Author Toolbox Blog Hop: Getting To Know You

It’s time for the Author Toolbox Blog Hop! The hop takes place the third Wednesday of every month (minus November/December) and focuses on the sharing of resources and learning tools for authors.

Stop by the hop page and check out all the participants and their posts this month! Also check out #AuthorToolboxBlogHop on Twitter.

Building Character

Creating characters is much like meeting someone new in real life: when you first meet them, you know nothing about them–their personality, what they like, what they hate, what they do for a living, who their friends and family are. You only know what you can immediately observe, like their appearance, the sound of their voice, and their mannerisms. And even then, most of those things can be misleading because people act differently around new people and they cultivate what they look like. It takes time to get to know someone and start to understand them. It takes time for your readers to get to know your characters too, but most importantly, it takes you, the writer, time to get to know them as well. And you’re the person who’s going to have to know them inside and out by the end of the book.

Some authors build characters before they even begin to write, working out their entire life story on paper first, but I’ve never been like this. I also feel that even though this gives you a sketch, it doesn’t fill in all the details until you actually start working with that character. Just as a potential employee can give you a detailed resume, you still learn new things when you interview them. I’m the type of writer who likes to learn my characters as I write them. Sometimes they really surprise me. Of course you go in with an idea of who they are, but you let them really start to express it in the framework of the story.

What are some important ways for you–and the reader–to get to know your characters? It can be a bit like peeling an onion, going down layer after layer until you get to the core. Then again, some characters will never show you their core–because that’s who they are as people.

  • Physical. As I said, the first thing we take in about a person is how they look. But most people also build their appearance. They choose clothes they like, do their hair the way they prefer, and decorate and adorn themselves to show off their personality. The way your character looks says a lot about them. Are they a wholesome, clean-cut type or a wild and rebellious type with neon green hair and piercings? This can say a lot about them with a single glance–and it can say deeper things about them, too. For example, in my Siren Song series, my main character, June, has spent her life being ashamed of and terrified by her supernatural powers, and of how other people react to them. As such, she’s covered in tattoos, to distract other people from that fact about herself and to give them something else to focus on. Sometimes we use our looks to direct attention elsewhere.
  • Their preferences. As you get to know a character better, you’ll find out what they like and dislike. Their favorite foods, movies, music, and color can say a lot about them, especially if the information is delivered at the relevant time. Maybe your character hates the color pink because her mother decorated her entire bedroom in it as a child. This not only says something about the character, but about her family dynamic and feelings toward her mother.
  • Emotions. Now we’re getting deeper. As we see the emotions your character goes through, it tells us a lot about their personality. Especially negative emotions–what frightens them, stresses them out, or makes them angry. This can say a lot about how they handle the world around them and what sort of emotional and mental constitution they have.
  • Reactions. How your characters react to things that happen to and around them is a very important key to their personality. It shows their level of resilience, morality, perseverance, and empathy. How a character reacts to a dramatic or important situation can say more about them than any other character trait you give them–and it tells the reader a lot, too.
  • How other people react to them. It’s also equally important how your characters react toward each other. How people react reflects their personalities, but it also shows how the other person projects a personality that people respond to. Even if that projected personality is all a sham, the fact that other people react to it tells us how well or poorly constructed it is.

Those are just a few tips for getting to know a character. Sometimes the best part about writing is the little things you discover along the way, things you couldn’t have worked out beforehand. It’s like getting to know a new friend. How do you get to know your characters?

Telling Lies

Recently, I read an article in which an editor talked about what sort of fiction is popular right now. They said the best selling thing right now is “suspense with an unreliable narrator.” I admit, sometimes I really enjoy a story with a well-written unreliable narrator–because it can be so complex, layered, and really force you to think–so I see why readers are enjoying stories like this and want more of them.

But what is an unreliable narrator?

