Category Archives: Characters

Friends and Foes: Stay Track Of Who’s Who With Relationship Tracking

handshake

All right! Let’s assume you’re plotting your characters for a full-length novel. You’ve used the character sheet to form a baseline idea of where everyone comes from and what they’re capable of. You’ve plotted out character arcs to figure out how the story’s plot is going to affect each character, and how they’ll react in turn.

As you might realize while arc-plotting, these characters don’t exist inside glass bubbles, totally separate from other characters. They (gasp!) interact with one another in various ways. They might make beautiful music together- or, claw each other’s eyes out. How do you know? You don’t, unless you take some time now to think over and plot the progression.

You’re going to identify the most important relationships in your story (ex. Bob and Diane). Then, in a fresh word processing document or notebook, you’re going to spend a few paragraphs detailing the arcs of their relationships:

  • Do these characters know each other prior to the story’s events? If so, how?
  • At what points in the story do they interact?
  • What is their interaction/dynamic like at these each of these points? Respectful, friendly, abusive, etc.? Take their personalities, goals, and history (if any) into account.
  • How does their relationship change during the course of the story (if at all)? Why does this happen?

A lot of these details may, and should, be for your own information only. They won’t appear in the story at any point, and you shouldn’t feel compelled to jam them in. For instance, if two characters have known each other for 15 years prior to the story, chances are you’re not going to painstakingly detail those years of interaction. However, you need some idea of what went on during that time to best determine what the characters’ dynamic is like now.

It’s your job to make that dynamic come alive to the reader. If you don’t know why two characters would do anything for each other, or why two characters have put aside stark differences to cooperate, you may have a harder time selling it.

That’s not to say you have to know every little thing that’s ever happened to these characters- but the more you know about them, the better you understand them, and can weave that understanding into your prose.

So, why write all this down? A few paragraphs per relationship? That’s pages of writing right there! Some writers just “know” their characters top to bottom, in their hearts. That’s sufficient, right?

For some of us, maybe. If you’re dealing with a short story and a tiny cast of characters, you may be able to internalize all that and get on well with it. However, if you’re writing a longer work featuring lots of characters, and each of those characters has a complex relationship with each of the others… well, you may completely forget what you had in mind for them as you’re drafting. You might spend months working up to a particular scene where a new character is introduced, only to go, “Oh, shit! Who is this again?” (There’s also the ever-popular “Wait… didn’t they already have this conversation?”)

It’s always good to have reference notes to fall back on :) That’s not to say your ideas won’t change over time, and that your notes might become obsolete, but they’re still a good starting point.

Also, in the midst of concentrated character-focused brainstorming, you might come upon ideas you never would’ve had if you’d just launched right into drafting: ideas about the characters themselves, and various interesting ways they might clash with one another. I’ve had quite a few “Eureka!” moments that later turned into neat character details and plot twists!

How do you like to handle relationship tracking? Drop me a line in the comments and let me know!


The Arc: Character Change Tracking

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA(Image credit: Imagebase.net)

When you create a character, you start with a collection of attributes. Then a story happens- and if it’s a complicated story, it affects the character. Their attributes change, for better or worse.

Actually, there are two types of character change you may track as a writer, depending on how much upfront planning you like to do. There’s the anticipated character arc you plot out before getting started, and then there are the unanticipated changes that come to you while drafting.

You gotta start somewhere. The character sheet concept helps you brainstorm who the character is at the beginning of the story. Some additional things I like to figure out about characters- if only for my own reference, not necessarily to work into the prose:

  • Physical description
  • Approximate age
  • Occupations, interests, hobbies
  • Temperament
  • Beliefs, philosophies
  • Habits, tics, speech patterns
  • Brief notes on how they feel/act toward other characters (although relationships are something to sketch out in more detail… later!)
  • At least a rough idea of background, upbringing, life story up to this point in time (more important for main characters)

So again, that’s the starting point. The next step is to figure out how the story unfolds from this character’s point of view. Depending on how long the story is, I spend a few sentences or paragraphs summarizing it as though this character is the main character. What events are they involved with? Who/What affects them, and how? How do these things change the character’s outlook, behavior, beliefs, position in life, etc.?

