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Jan's Writing Basics #8--Developing Interesting Characters

These lessons, by one of our most consistent FaithWriters' Challenge Champions, should not be missed. So we're making a permanent home for them here.

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Jan's Writing Basics #8--Developing Interesting Characters

Postby glorybee » Mon Apr 12, 2010 6:56 am

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.
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Postby Iam4Him » Mon Apr 12, 2010 10:09 am

Ok, so I never jumped in here before, just lurked.

Using this lesson, I can see two mistakes in my writing.
1) Call my animal characters "he" and "she." They feel like people to me.
2) Tend to put ages in my descriptions-a lot.

I like my Gram character from a few challenge articles. I'll try to think of something.

Thanks, Jan.

Blessings,
Patty
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Postby glorybee » Mon Apr 12, 2010 10:15 am

Patty, you can call your animals "he" or "she". They DO have gender, after all.

Sophie sat in the windowsill, watching the robins. She made little growling noises at the hopping birds.

You just can't use "who" in a sentence where "that" would also work.

WRONG--I had a dog who liked to eat raw carrots.
RIGHT--I had a dog that liked to eat raw carrots.
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Postby GeraldShuler » Mon Apr 12, 2010 12:22 pm

I have a question about the "who/that" rule. Does the rule bend for things like fairy tales where all the animals have human traits? Could Goldilocks have said "This house is owned by three bears who own three chairs."?
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Postby glorybee » Mon Apr 12, 2010 12:27 pm

Gerald--I haven't looked this up yet, but off the top of my head, I'm going to say yes. The "who"-ness seems to me to be tied in to sentience.

Now I'm going to go look it up, and see if I'm right! (I'll come back and correct myself, if necessary).
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Postby glorybee » Mon Apr 12, 2010 12:40 pm

Okay, I'm responding to both myself and Gerald here. I've done some looking, and it seems that "who" referring to animals with personality is a gray area. Here's my suggestion:

1. Informative sentences about animals--use "that"

Elephants are the only mammals that can't jump.

2. Sentences about named animals and pets--use either one.

Sophie is a cat who enjoys eating an occasional rubber band.
I once had an armadillo that would come when he was called.


3. Sentences about anthropomorphized animals--use "who".

A raccoon and a possum who both loved to sing were harmonizing at the edge of the big pond.
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Postby yvonne » Mon Apr 12, 2010 2:31 pm

glorybee wrote:Okay, I'm responding to both myself and Gerald here. I've done some looking, and it seems that "who" referring to animals with personality is a gray area. Here's my suggestion:

1. Informative sentences about animals--use "that"

Elephants are the only mammals that can't jump.

2. Sentences about named animals and pets--use either one.

Sophie is a cat who enjoys eating an occasional rubber band.
I once had an armadillo that would come when he was called.


3. Sentences about anthropomorphized animals--use "who".

A raccoon and a possum who both loved to sing were harmonizing at the edge of the big pond.


:roll: Don't you love the "simplicity" of our language? I'm glad I started learning it as a baby...because it's been over 50 years, and I'm still not sure I have it right, yet!

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Postby Iam4Him » Mon Apr 12, 2010 4:46 pm

Here's my homework. I think. I started writing and forgot what the plan was. Ended up knocking out half a story, so chopped off the rest to cut down the words:

"No respect, I say. These kids today got no respect for their elders and think they know it all about fashion. No respect!"

I could hear that scratchy voice all the way down the sidewalk. As I ambled toward the porch of the retirement home, seven gray heads bobbed in my direction.

"Here's Florrie comin' now. She'll settle it. Hey, Flo, we left a good seat fer ya; it don't even squeak hardly. Set down fer a bit and opinion with us."

<I>Well, what cow patty did I stomp into this time? Too late to skeedaddle now.</I> I eased into the "guest" chair, trying my darndest to not land on the spring poking up through the cushion. "Spill it, Margaret, what's got you in such a snit? One of your great-greats up to it again? My, that's a right pretty smock you're wearin'. Looks like you're gussied up to greet the spring peepers."

A clunky black shoe hit the wood, followed by Margaret's very own toothless hen cackle. "See, what I tell ya?"
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Postby glorybee » Mon Apr 12, 2010 7:13 pm

This is excellent! You used lots of different "tricks" to help us get to know your character(s)--dialog, inner monologue, sights and sounds, actions, dialect.

Well done!
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Postby Iam4Him » Mon Apr 12, 2010 8:18 pm

Oh, Jan, my first assignment and I did ok? :superhappy

Thank you.

Blessings,

Patty
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Postby Green Leaves » Tue Apr 13, 2010 1:57 pm

This is from my writing challenge entry on “Phew”, “Am I Welcome At Walmart?”, as I had previously written it:

Out of everything, we just had to get to the store. So we packed u[p our family of six and headed to Walmart. Patrick took Madison, 8, and Eli, 3, and headed for the Electronics Department. I placed 18 month Noah in the cart but Olivia, ever helpful at the age of 6, insisted on pushing the cart down those grocery aisles.

