Writing Tip — Character Thumbnail Descriptions

boardw-973989_1280Can you summarize your character in a a few words? This is an excellent question for so many reasons, many of them explained in this blog post in which the author uses a two-word thumbnail description for each character. I found two words too hard but summaries of my characters that are five words or less helped me delve into the core of their beings.

In my YA crime novel, The Truth and Other Strangersmy main character is Junior Lody, and three relatives are the other major characters, who help him in his efforts to hold his family together. Below are the thumbnail descriptions:

  • Junior Lody: sixteen years old, intelligent, protective worrier
  • Mike Lody: Junior’s twenty-one-year-old uncle. Hot-tempered, loud-mouthed, big-hearted.
  • Gabe Lody: Junior’s sixteen-year-old cousin: nervous, eager to please, musician.
  • Merritt Lody: Junior’s fifteen-year-old half brother: easy-going, optimistic, nature-lover.

Having those summaries in mind are a great help when I’m writing a scene and I’m not sure who should say or do what. Knowing each character’s core personality helps the narrative to ring true. It also helps me when I develop new characters. If I already have a character with a comeback for everything, do I really need another? If I do, perhaps the new character can be a foil for the old one. If I find I have two characters with similar summaries, it may be time to eliminate one.

Probably because I grew up as one of four sisters, I tend to think of characters interacting in groups of four. I understand that kind of relationship dynamic and how four different personalities can play off each other.

Recently I’ve been working on the personalities of four grown siblings in their thirties, who would appear in a series of mysteries. I’m having trouble with the youngest. Here’s what I have so far.

  • Oldest sister: Thirty-nine, dreamy writer and family peace-maker.
  • Oldest brother: Thirty-seven, big-hearted, protective law enforcement officer.
  • Youngest sister: Thirty-three, impulsive, enthusiastic private investigator.
  • Youngest brother: Thirty-one, ??????

I’d like the Youngest Brother to be a first responder. I’ve been thinking about a firefighter or paramedic. I also think he should be quiet, balancing his more extroverted siblings, Oldest Brother and Youngest Sister. But he just hasn’t come into focus for me. I may have his face wrong, and that’s why I can’t work on him. I know I need four siblings and not three and he should be male. If you have any suggestions, please let me know.

And please share any thumbnail descriptions of your characters below. I’d love to hear about them!

Writing Tip — Digging Deeper into Characters

gardenw-1176406_1280Sorry this post is short, but I just returned from vacation and didn’t have time to write a full post. So here are two posts on keeping journals for your characters. Both posts suggest ways to dig deep into your characters to discover hidden qualities and quirks.

I will add a new lesson I’ve just learned from my friend Cindy Thomson. We met to brainstorm writing ideas, and she asked about two minor characters in a short story I wrote. They are a couple in their sixties and have a poisonous marriage. Cindy asked why they were still married. I had the answer for the wife. She’s a retired, prosecuting county attorney and likes to win. Initiating a divorce would be admitting failure. Now I have to come up with a believable reason for the husband to have stayed in the marriage.

Cindy said to keep asking why questions. Why does the husband endure his wife’s domineering ways? When I get answer to that, ask another why questions based on it.

One thing that always helps me in character development is thinking of real-world precedents. We all know of long-time marriages where neither spouse seems happy. Knowing that such marriages exist in reality helps me build my literary one. I know I am not creating a character or relationship that readers will think is unbelievable.

How do you dig deep into characters?

Monday Sparks — Writing Prompts: Who Is This Character?

girlw-4000270_1280A picture can say so much.

I found this one when I went to Pixabay and typed in the keyword “teen”, just to see what hits I would get. She doesn’t look like a teen to me. Maybe ten years old at the most. Her expression can be interpreted many ways.

Here is how I was inspired:

Ben said his dad was nice.

He looks nice. He’s been playing with his kids the longest time and hasn’t yelled at them once, not even when Ben accidentally knocked his little brother off the slide.

Maybe he’s a safe grown-up.

I’ll watch some more.

Then I’ll know if I can tell him.

How does the photo inspire you?

Writing Tip — Death of a Character

gravew-3775464_1280I thought I was ready.

When an agent said I could send her the proposal for my YA crime novel, she also said I could send two-paragraph blurbs describing the other books in the series. When I got home, I was so excited and settled down to the job, eager to introduce into the second novel one of my favorite characters, a mysterious stranger who helps my main character and his family and whose motivations and history are revealed over the series.

