In case you missed this post earlier this year, I am guest blogging for Anne Clare, a frequent contributor to my site, about when a character turns into a problem child. To read Anne Clare’s interviews and posts on my site, click here.
Lonely places aren’t unique to October, but I wanted to write about them for this month’s theme, mysteries. I’m drawn to lonely places, whether it’s an abandoned house, an office building after hours, or an empty beach. The lack of people suggests some kind of story behind the emptiness. Or it allows me to project all kinds of ideas for stories.
In my short story, “A Rose from the Ashes”, an abandoned children’s home is a clue and a key setting for the mystery. Many, many years ago, when my dad would take me out into the country to practice driving, we would pass what looked like a large, two-story house. He told me that at one time it was a home for orphans. The building was made of stone or brick and had a simple, flat facade with the door centered on the bottom floor. As I drove by it in the evening, with the windows dark, the home sitting by itself in a field, I got an eerie feeling.
Below are four ways to use lonely places as writing inspiration.
Set the mood or foreshadow
If I want to make my readers uneasy, setting a scene in a lonely place is a great way to do it. It’s an experience all of us have had, so readers instantly relate to it. The lonely place hints at something awful to come. Or I can subvert that notion. I can have my characters worry about being in some dreadfully lonely place only to discover friends are waiting for them.
Aid character development
Having a character seek out lonely places can tell the reader something about their personality. Does she visit a local cemetery because she’s morbid? Or is it the closest place she can go to get away from violence in her home? If I create a character, who regularly visits the mountains to hike, I can signal to readers that he likes challenges, or he needs to relieve stress, or he’s chasing freedom that he can’t find in his usual routine. If my character is drawn to an old house with a spooky legend attached to it, I can show that she’s curious or a truth seeker or wants to see justice done.
Challenge the main character
At a conference I attended, author Steven James recommended isolating the main character (MC) to increase tension. Lonely places do that and also give me the opportunity to stress and test the MC. I’m a hug fan of the underdog story, and the best way to set that up is to force the MC to go it alone.
And I don’t use lonely places just for physical isolation. If I really want to get the MC to rely on her strengths, I need to isolate her from technology. That’s one of the reasons I love rural places and visit rural areas to see where I can realistically cut off the MC from the rest of the world.
I can also create tension in a lonely place by having my MC phone for help that will be a long time in arriving. But I prefer to cut him off completely. Then the readers can anticipate the MC will have to succeed on his own abilities.
Slow the pace for reflection while maintaining tension
When writing a chase or action sequences, the MC has no time to think. Surviving is all that matters. But if I need her to realize something during the pursuit, I can have her find a lonely place. She can hide, catch her breath, and be on the alert for her antagonist but also think about what’s happening. Maybe she suddenly realizes the identity of her mysterious pursuer. Or she figures out how to elude him. Or she reasons out the key to the mystery she’s been trying to solve and must escape to tell the police.
A lonely place works just as well if all I need it for is time for the MC to think, even if it’s as simple as having him taken a walk in the morning. But I must make sure when I slow the pace of my narrative not to bring it to halt by dumping information I haven’t worked into the storyline yet.
What stories have you read or movies you’ve seen that effectively use lonely places?
At the beginning of the month, I linked to a post on the difference between comedy and humor. Comedy is a deliberate act to be funny. Humor comes from observing situations, remarks, or actions with a humorous attitude. I am a mystery writer who stumbles upon humorous things as I’m writing. Since I am not a gifted humor writer, I find it best to let the humor come naturally to my story.
In my short story “Debt to Pay”, a wife has plotted to kill her millionaire husband by sabotaging his plane. He survives the crash and hides out with two brothers, who live in a remote cabin in Wayne National Forest. When the wife discovers her husband at the cabin, she offers the older brother money to kill her husband on the spot. She says, “You’ve never had money. You don’t know what it can do for you.”
As I wrote that scene, it occurred to me that the twenty-two-year-old brother actually did know what money could do for you. It could get you smashed to pieces in a plane crash masterminded by your wife. Since that observation was suitable to the character’s personality, I had him say it. It was a bit of humor true to the situation and character.
Another way to let humor come naturally is to know my characters in detail. If I have a talkative character, and I pair him with a very introverted one, I just start writing and see what the characters do. The humor surprises yet still feels natural because I know my characters so well.
It’s also a gift to readers if they are reading in a series withe reoccurring characters. If I present my characters vividly enough for my readers to get to know them like family, then when I put, or trap, characters with clashing personalities in a scene, readers get a thrill as they anticipate the conflict and humor to come.
The one rule you want to follow when placing humor in your stories is that you don’t want your characters remarking about how funny a situation or person is.
When my kids were little, they sometimes watched the PBS children’s show The Cat in the Hat Knows a Lot About That. The Cat made lots of funny remarks. And the two kid characters were constantly laughing at them. I don’t know why the creators did this. It was as if they didn’t think the children watching the show would get the jokes. I found it irritating, even for a kids’ show.
Humor in a story is for the reader. I need to trust that they will get it. Sometimes, I can write that a character laughed or chuckled and then keep on going with my story. For example, in my YA novel The Truth and Other Strangers, I have my normally quiet main characters crack a joke. His younger brother laughs “so hard he almost fell down the mountain.” That’s the last line of the chapter.
My description of the younger brother laughing isn’t a cue to my readers. It’s character development. My main character did something unusual, and his younger brother showed his surprise and appreciation. Done, end of chapter, move on.
What are some of your favorite funny novels or short stories? I’d love to find new stories that make me laugh.
If 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?
Can 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 Strangers, my 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!