Knowing Noah's hands would be reaching for everything in sight, I felt it would be best to instruct Olivia to roll the cart down the center of each aisle. That worked for awhile. But there wasn't much excitement in that, I guess, and soon Olivia was jerking the cart back and forth hitting as many other carts as she could.

As we were turning the aisle, another cart was coming at us with a tall skinny box, and, sure enough, Olivia was right on target. Whack! The skinny box went flying and hit goods on the top shelves causing a domino effect with boxes tumbling everywhere for which we had to get help, apologizing as I went.

On to the next aisle, still fuming. But I put the cart in the middle of the aisle so Noah couldn't reach anything. But along came another customer, so I had to move the cart off to the side so the customer could pass, not noticing that Noah had reached for three or four tuna cans, and suddenly they were on the floor as fast as he could throw them. I picked them up, ready to blow a gasket with both children.


Jan, I really hate to stop the story there because you don't get the full picture. But I was obviously guilty of one of your pet peeves...stating ages. So I reworked it a little to see if this was better in describing my characters.


Out of everything, we just had to get to the store. So we packed up our family of six and headed to Walmart. Of course, Patrick took two and immediately headed for Electronics, leaving the other two with me.

“Let me, Mom, let me!” said Olivia as I started to push the cart down the grocery aisle. Soon she was jerking that cart back and forth giving Noah a ride he wouldn't soon forget, hitting many other carts in the process.

Turning into another aisle, someone's cart was coming toward us with a tall skinny box, and sure enough, Olivia was right on target. The skinny box went flying causing a domino effect with boxes from the highest shelves tumbling everywhere. I apologized as I went to get help.

On to the next aisle, still fuming, I pushed the cart down the center of the aisle knowing Noah's tiny little fingers would reach for anything in sight. But another customer came along, so I had to push our cart off to the side to allow her to pass. Just that quickly, Noah reached for three or four cans of tuna, and suddenly, they were on the floor as fast as he could throw them. I picked them up, ready to explode with both children.


I have to apologize for going over the 150 words, but wanted you to see how I changed Olivia and Noah a bit to show the general ages. Is this better?
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Postby glorybee » Tue Apr 13, 2010 3:37 pm

I definitely think so--although in the first paragraph, you might put 'children' or 'kids' after 'two'.

Keep in mind that the 'don't give ages' thing is just a personal preference; there's no RULE that says you can't do that.

Some cases where you might want to include ages:

1. Where the story revolves around something age-specific, like getting a drivers license
2. Babies, because they change so rapidly. A story about a 1-month old will be quite different from a story about an 18-month old.
3. Cases where a person does something very atypical for their age. Still, I'd find a way to SHOW it rather than TELL it.
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Postby GShuler » Tue Apr 13, 2010 4:15 pm

I broke a school rule! I commented earlier and didn't do the homework... sorry. Here is a rewrite of one of my early pieces.

Nelson sighed deeply as he watched tree shadows dancing on the moonlit wall of his bedroom. He chuckled a sad chuckle. How could he have thought of it, even for an instant, as ‘his’ bedroom? At best, it was only another temporary room for him to stay until some other foster home was located.

“May I come in, Nelson? You look like you could use a friend.” The voice was soft. It would have been a good voice for a mother. “Would you like to talk?” Without invitation, Mrs. Evans sat down on the edge of Nelson’s bed.

<I>Here it comes,</I> he thought. <I>She’s gonna tell me everything will work out; Don’t give up hope; Stay tough.</I> Oh, how he hated clichés. They always led to the biggest cliché of all… another goodbye.

“Sure,” he smiled. “I’m always up for a good talk.”


My re-write centered on only one aspect of Nelson's personality. He doesn't show what he really feels. His only goal is to give each new foster parent exactly what they expect... according to his own mis-conceptions.

There, now I have paid for my earlier comment. Thank you, Jan, for bringing insight even to us lowly Masters, who still need to learn.
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Postby glorybee » Tue Apr 13, 2010 6:15 pm

Gerald, you can comment without doing the homework! The comments and questions are the best part of these classes.

This is a wonderful little bit of characterization. I'd love to see the original, so that I can see specifically what you changed.

Do you have any comments or insights on characterization for us?
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Postby GShuler » Tue Apr 13, 2010 7:18 pm

The theme was "Home" and the story is "Home Is Where They Send You Next".

As to comments about characterization: When ever I am trying to develop a character (especially a major one) I write down at least one trait that would make him (or her) memorable. Maybe he thinks a lot, like in the example above. If so, the story could be crafted to reveal whether the MC is accurate in his thoughts as compared to the reality of what happens in the story.

Anything can be a usable character "tweak". One of my children book characters is an extremely nervous dragonfly. The more nervous he gets, the faster and more incoherent he speaks. At the beginning of the book this trait is used to show what he is like but by the end of the book it shows how much he has changed through his adventure. He learns to be confident and has no nervousness in his voice at all. And HE was a minor character.

There is so much more that can be done to give characters real life but I'll save those comments for someone else.
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