When a Character Takes Over

If you let your imagination soar during NaNoWriMo, you run the risk of a character hijacking your story. Maybe you’ve read about other writers who have had characters appear out of nowhere, fully formed, as if someone has air-dropped them into their brains. Don’t let it worry you. When a character takes over, you may find yourself with a much better story. That was my experience while writing my YA mystery A Shadow on the Snow.

My main character nineteen-year-old Rae Riley has just discovered who her father is and is getting to know her sprawling, extended family. Her thirty-seven-year-old father Mal has an eighty-year-old grandfather. A former lineman, Mal is built like a grizzly bear, and since he shares his name with his grandfather–Walter Reuel Malinowski–I wanted them to share physical characteristics too. Personally, I didn’t know any big elderly men who looked like former football players. Usually, I have to see a character as clearly as I do people in reality to feel comfortable writing about them, I had to have some person to fill the spot in my story, at least temporarily, so I picked Clint Eastwood because I knew he was a tall man and I’d seen photos of him in his eighties.

I began writing. Next thing I knew, Walter was in charge.

Every scene he was in he took center stage. As I wrote dialogue, I felt more like I was taking dictation than imagining the conversation. (Yes, we writers hear voices in our heads, but we know they’re not real. Most of the time.)

As I wrote, Walter’s appearance changed. The Clint Eastwood looks disappeared. The man I saw in my mind was as broad and intimidating as a tank with deep-set eyes and aggressively square jaw. And this change was not conscious thinking on my part. He transformed without me realizing it.

What’s more, he was fun to write. His blunt, harsh, mean personality was such a contrast to Rae and Mal. But I knew he was more than just a bully and enjoyed exploring all the facets of his character. I worked him into more scenes and the book benefited from his larger presence. But I had to remember that ,while important, Walter was still a minor character. If I didn’t keep tight control of him–something he would swear no one could do–he’d run amok and change my entire novel.

I wasn’t the only one who Walter won over. Two of my beta readers singled him out as one of their favorite characters. I’m looking forward to including him in my next mystery.

For more tips on writing characters, click here.

Who are some minor characters that you love?

Hiding the Villain in a Mystery

Hiding the villain in a mystery is the toughest task when writing a story in the genre. Planting clues and red herrings effectively is hard too, but if I don’t correctly handle hiding the villain in a traditional whodunit, I’ve ruined the whole story.

Do’s and Don’ts for Hiding the Villain

Don’t have a very minor character be the villain.

Mystery author Bill Pronzini describes this pitfall in a chapter of his book Son of Gun in Cheek when writing about his love for the old Charlie Chan movies made in the 1930’s and ’40’s. He writes that often the villain turned out to be such a minor character that it was difficult to remember what scenes he or she was in.

Part of the fun of a mystery is to reread them after the solution is revealed, noting how the villain acted and what clues I missed that pointed to his guilt. If the villain hardly appears in the story, the reader has no satisfaction in seeing him unmasked. The mystery’s solution isn’t a revelation but a shock and a cheap one at that.

Now I can have a very minor character turn out to be an accomplice. That can provide a nice twist to the plot. But this character should still have enough page time for the reader to say, when revealed as the villain’s ally, “Aha!’ instead of “Who?”

Do make the villain a major player.

He should be an important secondary character, someone who has significant interactions with the detective. But if he has too many scenes in which he plays a pivotal role, the reader may get suspicious. So …

Don’t make the villain the only major player.

As I’ve written mysteries, this tip is the one I’ve found helpful: give each suspect almost equal time on the page. Creating suspects with as much reason to be guilty as the real culprit and allowing them meaningful page time helps disguise the true villain. The drawback of this method is that if a character acts suspiciously but is innocent, my detective either has to uncover to reason or the character must explain her actions. Unlike in real life, mysteries must tie up loose ends. For more on writing about clues and red herrings, click here.

What mysteries had the best reveal of the villain?

Three Tips on How to Build a Teen Detective

For almost three years now, I’ve spent time in the company of Rae Riley, my nineteen-year-old detective. I introduced her in the short story, “A Rose from the Ashes”, and she continues her amateur sleuthing in A Shadow on the Snow. By the way, the cover reveal is tomorrow! (Cue confetti and a blare of trumpets). But back to the post–working with my main character for so long has led me to three tips on how to build a teen detective.

Teen Needs a Reason to Detect

Like all amateur detectives, the teen detective must have another reason for sleuthing besides perpetually tripping over bodies. Maybe she has a thirst for justice. A recent teen detective is devoted to true-life crimes. Maybe he’s just plain nosy.

Rae solves mysteries because she has to. In “A Rose from the Ashes”, she investigates the murderous attack on her mother when her mom was pregnant with her in the hope of finding her father. In A Shadow on the Snow, someone is leaving Rae threatening notes. She starts her own investigation because she is getting along so well with her newly-found family that she doesn’t want to burden them with her problems and make them regret inviting her into their lives.

