Posts Tagged ‘character development’

When Life Changes

April 27, 2020

These magazines went into production about the same time that COVID-19 was noticed in the U.S. There are some fabulous articles in all of them (including one in Smithsonian about George Harrison visiting his sister in southern Illinois before anyone here had heard about the Beatles – who knew?!), but reading them felt like visiting another world. I have been so consumed with news of the pandemic that I can persuade myself life was always like this. Of course it wasn’t, and I hope I can remember this feeling when I finally get back to my novel. Even the gentlest of stories has to put the protagonist in a situation unlike any other the character has faced. Bringing the story arc to the new normal let’s the reader see how the protagonist changes, learns, and grows. Having a happy ending may be satisfying, but acknowledging what was lost when life changes can add wonderful depth to your story. P.D. James did this in her mysteries, because even if the murderer goes to jail, someone is dead and the rest of the characters have to adapt. If I’m very careful, I will be able to use this understanding of how quickly the world can be upended to make my characters more nuanced, more real.

Luck and wisdom!

Bloom Where You Are, and Other Sayings

March 30, 2020


For the first time, I understand the connection between two sayings I’ve heard for years. The first is the advice to torture your darlings. The second is the adage, “Adversity doesn’t make character, it reveals it.” Watching the different ways people are responding to the pandemic was my aha moment for writing. If I don’t fully understand my characters and I drop them in the middle of a crisis, the scene is usually flat. I can’t reveal what I don’t know.

Even if I have a good sense of who my characters are, what they do in the conflict sometimes comes as a surprise. I’m starting to enjoy those experiences. Yes, there is the underlying terror that the story is spinning out of my control, but the joy of seeing my imaginary friends become real people is worth it.

You may have understood this connection for a long time, but it’s new to me. Or rather, this added layer of understanding is new to me. As is the added layer of understanding this pandemic has brought to another saying, “Bloom where you are.” I’ve seen so many small acts of kindness lately. I’ve been on the receiving end of some of them. It’s enough to keep me writing stories with happy endings.

Luck and wisdom!

Surprise!

March 23, 2020

We’ve been under a shelter-in-place order for a week now. Although it shouldn’t have been a surprise, given the rapid spread of coronavirus in my area, it was. Not so much of a surprise that I was caught without supplies on hand, but a surprise in the way I reacted to it. My immediate response wasn’t anger, or panic, or a descent into the long, dark tea-time of the soul (thanks, Douglas Adams!). I had this unshakable feeling that I was forgetting something important. After days of fretting, I finally realized that this first week of restricted movement coincided with my busiest week of the month. I usually spend this week checking my to-do lists, and bring-with-me-to-the-meeting lists, and remember-to-ask-this lists. A week with nothing on the schedule should have brought rest and relaxation; instead, it brought anxiety.

“Self,” I said, “this can be used in character development. How would your protagonist react at a gut-level if she was stranded while on vacation? Could your villain manage to stay calm if all the coffee shops were closed?”

Now that I have identified my anxiety, I’m working through it by – you guessed it – creating more lists. I will write down the questions this experience has presented, and see if I can’t use them to give my characters more depth. What will you do with the surprises that life brings you?

Luck and wisdom!

How Do Your Characters Reward Themselves?

March 9, 2020

I checked off the last item on a huge to-do list (one that spanned several months), and decided I needed to reward myself. Since I just happened to be going by the See’s Candy store, it was obvious what that reward should be. As I filled up my shopping basket – giving no thought whatsoever to the cost in calories or dollars – it occurred to me that this was a good time to re-examine my characters’ backstories. I realized I may not fully understand the go-to rewards for all my major characters, especially the villains. As it happens, Susan, the protagonist of the Chenille series, is a confirmed chocoholic. Yes, this is a case of art imitating life. All of my characters have some aspect of me in them, and Susan got the sweet tooth. That makes it easy to write scenes when she rewards herself; the other characters, not so much. Now that I have a little extra room in my schedule, I’ll spend part of that time considering what motivates the characters who are least like me.

Luck and wisdom!

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!