Voila. We have an arc!

In a short story, it may be just a wiggle, or even a flatline. In a novel, it’d better look like the Rocky Mountains.

Having every character’s arc written down in one place is a great starting point for figuring out the really important beats, events, and turning points to show in your prose. These notes are also super-helpful for refreshing yourself on a character you haven’t worked with in months.

But of course, your initial thoughts never stay fixed, or this would be easy. ;) While drafting, you’ll almost certainly come up with different takes on the characters, or stray from your outline. New characters may appear out of nowhere, or old ones may turn irrelevant and be removed.

How the heck do you track all this, especially since change-tracking takes away from writing time?

Well, I’m still figuring out my system. But so far, here’s what seems to be working:

  1. In the manuscript, I use a comment to note something new or different. (ex. “Hey, this guy used to be a soldier. I’ve made him a merchant now.”)
  2. Do my best to go through the manuscript and incorporate that change everywhere it’s relevant. (ex. “Oh shoot, here he is talking about bullets. Let’s change that to silks, shall we?”)
  3. When I’m completely done drafting- i.e., I’m certain there will be no more changes of heart- I create a second version of my character arc notes, review all the manuscript comments, and incorporate the changes that took place.
  4. Do at least one read through the manuscript just for continuity’s sake, making sure I didn’t leave any trace of the old stuff behind.

I don’t get rid of my original thoughts, just in case I ever need them. It’s also amusing sometimes to look back and remember who a character used to be.

We’re far from finished talking about documentation! Keep your eyes peeled for thoughts on character relationships, outlines, and more! :)

How and where do you like tracking this reference material, if at all? Drop me a line in the comments and let me know!


Writers Use Character Sheets, Too: Tracking The Present State

spiral_bound_notebooksYou may need a few… hundred of these…

Anyone familiar with pen-and-paper roleplaying games (RPGs) has spent a few hours, and plowed through a few packs of cookies and soda, to set up character sheets. Character sheets define the starting state of a character, and allow a player to track how that state changes throughout the roleplaying campaign.

Most character sheets are daunting to the first-time player, because there’s so much to track. What does the character look like? What are they good at? What equipment are they carrying? What spells have they memorized (if any)? If you’re roleplaying with a thoughtful group, you may also have to come up with a background for the character, and decide what their primary traits and motivations are.

Over the course of the campaign, most of these things change. Hopefully, you filled in your character sheet with a pencil; you’ll be doing an awful lot of erasing and rewriting as your character uses up potions, gets whacked in the head by goblins, and learns new skills. With a good roleplaying group, they’ll grow as characters, too: having their weaknesses and prejudices challenged, banding together with others to overcome obstacles… and earning those delicious experience points.

Your character sheet tells you the character’s state at the present point in time. Now doesn’t that sound useful to someone who has to care very much about character consistency and continuity: namely, writers?

A lot of planning has to go into stories, especially long ones featuring multiple characters. Some writers find it useful to maintain support notes, outlines, and various other “bible” documents outside of the work itself, as reference material for when they themselves forget what this character they haven’t seen in 100 pages was up to.

For novel-length work, I’ve found it really helpful to track both a character’s current state, and how it changes over time (i.e., their arc). I’ll talk more about change-tracking later. For now, we’ll focus on how and what to track about a character’s state in a particular scene, chapter, etc.

First off: there is no right answer. Second: I’m still working out my own system. But so far, using the idea of an RPG character sheet, these are some things I’ve found useful to track about a character’s present state:

  • Mood- how they feel right now, and why.
  • Attitude toward other characters in the chapter/scene, and why.
  • Thing(s) they want.
  • Action(s) they intend to carry out.
  • Item(s) they’re carrying, if any.
  • Injuries/illnesses/weaknesses they currently have, if any.
  • A general idea of their skills and personality.
  • Notes on their present environment- how they feel about it, what’s around for them to play with, etc.