It’s too simplistic to say an unreliable narrator is a POV character who is lying or omitting things from the story, because it’s more complicated than that. If you’ve never heard the term before, it means literally that your character can’t be trusted in how they’re living in and experiencing the plot. In other words, the way the story is being told is a lie, or at least, not quite honest. It’s not always about lying, though–sometimes, the character is simply telling the reader their version of the story that they personally believe, even if it’s not the truth of the matter.

Have you ever had someone you know tell you about an event and make themselves look good/like a victim/make it sound like it wasn’t their fault–and then later, you discover their version of events is not quite how it happened? That’s an unreliable narrator. They have their own best interest at heart when pleading their case. In fiction, the character can also be mentally impaired in some way, imagining all of it, or delusional. Remember Fight Club?

One of my favorite instances is from Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles. In Interview With the Vampire, Louis is an unreliable narrator because he’s telling the story of his life with Lestat through a skewed lens of hate and anger. In The Vampire Lestat, Lestat refutes much of what Louis said as being either exaggerated or untrue–but again, perhaps Lestat is unreliable too, because he’s telling things based on his point of view and his own feelings. It’s very much a “vampire said/vampire said” situation. Just like in real life but with more blood and fangs.

Reading and writing an unreliable narrator can be fun. Here’s a few notes about this type of character:

  • The reader needs to realize they’re unreliable. You’re probably going to make readers angry if you write a whole story and then just reveal at the end it was all a lie. There should be clues that the narrator is not exactly being honest–or at least, you should give your readers reason to doubt and question along the way.
  • The narrator should still be engaging, interesting, and/or sympathetic. Even if they’re telling a big fat lie, we should have reason to want to continue reading. Not many people like a liar, but if we’re made to understand and even sympathize with the reasons they’re lying, it’s going to make us want to keep reading.
  • It doesn’t always have to be lies. As I said, feelings skew a person’s perspective. It can make them misremember and misunderstand things. We all have our own way of viewing events–even if, objectively, that viewpoint isn’t correct or accurate. In the narrator’s head, this could all very well be true because of what they personally believe.
  • The narrator can be unreliable due to circumstance. This is especially found in books based around younger people–children and teenagers often misunderstand the world and the motivations of adults and others, leading them into convoluted, unreliable situations. The narrator can also be sick, impaired, or forced into some situation that skews their beliefs. Unreliable doesn’t always mean malicious–it just means their version of things isn’t quite right.

There are many kinds of unreliable narrators. Have you ever written one? Do you enjoy them in fiction? What do you think makes a good, and engaging, unreliable narrator?

The Man Maketh the Clothes

I need to confess something: I arrive late to everything that’s popular. All the things everybody gets really into–games, apps, trends, TV shows–I’m usually about six months behind in catching on (if it’s something I’m going to like anyway). Sometimes, longer than that. I’m slow to keep up with the times. When everyone else has been into something for ages, it’s shiny and new to me.

That being said, I didn’t watch Stranger Things until well after everyone else had already binge watched the first season and fell in love with it. The main reason, apart from my usual being late to the party, is that it just didn’t look like my thing. That’s another quirk of mine–I CONSTANTLY brush things off as not being “my thing” and then when I give it a shot I’m usually really into it. But mostly, yes, I’m not a sci-fi fan, and I’m especially not a fan of the pulpy sci-fi that makes up the plot of Stranger Things, AND I don’t wanna watch a show about kids, yeesh!

Well, you can probably guess what happened when I finally got around to giving it a try. Yep, I found it insanely engrossing.

The thing is, I’m still not a fan of the plot, I think it’s campy and I’ve never liked the evil-for-the-sake-of-evil type villains, but I love the characters, and I find them mesmerizing to watch and to follow their story. And so comes our writing lesson for today.

Have you ever heard someone say “I don’t usually read (genre), but I loved the characters, I couldn’t put it down!” This is indeed a great compliment to hear about your own work, it means you crossed barriers to reach people outside your target audience. Characters are, hands down, what makes a story good. They’re what moves a story. They’re the reason for the story. And no matter if you’re writing about WWII or a grandma who solves murders or a town overrun by interdimensional aliens, it’s your characters who bring readers to the table. It’s your characters who make the story matter.

