Category Archives: Characterization

Three Steps to Complex Characters (Part III)

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You can tell a lot about a person from the obvious pieces we’ve discussed in the last two posts: their features and their name. Even without knowing energy types we could probably identify apple cheeks as fun, puppy-dog eyes as sensitive, sharp chins as determined, and long faces as serious. Similarly, we make natural judgments about a name that are often true.

(One beta reader commented, after learning my artsy character Phil is short for Theophilus, “I was a little surprised that he goes by Phil as opposed to Theo. Theo sounds artistic, but Phil sounds kind of carefree/humorous which also seems to fit him.” Later, when she learned Wendy had been the one who insisted on calling him Phil, the reader said it made perfect sense.)

Today we get to dive deeper—into the invisible influence of astrology.

Character Sun Sign

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Three Steps to Complex Characters (Part II)

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Okay. Your character has a face and an energy type! This is exciting stuff! You’re well on your way.

Next up, not surprisingly, your character needs a NAME.

Now, sure, you could just give him or her your favorite name, that one that was a little too wild to use on any actual children or say out loud all the time but you know would be just too cool in print. You could. Maybe. But I’d like to convince you that the best choice is a name that perfectly fits the character.

We do this with real children. In fact, if you’re currently trying to decide on a name for your upcoming bundle of joy, this info I’m about to share might be even more invaluable. I certainly wish I’d known, for example, that the letter Z signifies “aggression/conflict” before I gave a certain child of mine a name that starts with it—except that, of course, it is exactly the right name for that aggressive little kid. And luckily the other letters in his name have to do with thinking and wisdom. Fingers crossed he grows into those soon haha.

Believe it or not, characters can embody their names just as much—whether or not you understand the name in advance. For example, with my Peter Pan retelling, I chose to stick with the names Wendy and Peter, and it was amazing how much personality came with those names that I didn’t realize ahead of time. I “crafted” their characters years before learning anything about nomenology, and yet the names are dead on.

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Three Steps to Complex Characters (Part I)

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face 5Last week I shared Pixar’s 22 Rules of Phenomenal Storytelling, and I’m going to be honest and say that when you’re at the very beginning of writing a story, it can be overwhelming looking at that list and knowing where to start. But as promised, I’m going to walk you through the process as I go through it myself, and these past two weeks I’ve started firmly with character, loving every discovery and where it’s leading.

Check out some of Pixar’s rules that have to do with character:

#6 What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?
#13 Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable characters might seem likeable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience.
#15 If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.

When I wrote my first novels, I had no idea how to figure those things out. I muddled through it in the dark, as if blindly trying to distinguish characters’ features by mauling them with my hands. It wasn’t until several (okay, six) drafts into my second novel that I hit on three secrets that have turned character development into a straight-forward science.

You can utilize these three secrets at any writing stage, whether you have no idea what your story will be or you’ve already completed six drafts. I’ve done it in both cases (as mentioned) and found these three steps invaluable either way. Read the rest of this entry

Plot Twists and Story Snares

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God has a sense of humor. We call it “coincidence.”

Yesterday it took the form of a hair brush that my eighteen-month-old accidentally left at church. I happened to notice it missing two hours after church, which then sent me walking back to retrieve it, which ended with a rendezvous with someone I needed to talk to but wouldn’t have otherwise had the chance to.

But lately most of the coincidences in my life have to do with a mouse.

I’ve been thinking about the moment in a story when you recognize a plot twist: how sometimes it’s obvious in an instant because of a major coincidence, and how other times coincidences are inconsequential enough that the plot twist sneaks up on you until all the small coincidences start to compile and you realize that something big is happening.

The mouse thing, which might also be called a cat thing, was the latter kind.

I should begin by saying that I have never wanted a cat and don’t even particularly want a pet at all. If if I did, I’d lean toward a dog, hands down. Hubby is the same way.

But a couple of months ago we went to a neighbor’s house to pick up our kids after date night. We have been doing a babysitting swap with these neighbors for two years now, so when a beautiful cream-colored cat greeted us by rubbing against my leg, I asked, “When did you guys get a cat?”