These are all things that can, and should, shine through in various ways while drafting the scene. They’re great for continuity, i.e. not losing track of that whatsit I put in someone’s hands a scene earlier. And, if I’m short on ideas, looking at these notes often gives me an idea of how to proceed with writing that character.

Now, unlike a character sheet, I don’t have one centralized place where I track all this stuff. Since Scrivener lets you attach notes to individual scenes, I tend to note down this stuff in those spaces. Or, I may use comments to do the same thing. (Hey, this character said this because she’s trying to get this other guy in trouble.)

For inventory and injury, I have tried doing that in a separate document, listing that stuff for every chapter. I’m not sure I like this approach because it’s extra work, and takes me out of my work in progress, to go track down the document and scroll to the chapter I’m interested in. Plus, I make copy/paste errors all the time. In the future, I’ll probably attach these notes to each scene as well.

What present moment information do you track about your characters, if any? Where do you track it? Drop me a note in the comments and let me know!


“One Crisis At A Time!” Using Priority to Differentiate Heroes

swatkats

Does anyone else remember Swat Kats? I love this cartoon. Razor and T-Bone are heroes with a souped-up fighter jet, hearts of gold, and a common goal: protecting MegaKat City from villains. However, they sometimes disagree on how to go about it. Razor’s more cautious, strategic, and sensitive. T-Bone’s the stubborn tough-guy who relies on muscle and insane piloting stunts. So it’s not surprising that they come up with different ideas for handling a situation, or disagree on what their top priority should be.

It’s also not surprising they handle disputes differently. T-Bone has no qualms ignoring Razor, or shouting him down. Razor will try to argue his point, but often gives up once he realizes T-Bone’s not listening. Then there are other times when T-Bone relies on Razor to do all of the thinking. However they resolve their disagreements, they do resolve them- always in time to save the city.

In a story, your characters are juggling tasks, mysteries, grudges- all sorts of issues. There’s a lot of ways they could approach those problems. But when you have a set of characters working together, it can be easy to have them fall into lock-step, all of them going through and addressing things in this order without any debate because, well, that’s the order you envisioned.

Instead, think more like Swat Kats. Characters may all want to do the right thing, but they may not fully agree on what that is. One guy may think THIS is the top priority, while someone else thinks THAT is. Or they may agree on priority, but not on approach.

Play up these disagreements, and their consequences! The reader learns a lot about each character involved by seeing (a) what everyone values most, and (b) how everyone handles conflict. This also livens up scenes that would otherwise be boring because the people in them are just nodding along with each other. Yep, time to go save the Mayor again, I guess…!

What’s your favorite example of a good-guy team that have their differences, but always set them aside in time to save the day?


What Do YOU Contribute To Your Characters?

coffee_offerShort answer: caffeine and neuroses!

How much are your characters an extension of yourself?

This is a longer spectrum than one might think. At first blush, it might seem binary: either a character is based on you, or s/he isn’t. If s/he is, there’s a chance s/he’s the dreaded Mary Sue: a character who is 100% you (or what you wish you could be). Mary Sue tends to crop up in fanfiction, and is generally disliked. Why? Because when an author puts themselves in a work of fiction, they usually can’t help make it a masturbatory quest of wish fulfillment.

One of the most famous examples of a Mary Sue is Wesley Crusher from Star Trek. Wesley Crusher was pretty much Star Trek creator Gene Wesley Roddenberry imagining himself as a young lad in the Federation. A genius lad. A genius lad who makes friends with the Captain, saves the day on multiple occasions, and essentially becomes a starship crewman without ever having gone to Starfleet Academy and earning it like everyone around him. And it didn’t help that he wore embarrassing sweaters and whined all the time. Guess whom all the fans hated?

So to avoid Mary Sue and all the bad connotations, you might shy away from letting your characters have anything to do with you- which might be doing them a disservice. If they have absolutely nothing in common with you, you may have a hard time reaching inside and grabbing something to bring them to life on the page.