But what makes a character “good?” Usually three things: they’re interesting, relatable, and sympathetic. That means they’re the type of person you would want to have a conversation with, their struggle or desire is recognizable to you, and you understand why they do the things they do (even when they’re bad things). Of course not EVERY character in your story will appeal widely to everyone, but having at least a few in there pulls in an audience. Having engaging characters who appeal to a large amount of people’s general sensibilities–they want love, protection, fortune, to help their family, to succeed at something important–can make the difference between a flat story and one that really pulls people in, maybe even people who wouldn’t usually read the kind of thing you write. Sometimes, the characters are even more important than the plot.

As another example in TV, Breaking Bad was one of the most-watched and awarded TV shows of all time (and yes, I didn’t watch it until well after it was over and on Netflix). But the concept–a gritty, dramatic crimeworld show about the little man climbing the ladder of success–wasn’t exactly novel. However, the characters were amazing. So much so, even people who don’t watch that sort of thing (me) ended up watching it. It didn’t win a million Emmys because it was particularly unique, but because the characters felt almost too real at times.

So, there you have it. I guess I’ll be watching the second season of Stranger Things when it comes out this month. It was a good reminder for me to try things instead of just brushing them off, and also that it’s the characters, not the background, that makes a story great. Now, let’s see if I can keep up with the times. *waves cane*

When Characters Go Bad

As writers, we’re forever creating characters. It’s kinda what we do. And you would think these characters would be grateful to us–we give them life, we give them a story and purpose, we love and nurture them and help them grow. But sometimes, this isn’t the case. Like a rebellious teenager who won’t listen to anything you say, some of them just aren’t grateful at all that you gave them life and they want to spend all their time and energy acting up. The nerve!

The truth is, not all characters are our precious babies, and I’m not just talking about the villains and bad guys. Some characters just suck. A bad character can mess up a good story, and sometimes you have to kill them or cut them. In addition to being a writer, you’re now forced to be a murderer. Congratulations!

Here are some of those wayward, pesky character types who just stomp all over our story and screw everything up, necessitating either a harsh correcting, or an untimely severing:

  • The character who tries to take over. This character was just supposed to be a side character supporting the protagonist. Two chapters later, you’re telling us more about their life than about the main character. Where did the main character even go? Suddenly, the side character is hogging the spotlight and telling you this is the book you really meant to write.
  • The character who won’t cooperate. Sometimes you can’t get characters into the scenes and positions you want them in. Try as you might, it’s like attempting to push a muffin through a tennis racket. They just don’t fit, they’re awkward, and there’s crumbs everywhere.
  • The character who is void of personality. Despite giving this character some lovely traits, they just fall flat. Their dialog is boring. Their personality is a gaping vacuum. Why can’t you bring them to life? They’re a shuffling zombie. Maybe you should turn this into a zombie novel.
  • The character with no name. Why can’t you figure out a name for this character, and why does nothing sound right when you try it out? Why do they not want a name? Can you just name a character Asshole?
  • The character who chews the scenery. For some reason, every time you write this character, they’re way too dramatic, over the top, colorful, and absurd. You try to tone it down but they just return worse than before in the next scene, wearing clown shoes and shouting about fluctuations in the stock market.
  • The background character who just makes themselves at home. They were supposed to be briefly in one scene and now they’re in twelve? How did this happen?
  • The mystery character. You’re editing your manuscript and suddenly a character appears that you don’t remember writing. They seem awfully important and yet you can find no reference to them earlier in the story. Were you asleep when you wrote this? Was it aliens?
  • The twin characters. These two characters act, talk, and even kind of look alike and you totally didn’t mean to do that. It’s hard to distinguish them. One of them needs a makeover. Time to hit Sephora.

Bad characters are everywhere…be on the lookout! They can creep into your story at any time. The worst is when a good character goes bad–it will break your heart! Have you had to deal with bad characters?