CC101 – Final Link Roundup

A huge thank you to everyone who participated this weekend!  I hope it proved fun and useful!  If I’m missing anyone, please let me know.

Day 3

Soleil’s Cancer, Gemini, Leo, Virgo, Libra, Scorpio, Sagittarius, Capricorn, Aquarius, Pisces

My Game of Chance and I Ching

Kait’s Structured Character Interviews

Bethanie’s Favorite Characters:  Neil MeqVren and Characters by Collison

JA Howe’s Human vs. Non-Human vs. Alien, Stock Characters, Death to Smoochy

Jessica’s Holding Out For a Hero

Jenna’s Using the Tarot to Create Characters

Day 2

Soleil’s Aires

Soleil’s Taurus

My Lost in the Trees

Kait’s Semi-Structured Interviews

Molly’s What Makes a Good Character?

Jess’s Setting FIres for Fun and Profit

JA Howe’s Molded Not in My Image

Bethanie’s Favorite Characters:  Miphon, Morgan Hearst, and Elkor Alish

Bethanie’s Favorite Characters:  The Darkyn

Day 1

My Static Trait:  The Little Things

Kait Nolan’s Unstructured Character Interviews

Bethanie’s Favorite Character: Gregar (what an honor for my character to make her list!)

Soleil’s What’s Your Sign?

Jessica Tudor’s The Arsonist and the Firefighter

CC101 – Lost in the Trees

God is in the Details.  Great.  But don’t get so lost in the trees that you can no longer see the forest!

Let me start with an example.  “Letters to an English Professor” (title will be changing) was a project I started back in 2007.  Actually, that’s not true.  A very preliminary idea was started in 2004, but I never finished it and it was really cheesy.  The only element that survived that draft was Conn’s name, and the fact that he was Dr. Connagher, an English professor at Drury University.  I finished the first draft around 49K (don’t laugh — I was trying for less than 30k!) and decided that I would add Conn’s POV in order to reach a single-title novel’s length.

Sitting there looking at roughly “half” a story and trying to decide where to put Conn’s sections, I came to a crucial realization.

  • I claimed that Conn was a professor, but he never did professor things on page.

In short, I had defined a bunch of details for my hero, but they were flat and useless.  Those character elements I’d thrown into the story because I thought they were “cool” were nothing more than a bunch of trees.  I’d lost sight of the forest entirely.

CLUE #1:  If you can remove a major trait or detail from a character and the plot isn’t affected, then you’ve got a problem.

Sitting there in horror, my jaw on the floor, I realized that I could have made Conn a firefighter who sometimes quoted poetry.  A doctor.  Anything.  And that’s bad when the title (at the time) involved “English Professor.”  Even the poetry quotations were “fluff” — or leaves to continue the forest metaphor — that did little to carry the story forward.

In short, I had a lot of revisions to do. 

Solution #1a: Make a list of ways to use the element to drive the story.

I created a list of eveything an “English Professor” might do. 

  • grade papers
  • prepare and give exams
  • office hours
  • student interaction:  cheating; missing class
  • other teacher interaction:  dealing with problem students; award ceremonies; substituting

Then I started brainstorming ways to use these elements as KEY scenes for Conn.  Some of these scenes were only for him, while others began affecting Rae’s scenes.  The more detail I added for Conn, the more I had to change in Rae’s story line.  (A great example of chaos theory:  A butterfly flaps its wings on page 1 and a tornado destroys Act III!) 

At first, this scared me.  I mean, I didn’t plan to change *that* much.  But the process was necessary.  If a scene became important for Conn’s arc, then naturally those scenes eventually had to affect hers.  In fact, I finally realized that I’d missed some fantastic opportunties in the first draft that now I could build on.

Solution #1b:  Consider making the character detail a static trait.

Conn’s habit of quoting poetry became his static trait.  He doesn’t just quote a fluff piece now and then — the poetry builds and supports the rest of the scenes.  I made the poetry more important by adding “pop quizzes,” an element that was barely there in the first draft.  He quizzes Rae on poetry several times throughout the story, and in one crucial scene, Rae realizes that he sometimes quotes poetry to calm himself and gain some control.  The plot became more tightly integrated, making the poetry quotations and pop quizzes more than a lark. 

If I cut those scenes out, the story falls apart.  That’s a good thing.  That’s exactly what I want.

Clue #2:  If you can remove the character entirely and the plot holds, you’ve got an even bigger problem.

