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JPC Allen Writes

Inspiration for Beginning Writers

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Character development

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?

Writing Tip — Characters

filmklappew-3043193_1280Do you ever feel like a casting director when it comes to finding characters? You know what kind of a character you need but just can’t make him or her work. When that happens to me, it may mean I haven’t developed the personality enough, but more often, it’s because I can’t see him or her in my head.

For major characters, I have to see them as clearly as I do my family. Then I can   get under their skin and know their personalities and motivations like my own.

The physical appearances affects the character’s personality. If I can’t get that right, the character doesn’t work. I get the same feeling when I am watching a show and I don’t buy the character because the actor is miscast in the role. As author, I can’t make just any character work in any role.

In my YA novel, I knew I wanted Junior, my main character, to have a fifteen-year-old brother Merritt. Merritt needed to be optimistic and easy-going to contrast with Junior’s worry-prone, intellectual personality.

Originally, I imagined Merritt as slim, blond, with a sparse mustache, But with those looks, he kept changing into a nervous, eager-to-please character, like his cousin Gabe. I couldn’t have two characters with the same personality.  But I couldn’t force Merritt to be what I wanted, either, even though he was imagined.

So I changed his appearance. Merritt is still fifteen and thin, but now he’s half-European, half-Native American with shaggy black hair and midnight blue eyes. And he behaves like an easy-going optimist. I also like his ethnic background because it reflects the melting pot culture of America.

Why this change works, I can’t say. But when other characters have been problems, it is often because I don’t have an appearance that jives with their personality. The two must mesh for me to write about him or her comfortably.

How do you cast the characters of your stories? Or what do you do with a character that won’t behave?

Writing Tip — King Solomon as a Fictional Character

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Writing about Solomon and Ecclesiastes a week ago reminded me of what great inspiration Solomon can provide in developing a fictional character based on his life.

I don’t mean as a character in historical novels where an author fleshes out a Biblical story. Solomon works well as a characters in any time period, even ours.

We know more about Solomon than most people we read about in the Bible:

  1. The history of his parents David and Bathsheba.
  2. The stories of the tragic lives of his half-siblings Amnon, Tamar, and Absalom
  3. Solomon’s own clash over the throne with another half-brother Adonijah.
  4. Solomon’s personality and character become evident. How his humble desire to serve God as king gives way to his own desires for pleasing his wives which comes to mean more than pleasing God.

If I used Solomon for a contemporary character, I might cast him as the CEO of an innovative tech company, founded by his far-seeing father. This modern Solomon takes the company to new heights of greatness. Instead of being wise, I could say he is brilliant in business, but the pursuit of some personal indulgence, not necessarily women, make him appear stupid even to his friends.

In the end, the company is broken up, and his son, or daughter, only inherits a fraction of it.

This story arc will work with just about any occupation:

  • a dazzling politician
  • a successful actor
  • a stunningly skilled surgeon

It will work in any genre too:

  • a king in a fantasy world
  • politician in a crime novel
  • a powerful British duke in a historical romance

Because I am using Solomon as just inspiration, I can change his story to suit my narrative needs. Instead of the fictional Solomon ending his days with most of his power gone, at odds with God, I could have him repent, learn from his mistakes, and die a happy man.

What possibilities do you see for using the story of Solomon as inspiration for a character?

Writing Tip — Lesson #2 from The Deer on a Bicycle

group-1825513_1280“Pat, your characters are always yakking away at each other. How come?”

Mr. McManus answers that he “enjoys writing dialogue.” He also writes that “when I have trouble coming up with a story idea, I will put two characters in a scene and start them talking. Often, an idea for the story will emerge from their conversation.”

I think this is great advice if you are brainstorming for some kind of story, or if you are stalled in a scene of a larger work.

This is espeically helpful to me because I am a character-driven writer. I develop characters first, get to know them inside and out, and then try to concoct a plot for them. When I really know my characters — and some I have known longer than my husband — scenes sometimes just write themselves.

One Sunday I sat down to write fiction just for the fun of it and used characters from my novel. I had had a scene in mind for a long time. Like many of my scenes, I knew how I wanted it to start and how it should end, but the journey between those points was completely unknown.  That’s when the fun began.

The scene consisted of only three characters in a conversation. Once I began writing, my regular characters took over. I found myself writing dialogue that surprised me and yet I was thinking, “Yes, that’s exactly what Mike would say.” It felt like, as Mr. McManus writes, I was “eavesdropping on my own characters.”

If you like creating characters and writing dialogue, get your characters yakking. You could find a new approach to your writing. Or just a lot of fun.

Writing Tip — Lesson #1 from The Deer on a Bicycle

teaching-311348_1280I could write for three months on what I have learned from The Deer on a Bicycle by Patrick F. McManus. Instead, I will just discuss a couple things I have found the most interesting.

“Why do you give your characters and places such odd names?”

Mr. McManus explains that naming his characters Retch or Rancid or the Troll immediately tells the reader something about those characters. He adds, “Because of the brevity required for short humor, one must continually look for way to save words. Comically descriptive names for characters and places are one of mine.”

Descriptive nicknames can work in longer fiction, too. In the mystery A Fool and His Monet by Sandra Orchard, FBI agent Serena Jones catches two men peddling stolen art. Since she doesn’t know their names, she calls them “Baldy” and “Sidekick”.  The main character in Marissa Shrock’s The First Principle, a dystopian Christian fiction YA novel, overhears a conversation between two women who are strangers to her. Based on their appearances, she calls them “Puffy” and “Pudgy”.

In both examples, the main characters nickname minor ones because they don’t know their names. The nicknames tell readers something about those minor characters and it’s more concise for the author to write “Baldy” rather than “the bald man” or Puffy rather than “the woman with the puffy face.”

735600I have a special affection for nicknames because I use them for family members. In my novel, I have character who nicknames almost everyone. He calls his nephew who is a drummer “Sticks” and another nephew who wears a cowboy hat “Cowboy”.

Nicknames not only tell you something about the character with the name, but also about the person who invented it. If a teen calls his math teacher “the Fuhrer”, that reveals qualities about the teacher and the teen.

I think having a character hand out nicknames and giving them to major characters make all your characters seem more real. Many of us have nicknames, sometimes tied to our family relationships, hobbies, jobs, or physical characteristics, and those nicknames highlight different aspects of our life.  They can do the same for your characters.

Keep nicknames in mind for humor, brevity, description, or character development.

 

 

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