The swap hostess laughed and said, “About three years ago.”

“Why have I never seen it?”

“It hides a lot. We hardly saw it ourselves the first four months it lived here. I only knew it was alive because it ate the food.”

This idea intrigued me. Could a pet really be that easy and unobtrusive?

That same month I also bought house plants for the first time in my life after reading about the health benefits (purifies the indoor air), and I happened to also read health benefits about having a pet (fewer allergies, colds, etc). But I still didn’t want one.

Then, last week, I heard nibbling sounds from behind the wall in the kitchen late one night. I froze, thinking, “Oh crap! What am I supposed to do about a mouse??” But then the corresponding thought was “I guess I’ll get a cat after all,” and that satisfied me enough.

Until I actually saw the mouse.

Two nights later my sister and I were at the kitchen table when a dark furry thing scurried across the floor and darted under the fridge. I called my parents, my in-laws, my hubby — asking everybody for advice. But the more they described poison and various traps, the more sick I became over the whole idea.

That’s when the other coincidences became noticeable. My kids had been watching Dumbo for like a week straight, and suddenly I pictured those stupid elephants freaking out about a mouse and felt dumb about doing the same. My eighteen-month-old has been in love with a lift-the-flap book called Follow the Prophet by Val Chadwick Bagley and his favorite page, about the boy Samuel in the Bible, has three or four cute little mice on it. Then my sister joked about “Gus Gus” from Cinderella and how we should give our mouse shoes and a shirt.

Snares! All of them!

Stories have this way of catching and changing us, don’t they? And it’s like we need only be reminded of them and suddenly they change our course: a story snare and a plot twist.

The next plot twist was the husband.

See, by this time I’d become pretty convinced that these coincidences and thoughts and feelings were adding up to the idea that God is suggesting, in His ever-so-humorous way, that we need a cat. So I prayed and told God, “Um, I actually don’t want a cat. I don’t want an extra living creature to take care of. I have three kids! But, if we’re really supposed to get a cat, and if it would be a good idea” — because I’ve noticed that God’s plans generally work out better for me than stubbornly opposing them (note the picture of the elephants above) — “then, God, you’re going to have to convince my husband. I’ll do the research and get ready for an extra family member; you use your coincidences on Hubby.”

The husband’s initial response: “Hell no!”

We talked about it. I explained my position. I gave him my reasons and plenty of concessions, like the fact that I agree with him and I didn’t actually want a cat either, but that I feel good about it for whatever reason. But though the conversation went well, nothing I said made him budge at all.

“No cats. No pets.”

“Don’t worry,” I assured him. “I won’t get one until we’re both agreed on it because that wouldn’t be fair.”

“That’ll be never. We’re never getting a cat. God would have to send a whole army of rats to convince me to get a cat.”

Amusingly, a few hours later, after I’d already gone upstairs for the night, Hubby happened to be the last one in the kitchen. He heard/saw the mouse scurry from under the fridge to under the oven. When he came up, his eyes were a little bit wide as he said, “I just met Ralph. I’m going to get traps.”

I had to explain that I can’t kill the mouse because all the story snares — now including his reference to Beverly Cleary — had gotten me thinking of it as an innocent creature we can’t kill for no reason.

“But you’re okay with a cat killing it?”

“Or chasing it away. A cat fits into the natural order of things. Poison and traps do not.” (Though four years ago, the last time we had a mouse, I poisoned it without blinking. Again, those darn story snares! Those plot twists that change our course!)

Before I knew it, Hubby was talking about naming the cat after the Yankees, how he wants a black-and-white cat he could call Pinstripe, and we were discussing where to put a litter box and a scratching post.

Funny enough, the person I talked to thanks to the hair brush yesterday mentioned something about choosing to see God in the coincidences — the plot twists — of our lives.

I totally agree.

Nice work, God. I’m impressed. 😉

Concept, Pacing & Phrasing: Trifold Revision

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I’m deep into revising my second novel — five full drafts deep, with multiple “sub-drafts” in between each full one. And it’s a great feeling, but at times it’s like I’m at all stages of the writing process at once — because every scene in my manuscript is at a different level.