In trying to flesh Conn out better, I gave him a best friend, Dr. Mason Wykes, mathematics professor extraordinaire.  I even had a theme song for Mason–More Than a Memory by Garth Brooks.  Mason had a nice backstory.  But very early on, I realized he didn’t do much for the story.  He was a supporting character, Conn’s best friend, yet he SUPPORTED nothing.  I couldn’t even call him a crutch.

Solution #2a:  “Every character is the star of his own story.” 

If you can’t give the character his own goal and motivation — and then put him in direct conflict with another character’s goal in the story — then you don’t need that character.  To fix Mason, I sat down and really plotted out his arc.  What did he want?  What did he need?  How did that affect Conn?  Could Mason be a source of conflict between Rae and Conn?  Absolutely.  In fact, I could probably do an even better job in this arena — I’ll watch for that opportunity as I go through editor revisions. 

Give the character a goal — or gut him.

Solution #2b:  Axe the character or combine with others into a new more 3-dimensional character.

I didn’t do this with Letters, but this solution did help me with the original version of The Rose of Shanhasson, which had literally a “cast of thousands.”  I thought that creating a multitude of characters with backgrounds and personalities was a good thing, when in reality, it merely cluttered the story.  Rhaekhar’s mother was in the first, and second, I believe, drafts, but she really had no goal.  She wasn’t a source of conflict.  When I axed her, I gave a lot of those “nurturing” elements to Alea.  As a result, she became a more rounded character.

Clue #3:  Bigger than life characters are interesting.

One of the flukes of Letters was Miss Belle, Conn’s grandmother.  I must give credit where credit is due, and admit that I got a ton of ideas for her from a list Evil Editor did a long time ago for “Miss Pettipants.”  I gave her several really funny or odd quirks.

  • she talks to ghosts, specifically her dead husband
  • she appears to be senile — but that’s what she wants you to think
  • she looooves pink  
  • she can’t cook
  • she’s nosy

And that’s just a few!  However, where I went wrong with Conn, I went right with her.  All of these little quirks are SHOWN on page and affect the plot in some small way. 

  • Rae believes Miss Belle to be a crazy old lady, but soon realizes that the old harridan is actually wickedly clever and could put the fear of God into General Sherman himself. 
  • Miss Belle is the driving force behind the story from the beginning–but Rae doesn’t discover this until much later. 
  • Miss Belle wears pink; she makes Rae sign the contract with a pink pen; she paints the columns on the front of the house pink; she gives Rae a pink parasol to beat her grandson over the head when he’s too bossy. 
  • She talks to Colonel Healy’s ghost — and even makes a bet with him — but she also acts as a medium for Conn’s best friend. 

In short, she’s memorable because she’s larger than life.  You can’t forget her because she’s so outrageous, and every time you think she’s just a crazy old lady, you suddenly find out some new plot she masterminded.  The reveal of the cook’s husband’s murderer at the end displays that to a T.

Clue #4:  Every character should be unique, but he should also reflect a common theme that ties the story together.

All along, the theme of Letters was the idea of “Making Things Right.”  This is Rae’s slogan for her restoration company.  But this story is also her chance to “make things right” with Conn.  This is his chance to right a mistake he made five years ago on the last day of finals.  Miss Belle believes she’s always right (and so far, she’s right), so she justifies butting in to help people because they must all be wrong!  Mason ends up with a chance to make things right with his wife who passed away years ago.

Great, right?  What’s the problem?

Going back to my mathematical background, there are several ways to prove a theorem.  You can prove it straight forward in a linear fashion.  If A is true, then B is true, then C is true; therefore A implies C sort of logic.  I learned a very important and humiliating lesson in a topology class one year.  To DISPROVE a theorem, it only takes one example that shows it’s false.  I’d labored for hours over what I thought was a straightforward proof. While I stood at the board giving the proof to the class, someone raised his hand and with a just a few lines, provided an example that violated every single thing I’d just proven.

Similarly, we sometimes proved a theorem by negating both “sides” and proving it.  e.g. if A implies C, sometimes it was easier to prove that Not C implies Not A.  Sounds crazy, but true.

One important thing the Witch taught me years ago was the idea of a “unified” story.  Every character in the story should either prove the theme or its opposite.  For a well balanced story, I like to have at least one character who shows the darker side of the theme.  If there’s a positive side to a theme, there’s also a negative side, and that’s a most excellent place for an antagonist.

Solution #4:  Use a character to prove the OPPOSITE of your theme or to reflect the negative aspects.

