I took a poll a few weeks ago about what this “C” post should be about. Since I didn’t give the option of Cookie, Character won out. (The other available options – Cursive and Color – I’ll touch on in other posts, since there were a few folks who showed interest in those.) But for now….
C is for Character
There are already a lot of books and articles out there focused on how to write great Characters, and it’s not my place to tell anyone else how to write their characters. Instead, I’ll tell you about how I write mine.
Every one of my stories starts with a main character, and the main character’s conflict. This initial conflict can be very simple, like a young woman finding out she’s falling in love with her teenage rival, or quite complicated, such as a special forces bodyguard trying to help his assignment-turned-friend escape the government conspiracy rising up around them. From that conflict, a personality starts to emerge. Oftentimes, it takes the shape of a voice, a face, and a manner.
My characters have very distinct voices in my head. Some voices come in accents, such as Seven’s clipped Ukrainian enunciation. That character’s particularly precise way of speaking, without contractions, created a picture of a big man with a straight posture who walks and moves with an efficiency of effort. That became his manner and his form. The third basic part of Seven’s creation was his face. He had to be a good-looking man but also scarred by his past. I made that scar physical and on full display on his face, in contrast to its secrecy.
With those three basic building blocks in place, Seven was free to grow as I experimented with dialogue, situations, and relationships.
Telling Their Own Story
No character exists in a vacuum. Story beats and other characters, both major and minor, have an effect on them. As my characters’ voices become clearer and more distinct from each other in my head and on paper, they start to become more fully-realized people. And, I do think of most of my characters as people. They have lives before I pick them up, and they have lives that continue after I let them go. (The ones I don’t kill do, anyway.)
I’m a firm believer in letting characters run as free as they can. Of course, a story has to follow a plot, and a writer can’t let a plot get away from them. But there have definitely been times when a character’s voice has been so powerful that I’ve had to change the story to suit them. For example, in my Persona 4 story 1 More Chance!, Yukiko was originally going to marry Kou, as laid out at the start of the story. But as I began to write more of Yukiko, her own voice usurped my previously-laid plans, and she revolted against those plans. That led to a completely unexpected fourth arc of the story that I personally think works better than my original outline.
What Did We Learn?
My characters rarely start out as traditional archetypes. They may become that – or come closer to that – over their time in my stories, but I prefer to create not from a distinctive mold but from an amorphous and changeable possibility. To me, that’s what makes these characters people.
But what about you? How do you create your characters? Let me know in the comments or on social media!
This week’s Saturday Sentence Challenge prompt over at the #TeamWriter Facebook Page was:
I am so very happy to see him come back all in one piece.
The first thing that struck me about this prompt? How the words should evoke a feeling of happiness or relief. However, the sentence construction, which is very stilted, made me feel nothing at all. There’s also the cliche of the phrase “all in one piece.” I believe that cliches become cliches because they’re true. I also think we can use them in our writing, so long as it’s done sparingly and to effect. Or humorously, though satire is a completely separate conversation.
As I’ve mentioned before, I try not to spend too much time on a Saturday Sentence Challenge prompt. Usually, I need at least a few passes before I get the right words. For this one, though, the sentences popped nearly fully-formed into my head on first thought.
Immediately, I knew whose voice I wanted to use for this prompt: June McAllister. June is the mother of one of my “Finding Mister Wright” protagonists, Rob, who spent time in the US Army. I got an image of Rob returning home, and June taking him in her arms. The powerful emotions associated with a mother hugging her son on his safe return home from a tour of duty filled my own heart with sympathetic joy.
I’m actually pretty proud of my answer to this particular prompt, which you can also read below (for sake of text-only accessibility):
I cried as I hugged him, my little boy who wasn’t so little anymore, who’d in fact grown big and muscular from carrying a fifty-pound pack every day through the far-off and frightening wilderness of war-torn Afghanistan. Thank God, thank God, I thought with every breath while this brave young man just squeezed me once and said, “I missed you, Mom.”
Happy writing to you this week, whether it’s your own or prompt-driven!
I’ve talked about writing coach/author/editor Kate Johnston‘s Team Writer Saturday Sentence Challenge before. Briefly, each week, Kate offers members of the group a boring or grammatically-troubled sentence which we are tasked with sprucing up. The challenge is that we can only push this to two sentences, and we’ve got to make the reader feel something. This particular week, Kate provided a familiar cliche:
The thought passed through his mind.
Now, I’ve got a lot of characters who have a lot of thoughts crossing their minds. Some thoughts are crazy, others romantic, still others devious. For this particular prompt, my brain originally went a different way, with a different character, but the details in that first attempt went way off into deep raunch, I didn’t think it appropriate to share with mixed company. Still, I’ve always liked the idea of forbidden attraction. I just took it in a slightly different direction. Here’s what I wrote, as begun in the image above:
Firelight danced over the mechanic’s face, adding a glow to her smooth brown cheeks and full, glossy lips, and in that moment the hunter wondered how soft that cheek would feel if he stroked it, and how silky those lips if he kissed them. But then her husband sat down between them and, well, that was the end of that.
Of course, that’s not quite the end of that particular story. But sharing the ensuing details to that scene will have to wait for another day.
Did this Saturday Sentence Challenge answer from me make you feel anything? Have you partaken of any writing challenges, lately? Share your thoughts in the comments!
Every week, writer and writing coach Kate Johnston sends out to her TeamWriter Facebook group her Saturday Sentence Challenge. It goes like this:
As you can see, Kate challenges members of the group to take her provided “blah, grammatically incorrect, or just…really bad sentence” and tweak it into a sentence (or two, at the most) that encourages the reader to feel something. We can add or cut words and punctuation, change words, even add dialogue.
I love challenges like this because they’re short, simple, and often a refreshing change of pace from my current in-process projects. They offer an opportunity to step into another world or a different character’s shoes. This sidestepping, as it were, can even lead to new storylines, characters, and adventures down the road!
Last Saturday, Kate’s blah sentence prompt was:
The pie is really good.
When faced with a prompt, I let my brain romp freely until it stumbles over an idea with teeth. I don’t let it romp too long, though; with more than one longer-form project on my plate, I can’t afford to get too distracted. Luckily, Kate’s prompts come with enough leeway to go in lots of different directions, and I can usually find the direction I want to take within a few minutes. Tweaking takes more time, of course…but that’s what the challenge is about!
I’ve got a document where I keep these prompts, my process attempts, and my final results. It’s neat to be able to look back on them! And as I said before, I never know when a simple prompt idea might come back to me with greater force.
It didn’t take long for this latest prompt – The pie is really good – to tickle my brain. I usually try to keep my group posts and prompt shares on the safe side, but this one went in a naughtier direction. It seemed only fitting: I’m at a point in one of my larger projects where romance is coming to the fore, and my writing mind is working through that. Thus, this result:
If you’d like to join in on the fun of Saturday Sentence Challenges – and more! – check out Kate’s Facebook page!