Characters

I've heard it said that there are two ways to write a book. The first is to come up with a plot and then find characters to live the story. The second is to come up with characters and write their story. I squirm out of that by saying do both. Remember one thing though—it will be people who read your book and people identify primarily with people, not plots or facts. Another thing to consider is this: many times, your characters are your plot.

Regardless, you need people in your story. Or maybe aliens. Or maybe an interesting rabbit such as in Watership Down. Or maybe a wisteria vine as in Clyde Edgerton's Floatplane Notebooks. You need characters, even if they are inanimate. The antagonists in Krakeur's book Into Thin Air are the weather and Mount Everest.

I remember in the army we used to get asked which came first: the mission or the men? The approved solution was the mission (read plot). My answer was always the men (read characters), because without the men you couldn't accomplish the mission. In the same manner, you need good characters regardless of the story, and if you keep them "in character" they will dictate what is going to happen in your story because they will react appropriately and not according to your whims as the author.

I was slow to appreciate the importance—indeed the preeminence—of characters in a novel. It was a three-stage process. First, I had to accept that characters were the most important aspect of the story. For many that's a given, but coming from a background where plot ruled, this meant I had to make a 180 degree turn in perspective. I've found the opposite is true also. I've read manuscripts that were so character oriented there was little to no plot. There are writers who need to understand the importance of having a story in which the characters exist.

The second step was to spend as much time developing my characters before starting the novel as I spent outlining my plot. Some people might be able to invent plot or characters on the fly as they write, but I find the time spent before starting, is time well invested.

The third, and most difficult step, is to figure out how to show who the characters are, instead of simply telling. What actions, dialogue, decisions, etc. will show the reader the nature of the character while the character is usually unaware themselves of these aspects of their personality.

The first question is: who are my characters? Do I have a good feel for whom each person is? If you don't, you will find that your characters are two dimensional and not consistent.

What do your characters look like? You may know, but you will be surprised how many times characters are never really described to the reader. I felt very stupid when I finished a 450 page manuscript and handed it to someone to read and when they finished, they gave it back and said: "Very interesting, but what did your main character look like?"

It is important to describe characters as soon as possible. If you don't, the reader will formulate their own vision of the character and then you can jar them three chapters down the line when you finally get around to describing the character and it doesn't fit the reader's mental vision.

Try to describe characters in such a way that something about each one should stick in the reader's mind. This gets more important, the greater the number of characters you have.

Sometimes, authors choose not to describe their characters because they want the reader to think of 'everyman' or 'everywoman' when they think of each character. That's fine as long as there is a purpose to it.

In the same manner, names are very important. You have to decide if you are going to use a character's first name, last name, title (i.e. the doctor, the captain, etc.), or nickname. Try not to use different ones for the same character very much as it will confuse the reader.

How does a person get a "handle?" You have the name you were born with. Michael Jay Porter. Then you have what you call yourself. Mike. Then you have what others call you (with or without your liking it.): Mikey, Jay, Port, Bud, Skinny, etc. Then you have your title: Captain, Vice President for Operations, the butcher.

I saw a great carton from the Far Side once. It had on the top: "What we call dogs: Fido." On the bottom it had what dogs call themselves: "I am Fido, terrorizer of the neighborhood, sniffer of trees, master of all that I see." Or something to that effect. Get the idea?

Given the above two paragraphs, how do you pick names for your characters? The phone book is helpful. Go to the library and wander the stacks and look at author's names. High school and college yearbooks.

You do need to consider that the name fits the character. Many names denote ethnicity. Think about detectives—don't they all have hard sounding names like Magnum PI? That is done deliberately to affect you subconsciously. Also make sure two characters don't have similar names. I try to avoid even have names that start with the same letter.

I recently bought The Writers Digest Character Naming Sourcebook by Sherrilyn Kenyon. I find it helpful in finding names. More importantly, I find it useful in uncovering what names mean.

You should try to stick with one name for each character. Above I mentioned the number of names/titles each of us has. But if you start using all those various names interchangeably throughout a manuscript you can confuse the reader. If you alternate using first name/last name for your characters you are doubling the number of names the reader has to remember. Try to pick one name and stick with it as much as possible. Of course there will be times then other name/title comes in, such as in dialogue, but in your prose make it as easy on the reader as you can.

