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JPC Allen Writes

Inspiration for Beginning Writers

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Character development

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.

 

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 — Favorite Books and Giveaway: “The Emotion Thesaurus”

Emotion-Thesaurus-2nd-EditionI can’t remember how I found The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi, but it was one of the best books I’ve bought on writing technique. It’s so good that everyone who comments during the month of May will be put in a drawing for it. To enter the drawing, you must be a U.S. resident You can comment from now until May 31 at 5 p.m. EST. I will notify the winner that day.

When my freelance editor Sharyn Kopf tackled my YA novel, The Truth and Other Strangers, she pointed out that I used the same facial expressions to convey emotions, usually smiles, grins, and the width of the eyes. So I had to figure out how to describe emotions in a variety of ways.

The Emotion Thesaurus offers loads of descriptions for 130 emotions. Under each one is a definition, a list of physical signs, internal sensations, mental responses, cues of an acute case of this emotion, and cues of suppressing it, along with a writer’s tip.

Whenever I see that I am falling into the trap of relying too heavily on my character’s grins or narrowed eyes, I pick up the thesaurus. Reading the list of physical signs lifts my imagination out of its rut. Sometimes, I don’t use the exact sign the authors have listed, but the signs have sparked my creativity, and I come up with one of my own.

For example, when my main character experiences fear, I often use shortness of breath or a sick stomach. The thesaurus suggests such reactions as “lowering voice to a whisper”, “pleading, talking to oneself.”, and “stiff walking, the knees locking” among 33 physical signs. For the main character of my recent mystery short story, I decided when she was scared that she would raise up on her toes, digging in like a sprinter, to be ready to run.

These authors have other writing thesaurus, which I have not read, but I’m intrigued by The Rural Setting Thesaurus. Although I live in the country, I know I can use someone else’s perspective to see a familiar setting with new eyes.

Be sure to comment during May and to be eligible to win The Emotion Thesaurus

 

Monday Sparks — Writing Prompts: Who are Your Favorite Book Characters?

bookw-1012275_1280May’s theme is all about characters, my favorite aspect of writing. All my stories are character-driven. Once I know my main characters, I can run with my plots and settings. Reading about characters who touch me or with whom I identify inspires me to develop my own.

I have lots of favorites, but these are some of the characters I visit over and over again.

  • Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson
  • Archie Goodwin of the Nero Wolfe mysteries
  • The rabbits of Watership Down
  • Jeeves and Wooster by P.G. Wodehouse
  • Father Brown by G.K. Chesterton
  • Montague Egg by Dorothy L. Sayers

So who are your favorite book characters?

Writing Tip — Characters

avatarw-2191918_1280To accompany my post on Thursday about character development, here are two posts with two different views on the subject. In Leah Meahl’s post on the Christ is Write blog, she offers different ways to get to know your characters from the inside out. Henry McLaughlin writes in his post on the Write Conversation how he did elaborate background work on his major characters, but let his secondary characters develop as he wrote.

So how do you like to develop characters? Are you a plotter — do you have to know everything about your character before you start your first draft? Or are you a pantser — writing by the seat of your pants, allowing the characters to grow with the story? Or do you have a combination of strategies?

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