If the theme of Letters was “Making Things Right,” I needed a character “Making Things Wrong.”  The prominent antagonist in the story is Rae’s ex-husband.  As backstory, everything he did while married to Rae was “wrong.”  On page, he set about trying to get her back, but everything was tainted and negative.  He was abusive.  He was a stalker.  Frankly, he was scary.

Richard (Dick) was the hero’s opposite, and I used him to compare and contrast a controlling, abusive man (Dick) and a sexually dominant but caring and loving man (Conn).  Dick let me show the negative aspects of what could (and did) happen to Rae if she was passive in all aspects of her life instead of merely sexually submissive.  There’s a difference, and the opposite of the theme helped me show that.  How had Richard “made things wrong” and how would Conn “make those things right?”  What mistakes had Rae made with Dick, and how could she avoid them with Conn?  They played off each other, even though Richard wasn’t on page much at all.

Do you have too many trees in your story?  Can you hack some down — or share some clues in how to salvage those lovely trees into a cohesive, well-planned forest? 

CC101 – Static Trait

God is in the Details.

Have you ever thought about “character details”?   What makes one character leap out on the page, and another sadly forgettable?  That’s what we’re hoping to explore in this clinic.  I’d like to start by considering the Static Trait.

Static Trait:  The Little Things

One time years ago, I sat down and filled out a huge detailed bible for my characters.  Eye color, height, body build, favorite clothes, favorite songs, family, friends, high school, job, car…  Boxers or briefs!  You name it, I probably had it written in this bible.  Despite all this knowledge and all this detail, the characters didn’t mean anything to me.  In the end, I killed them.  I threw out that story.  Literally, those files are gone from my computer.  And I never once mourned their loss.

If you made me kill Gregar, Rhaekhar, or Shannari from the Shanhasson trilogy and told me I could never read their story again, never walk in their heads, never feel their emotions…I would be devastated.  I’d bawl like a baby.  I would grieve for them.  I know this, because I did murder them once.  One time I despaired of ever having the chance to finish their story and I filed it away.  It felt like my heart was cut out of my chest.  I dreamed about them.  I heard their voices clearly in my head.  I didn’t have to drag out a character bible to check what Gregar’s favorite color was or how many friends he had in high school, yet I could sit down and write a scene in his POV and KNOW it was him, inside and out, without effort. 

As for boxers or briefs, if you’re curious, Gregar prefers neither. 

That’s the kind of character I want to write — and as a reader, that’s the kind of story that ends up on my keeper shelf.

What I’ve come to learn over the years is that DETAILS MATTER.  However, they have to be the right details.  Making a body-type chart and listing favorites simply doesn’t work for me personally.  The details I want and need to know about are the ones that make a difference in how the character reacts.  What do other people see when the character is stressed, afraid, angry, or in lust?

Exercise.  If you’re a writer, take out one of your stories and look for a scene where two characters are interacting in some way.  If you remove all the names and dialogue tags, and hand those pages to a reader, could they see definable differences in the two characters?  Could they tell who was speaking just by the detail you provided? 

Those little defining details are what we’re after.  It’s what makes each character unique and individual.  These character details remain unchanged throughout the story arc, and if used well, you can bait the hook for your reader in the most suspenseful moments of the story. 

It’s called a static trait.  It’s some little, everyday thing a character does without thinking.  It’s part of who he is, deep inside.  This trait never changes, despite whatever growth and horrors you’re putting him through in the story.  Removing this trait would be like cutting off his arm or blinding him.  He would be forced to become a different person without the trait.

Example:  In Kung Fu Panda, Po eats when he gets nervous.  Seems like a little thing, right?  But everything about Po fits this trait. 

He’s…rotund. 

He huffs and puffs up the stairs. 

He seems to be the kind of person who’d rather eat than exercise. 

While he might dream of being a great fighter, we don’t seem him DOING anything fighter-like in the beginning of the movie. 

He even works in a restaurant! 

From the very beginning, we see him with food and eating.  The more nervous or upset he gets, the more he eats.  So what did I mean about skillful character development baiting the reader (or in this case, the viewer)? 

It happens when that innocent little static trait begins to affect the plot. 

  • How does Po make friends with the surly and skillful bunch of fighters?  He makes them noodles. They have a companionable dinner. 
  • How does Master Shifu discover the secret to inspiring Po’s training?  He catches Po climbing to the highest shelf in the kitchen to reach the last bit of food! 
  • And the scene that makes me laugh out loud every time the monsters make me watch it:  the dumpling scene.  Master Shifu uses food to train Po.  They fight to the death over the last dumpling.

