I’m back—we had a wonderful and much-needed vacation in Virginia and Washington, DC. I’m running out of ideas, though, so I’d really appreciate hearing from some of the beginners and intermediate writers—what would you like to learn more about? I’m looking specifically for non-grammar, spelling, punctuation ideas (although I may touch on those in the Quick Takes); I’d like this class to cover more of the craft of writing.
However, I’ll start off with a common error for my Quick Take: be aware of when to use ‘who’ and when to use ‘that’.
The rule is fairly simple—use ‘who’ when referring to a person or people:
I know a man who can juggle seven swords.
Everyone who went to the party got food poisoning from the clam dip.
Use ‘that’ when referring to things:
I need a pair of scissors that can cut through leather.
When referring to animals, no matter how precious they are, use ‘that’:
Sophie isn’t the only cat in the world that can flush a toilet.
And now on to this week’s lesson: developing realistic and interesting characters. I touched on this a bit when writing about dialog—here’s a review of those points:
1. dialog should be true to your character’s age, sex, career, location, economic status, time period
2. dialog should distinguish your characters from each other--give your characters specific, identifiable speech traits or habits
3. use dialect or accents to further identify your characters—but only if you can do it convincingly, and not to such an extent that your readers have to work at ‘translating’ what your characters say back to standard English.
Beginning and intermediate writers frequently make the mistake of writing their characters too flat or generic—or worse, writing clichéd or stereotyped characters. I’ve frequently read stories that contain conversations between Typical Mom and Typical Child, or Cliched Schoolteacher and Stereotyped Student. There is nothing about these characters that makes me want to read further; I feel that I know them already and I know what the outcome of their interaction will be. More often than not, I’m right.
So…here are some ways (in addition to dialog) that you can write interesting and rounded characters.
1. Have your characters do interesting things. I’m not just talking about the major plot points here, but also small actions that make them human. These can double as dialog tags, so they don’t really use up a lot of words.
“Mom, what’s for lunch?” Joey stashed a small frog in the front of his overalls.
There’s nothing remarkable about what Joey said, but his action tells me a lot about what kind of boy he is. (By the way, this is a good time to mention a personal peeve—telling characters’ ages. It’s almost never necessary; show how old a child is by his actions. In the sentence above, it’s pretty obvious that Joey is a youngish boy—do I really need to say ‘eight-year-old Joey’? Similarly, find ways to show ages of adults. Rarely, specific ages will be necessary, but it’s usually a waste of a few words.)
2. Give your characters distinguishing physical and personality characteristics—their features, their clothing, the way they move, the way they think and behave. This is a great opportunity to write ‘against type’—have your grandma be a hip motorcycle rider with studded fingernails, or have your corporation executive be absent-minded and flustered. Don’t spend an entire sentence describing the person, but incorporate their particular quirks throughout the story.
3. Help your readers relate to your characters by showing what they are experiencing through their senses. Again, this should be sprinkled throughout the story; show what your character sees, hears, smells, tastes, touches. You don’t have to use every sense in every story; this is just one tool in characterization.
4. Write ‘rounded’ characters. In literature, this refers to characters who have complex and well-developed personalities. It’s hard to fully develop a character in just 750 words, but that doesn’t mean your characters have to be flat and simplistic. Even your Christian characters (like real Christians) can have faults and doubts. Happily married people can have fights. Criminals can stop and feed a kitten. People can change their minds and learn from their mistakes—or can stubbornly refuse to.
HOMEWORK: You have a choice. EITHER tell about a book you’ve read that contains well-written characters (and tell what makes them well-written) OR write a small passage (please, no more than 150 words) that suggests an interesting character. I’m NOT looking for 150 words of description…it should be a combination of dialog, action, and description that helps me get to know a character. I realize that 150 words is far too short to write a fully rounded character, but it’s enough to hint at one.
I’d really encourage you to pick a character from a story you’ve submitted in the past, if possible, and to re-work that character to make him or her more multi-dimensional. Don’t use a character from the current topic, but one from a previous quarter would be great. If you don’t have a character that you care to re-visit, you can do this assignment “from scratch”.
If you do the homework, please also EITHER comment on something in this lesson, OR ask a question.
A few reminders:
1. Please direct beginner or intermediate writers to this class, if you think they’d enjoy it
2. Don’t forget to send me ideas for future topics
3. If you PM me with your e-mail address, I’ll send you a copy of the “Compiled Master Class” from several months ago. I covered lots of literary terms, and the intended audience was writers with some experience, but I think most writers would benefit. Some of these lessons are available on this forum, but many were lost in a FW forums crash, and the document I’ll send you has nearly all of them in one place.
Last edited by glorybee
on Mon Apr 12, 2010 11:16 am, edited 3 times in total.