Only I couldn’t summarize the book. No matter how I approached the blurb, I kept stumbling over my mysterious stranger. He wouldn’t fit easily into the narrative. He clashed and grated on other characters. His motivations never felt right. A few days before November 11 last year, I hit on the reason: I didn’t need him any more.

In my head, I’ve been developing this series for years, adding characters, changing personalities, explored motivations. I now had other characters, who could do the job of the mysterious stranger more easily and believably.

So on November 11, 2018, I killed my character. It didn’t bother me like I thought it would. I love my characters, feeling an almost maternal protectiveness (don’t tell my kids) as I nurture and polish them. But once I killed the stranger, I felt at ease. When a story isn’t working, I obsess over how to fix it because I can’t stand the feeling that something is wrong. After I made the the final decision to axe the stranger, the relief I felt signaled I’d made the right decision.

It also signaled I’d changed as a writer. My stories weren’t just about pleasing or entertaining me, although that’s important. I could never write a story without characters I didn’t care about or a plot that wasn’t interesting and rang true to life. This time, I found myself wanting to write the best story possible, no matter how painful the path to get there.

So, sorry, mysterious stranger. I may resurrect you for another story, change you a bit, cast you in a somewhat different role.

But for now — rest in peace.

 

Writing Tip — Fleshing Out Minor Characters

girlw-2022820_1280Minor characters can be tricky. You want them to be interesting while they are in their scene, fleshing out minor characters enough to seem real. But you don’t want them to take over the narrative from the major characters. (If you find a minor character taking over your story, maybe you should consider it for revamping as major character.) If appropriate to the story, I try to incorporate humor when dealing with minor characters. Readers will get a laugh or a smile as these characters help propel the story. I learned this technique from one of my all-time favorite series, Kolchak: The Night Stalker.

Never heard of it?

You’re not alone. Kolchak: The Night Stalker was a series of twenty episodes that originally aired on American television from 1974-1975. Before that there were two TV movies. Over the years, the series has developed a cult following, and Chris Carter, creator of the X-Files, credits it for inspiring his sow.

All the movies and episodes deal with Carl Kolchak, a rumpled, wise-cracking reporter, bent on getting his story out to the public, no matter what stands in his way. And what stands in his way are vampires, werewolves, aliens, and other assorted monsters. For some reason, whenever Kolchak starts to investigate a story, he runs into the supernatural.

What makes the series work for me is a perfect blend of humor and horror. When Kolchak believes he has stumbled across an otherworldly culprit, he always does research, consulting experts he thinks will help his story. The show cast strong character actors in those roles and let them shine.

  • When he finds feathers at the scene of a murder, Kolchak takes them to a taxidermist to be identified. The man gets extremely upset about how people don’t appreciate taxidermy as an art.
  • Several beheading murders prompts Kolchak to consult the curator of a museum exhibit on the Reign of Terror. While the curator talks to Kolchak, he fights with his assistant as they set up a guillotine.
  • Hoping to get at the college records of two dead students, Kolchak tries to con his way past the registrar with a lot of bureaucratic double-talk. Only she knows the bureaucracy backward and forwards and can’t be fooled easily.

In all these cases, the writers had to get information before the audience. By adding humor, they made what might have been dry dialogues into memorable exchanges that both moved the storyline and entertained.

What have you learned about fleshing out minor characters?

 

 

Monday Sparks — Writing Prompts: Who Is This Character?

peoplew-3060107_1280This man’s face has so much to interest a writer. He’s elderly, but with thick, long, wavy hair. Most elderly men in the U.S. don’t wear long hair. His teeth are worn. The creases in his face reveal hard work, or years of stress, or the stress of years. And his expression prompts questions? He’s concerned or worried or disturbed. About what? What is he seeing?

My first instinct is to say he’s worried about a family member. But maybe he’s an old wizard and one of his spells is going wrong.

Who is this character and what is worrying him?

Writing Tip — Make Your Characters Quirky

cosplayw-1011450_1280

Having just returned from camping with my oldest and 150 other middle school kids, I can swear before a court of law that people are quirky. I had conversations with a girl who is also a writer and working on a fantasy. I saw a twelve-year-old boy ad lib in a skit like a seasoned comic.

For me, inventing quirks for characters is one of the most enjoyable tasks when creating them. Below is a revised version of an article I posted two years ago.

Mannerisms: What mannerisms do you have? I’ve noticed that many time when I pray, I run one or both hands through my hair. Also, when I am losing patience but trying to hang onto a few manners, I smooth my eyebrows. Characters’ mannerisms can be connected to an activity or emotion, they can reveal or conceal thoughts and feelings. My main character Junior in my YA novel The Truth and Other Strangers rubs his nose when he’s thinking deeply.

