Posts Tagged ‘character development’

The Sewing Guide to Character Development

November 18, 2019

As a fiber artist – whether for art quilts or garments – I let the fabric tell me what pattern to use. I realized I also use the same technique when I’m creating characters. Like the titles of my two favorite sewing books suggest, I repurpose people and mix and match traits to create the characters I need. Treating the plot as if it were fabric, I adapt the material at hand (ie, my friends and family) to suit the needs of my art. There are a couple of advantages to this, the first being if I blend traits well enough no character of mine will be recognizable as a real person. Just because I think I am using the best parts of folks I know in my characters doesn’t mean the actual people will agree, or like the way I’ve portrayed them. I love all the people in my life, and wouldn’t hurt their feelings for anything, not even the possibility of being on The New York Times best-seller list. The second advantage is no one I know has ever fought shape-shifting aliens invading Earth disguised as bolts of beige fabric, or gone to another planet to stop a civil war, or tried to lure a renegade alien soldier with spumoni ice cream. Using bits and pieces of the life stories of people around me turns out to be the ideal way for me to begin developing my characters. Then, like my quilts, the piece takes over and tells me where it wants to go. What is your ideal method of character development?

Luck and wisdom!

My Vision, My Opinion, My Fiction

October 21, 2019

I ran across two notions about vision and opinion this week – “no self-respecting animal moves before it looks” (Kay Hogan) and “whenever you go someplace, you not only see the environment, but you develop an opinion about it” (Camille Minichino). The first comes from a teacher of The Alexander Technique, a method to retrain the body into healthier posture and movement. The second is from a prolific writer and teacher who was explaining how to give the reader more information while building suspense. Since I’m not the kind of writer who wants to explore dysfunctional characters, I am delighted to have these comments in my toolbox. I like both my heroines and villains to be rational, sensible, and ultimately concerned with the common good. The idea of moving from what you think you see to what actually exists is more interesting to me than trying to fight ultimate evil. Either/or situations usually lead to never-ending conflict, while trying to be of the most benefit to the most people holds the promise of cooperation. While I tell my friends it is a very good thing indeed that I am not Queen of the Universe because the bloodbath would be appalling, I don’t really want to wreak havoc. Violence only produces resentment, resistance, and another round of purges. Cooperation requires hard work to find common ground, which promotes understanding, which can lead to compassion. That’s where hope lies. So, while I will use the first impressions of my protagonist to give the reader information, I’m think in order to make the character change, learn, and grow I will focus on expanding her vision and modifying her opinion.

Luck and wisdom!

Pain and Plot

September 9, 2019

I come from a family that is blessed with unusual health. My mother has never had a backache or a headache, rarely catches cold, and manages what few aches or pains she might experience with a brisk walk and a wry joke. I’m not quite that lucky, but still the gods have been kind to me. The downside of my good fortune is I can be completely oblivious to how pain can debilitate a person, how chronic illness can upend a schedule, how managing medication can consume one’s time. I mention this because what a character doesn’t experience can become a plot point. What if your character insists on driving 400 miles straight through, never realizing that at the end of the trip his shy companion with the bad back will be bedridden for days? What if your character who routinely shrugs off colds neglects to ask if the cancer patient she is interviewing can tolerate another medical stress? Don’t forget the opportunity for character development if your heretofore healthy protagonist suddenly develops shingles.

Luck and wisdom!

Character Development and Catastrophic Failure

August 26, 2019

The latest issue of Foreign Affairs, all about dictators, got me thinking about catastrophic failure and character development. Vladimir Putin was a KGB agent when the USSR fell, and the existential shock shaped his career. Although he could not save his country then, he has spent the last decades trying to reverse that loss. I started thinking about how – if – I could create a character who by force of will forms the world she wants, and what that world might look like.

Most of the examples history provides don’t turn out well for humanity. Writing science fiction allows me to explore characters who do incredible things. Studying history shows me that the incredible really isn’t so hard to accomplish if you are willing to shed enough of other people’s blood.

Perhaps I won’t take the challenge to write about someone determined to remake the world. The headlines are scary enough, and I’m not convinced the reading public needs another dystopian novel.

Luck and wisdom!

A Sense of Place

August 5, 2019


I write fiction, therefore I must create a sense of place for my readers. This is harder than it sounds, especially since my own sense of place is tenuous at best. I moved around a lot in my youth, and came to accept “home” as wherever I happened to be at the moment. Usually I leave most of the setting to the reader’s imagination. The few descriptions I include are more for my benefit, to keep clear in my own mind where my characters are. Then I picked up St. Petersburg by Solomon Volkov, and recognized the depth of my failing. From the very first page, Volkov throws the reader into the heart of the city – then the kidney, then the spleen, then that weird little place in the elbow that kicks up a ruckus whenever the weather changes. Volkov cites diarists and novelists to show how the city molded perception.

I realized that I had been ignoring the effect of my location on my own perception, and my writing. Yes, St. Petersburg is in a harsh environment and I live in lovely California; yes, St. Petersburg has seen war and revolution while my own town has been an oasis of safety; yes, St. Petersburg has been peopled with oversize egos and extraordinary will while I am surrounded by – well, let’s not go there. The point is, where your characters live influences who they are. I don’t have to describe every river in the valley if I understand how living near water has shaped the worldview of my protagonist, or living between two highways has molded my villain. I still may not ground my stories in a specific place as well as my readers might like, but my goal from now on will be to create an understanding of what being here as opposed to there means to my characters.

Luck and wisdom!

