I am posting today instead of Thursday because I am guest blogging on Tessa Emily Hall’s site, Christ is Write. My post combines several ways to generate names for characters. If you like developing names as much as I do, click here to visit the site.
Recently, I sat down to outline my second novel. After just a few sentences, I stopped. My villains are two brothers and a sister who are con artists. One of the brothers is the father of my main character and the plot is about how father and son face off. I knew where I wanted my plot to go but found I didn’t really understand my villains’ motivation. Until I did that, I couldn’t go anywhere with my outline.
Unless it’s a very minor character, I need to understand why my characters act the way they do before I can write about them with confidence. Saying the con artists do bad things because they are con artists isn’t enough. Real con artists have a motive: money, power, or some other kind of gain. I needed to figure out what was driving my villains and why.
To do that, I began outlining a scene which will never be in the book. This scene concerns the three siblings talking about a death in their family and how they can take advantage of it. Now I can shape their motives as they talk among themselves.
My novel is told from the point of view of the son, so the father’s, uncle’s and aunt’s motives will slowly be discovered through the story. But as the writer I have to have every character and his motives laid bare to me so I can figure out how to hammer together the plot.
Writing scenes which aren’t part of my novel is the best way I know to get a handle on a character that seems difficult. Not only can I uncover motives, but also perfect that character’s voice so she sounds unique.
What methods do you use to uncover your characters’ motives?
“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.
Last time, I wrote about a bad habit I had when it came to my characters: TMD — Too Much Description. Another bad habit that walks hand-in-hand with the first is DD — Dumping Descriptions. Not only did I over-describe my characters, but I would put all of it in the same place.
Because I wrote in first-person, I thought I was being realistic when my main charater Junior would describe another character all at once as that person came into his sight. But such lengthy descriptions ground the action to a halt.
Then I thought over how I see people in real life. When I first meet someone, I don’t notice every tiny detail. I get a general impression: height, weight, hair color and style, eyes light or dark. While interacting with this person, I get more details, specific eye color, shape of features of the face, and clues to her personality.
That’s how I should write. Now when Junior introduces another characters, even if it’s a relative, I describe the most important features first, then drop in relevant details as they story progresses.
For example, one of my major characters is Mike Lody, Junior’s uncle. The characteristics I think are important are he is only five years younger than Junior, he has a burly, powerful build, he’s half a foot shorter that Junior, he always wears a black hat with a low crown, his eyes are small and brown, his jaw is very square, and his hair is reddish brown.
When Mike first appears he burst through a door. I mention he’s “built like a bear”. When he sees the sheriff who is interrogating Junior, Mike grins “like a grizzly that has just spotted supper” because he doesn’t like cops. The grizzly comment also links to Mike’s build. In the next chapter, the sheriff asks for Mike’s ID and that reveals his age. Through the rest of the chapter as the sheriff confronts Junior and Mike, I drop in descriptions, one at a time, like the hat, which Mike adjusts depending on his mood.
Many writers recommend a character chart to keep descriptions straight. I should probably do that. I can describe each character in minute details and get that out of my system, and then compare descriptions to make sure I don’t have too many characters with similar appearances. I can also tease out what is critical for the reader to know about each character. This chart on author Jill Williamson’s site is very detailed. Use it as a template to build a chart that fits your need.
I hadn’t realized until I saw this interview on the CBS Sunday Morning show that The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton was turning 50 this year. I learned some of my first writing lessons from reading that book. In fact, I learned them so long ago that I’d forgotten where the lessons came from.
At twelve, I began reading adult books, skipping YA books completely. Until I was sixteen. Late one night, I caught the end to the 1983 movie The Outsiders. It hooked me. The cute actors in all the lead roles probably helped. But the characters and storyline are what drove me to read and reread the book.
In high school, I felt like an outsider in a gang of one, so I identified with the main character Ponyboy Curtis. I wished I had a gang of tight friends like Ponyboy. I was also aware the haves and have-nots in my town and found the battles between the rich Socs and the poor Greasers relatable.
My very first novel was based on the concept of rich kids fighting poor kids in a small town. My current novel The Truth and Other Strangers is about outsiders who are poor, but they are a family instead of a gang of friends, and they are outcasts because of their family’s bad reputation, not their social status. So I owe Ms. Hinton a big thank-you for providing me with such long-lived inspiration.
Two other things I learned from The Outsiders:
Make your characters distinct. S.E. Hinton did a great job of giving Ponyboy and his brothers and friends specific qualities: Ponyboy is the dreamy intellectual, his brother Sodapop is carefree and fun-loving, Dallas is the tough guy, Johnny is the scared one everyone tries to protect. She also gives most of the characters a chance to grow. Dallas isn’t as tough as he seems or even thinks he is. Johnny displays bravery. Sodapop isn’t as as carefree as Ponyboy thought.
Since my main character belongs to a large family, I try to give each relative a distinctive personality, even the preschoolers.
Give your characters strong relationships. I came to care about Ponyboy and his gang because of the relationships within it. And not just with the main character, although Ponyboy’s relationships are more prominent because he tells the story. All the dynamic interactions between characters propel the plot.
I love to write interactions between my characters. Because I have given them strong personalities, relationships can develop that I haven’t planned but they make sense, given who the characters are.
I read other YA books by Ms. Hinton, but I never fell in love with them like I did The Outsiders. They were fine books, but they didn’t hook me.
I haven’t visited Ponyboy in years. Maybe it’s time I did.
Here is an interview with S.E. Hinton.