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JPC Allen Writes

Inspiration for Beginning Writers

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Characters

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.

 

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