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JPC Allen Writes

Inspiration for Beginning Writers

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Writing advice on characters

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 — Finding Faces for Characters

peoplew-2887485_1280I am a character writer. My main character attracts me because his or her personality and relationships are ones I want to explore through story. But for me to use this characters, I need to see him or here as clearly as my friends and family. And it all starts with the face.

What kinds of faces catch my attention? After decades of looking for them, I can’t answer that question. All sorts of faces pique my interest, not just ones that could get their owners a contract in Hollywood. I just have to make some sort of connection to a face and know I could build a character behind it.

I’ve found faces in some very unlikely places, here are situations where I’ve been inspired.

Crowds

Sometimes, I will pass a person in a crowd, and his or her face draws my attention. I know nothing about this person, and I don’t think I want to because I want to put my own character behind the face.

At our county fair, my kids and I were walking through the midway when I saw a teenage boy — average height, 16 or 17 years old, golden blond hair, very light-colored eyes, mustache and chin stubble. After taking several opportunities to look but hopefully not stare, I had a minor character who resembled  a female character I had already selected. Now I had her son.

For my short story “A Rose from the Ashes”, I needed a man in his lat thirties, wealthy, devoted father and sole guardian of his three children. As I rummaged my memory for a suitable candidate, I recalled a soccer coach from the league my youngest plays in. I didn’t know the man, had only seen him in passing, or when his team played my youngest’s team.

He stood out from all the other coaches because he was immaculately dressed. Most of the dads who coached wore baggy T-shirts and shorts. This guy wore a navy blue windbreaker and white shorts, no bagging in sight, and his dark hair was sprayed or gelled to perfection. He looked like he’d just left his yacht. I had my wealth dad.

Portraits

I love looking at portraits, whether paintings or photos. I needed a dark-haired woman, near forty, as a villain. While watching an old Disney movie with my kids, I noticed a portrait on the wall of a set. That portrait kicked off a very successful construction of an evil character. (For those of you who know old Disney movies, it’s the portrait of Aldetha Teach in Blackbeard’s Ghost.)

Other Sources

Yearbooks

Movies and shows

Google images

Family albums

Free photos sites (like Pixabay)

Where have you found faces for your characters?

Writing Tip — Animal-Inspired Characters

great-blue-heronw-744257_1280Of course animals have inspired some of the most beloved characters in literature — Charlotte, Mr. Toad, the Cat in the Hat. Although my characters are people, I still find animals as writing inspiration.

Because my main character Junior in my YA novel lives in the mountains of West Virginia, he is more attuned to nature than many 16-year-old Americans. This aspect of his personality allows me describe other characters in comparison with animals. This helps my writing in two ways: first, it assists the reader in getting inside the head of my main character, and second, it gives the reader a “handle”, a short description she can grasp quickly.

When Junior says a man reminds him of a giant toad, that’s a handle that immediately carries with it a certain image to each reader.  It also tells the reader something about how Junior thinks of the man.

Animals can inspire human characters in other ways. Where I live, lots of turkey vultures make their home here between March and November. Lots of them. If I spot the outline of a large bird in the sky, 9 out of 10 times it’s a vulture, or buzzard, as I like to call them. I would love to build a minor character on the appearance of a buzzard. A narrow, reddish, bald head protruding from hunched shoulders. The character would have to wear something black and bulky, like a sweater, to imitate feathers.

Or a character based on a great blue heron. I’ve seen many of these on the river near my home. They walked in a stilted gait and can remain so still, that it’s hard to believe they are alive. Then when they see a fish, they flash into action. I can see a very thin character with a very deliberate but awkward way of walking. Also the character would be quiet and still, not drawing attention to herself until she needs to.

Comparing people to birds would be perfect for a main character whose hobby was bird watching. Or if you have a main character who is crazy about dogs, he could see people in those terms. A woman who is “as regal as an Afghan hound” or “beautiful and vacant as an Irish setter.” A small child whose constant questions were “as incessant as the yipping of a Chihuahua.”

How have animals inspired your writing?

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