Panic, Procrastination, and Progress

July 15, 2019

I had to get outside my comfort zone a little bit this week. The resulting (mild) panic first made me angry, then got me thinking about plot and character development. I write cozy and comedy, so the tension on my pages can’t ramp up to the level of a crime thriller. My readers know my characters are going to survive (I am writing a series, after all), so tossing in a gratuitous train crash would be silly. I need small tensions that can take my character off the rails temporarily and be funny at the same time, things like the anxiety of creating yet another password (which was one of the things that took me out of my comfort zone). It’s not huge, but it presents a conflict that most readers understand.

Then I read an article about a study which proclaims procrastination is not a moral failure but a response to an unresolved emotional reaction. Well, I could have told you that. I know very well that when I procrastinate about my writing it is because I haven’t dealt with my fear of A) losing the thread of the plot, B) getting wrapped up in a new character to the exclusion of the main ones, or C) having no new story waiting for my attention when the current project is over. Figuring out what I’m afraid of, and acknowledging that even if irrational fear must be faced not suppressed, goes a long way toward getting me back on track.

Rewards help too. Sometimes the reward of finishing the task at hand is enough. Sometimes, I need more. I am quite willing to bribe myself to get to the end of an unpleasant chore (“Self, clean one more room and then you can have an hour of free reading!”), but on occasion I get a reward out of the blue. This week I received a gift from my good friend Margaret Misegades. She found the fabulous addition to my reindeer collection pictured above, and it arrived just when I needed a little pick-me-up.

Moral of the story? I’m not sure. All I know is that finding the reason why I’m panicking or procrastinating is more useful than yelling at myself for not accomplishing more; that I can use whatever insight I might glean to create more nuanced characters; that reindeer are still cool.

Luck and wisdom!

History and Your Story

July 8, 2019

We are all connected by history, whether or not those connections show up in our family stories. While reading The Great Influenza (by John M. Barry), my husband realized that his grandfather (pictured above) brought the family from Canada through New York in late 1918, when thousands of people in that region were dying every day from the flu. My husband wondered what his grandparents might have known about the epidemic, since wartime censorship and bureaucratic panic kept some newspapers from reporting the full extent of the crisis. If they knew, how worried were they about bringing their young children into the area? Could this also be the reason why all records of that crossing disappeared – perhaps the clerk who processed them died before he had a chance to file the paperwork?

When you are creating the world your characters inhabit, consider the way history will affect their lives. Even if you aren’t writing a historical novel, the past has a way of intruding on the present. If nothing else, a random connection with some great historical event could explain an odd behavior in a parent or grandparent that shapes your character’s choices.

Luck and wisdom!

Motivation and Your Characters

July 1, 2019

If the reader doesn’t understand why your characters do what they do, chances are she’ll close the book at a convenient stopping place – usually after your protagonist has behaved in a way that just doesn’t make sense. I am clearly not the target audience for a book I am reading now, and it has taken me a long time to figure out the main character’s motivation. Rather than being pleased with myself for being clever, I am angry with the character for feeling bound to a tradition that does nothing for her. I suspect that at the end – when I expect our heroine will finally be granted a place in her community – I will be hoping for a massive wildfire to burn the town to the ground. This, I am sure, is not what the author intended the reader to feel.

Since I write for a targeted audience, I am analyzing this book carefully. I’m trying to identify one or two places early in the story where I wish the author had shown me a time when the heroine was rewarded for her loyalty. I will use that insight to add a line or two in my novels so the non-quilter reading any book in the Chenille series will understand what motivates the characters. More important, I want that reader to believe this is a rational motivation, and bonds with the character. This will keep the reader invested in the book, and (one can always hope) happy with the ending.

Luck and wisdom!

What I Missed and How I Found It

June 24, 2019

 

How did I miss Good Omens? Okay, so I often have to ask myself a similar question when I come across something that everyone else knew about (the young Gary Cooper comes to mind). My husband and I watched the Amazon miniseries made from the novel after our son recommended it, then our daughter reminded us she owned a copy of the book and had left it when she went to graduate school. Even if you see the miniseries first, it is well worth your time to read the book. Aside from being darn good entertainment, the writing is fabulous. It’s the kind of book you read and say, “Self, this is what you should be doing with your story.” I was particularly impressed with how Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman wove in physical details about their characters throughout the story. I thought I had a good grasp of that technique, but I was wrong. This is the way it should be done. Read it for yourself and see.

Luck and wisdom!

Memoir, Turning Points, and Character Development

June 3, 2019

Linda Joy Myers has a lot of good advice for memoirists. The most useful (in my opinion) is to note the turning points in your timeline. We moved around when I was young, so those were both anchor and turning points in my list. Times when I said yes to a new challenge went in, as well as times when I ran for cover and thanked my lucky stars I got out before the (metaphorical) bullets started flying. Then I put in when I met those special people who befriended me and changed my life. That’s when I realized I was missing something.

My brother, mother, father, Dennis Franklin, and Hal Franklin (taken by me in 1966)

The man on the far right is Hal Franklin, who befriended my father and changed his life by teaching Dad about photography. Dad dabbled with photography, but having a mentor made all the difference in the world. It made all the difference in the world to me as well, since Dad introduced me to the camera. Because Dad and Hal explored creating art with their pictures, I learned – without really noticing it – that everyone can be an artist. Put in enough time to learn technique, train your eye to really see, and you can create beauty.

While I may not write a memoir with this epiphany, I will keep it in mind when I am writing backstories for my characters. Who they are doesn’t depend solely on the turning points in their own lives, but also on the turning points of those who have influenced them. Whether those influencers appear in the book or not isn’t the point. They may deserve a book of their own sometime. Can you say prequel?

Luck and wisdom!