It fits.  It works.  I remember every little detail (okay, I’ve watched it dozens of times because it’s one of the monsters’ favorite movies).  But every action he makes fits this trait.  If a bad guy surprised him, what would he grab?  Probably a chop stick.  The audience sees it, over and over, and so believes it.

That’s the secret to the details you define for a character.  The static trait makes him unique; how you use it to unfold the story is what makes him compelling and unforgettable.  I don’t care if you define a comprehensive bible of traits, if none of them lie at the heart of the character and how he reacts not just once but over and over through the story, then all those details are worthless.

The real magic occurs when the audience sees a scene developing and begins to SCREAM (at least in their heads) because they know exactly what’s going to happen. 

In The Return of the King Gandalf refuses to let Merry and Pippen see the mysterious ball he took from the other wizard.  We already knew those two were trouble.  From the very beginning of Fellowship, they were getting the other hobbits in trouble.  They simply can NOT stay out of things.  So weren’t you just shaking your head and moaning in agony as Pippen snuck it away from Gandalf?  You KNEW Pippen couldn’t resist.  He had to look at it!  That curiosity is his static trait.

 

 

 

How about the fantastic Notre Dame football movie, Rudy?  He never quit.  It didn’t matter how many times the bigger, more skillful players knocked him down, he got up again.  His heart would not stop.  He’d sooner die than quit.  So near the end when he swears he’s going to quit, we know that he’s dying inside.  His dream is dead.  His heart is dead.  Yet he still goes back, doesn’t he?  And it’s that return that fuels the other players to take a stand and win him the jersey.  The final moments in the last game are driven by their admiration for his static trait. 

 

 

Near the very beginning of Maverick, we see Mel holding his hand over the deck of cards, trying to use his mind to cut the deck to the exact card he wants.  He plays with a deck, absently, in several scenes.  Then the final hand of the big poker game, he refuses to even LOOK at the card.  Weren’t you holding your breath?  Were you hoping, praying, wondering, if he’d get the Ace of Spades he needed?  Did he really KNOW it was there?  And I couldn’t help but give a happy little sigh when Annabelle kissed him goodbye and he drew the Queen of Hearts.

 

 

That’s the magic that makes your character breathe on the page.

Static traits make the character unique and immediately identifiable.  They never change.  They begin to affect the plot in little ways.  And then the skillful writer will put the character into a situation that will have readers screaming with excitement, fear, or both because they know exactly what’s going to happen.

A few keys to success:

  • Make the static trait something small and everyday that’s not noticable to the character.  It’s habit.  It’s something he does without realizing it.
  • Show this trait early in the story after introducing the character.
  • Show it numerous times in little ways throughout the story.
  • Make the big play near the end of the story where the entire outcome hinges on that static trait to have your audience breathless and on the edge of their seat.

Can you give more examples of static traits in movies or books?  Think about your favorite movie or book–does the protagonist have a static trait?  Discuss at will!

Invitation: Character Clinic

In honor of Valentine’s Day, I’m going to host a “101 Ways to Love Your Characters” clinic here on the blog, beginning Friday, 2/13 thru Sunday, 2/15.  This invitation is open to anyone on the planet who has anything at all to say about characters.

If you’re a reader, I want to know about your all-time favorite characters and why you love them.

If you’re a writer, I want to know about all your tricks and techniques that help you create memorable characters.  My friend Jenna is going to blog about using tarot; my friend Soleil is going to use astrology; and I’m going to talk about a variety of things, like static traits and possibly what I’ve learned using I Ching. 

The clinics will be informal, chatty, and above all, fun!

I’ll post daily Clinic entries here, linking to everyone who’s participating to share the link love.  Simply e-mail me (see the About tab) or comment on any post and leave me your link to be included.  I’ll be giving away two prizes:  one to the posters; one to the commenters (on any participating blog entry, not just mine).  Posters may comment to gain more chances to win. 

Since Ann and Bethanie can attest to how much I suck at getting packages in the mail *mutters at self and eyes the box on the corner of my desk that I should have mailed last freaking year!!*, the rules are very simple.  Up for grabs:  two $20 prizes, winner’s choice

  • Amazon order (that qualifies for Amazon Prime or includes shipping) up to $20
  • any online book retailer $20 gift certificate (Amazon, B&N, Fictionwise, Drollerie Press bookshop, etc.)

So make a note on your calendar and I hope to see you next weekend!