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JPC Allen Writes

Inspiration for Beginning Writers

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Characters

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?

 

 

Writing Tip — Make Your Characters Quirky

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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 lat 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 wealth 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?

Writing Tip — What Makes a Great Detective?

sherlock-holmesw1-462957_1280Sherlock Holmes. Hercule Poirot. Philip Marlowe. Kurt Wallander. Kinsey Milhone.

When fans talk about their favorite mysteries, they usually name their favorite detective, then mention their favorite stories featuring that character.

Mysteries, more than thrillers or suspense stories, depend on the appeal of their detective hero to keep readers coming back for more. Below are the characteristics I find appealing in a detective and try to include these in the crime-solvers I’ve written about.

Friendship

As a reader, I want to feel like the detective is a friend I am accompanying on a case, someone I am excited to catch up with and learn about their latest adventures. The best description of how to create a detective, or any likable main character, I”ve heard comes from author Louise Penny, creator of Chief Inspector Armande Gamache, who works in the province of Quebec. You can watch the interview she did with CBS Sunday Morning.

Eccentricity

If a detective’s major qualities are “strong”, “brave”, “handsome”, “beautiful”, “charismatic”, or any other in a long list of positive characteristics, I am likely to get bored. The characters I am drawn to aren’t the straight up, forthright detectives. I like the ones with quirks that break the typical hero mold. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle brilliantly combined the heroic elements with eccentric habits in Sherlock Holmes, making him far more interesting. He also tempered Holmes’s superhuman qualities with quirks that brought him down to earth.

Fallibility

A detective should never be correct all the time. That’s not human. But she also can’t blow a clue or a case so badly that the reader thinks she should go into another line of work. It’s a fine line. Readers will accept a detective making minor mistakes, if in the end, he solves the mystery. If he doesn’t solve the mystery, the ending still has to have some kind of satisfying pay-off.

In your opinion, what makes a great detective? Who are your favorites?

Writing Tip: Creating Names for Short Story Characters

avatarw1-2191918_1280Because of a short story’s limited word count, creating names for short story characters is more important than just hanging an identifying label on them.

In my short story, “Debt to Pay”, I have a male character in his twenties who is weak, easily manipulated. A soft sounding name helps convey those flaws. Since my story is set in the present, I also needed a name that someone born in the ’90’s would be likely to have. “Asa” might sound weak, but it certainly would seem out of place attached to a contemporary character. I chose Ryan Conley. R’s and n’s have a soft sound, and the y on the end sound like a diminutive, like in Tommy or Annie. C is a strong consonant, so maybe I should have gone with Hanley or Finley, but I think Conley”gets the job done.

My only female characters is new to wealthy and in her 30’s. I wanted her to sound nouveau riche, and names like Victoria and Rebecca sound too old money. I went with Natalie. It’s suitable for someone born in 1980’s, but still sounds modern, like Madison or Harper, rather than timeless, like Sarah or Alice.

My main character, sixteen-year-old Jay, meets these two characters for the first time in the story. He nicknames them “Mr. Smooth” and “Fashion Model.” His nicknames tell the reader not only how the characters look, but also how Jay thinks of them. For more on using nicknames in your writing, see my post “Lesson #1 from The Deer on a Bicycle.

I also have a character who is a millionaire and a member of family that’s been wealthy for generations. So the last name had to sound as impressive but not imposing. So I ignored last names like Arlington or King or Powers. I chose Everett. It sounds like a name that could have come over on the Mayflower. I picked Adam for the first name because I wanted something traditional, which would fit a conservative, wealthy American dynasty, but something more distinct than James or Charles or Richard.

How do you name your characters? Do you have to like a name? How do you find ones that suit your characters?

 

 

 

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