As a person, you’ve lived a certain number of years and done certain things. You have a unique set of skills and experience that you can describe and portray and own the way no one else can. Imbuing characters with your own traits and experience, in tiny doses, can help make your characters more real- and make you more confident in portraying them.

Lived through something dramatic? Why not incorporate that somewhere? Have funny quirks? Imbue them on a character who needs a little something to stand out on the page.

A character might have the same job as you, or have the same number of siblings you do, or like the same food or wear the same stuff. They might tell the same story of how someone winged an icy snowball at them once, which gave them a cut down the length of their face (happened to me!) I’m not afraid to make computer-savvy characters, because I know that lingo. I’m not afraid to make fighters either, ’cause I’m a martial artist.

Granted, different genres give you different degrees of freedom with this. A sci-fi alien isn’t supposed to have anything in common with you, puny human- but the starship crew trying to get along with that alien might.

If you need ideas to connect with or flesh out a character, it may be easiest to look inward first.

What personal traits or experiences have you bestowed upon your characters? Do you find this approach helps you relate to your characters better? Drop me a line and let me know!


Ask Not Who Your Character IS, But What He DOES

kindergarten_copOr, ask both. (Image credit: Bill Main)

Now that it’s November, I’m aware many of you are involved in an obscure, little-talked-about, mass binge-writing event. If you number among the participants, best of luck to you! Let me offer some help with the planning stages, so you don’t throw down 15,000 words and then realize you don’t know where the hell you’re going with it.

Oh, you’re already at that point? No worries! I’ve got some rewrites of my own to work on. Let’s rewind to square one, and talk about characters!

When sketching out a character, the easiest thing to do is throw down traits:

  • loyal
  • smart
  • pretty
  • funny
  • etc.

Those descriptors are fine for initial note-making, but horrible as a full character profile. They don’t say as much as they seem to say.

Let’s take “loyal,” for instance. “Loyal” could apply to a noble paladin, or an evil minion who follows his master’s every command. Who/what is your character loyal to? How does their loyalty manifest? How far are they willing to take it? Do they draw a line somewhere to avoid becoming an accessory or a doormat, or do they let themselves become accessories/doormats?

For instance, what if you have a paladin whose friend falls on bad times, and cleans out a merchant’s till in order to feed his family? What if the friend is acting funny one night over beers, and suddenly confesses his crime to the paladin? Will your paladin be loyal to his friend (cover up the crime), or loyal to his ruler (haul his friend’s ass to ye olde gaol)? Once the paladin decides, how does he justify his actions to himself?

prisonSorry, family man. If that’s a standard paladin, it’s the Land of Striped Sunlight for you! (This is why I hate Lawful Goods.)

In the example above, we’re chiseling out a more defined character by taking an abstract trait and transforming it into concrete actions and thoughts. We’re figuring out what the character DOES, and what lines he won’t cross- or, perhaps might cross if pushed far enough.

This will help a lot with brainstorming the ways you might show character vs. telling it. As a reader, I’d rather you describe to me the scientist who goes missing for three days, only to be found tinkering in his lab, unwashed and fully absorbed in his work, than feed me a scene where two other characters discuss how “Professor Killtron is dedicated to the point of distraction.”

The limits and exceptions you define for your characters can also be leveraged against them. Show us the “baseline” characters, then show us what they do when when their buttons are pushed, when their feet are held to the fire, when they reach a moral crossroads. This is where they’re tested and, hopefully, learn and develop. This goes into defining a character arc– I might have more to say about that later.

How do you define your characters? What do you do when you have trouble “seeing” a character? Drop me a line in the comments and let me know!


Bad At Imagery? Your Characters Can Help!

Ah, the unearthly blue lakes of the Swiss Alps.  What a great setting to include in your story!  Problem is, how do you describe it in words and achieve the same breathtaking effect?

Trick question.  You shouldn’t be describing anything.  Your point-of-view character, or your narrator, communicates with the reader.  The first step toward good imagery is describing the scene the way s/he would describe it.  This is invaluable early in the story for establishing the world and revealing insight about the character, even before anything has happened.