As I started thinking about it, I can pretty much lump them into three categories:

  • scenes that aren’t working at all, and so need to be revised on the conceptual level (which often means scrapped and replaced completely);
  • scenes that are working conceptually but read either too slow or too fast, and so need pacing adjustment;
  • and scenes that are working well in both concept and pacing but are still “off” at the word or sentence level, and so need to be re-phrased.

At the risk of boring you, I want to offer a sample of each. I love to see how other writers revise, so I’m hoping this demonstration will be helpful to those who feel the same way — or even just those who might be curious to peek at what an unfinished novel looks like. Enjoy!

Concept Revision

Sometimes a scene might seem to work on the pacing and phrasing level but not with the big picture of the novel. If you don’t revise for concept first, you get stuck in a rut: polishing and polishing the pacing and phrasing but unable to figure out why the scene is “off.”

Conceptual revision is a matter of stepping back and asking what needs to happen in the scene as far as character and plot development. How does it need to build off the scene before it? Where is it leading for the next scene?

This is a sample of a scene like that for me — that seems okay when you read it but didn’t fit the arc of the novel:

Draft 5c

“You’re here!” The interruption came from up on the balcony, from a girl with designer clothes and long blond waves of hair. She hurried down the steps to the parking lot, talking the whole way.

“I can’t believe I’m actually meeting you guys in person! Isn’t this crazy? Did you see my note on your blog? I tried to talk my friend Cami into coming with me, but she’s totally into her boyfriend right now. They’re at that disgusting PDA stage. I can’t take them anywhere together. So believe me, it’s better I came alone.”

The girl planted herself right in front of the boys, holding her hand out to Zander. “I’m Brianna, and you must be Zander. I recognize you from your picture. And wait, let me guess everybody. Phil, right? And Topher? Drew?”

Wendy coughed. “We were just about to take a picture.”

“Oh!” Brianna exclaimed. “Sorry about that. Here.” She turned to face Wendy, backed up so she was in the middle of the guys, and put a huge smile on her face.

This scene just never worked for the story I’m trying to tell. I didn’t like it, readers didn’t like it, but for several drafts I couldn’t figure out what to do about it.

Then it occurred to me that it doesn’t even make sense on a technical level. Brianna couldn’t have gotten there before them. So I cut it completely, and replaced it with a scene that instead puts focus where I need it more: on Dee’s confrontations with her dad. When they arrive at the hostel, Dee’s phone rings and she goes off into the trees to answer it without the guys seeing her get teary-eyed.

Conceptually, the new scene is way better than the Brianna one. It deals with the character arcs I need to address and simply makes more sense in the story line with the scenes before and after it. (As far as pacing and phrasing, however, it’s so terrible that I’m too embarrassed to give a sample of it yet.)

In order to introduce Brianna, I added a few lines to the next chapter:

STATUS UPDATE: Out on the deck watching the sunset, hanging with new comrade Brianna of the Goldilocks ringlets. ~Drew 10 minutes ago

Zander huffed his usual noise from over on one of the deck’s low wooden chairs.  He shoved his chin into his fists.  “Brianna, tell me there’s something to do around here.  Anything but sitting around.”

The blond invader laughed, and Topher thought how glad he was Brianna sounded nothing like Gina.  In the two hours they’d known her, it hadn’t taken long for Brianna to fix her attentions on Zander, and Topher was more than happy not to have her superficial, flirty laugh directed at him.  If she’d had an ounce of Gina’s perceptiveness . . .

Well, no.  He wouldn’t want Brianna’s attention then either. 

He only wanted Gina.

Brianna is a very minor character, and this introduction keeps her in her place while also allowing me to explore Topher’s character a little more. The pacing and phrasing will still need adjusting, but conceptually I’ve now dumped a scene that didn’t work and replaced it with pieces that do.

Pacing Revision

For me, pacing has to do with fleshing out a scene once I’ve cemented the concept. I have to imagine it more deeply and picture every detail: facial expressions, tone of voice, mood, clothes, props, actions, setting. I can tell that a scene is ready for this when the idea is working well but feels bare, like this one:

Draft 5c

Drew’s heart was still racing from seeing Wendy stagger like that. “You’re okay, right?” he asked for the thousandth time as he turned onto the main road and shifted into second gear. The car groaned and lurched, and Drew felt his face get hot.

