Setting Fuels Character, Character Fuels Setting

Writers often offer advice on plot, setting, and character as if they were distinct story devices that barely had any association with each other until a writer pulls them into a story. But those three components are all interwoven. Since my theme this month is setting, this post will focus on how setting fuels characters and character fuels setting. If some plot creeps into the article, I can’t help it. Plot, setting, and character are a tight knit family, and I never know when one will come barging in to hang out with the other two.

In real life, environments shape the people who live in them. I’ve lived in a rural county in Ohio for the past fourteen years. I see the world differently from my sisters, although we all grew up in the same small town. They have spent the past several years living in suburbs that are less than an hour’s drive from me. Our homes, and the events that have occurred in them, influence who we are

Pick a setting, any setting

Let’s say I want to write a mystery set on the coast of North Carolina, near Emerald Isle. If my characters have lived by the sea all their lives, that environment will fuel their development. If a man is a fisherman, he can realistically be hard-working and stoic because he learned he must work with the sea when it turns nasty on him. Or he could be hard-working and laid back, having learned he can’t control the ocean but must roll with the punches it metes out.

Emerald Isle is a huge vacation destination. I can believably add characters who are not from that area. Fish-out-of-water stories are a lot of fun as characters clash in a setting familiar to some and alien to others.

In my North Carolina mystery, the fisherman takes several city dudes on a chartered fishing trip. One of the dudes is very snobbish. Another is very competitive. Maybe a powerful entrepreneur or rising politician. A third is new to fishing and very excited about his first ocean fishing trip. One of the vacationers dies on the boat under mysterious circumstances.

When the police suspect the fisherman, he and several other charter boat captains play amateur detectives because they don’t want an unsolved murder to adversely affect their businesses. So careful thought about my setting has let the setting fuel character and characters fuel setting.

In my Work-In-Progress (WIP), my main character Rae is trying to fit into a rural county in Ohio as she gets to know her father and his family for the first time. She grew up in the South, moving many times with her mother before she died. Rae is used to small town living but has never had a chance to put down roots.

Rae is an introvert and shy. She would like to make friends but feels she isn’t good at it because she could never make lasting friends anywhere she and her mother lived. The frequent changes in her environment fuel her personality.

What stories do you know in which setting fuels character and character fuels setting?

Writing Tip — 4 Ways Humor Helps Characters

mentorw-3610255_1920If it’s appropriate to you story, let humor do the heavy lifting when it comes to character development. Here are four ways humor helps characters.

Humor makes characters likable.

Giving a character a healthy sense of humor automatically makes her more likable to most readers. In real life, someone with good sense of humor is more enjoyable to hang around. The same principle applies to characters. If I like a character’s humorous thoughts or remarks, I’m much more likely to follow that character into a story, regardless of what style or genre it is.

Humor makes character unlikable.

Creating a character with a nasty sense of humor is a quick way to turn your readers against him. It will also intrigue your readers. I’ve read many crime short stories in which the main character is the criminal, and he relates how he committed his crime with an arrogant attitude and vicious barbs directed at the lesser mortals surrounding him. I don’t know if such a vile character could sustain a whole novel, but I stick with the short story because I know the main character forgot something in the commission of his crime and will get found out some way. Waiting for the high-and-mighty to be brought low is delicious to read about.

Humor makes the characters relatable

I’ve been in situations that seem so ridiculous that I have to laugh. Or I look on an irritating situation in a humorous light because it’s so much better than losing my temper or fuming.

When characters see the humor in situations familiar to readers, such as the arrival and dismissal for the car-riding students at an elementary school (don’t get me started), readers find something of themselves in the character.

My husband and I recently watched Justice League. I loved the Flash. As a young man selected by Batman to join the League and act like superhero for the first time in his life, the Flash is a character the audience can relate to. He makes the comments we might if we found ourselves thrust into such a bizarre world. Like when he thinks Batman’s idea of bringing Superman back to life is a plot straight out of a Stephen King novel.

Humor makes readers care for characters.

If characters are likable and relatable, then readers will care what happens to them. Humor makes the drama more dramatic, like the way salt heightens the sweetness in cookies. Such as when a character is in a terrifying situation and cracks a joke. That makes the audience root all the more for the character’s escape. The juxtaposition of opposites enhances both of them.

Who is one of your favorite character with a great sense of humor?

Writing Tip — How to Thicken Your Plot, Part I

pumpkin-soupw-61105_1280Like I said last week, I think plotting is my weakest writing skill. But writing short stories has helped my game in this area and provided me with several insights. One of those is to use my greatest writing strength to bolster my weakest one. For me, that means allowing my characters to inspire plots.

I have to see my main characters in my head as clearly as I do people in reality. I have to understand their personalities as well as my kids’. When I have that strong of a grasp on my characters, plot points pop up.

After I wrote the basic storyline of my first published short story “Debt to Pay”, I felt I needed more tension in the confrontation scene. In my story, a teenage boy and his older brother find a millionaire who crashed his plane near their remote home in Wayne National Forest. The millionaire begs the brothers to hide him because he knows his plane was sabotaged but has know idea who wants to kill him.