Speech: Are there certain words or phrases you use a lot? I use “Shoot” or “Shoot fires”, an exclamation I learned from my dad. I don’t know what “Shoot fires” means, but I still use it. One character in my novel says “Holy smokin’ cows!” I like the idea of combining “Holy smoke!” and “Holy cow!” to create something unique.

Hobbies: If the hobby will be key part of your plot, choose one that interests you.  Or one you can develop an interest in. I don’t like fishing, but my youngest loves it. Through this enthusiasm, I’ve learned a lot about fishing and find it easy to create a character who lives to fish.

Fears and Hates: Dislikes can be as telling as likes. The mystery series Monk was built around the main character’s phobias. Junior hates to read fiction and shares a dislike of country music with his cousin, which is unusual in the rural West Virginia county where he lives. I’ve been working with a new set of characters that includes a sheriff and his family. The sheriff is an imposing man, 6’6”, and grew up on a farm. I think it would be funny, and humanizing, if he had a fear of horses. It would be especially humorous since his sister and brother-in-law board horses and give lessons.

Food: I may raise a few eyebrows by admitting I am a writer who prefers tea to coffee. When I gave up tea for Lent, I taught myself to drink coffee because I like a warm drink. So I’ve moved from hating it to tolerating it. Giving your character strong opinions on food is a fun way to add realism. The gourmet eating habits of the detective Nero Wolfe made up a large part of his character and sometimes major plot points.

Personal habits: Sherlock Holmes kept his tobacco in a slipper. Indiana Jones wore a fedora. I don’t like to drive the same route to and from a location if I have a choice. Getting to know a character’s personal habits makes them seem like friends. And a character’s deviation from her normal habits can kickstart a plot. Mystery stories often begin when someone notices a character break a habit for no apparent reason.

As much as I like quirky characters, I have to watch that I don’t overdo it. Unless a quirk is critical to my plot, one or two mentions of it is enough. I have my character only use “Holy smokin’ cows!” twice in my novel. Like so much in writing, less is more.

What quirks have you given your characters? Are they based on you or someone you know?

Writing Tip — Finding Faces for Characters

peoplew-2887485_1280I am a character writer. My main character attracts me because his or her personality and relationships are ones I want to explore through story. But for me to use this characters, I need to see him or here as clearly as my friends and family. And it all starts with the face.

What kinds of faces catch my attention? After decades of looking for them, I can’t answer that question. All sorts of faces pique my interest, not just ones that could get their owners a contract in Hollywood. I just have to make some sort of connection to a face and know I could build a character behind it.

I’ve found faces in some very unlikely places, here are situations where I’ve been inspired.

Crowds

Sometimes, I will pass a person in a crowd, and his or her face draws my attention. I know nothing about this person, and I don’t think I want to because I want to put my own character behind the face.

At our county fair, my kids and I were walking through the midway when I saw a teenage boy — average height, 16 or 17 years old, golden blond hair, very light-colored eyes, mustache and chin stubble. After taking several opportunities to look but hopefully not stare, I had a minor character who resembled  a female character I had already selected. Now I had her son.

For my short story “A Rose from the Ashes”, I needed a man in his late thirties, wealthy, devoted father and sole guardian of his three children. As I rummaged my memory for a suitable candidate, I recalled a soccer coach from the league my youngest plays in. I didn’t know the man, had only seen him in passing, or when his team played my youngest’s team.

He stood out from all the other coaches because he was immaculately dressed. Most of the dads who coached wore baggy T-shirts and shorts. This guy wore a navy blue windbreaker and white shorts, no bagging in sight, and his dark hair was sprayed or gelled to perfection. He looked like he’d just left his yacht. I had my wealthy dad.

Portraits

I love looking at portraits, whether paintings or photos. I needed a dark-haired woman, near forty, as a villain. While watching an old Disney movie with my kids, I noticed a portrait on the wall of a set. That portrait kicked off a very successful construction of an evil character. (For those of you who know old Disney movies, it’s the portrait of Aldetha Teach in Blackbeard’s Ghost.)

Other Sources

Yearbooks

Movies and shows

Google images

Family albums

Free photos sites (like Pixabay)

Where have you found faces for your characters?

Monday Sparks — Writing Prompts: Who Are These Characters?

boysw1-286179_1280While scrolling through Pixabay, this photo caught my attention. I love the contrast between the two boys. The one on the left is interested or surprised and sits further away from the camera. The one on the right appears more eager and bit of a ham.

Who are these characters? Brothers? Friends? Based on their expression, what are their personalities like?

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