“Yes,” Wendy said. “I’m so okay that I could definitely drive my own car right now. She’s old. You have to be gentle.”

“Sorry.”

She sighed and tilted her head back. “This isn’t going to work, is it?”

He couldn’t think what she was talking about. “What isn’t?”

“The road trip. No car, no money, and now Zander’s messed things up so royally that I don’t see how he and Topher could stand to be in the same vehicle anyway.”

It’s like Maggie Stiefvater points out in her post “How to Turn a Novel into a Textbook,” how you have to pace a scene by filling in between the dialogue. We need clues about how the characters are feeling, clues about what’s happening in their physical surroundings, clues about where the story’s headed. A few drafts ago I thought short beats like “she sighed and tilted her head back” were enough; this revision below shows how the potential goes way beyond short beats.

After Drew says, “Sorry,” there needed to be a long pause. He’s not good at conversation. He’s not good at driving her car. It would be awkward. Plus, he is so hypersensitive about Wendy that he would be thinking about her, noticing things about her.

I’ve marked the changes in blue:

Draft 5d

Drew’s heart was still racing from seeing Dee stagger like that. “You’re okay, right?” he asked for the thousandth time as he turned onto the main road and shifted into second gear. The car groaned and lurched, and Drew felt his face get hot.

Dee did a half-reach, like she’d wanted to grab the wheel and then thought better of it. “I’m so okay I could definitely drive my own car right now. She’s old. You have to be gentle.”

Letting her down dropped a sour pit in his stomach. “Sorry,” he said quickly, and then had no idea what to add to it.

Traffic had congealed, moving like rubber cement from all the high school students on the road. First and second gear were not going to prove his driving skills well. He’d only driven stick a handful of times. But in between shifts he managed to glance over at her and see her eyes squint shut and her fingers dart up to her temples.

She was not okay. But if she wanted to pretend she was, he wouldn’t say otherwise. He focused instead on the essentials: getting her home without stalling her car or rear-ending the one in front of them.

Dee sighed and tilted her head back. “This isn’t going to work, is it?”

He couldn’t think what she was talking about. “What isn’t?”

“The road trip. No car, no money, and now Zander’s messed things up so royally that I don’t see how he and Topher could stand to be in the same vehicle anyway.”

The lines still aren’t quite right: the half-reach and the sour pit and the part about first and second gear definitely need to be tweaked as far as phrasing. But the pacing feels right to me now. It needed those extra sentences to slow down the dialogue and round out the scene.

Phrasing Revision

To be honest, the phrasing of my novel still makes me cringe. That’s the revision stage I always want to skip to even though I know it’s a waste of time until concept and pacing are in place. But once I get to play with phrasing, I love the way these changes finally sync everything else together and make the scene feel right.

Here is just the briefest example of tiny changes I make at the word and sentence level:

Draft 5c

But she felt reckless with the success she’d already had. Wendy was falling for him and glowing stronger than ever. That had to make it easier for Caprice to borrow a slice of it soon—so long as she could keep the selkie himself from stealing all of it. Having Phil on guard duty had reassured her a bit, but there was still so much at stake.

Draft 5d

But she felt reckless with the so-far success. Wendy was falling for him, glowing stronger. Surely Caprice could skim a slice of magic soon—so long as she kept the selkie himself from swiping it clean away. Having Phil on guard duty reassured her only a smidge with so much at stake.

In this case, the concept and pacing were fine, but the earlier draft didn’t sound anything like Caprice. I needed to alter the phrasing to fit her character better. The changes were minor, just tiny cuts and changes within each sentence, but it makes a difference.

There’s no guarantee that I won’t tweak it more, or even decide to cut these lines altogether down the road, but it’s a decent example of how I revise for phrasing — trying to hone in not just on the idea and the details but on how that character would express it all.

Once all three levels of revision are perfected, that’s when each scene comes alive.