So what else do you need to know about a character (I will stay with the female here, no discrimination intended)? The absolute most important thing you have to know about your character is: what is her motivation? Then you also need:

1. What does she look like? How does she talk? How does she act physically? Any mannerisms?

2. What is her background? Where was she born? What were her parents like? How was she raised? Where did she go to school? What level education?

3. What is her job? What special skills does her job require and how will they affect her role in the story? What about hobbies and talents learned from them?

4. What is her family? Husband? Her relation to him? Children? Relation? Why not kids? Divorced? Why? Why not?

5. Where is she from? Did she grow up in a city or on a farm?

Some other aspects of a character to keep in mind: -movement -dress -attitudes -gestures -manner -culture

-context—class -values and beliefs -needs -motives -dreams -fears -stressors

-1st family, which is the family of origin -2d family, which is the present family The list could go on and on. I highly recommend putting some brainwork into your characters before writing your first page and not make it up as you go along. I say this from my own experience. The review on my second novel from the NY Times said, "The characters are right out of Action Comics." Not very nice, but true. But I think I have finally begun to learn my lesson after many manuscripts, not that I am necessarily any better at it, but I am aware of it and awareness is the first step in changing.

Now, here's something to consider: You can make your characters up out of the blue using the questions (and more) listed above. But reality says that you will be more realistic using parts of people that you have met like your mother and father and the loan officer at the bank. This runs you the danger of getting sued, of course. No, no, listen. Look at people you know as character types and use some of their traits but not them as a person. Confusing enough? Try psychology. There are several books on the market that have tests you can take that will define people by type. Get some of these books and use them to help round out your characters. They list out traits of certain personality types. Traits you can use to round out your characters.

If you deal with non-English speaking characters, it helps to let the reader know what language they are speaking in, especially if they conveniently (as so often happens, luckily for us writers) speak English besides their native tongue. Otherwise how could they shout all those dire threats and have our hero understand them just before he makes his great escape.

You make believable characters by showing how they react/act in a crisis. "Actions speak louder than words." True. Also remember, though, that the same action done for two different reasons, makes the action seem very different to the reader. Your main character kills someone. Is that bad? It depends, you say. Depends on who they killed. Why they killed them. Under what circumstances.

Remember all those answers. Because eventually you will have to answer all those to the reader and they also give you the opportunity to put some twists in your story. For example, character C kills Character J in chapter 3, making C look like a bad egg. But in chapter 7 you reveal that the deceased, J, was in reality a mad scientist about to let loose a plague upon the world and C stopped that by killing him. That certainly changes the reader's perspective on C. A rather dramatic example, I know, but I believe it gets the point across.

You say a lot about your characters by showing what choices they make under pressure which you make by conflict (go to the narrative structure.) I have found that sometimes a person's character totally changes when they are under stress and the "real" person comes out. This can be useful in your plot and storyline.

Also use the back story (doesn't necessarily have to be in the book, but you have to know in order to be able to write believable characters). All of your characters have a background prior to the beginning of the novel. Make sure you know it and where applicable, let the reader know parts of it in order understand the characters better.

Now, the astute reader is saying: "Hey, you're contradicting yourself. Earlier you said to let a character's actions speak for themselves and to try not to get into a character's head to reveal thoughts. How am I going to reveal motive without getting into thoughts?"

Although that is an apparent contradiction, in reality the two are congruous. My question to you is: How do you know anyone's thoughts in day-to-day life other than your own? Through conversation, through watching their actions over a period of time and interpreting, through various means, all short of saying "Jim thought ". Taking it a step further, if you are always in your characters' heads, how can you keep a motive secret, something that might be essential to the suspense of your story?

I also recommend against using quotation marks to delineate a character's thoughts. I see this on occasion in manuscripts and think it is a poor technique for several reasons: First, you confuse the reader who naturally assumes quotation marks mean dialogue. You're making the reader work, and the reader bought your book for enjoyment, not to work. Second, if you are writing third person, how do you draw the line between those thoughts that go inside the quotation marks and everything else in narrative, which to a certain extent is also from a character's point of view? Third, it's telling not showing.

Conflict keeps a story going and reveals much about your characters. Conflict is the gap between expectation and the actual result. There are 3 levels of conflict for your characters:

-inner (inside the character) In many cases inner conflict occurs when a person has a disagreement between values he or she holds to be important. By adjusting a character's circumstances, you can develop internal conflict. -personal (between characters) -universal/societal—(characters versus fate/God/the system)

You have to consider what your main character faces on each of these levels.

There are five major sources of conflict for people (although you can probably come up with more):

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