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?

Take Advantage of the Weather in a Setting

I was stumped. While writing A Shadow on the Snow, my YA mystery, I knew I had to describe the weather. The mystery is set in mythical, rural Marlin County, Ohio, during the winter. The weather had to be mentioned. But except for a few key scenes, when the weather added to the plot, my descriptions seemed lifeless and pointless. After wrestling with the problem, I came up with a solution on how to take advantage of the weather in a setting.

More Than Just Scenery

I wrote in my previous writing tip, “Maximize a Setting”, how an ice-and-snowstorm plays a critical role in a chase scene in my novel. But what about the weather in a scene where it doesn’t directly affect the plot. Unlike in a movie, which automatically captures whatever background is behind the actors, I had to deliberately add descriptions so readers could imagine where the characters were interacting. But descriptions as mere descriptions seemed worthless. Could I have the weather assume another role?

Setting the Mood

I decided to use the weather to set the mood for the novel. In the opening chapter, when my main character Rae is feeling good about life, the day is cold but dazzling with sunshine. As she investigates who is stalking her, the weather grows more dismal and oppressive. A breakthrough comes after the snowstorm. The weather is sunny again. Then it grows bleaker as the story proceeds to the climax, which takes place on a foggy evening.

Once I’d given the weather definite purpose, I found it much easier to write.

An author who wrote about the weather very effectively to set the mood is Melville Davisson Post. I’ve reviewed his short stories featuring the detective Uncle Abner, who solves mysteries in pre-Civil War West Virginia.

Other Ways to Use the Weather

  • It can remind characters of a previous event, and I can work in some backstory.
  • It can reflect the mood of the main character. A main character bent on revenge can travel through scenes in which the weather becomes increasingly violent.
  • It can reflect the relationship between characters. The course of a marriage could be charted by the weather. If a couple gets married on a stormy day, that can foreshadow trouble to come. Or if the weather was perfect on their wedding day, the couple holds on to that memory when they run into trouble.

What books have you read that to took advantage of the weather in a setting?

Maximize a Setting

This is a repost from 2019. I’ve made a few changes. I hope you can learn something from it whether it’s the first or second time you’ve read it.

If there was one Hollywood director who knew how to maximize a setting, it was Alfred Hitchcock.

I hadn’t realized this until I came across a quote in Halliwell’s Harvest. The author Leslie Halliwell stated that Hitchcock believed “the location must be put to work”. That’s why so many of his scenes are still remembered.

  • North By Northwest: The hero is pursued by enemy spies. When he finds himself on a lonely road out in the country, a crop dusting plane tries to kill him. At the end of this movie, the villain owns a house near Mount Rushmore. The hero and heroine almost fall off the famous faces, trying to escape.
  • Foreign CorrespondentThis movie from 1940 races around Europe with the hero trying to figure out what Nazi agents are up to before WWII. While sneaking up on spies in a windmill in Holland, the hero’s sleeve gets caught in the gears, and he must free himself, silently, before his arm gets crushed.
  • PyschoHitchcock used the Bates’s home so well that it has become the symbol in America for the kind of rundown, creepy house you don’t linger in front of if you walk past it.

Hitchcock wasn’t the only director to work a location to maximum effect. The movie Niagara from 1953. A young couple, taking a much-delayed honeymoon at the Falls, become involved with another couple, an older man married to a much younger, adulterous wife. The director had scenes shot on the boat Maid of the Mist. Two key scenes occur during the walking tour on the Falls. The Carillon Bell Tower, overlooking the Falls, is the setting for a plot point and a murder. After viewing this movie, I felt like I had traveled back in time to 1953 and was taking a vacation with the characters.

Feel the Heat

Two murder mysteries maximize their settings. I recently rewatched Murder on the Orient Express from 1974, directed by Sidney Lumet. Mr. Lumet did a superb job of making the audience feel the opulence and claustrophobia of traveling on the Express. Another murder mystery movie that uses settings brilliantly is Death on the Nile from 1978. All the outside locations were filmed in Egypt, and director John Guillermin makes the most of them. Set in the 1930’s, rich, young honeymooners climb to the top of the one of the Giza pyramids, a murder is barely thwarted in the temple at Luxor, and a key character returns at the tempe of Abu Simbel. I felt the dust and heat in every scene.

Writers don’t have a camera to paint a setting but we can still get the maximum effect by examining a setting for all its potential to add conflict and tension to our stories. In my upcoming release, A Shadow on the Snow, I have a chase scene set during a snowstorm at night. What advantages does that give me? Well, I can islolate my main character Rae because it’s late and few people are out in the rural county seat because there’s been icy rain and snow for over two hours. The ice makes surfaces slippery, so that can make it difficult for Rae to get away from her pursuer. The heavily falling snow makes it hard for her to keep track of pursuer.

What’s a memorable setting from a movie or book? Or have you written about a unique setting?

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