During the confrontation scene, the millionaire’s wife and her boyfriend come to the cabin and discover their plot to kill the millionaire has failed. What does the wife do? How could her decision add tension?

I considered the character of the wife. She is greedy. So greedy that she married for money. So greedy that she plotted to murder her husband and inherit his money. So what would a greedy person do? Assume others are as motivated by money as she is. The wife offers the brothers money to kill the millionaire right then and there.

When I realized this was the wife’s motivation, I was stunned at how logically the scene worked itself out. It seemed like my characters had wrested the story from me and developed the plot on their own.

Character Traits=Plot

Here are some personality types that can help lead you to plot points:

  • Curiosity or nosiness. This character is likely to discover something he shouldn’t know. Depending on his sense of morality, he can use this knowledge to help others or take advantage of it to help himself.
  • Bad temper or caustic tongue. This character hurts others by losing her temper easily or with cutting remarks. She can either be unaware of her affect on others or well aware and enjoys inflicting abuse. Either way, other characters will have a strong reaction to her.
  • Impulsive. This is a great trait for causing trouble. Or saving the day.
  • Patience. A character can endure tremendous hardship with this trait. Or wait a long time to enact the perfect revenge.
  • Control. Almost no one likes a person who wants to control others. Like the bad-tempered or sharp-tongued character, the controlling character will spark strong feelings and reactions from others. The lengths to which a controlling character tries to maintain control will lead to all sorts of plot points.

How do characters inspire your plots?

 

Writing Tip — Casting Against Type

acting1-4013244_1280Last week, I mentioned director Alfred Hitchcock’s rule of maximizing a setting. He was also brilliant with his casting. He had to be. In a thriller, there’s little time for backstory or deep character development. I believe Hitchcock knew that if he cast certain kinds of actors who already carried a certain persona with them that would help flesh out their characters without a word of dialogue. If he needed a relatable, easy-going all-American male, he cast James Stewart. If he wanted a debonair leading man, he cast Cary Grant. But Hitchcock also knew the value of casting against type.

Strangers on a Train

In this movie from 1951, two strangers meet on a train. One is a well-known tennis player, Guy Haines . The other is a rich man’s grown son, Bruno Anthony. Haines’s troubled marriage is well publicized, and Anthony suggests they swap murders — he’ll do in Haines’s wife if Haines will kill his father. Haines’s gets away from the weirdo but humoring him and saying he agrees with the idea. Anthony takes him seriously and kills his wife. Now he expects Haines to uphold his end of the deal.

What made Bruno Anthony one of classic movie’s great villains was that he was played by an actor known for his cute, boy-next-door roles. To cast such an actor as a spoiled brat psycho was unusual at the time, but actor Robert Walker was up to the task. His Bruno glides into a room and charms everyone he meets. But when someone thwarts his plans, he’s like a child having a temper tantrum. Only this child has no problem committing murder.

Pyscho

Hitchcock pulled the same trick in Pyscho, casting Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates. Up until that role, the actor had specialized in sensitive types, sometimes battling against stronger characters or his own emotions or neuroses. Norman Bates can be seen as an extreme example of these roles. Anthony Perkins was cast so well that many people in Hollywood couldn’t see him in any part but a psycho after that.

Know Your Genre

One way to create characters that are cast against type is to have a thorough knowledge of the genre in which you write. In YA novels, the bratty rich kid and the decent poor kid are types I find over and over again. Often, the poor kid has won a scholarship to a private school and must deal with mistreatment at the hands of the rich kids until she is accepted or fights back or is changed by some dramatic events. Why not have the poor kid as the villain? One of the rich students could be the main character and comes under the sway of the new, poor kid, who uses others to get ahead.

What character types are you tired of? How would you cast them against type?

Monday Sparks — Writing Prompts: Who Are Your Favorite Movie Heroes?

filmklappew-818198_1280This month’s theme is movies and how being a classic movie fan has influenced my writing.

So who are your favorite movie heroes, characters you will watch over and over again? Here are a few of mine:

  • Sherlock Holmes: I will try most Sherlock Holmes movies, but I haven’t watched the ones staring Robert Downey, Jr. because, physically, he is so unlike my vision of the character that I don’t think I could buy him as the Great Detective.
  • Amateur detectives: I love movies in which a non-professional investigates a mystery. Underdogs have always appealed to me.
  • Unlikely heroes: I know this is pretty broad, but what I mean is when a movie creates a hero that breaks usual movie stereotypes. I’ve only seen parts of a 1943 horror movie called The Return of the Vampire but the parts I have seen I’ve enjoyed because the characters tackling the vampire are not a well-muscled young hero and his brave girlfriend, but a middle-aged women and a almost-retirement-age police inspector, who are trying to thwart the vampire’s efforts to capture the fiancée  of the women’s son.

Who are your favorite movie heroes?

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?

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?

 

 

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