things translate well, and errors do happen–when all else fails, change just one or two letters. Baker becomes Bacer, Daker or even Bakor.

Location names are also still a possibility. For fantasy settings, ‘of Landmark’ names work well. You can end up with names like ‘of York’ or ‘of River Edge’. Within the context of space-faring sci-fi you also have constellation and planetary names to utilize. Someone with the last name ‘Andromeda’ might very well be from somewhere in the Andromeda galaxy. Alternately, the last name Jupiter can be used to indicate someone from a colony on or near the gas giant. And again, you can alter these names slightly to help fit: Andromedus or Juptus can be readily used to indicate someone of the Andromeda Galaxy, and Jupiter respectively.

You can add an affix such as ‘-son’ or ‘fitz-‘ as needed to the personal name of a parent to help create another name such as McNeal or Johnson. In more real-world based settings, make sure you’re paying attention to regional affixes.

And, when all else fails, try mashing names and words together. For fantasy names, something like Blacksword indicates a family name with ties to a black sword, even though it’s simply compounding two separate words. For a different feel you could try mashing together two names like Ashley and Robin, resulting in Robley or Ashin (this works well for first names too).

 

Posted in books

Reasons for a DNF

If you’re not familiar with the term DNF it’s short for Did Not Finish. I’ve seen it a lot in the book community, and even some posts on specific books as to why they ended up being on the DNF list. After looking over my own DNF list, I realized there were a few key things that ended up causing me to put the book aside.

Too Many PoVs This one is very subjective, however for me, there’s a limit of how many characters are needed to tell the story. If you’re introducing a new point of view in almost every chapter, there’s too many views to follow along. I don’t need to know every character and their side of the story, I want to know why I should care about the main character.

A variation on that is also late introduction to PoV characters. I’ve had two separate stories where I got halfway or better into the story only to be blindsided by an entirely new PoV character.

Dumb Characters I really wanted to put it some other way besides ‘dumb’ because that feels harsh but that’s what it came down to. In both of my most recent DNF additions, the lack of basic thought on part of the main characters heavily contributed to the book being put aside.

This isn’t just a case of a character who isn’t academically smart or who simply doesn’t think very quickly. This has been a case of characters following questionably sound logic, or outright ignoring the very obvious signs that they are the Chosen One, their friend is a vampire or anything else that might be painfully obvious to the reader. It’s also a case of characters not asking the obvious and important questions–like how everyone knows they’re the Chosen One, or how everyone knows their friend is a vampire.

Lack of Plot This one is a really minor complaint. I’m personally much more drawn to character driven stories, but when the progress on solving the main conflict is largely characters rehashing what they know or going about their day-to-day lives doing their jobs while the side characters around them are off doing important plot-worthy things, it’s frustrating and it’s boring.

Inaccuracy Again, this is a very minor thing. Getting every detail about a place you’ve never been or a food you’ve never tasted is hard. Even getting every detail about an experience you’ve had can be hard. And the only reason this ended up on the list is because it ended up being the entire reason for a DNF within the first chapter.

Inaccuracy in facts does happen–but when it happens across almost every fact, it makes me feel like you haven’t done your job as a writer. And trust me, I know that’s a hard job (it’s one I pursue myself). It doesn’t take long to google how large an animals is, what kind of fish can be found in an area, that tigers can swim and which plants are actually poisonous.

These are all reasons for my personal DNF’s. They’re not a guarantee that every book out there with these things will be a DNF, it’s just some of the more common or stronger reasons for certain books to be put aside.

What are some of your reasons for a DNF?

Posted in Exercises

Exercise: Letters

As people grow and change, sometimes they wish they could be more like their younger self–be that because they miss the wonder they had in the world, or because they’ve lost their faith in people. Other times we wish we could get word from the future that things turn out all right. A popular way of expressing those wishes is in writing a letter to yourself–either past or future.

As an exercise: do just that. Write a letter to your character. Either to tell them about the things coming up in the future, or to remind them of the good stuff they came from. Perhaps you want to apologize to them for all the things they go through in the course of the story, or explain how you really feel about them.

Alternately, you can have your character complete the exercise. Think about things like if they’d want to write to their younger self, or to their future one. When writing to their younger self, consider the things they struggled to get through. When writing to the future version, what qualities do they admire in themselves currently?