“It was cold.”  Yawn.  This could come out of anyone’s mouth. Hell, a robot could output that with one line of code.  Here are better ways of saying the same thing:

  • The crisp wind cutting across Tara’s face made her feel alive.
  • It feels like the morgue freezer in here, Dr. Tanaway thought.
  • As usual, even with fifteen layers on, I was freezing.

Observations like these differentiate characters, and make them easier to relate to- or not, if you’re setting up characters the reader should root against.

OK, so you have a better idea of how.  Now, what to describe?  Think about each of the senses: sight, sound, smell, touch, taste, and more if so inclined.  What’s your POV character gathering from each?  How does each one make him/her feel?  What does s/he do in response?  Focus on the two or three senses that provide the best understanding of the setting and how the POV character responds to it.

For example, let’s return to the Alps.  Suppose two characters come upon that lake.  Sight is the most obvious thing to start with: sweeping mountains, clear sky, pristine water.  Set up some feeling too: warm sun, stirring breeze.  One of the characters takes in the fresh air (smell), stretches, and basks in the sun.  The other character grumbles, takes off his backpack, and rummages around for sunblock.

You can have a lot of fun with this.  In a first draft, throw down as many senses and reactions as you want.  The more imaginative you are, the better you “know” the setting and describe it for readers.  However, be prepared to trim weaker, less relevant bits of imagery when you return for revisions.  You don’t want to get so deep into descriptions that you leave the plot behind.

When editing, keep pacing in mind too.  Imagery breathes life into your story, but it also slows things down.  In a super-important or tense scene, you want this.  Pull the literary equivalent of a Sergio Leone shootout: make the reader agonize over every square inch of the moment.  In a fast-paced scene, where the POV character is in trouble or agitated, s/he won’t notice as much background detail.  Think about how you process your environment when you’re stressed, rushed, or addressing a problem.  Usually, you fixate on the immediate issue(s) and barely register anything else.

Though you don’t necessarily want your voice leaking into the imagery POV characters provide, your own experiences can absolutely inform theirs.  If your character’s doing something you’ve done before, remember what it felt like, what sort of thoughts you had, what you focused on and what you didn’t.  Lucky me, I’ve been to a few of those Swiss lakes.  Fifteen years later, I still can’t get over how magical they looked.

Do you have any suggestions for good imagery?  Feel free to comment and let me know!


9 Universal Tips for Describing Your Characters

silhouettes(Image credit: Leadershipcriteria Clipart)

Character descriptions are one area where there’s no agreement on a single best approach.  Everyone has different desires and expectations.  Some writers paint vivid, exacting pictures of each character, down to eye and hair color.  Some readers love this, and have trouble “seeing” the characters in their minds without those details.  My approach, as a writer and reader, is the opposite.  I prefer to describe only what’s vital to understanding the characters and plot.  When I read, I form my own picture of the characters based on what they say and do, no matter what the narrator says.  I’ll even think, That’s not what he looks like! when I hit a detail contradictory to my self-crafted image.

However you handle character description, accept now that someone won’t like it.  They’ll ask why you didn’t provide the main character’s exact age or blood type, or say they glossed over your descriptions because they ran on too long.

Are there any approaches to character description we can all agree on?  I’ll take a stab at offering some below:

1. Don’t ever use the mirror/reflection cliché.  No bad wrong.

Having a point-of-view character study her/himself in a mirror or reflection screams, STOP HERE AND TOSS ME ATOP MOUNT REJECT.  It’s tough, but you’ll be rewarded for being more creative than that.

Does your narration jump between multiple POV characters?  If so, you can wait to describe this character until someone else is in control and interacting with her/him.

What if you only have one POV character, like in 1st person?  Personally, I don’t worry about describing 1st person characters right away.  At the beginning, I’m more concerned about getting you into her/his head and understanding how s/he thinks and operates.  I’ll slip details in gradually, where it makes sense to do so.  If s/he’s getting ready for a task, I’ll describe the equipment and gear s/he’s grabbing and putting on.  If they have unkempt hair, maybe s/he smooths it back to read something.  If s/he’s especially self-conscious or vain about some aspect of her/his appearance, that can also be leveraged to provide descriptive detail.  If s/he doesn’t give a crap what s/he looks like, and never mentions it, that’s telling too!