Do you differentiate what kinds of revisions you need to make when you write? What helps you break a novel down and see what changes it needs?

Leave a comment!

The Root of the Problem: Underlying Emotions

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Earlier this week, Hubby texted me from work to ask if I was okay because I seemed stressed. I do? I texted back. He proceeded to tell me that I’d seemed angry while cleaning the kitchen the night before, and he wanted to know if it was work or family issues or just what. I thought of texting *shrug*. I hadn’t even realized I seemed angry, let alone did I know why.

Instead I texted a funny by-the-way about how angry the twelve-month-old on my lap got when I failed to relinquish another bite of the peaches I’d stirred into my yogurt-and-granola breakfast. The kid ate half my fruit! But he was so hilarious about it that I didn’t mind (too much).

Two of my favorite picture books are What’s Wrong, Little Pookie? and What Are You So Grumpy About? In the first, by the time the mom is finished with her outlandish guesses, Little Pookie the pig has forgotten his reason for being upset. In the other book, it ends by asking if you’ve got the worst reason of all for your moodiness: because someone made you laugh when you were trying to be grumpy. In either case, the books sidestep the issue with humor, which is a pretty good strategy for kids to learn, in my opinion. Humor usually cures my moods too.

In writing, though, it feels like I’m never allowed to sidestep. When a character is angry, I have to get to the bottom of it. I have to know why.

It’s just such an issue that brought my first manuscript to a halt: I couldn’t figure out why my main character was so worried about her sister. Maybe that’s why I sometimes procrastinate dealing with underlying emotions in my characters, because I’m nervous that I won’t be able to figure out the answer, and that my guesses will be as outlandish as Pookie’s mom asking,

“Did tiny green elephants
with wings oh so blue
fly off with the cookies
and leave none for you?”

So this week I’m breathing a sigh of relief for just one paragraph that finally opened an answer about why, in my second novel, the main character Wendy is angry with her dad after the divorce. My other guesses were clichéd and way off: Because he had an affair? No. (And he didn’t.) Because they both have temper issues? No. (And they don’t.) Because he’s forcing her to stay with him in California for the summer? No. (And that’s a side issue.)

It’s funny how you can tell when you’ve hit on the right answer. It slides into place like the cardboard puzzle pieces my four-year-old matches up next to me while I write. It feels like “Of course!” You can tell that it matches because it “goes with” all your previous discoveries. You feel like you should have seen it so much sooner, it’s that obvious.

Here’s my discovery of the week (unpolished, rough-draft paragraph, so don’t judge my writing by this!):

Her parents had always joked that her brother Brandon was their mom’s replica, analytical and cautious, while Wendy was their dad’s—eager and curious.  Family disagreements split down predictable sides: Wendy and Mitch versus Brandon and Cheryl.  “Fine,” her dad would usually conclude, “you two stay if you want.  Dee and I are going.” But this time he’d gone without her.  Brandon was off to UW; her mom had been impossible to relate to even before post-divorce grieving set in.  Her one family ally had abandoned her, slunk off like a traitor, leaving her alone.

Somehow the dad finally comes alive for me in just these few sentences, especially with the bit of dialogue. I can finally grasp the paradox of how much Wendy loves and hates him at the same time, which makes sense, considering you can’t hate anything you don’t care about first.

It’s also funny how sometimes the right info/insights just land in your lap at the right time. A couple of weeks ago I attended a church class about mental health and one of the speakers discussed bereavement and how you can go through the grieving process with events besides death, like when you have your first baby it’s normal to grieve the loss of your freedom, or how it’s normal to grieve after a divorce. The steps and symptoms of bereavement also helped me understand the underlying emotions Wendy and her mom are going through.

So yeah. While in real life there are plenty of times to let things go and not worry about the past, in writing, the more you can dig down to the root of your character’s emotions, the better you’ll understand them.

Any thoughts? How do you cope with negative emotions? Laugh them off? Purge through catharsis (like a tear-jerker flick)? Eat rocky road ice cream? Take a drive — such as a road trip down the Pacific coast like Wendy does? When’s it important to isolate the cause?

Leave a comment!