Mistake # 3 and # 4
Being the author requires that you invent the story or at the very least manipulate it so it makes sense. That means you have to create the pathway [aka plot]for the people that fill the pages to follow so the story has a beginning, middle and end.
And, this leads to Mistakes #3 and #4.
# 3: Failing to know your characters.
#4: Thinking you know your characters well enough.
So, what are you going to do now? Do you know the story? Do you know how it ends? Who is the protagonist? The antagonist? Do they learn anything about themselves or each other by the end of the story? What happens in the middle of the story? What ‘s your genre?
One Way to Start
Being the author means knowing every detail about your characters – what they eat, their hobbies, their family members – including mom and dad, things that make them laugh and cry and their flaws. [Like the husband who chews with his mouth open making slurpy sounds that sound like waves hitting the side of a ship].
It means making your antagonist a really good antagonizing character – even downright evil with a teensy-tiny piece of good buried way deep beneath their skin. Everyone has a redeeming quality. [So, I’m told but as of late, I wonder.]
It means making your protagonist a do-gooder with a couple of flaws that dulls the shine on their goodness – maybe they hate their mother or rip out flower beds with yellow flowers or have really crappy manners at the dinner table that make you sick.
It means knowing the place where you plop them down so well that you know the name of everyone who lives on that street or how many houses are yellow or if there is no parking on the right side of the street. It means knowing exactly how that particular place impacts the actions and reactions of the characters that pass through. If you plop a character on a ship, does one have a fear of salt water? Or terrified that a renegade whale is lying in wait? Or, maybe, a cracken is about to crawl on board?
It means making sure they “talk” to others and that the whole story is not just an exposition. Let me correct that – It means making sure that they “seem to talk” to other characters and share information. Dialogue is not “conversation”. Dialogue only appears to be conversation.
It means making sure they are not couch potatoes! It means getting them up off their rear ends and forcing them to get a bit of exercise or drive a car or walk with a limp because they stepped in dog poo on the way to work. It means they bend and twist and look at the sky when they are bored. It means they have cooking contests with their neighbors or play croquet in the snow.
So, where do you start? Anywhere!
I start with creating red-blooded characters so that they aren’t just cardboard cutouts. Of course, they aren’t flat to me which is not a benefit because it always leads me to believe that I know them better than I do.
I hear and see them marching through the storyland they’ve shown me – so either I’m a writer or I’m in need of medication and a rubber room.
Start by getting to know your characters – really know them. This will take you some time so don’t try to rush it. Dig deep into their soul to find the answers. The purpose is to make sure that all your characters start out as individuals.
Every time I start a story, I partially fill out character inventories for my main players – protagonist, antagonist, victim or lover or best friend or partner that plays a decent sized role in the story. By the time I get to the third character – no matter what part they play – I’m tired of deciding who they are and move on to “stall-writing”. That’s the stuff you write when you’re avoiding the work you know you should do while convincing yourself that this stuff is important too. [It’s Not!]
Usually, my first stall writing consists of a very vague outline of the story. That outline usually consists of the basic opening – xyz went to abc town and meets dyd who does who-knows-what and the end – xyz rescues dyd and they get married. Let’s be honest that is not any kind of working outline – thereby: A stall tactic!
Spoiler Alert! I’m wrong!
What I keep relearning because I always think “there’s an easier way” or “I know this guy so well” or “it’s a bit player – I don’t need to know if they like chocolate cake”.
Inevitably, I get three chapters into the story and whoop-whoop! I don’t know how the character would react to the circumstances I plopped on the page. For example:
I’m in the middle – chapter three, of course – of writing this murder mystery where the detective meets his “future” mate while he’s with his “current” girlfriend. The current girlfriend plans to break up with him at the end of their weekend away because she’s decided that she doesn’t really have much in common with him.
The future “hoped for mate” just broke up with a fiancé, graduated from college and moved to the area. She’s focused on her new dog, starting her new career and getting settled into her new house.
The future “mate” is walking her dog on the beach. The waves are vicious and the undertow warnings are out. She gets caught by a wave and dragged out by the undertow.
The detective notices her walking the dog and getting sucked into the water and her dog running after her trying to save her. He reacts as the cop he is and rushes to save her from drowning. A passerby grabs the dog’s leash and holds him back.
How does the “current girlfriend” react?
- What does she do or not do?
- Say or not say?
- Does she help the girl when she is brought to shore?
- Does she get mad at her detective boyfriend for leaving her standing on the beach looking dumb?
- Does she walk away pissed and wait for him at the car?
- Does she comfort the dog?