I gave Rae a few other traits to make it more believable for her to undertake a case. Her mother battled cancer while Rae was in high school and died before she graduated. Rae is used to looking after herself. She also moved many times as a kid and doesn’t make friends easily. So it makes sense for her to go it alone on her hunt for the stalker.

Teen Needs Specialize Knowledge

By this, I mean the teen should have some knowledge not readily available to traditional law enforcement. The teen could be solving a case involving a friend or relative and learns things from suspects who are reluctant to share with the police. Or he is looking into a cold case and brings a fresh perspective to it. Or the teen is an expert in some field and that skill aids in solving the case.

In Shadow, Rae uses the skills she developed to investigate her mother’s assault, such delving into sources at the library where she works and questioning people without letting them know exactly why. Rae also loves photography, a passion I hope to work into future mysteries.

The teen detective needs these talents or abilities because …

Teen Should Not Be Smarter Than the Cops

Readers of teen mysteries already have to suspend their disbelief to buy into a story in which a teen solves a case. As a writer, I don’t want to force readers to throw away their disbelief all together and make my teen detective the smartest person in the book for a couple reasons.

First, the era of the bumbling or stupid cop is past. It’s been done. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle started this trope for mysteries and actually changed it in some of his later stories, portraying the police as more competent and imaginative.

Second, it’s not playing fair, giving the teen detective too much of an advantage, and that could annoy readers. If every single character in a mystery is amazed by the intelligence of the detective, as a reader, I’m liable to turn against him. Only Sherlock Holmes gets away with such universal praise.

Rae’s dad is the sheriff of the rural, southeastern Ohio county where they live. She makes friends with three young cops and plays outlaw country music with them. I can’t make any of these characters look like dolts. Rae wouldn’t respect them and neither would readers.

One believable way for cops to have missed clues or become stumped by a mystery is overwork, especially in an urban setting. A city, town, or county only has so many officers who only have some much time to work multiple cases. Many small agencies can’t afford a separate detective unit. That would give a writer a decent reason for the teen detective to uncover something the police hadn’t.

Who are your favorite teen detectives? Do they have any of the three points I describe?

How to Write Realistic Characters by Candice Yamnitz

One of the reasons I love having guest bloggers is that they can give you a new perspective on topics. I’m excited to have the guest blog today, “How to Write Realistic Characters” by Candice Yamnitz. Candice is new to “JPC Allen Writes”. I met her on Instagram and have been following her journey toward publication. Take it away, Candice!

Think of a character you adore. What makes that character feel real to you? There are many layers to this question in any story. I’m going to review the ones I find most important.

I’m a YA fantasy author whose debut novel, Unbetrothed, comes out February 2022 with Illuminate YA. I wrote it back in 2018. Rounding out my characters took about ten drafts. I’m hoping I can give you some insight, so you don’t have to go through so many drafts.

Give Your Hero a Lie to Believe

Every hero believes a lie. This isn’t just a matter of having an imperfection. Your character needs something ingrained into their thinking. It should be related to their goal or in contrast to their goal. 

For instance, in Unbetrothed, Princess Beatriz wants a betrothal to her best friend. In order to do that, she needs a magical gifting.  She believes that a person’s value is found in their magical gifting. If she didn’t believe this lie, why strive so hard to get a gifting? Yes, wanting to marry prince charming is a good enough desire to send a person on a crazy quest. But with the lie, my character has more motivation and a thought process I can use in all her interactions.

Give Your Character Quirks

In real life, I love love love quirky people. It’s so much fun to find out that a friend you’ve known for years has a strange way of eating a candy bar. Then there’s the friend who can’t stand certain textures or the one who has a squeaky laugh. 

Give your characters fun little details. Consider giving your character a tick, a strange habit, and something they always do when they’re angry, nervous and happy. Plan these all out for your main set of characters and make the quirks distinct. Also, keep track of which character has which quirk by keeping a character journal. Please tell me I’m not the only one who forgets a character’s eye color twenty chapters into the novel.

Yes, you’re not alone. I also discovered that I’d given way too many characters brown eyes and had to go back and throw in some variety.

Build a Backstory

Backstory doesn’t belong in chapter 1 and needs to be sprinkled into the story. Even so, I recommend writing short stories about scenes in your characters lives before the story takes place. When I first wrote Unbetrothed, I just wrote the main story. The novel didn’t get more depths until I had written several prequel short stories.

I understood my characters more deeply. I knew and felt their wounds. I understood why certain characters behaved strangely. I could hear the hidden messages they sent in their dialogue. This doesn’t happen unless you get into your characters’ experience. 