2. Length constraints translate into description constraints.

In a short story, or any place where you face a word count constraint, you have to decide whether lengthy descriptions really serve your plot.  I’ve yet to write a short story where anything hinged on a character’s appearance, so I tend to limit physical descriptions to a short, carefully chosen list of adjectives/verbs.

3. Genre also matters.

In romance or erotica, you’re probably free to go on and on, if it’s sexy enough; I have no idea.  Sci-fi and fantasy need a lot of room to describe non-humans and non-Earth environments.  Stories that take place on present-day Earth with regular humans have relatively less to establish, but there’s still plenty of opportunity to be creative.

4. Reserve your best and longest descriptions for the most important characters.

However much detail you prefer, be more generous with main characters and less generous with side-types (aka NPCs, for the nerds reading this).  This doesn’t mean you can’t have colorful side characters, but color is easy to establish with a few adjectives/verbs.

5. Take the POV character into account, and provide the description s/he would provide. 

Step into her/his head and try to see the other character through those eyes.  Don’t just write up a dossier- tell us how the other character makes the POV character feel, how s/he reacts to what s/he observes.  Remember that we all see the same people in different ways.  A warrior at a tavern might think the resident serving wench is cute and wonderful to talk to, while his cleric companion finds the same wench grating and manipulative.

zombies_nightofthelivingdeadNo love for clerics until these show up.  *sigh*

Descriptive metaphors are also lovely for implying things about the character- for example, “He darted in with the speed of a viper” is not a phrase I’d use for a sweet, compassionate character- but don’t put fancy expressions in a POV character’s head/mouth if they don’t belong there.

6. There’s no need to dump out description all at once.

A big paragraph of descriptive detail will be slow-paced.  Fine if that’s what you’re going for, but most of the time, you’re better served spacing out details so as not to hold up the story.  For instance, your POV character might notice a short man behind a store counter.  Then, as they strike up a conversation, s/he notices the store owner’s rancid breath.

In a fast-paced scene, tons of detail slams the brakes on your narrative.  To keep things fast, describe only what’s necessary to understanding the action, then elaborate more when the excitement’s over.

7. Provide more than physical appearance.

There are so many other things you can tell us about: voice, quirks, mannerisms, body language, etc.  Compare “She had blond hair” to “She twirled a lock of blond hair around her index finger, winding it tight as a spring.”  Now the reader potentially sees someone who’s thoughtful, flirtatious, a ditz- or perhaps pretending to be one of the three.  The words and actions you give her, and how the POV character interprets them, will help the reader decide for her/himself.

You can even do character description entirely with verbs, and no physical details whatsoever.  Readers will form different mental pictures of someone who flinches, wilts, and murmurs versus someone who barges in, towers, and yells.

Draw special attention to things that are outside the norm in your setting, or that are especially important to understanding that character.

8. Don’t TELL what you can easily SHOW.

My own preference maybe, but I get annoyed at scenes where Character A and Character B talk about as-yet-unmet Character C, only to info-dump about C.  “He’s the most badass renegade ever!  He’s so elusive!  Yes, but we need his help!”

Is that really necessary?  I’d rather see C (hah) being an elusive renegade through his deeds.

…you know, if we see him.  ‘Cause he’s elusive, and stuff.

elusiverobertdenbyKindly watch this amazing MST3K episode after you’re done here so I’m not wallowing alone in the comprehension of a torturous reference.

9. Place more emphasis on details that have plot implications.

If the plot never hinges on the fact that the main character has blue eyes, it’s fair to leave out eye color.  If, however, blue-eyed people are considered demigods in this world, it becomes staggeringly important.

Again, this is open to debate.  Go with what works for you, and what your readers expect, but hopefully the tips above lead you to more inventive, memorable character descriptions.

Do you agree or disagree with anything above?  Have your own can’t-miss tips for describing characters?  Feel free to comment and let me know!