- Talk to the stranger?
- Does she start an argument?
See what I mean? I don’t know enough about the character – the one that’s about to get dumped anyway in the next chapter – to know what to do with her while her boyfriend is off swimming.
It’s at that point that I tell myself for the umpteenth time [proves I’m a slow learner – or bullheaded, one] “there are no shortcuts to knowing your characters.” Or, maybe, it should read: “you must know your characters better than you know yourself”. I should paste that on my computer screen, but I’d only rip it down because it would be blocking my view of one of the folders on my desktop.
Every editor and publisher and READER will tell you that the characters have to be “believable” or “three-dimensional” or “not flat”. They need “meat on their bones”. And, sadly, the only way to have a character that seems real is to do the inventories.
Some writers – some lazy writers – will tell you that you don’t need to do an inventory on your “stock” characters – e.g. the waitress, the kid crossing the street, the old man sitting on his porch.
I’m here to tell you the truth: Yes, you do.
You need to know why the man is sitting on the porch and what the expression on his face is means and why he’s dressed as he is. Maybe, his wife is mad at him and pushed him out the door without his shoes. Maybe, his pet iguana died in the middle of the night and he’s grieving. Maybe, he’s just plain nosey!
Which takes us to the waitress. Does the waitress hand shake when she pours coffee. Is she a gossip that loves to overhear her customers conversations? Is the cook mad at her and she spills coffee on the guy next to you?
Is the kid crossing the street at night? Is he chasing a brother? Is his mother chasing him? How old is he? Does he almost get hit by a car? All this information sets the scene for how your named characters react to the rest of the story.
Hint: the more questions you answer, the more you’ll realize that you don’t really know them.
Usually how tall or short or fat or skinny is irrelevant to the story you’re telling. It might help you to envision them and how they look standing next to each other but generally, the readers couldn’t care less and it doesn’t add much to the story…
Unless, of course, one is so tall that they don’t fit through a doorway and the other is so short they can’t see the top of the kitchen table and both are important to the story.
Here’s a few questions for your characters to answer just to get you started:
- What do you think about in the shower?
- You’re at a bar when the one person you don’t want to see walks in. Who are they? How do you react?
- What’s the worst thing you’ve ever wished on somebody and who was it?
- If you could erase one movie from existence, what would it be and why?
- What is the weirdest talent or ability you have and how do you use it?
For example: The last question – one of my characters weird talent is that he excels at the Claw game – the one where the claw comes down and you try to grab a prize. The problem now is that he has a bunch of stuffed animals he doesn’t need and can’t give away.
Find a Character Inventory Questionnaire that You Like
Like nearly all fiction writers – published or unpublished – there are two things I really hate to do and always pay the price for skipping if I don’t:
- Filling out detailed Character Inventories on every single character in the story
Let me repeat that: Every Single Character in EACH story
- Really strict Self-Editing – the be tough on your writing
This refers to the self-editing before you present your piece to the deciders – deciders could be publishers, editors, readers or just someone that hired you to write something.
If you avoid the inventory, avoid asking more than cursory questions about your character or try taking shortcuts, I promise you that you, too, will get to chapter three and find out you don’t know your character well enough.
Relax! There is No Inventory Police Squad
You can always make adjustments and only answer the first 20 questions and leave the rest for later. However, you should keep all the questions even if you don’t answer them. What I have found is that for my main characters or important secondary characters I need to answer more of those questions than I originally thought.
For minor characters, I use only the questions that would apply to their reason for being in the story. For example, if you have a bartender that plays a minor role – which means he/she appears once shares specific information and then is never needed again – I answer questions about his feelings:
- Do you like your job; why? Why not?
- If married or in a relationship, how does your partner feel about your job?
- How do you speak – fast pace, low tone, squeaky voice, harsh bellow; curse a lot; use slang? Have an accent? Use 5-syllable words or prefer the 2-syllable type? Speak to people like you’re their teacher or doctor or friend?
- Happiest memory; saddest memory
- What Lie do you believe that influences your viewpoints?
For example: The last question – one of my characters believes that his parents who had been married for more than 36 years truly loved each; then, he discovers, that is mother couldn’t stand his father and vice versa; that she stayed because in her day, she didn’t have a choice. The lie influenced how he viewed “love” and “marriage” and always felt like a failure trying to grasp the kind of love his parents had.
Links to Some Character Inventories
This one is highly detailed and I would recommend only answering as many questions as are relevant to your character. I especially like this one because it offers you character inventories for flash fiction, short stories, novellas and novels. This is the final one I’d recommend and the site is full of great information.