Consider writing:

  • Your main character’s deepest wound
  • The start to the story if you were writing from the  antagonist’s perspective
  • The protagonist’s mentor’s story (ie. I wrote about Princess Beatriz’s mom.)
  • The same story from another person’s perspective
  • Your main character’s most treasured memory

A Note to the Adult YA Writer

When writing YA, you have to put yourself in the teen mindset if you’re not there. Go back to grappling with your identity and insecurities without adult experience. Emotions tend to be rawer and more pronounced.

I spent my college years, young adult years, and beyond mentoring in youth group. This haa given me insight in talking, emotional, social, and dating patterns in this age group. I love this age group because it’s where God reached me. Please consider spending time with teens if it’s not fresh in your mind. This will help you get the right voice, and you’ll know your audience.

Writing Sidenote: I am not a plotter. I write chapter 1, a page long synopsis, and then dig into writing my manuscripts. If you’re a planner, you might want to do all the backstory work beforehand. That’s not me. I tend to write draft 1 first. Everyone has their own process. I hope this helps you write more realistic YA characters. If you’d like clean teen book recommendations, book giveaways, and to learn about my writing journey, sign up for my newsletter here. I have some really exciting news coming up over the next few months. I can’t wait to share the cover, the exact release date, and the swag for my book.

Thanks for much for the great tips, Candice!

If you’d like to read an interview with another YA author, click here.

*****

Blurb for Unbetrothed, coming February 2022. Candice drew these portraits of her main character Beatriz. Aren’t they gorgeous!!!!

Around Agatha Sea, princesses are poised, magically gifted and betrothed.

So, when seventeen-year-old Princess Beatriz still fails to secure a betrothal, her parents hold a ball. Forming an alliance could mean the difference between peace and war, but Beatriz doesn’t just want any suitor. She’s in love with her best friend, Prince Lux. Marrying Prince Lux will always be a silly dream as long as she has no magical gift.

Princess Beatriz will do whatever it takes to obtain a touch of magic, including make a deadly oath to go on a quest to Valle de Los Fantasmas. A valley where no one comes out alive.

If she can manage to succeed, Princess Beatriz could have everything she desires and secure peace for her kingdom. If she fails, she’ll lose not only her greatest dream, but her kingdom, and maybe even her own life.

*****

Candice Pedraza Yamnitz fell in love with The Lord of the Rings and Pride and Prejudice in high school and hasn’t stopped reading since then. She taught in a bilingual elementary education classroom for years until she decided to stay-at-home, teaching a crew of imaginative children. So in between reading lessons and converting cardboard boxes into pirate ships, she writes YA novels with a Latin twist. She lives in her native Chicagoland.

You can follow her at Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and her website.

When a Character Turns into a Problem Child

When a character turns into a problem child, a writer wants to administer a serious time-out session.

I ran into this frustration while writing my YA mystery. My main character Rae belongs to an extensive, extended family. I decided to give her father an older sister, a younger sister, and a younger brother. The dad and his two sisters came to life early and easily. But Younger Brothers turned into a problem child. No matter what approach I took, I couldn’t develop him into an interesting character, one who would contrast with his siblings.

If you are faced with a character who turns into a problem child, try these four trouble-shooting techniques.

Change the Name

Naming characters appropriately is critical for me when developing them. If I give a bubbly character a name that somehow suggests a quiet, sensitive type, the character won’t work for me. But the name wasn’t Younger Brother’s problem.

Change the Face

This is the same as changing the name. Usually when I build a character, I start with a face that I’ve seen somewhere and that signals a certain kind of personality. Younger Brother’s face suggested a reserved, intellectual, but I had another character like that who was working well within the story. I thought maybe I just needed to …

Write a Scene with the Character

This technique had worked with Rae’ grandmother. I knew I had to have a grandmother, but she proved a slippery character, her personality assuming all sorts of traits as I tried to structure her in my mind before I began writing. Finally, I decided to stick her in a scene and see what happened. Pretty soon, Gram’s mellow, warm-hearted personality shone through, making her a nice contrast to her son, Rae’s father, who is a worrier.

But when I wrote a scene with Younger Brother, he became irritating, sounding whiny. So the only thing left to do was …

Combine or Eliminate the Character

I offed him in cold-blood with a a lot of relief. I simply didn’t need him. If I hadn’t already had a character similar to him, I might have taken his qualities and those of another character to combine them into someone new.

I think the reason I worked so hard to keep him is that I often create groups of four characters. I’m one of four sisters, so I understand how that group dynamic works. What I had failed to realize was that I already had a group of four characters. Oldest Sister married the neighbor boy, whom Rae’s father and sisters grew up with. So he’s like a brother, although an older one to Rae’s father. But I’ve had a ton of fun writing about how the brothers-in-law jab at each other.

Click here for more tips on creating characters.

Have you had a character turn into a problem child? What did you do to fix it?

Powered by WordPress.com.

Up ↑