LISTEN TO YOUR CHARACTERS


LISTEN TO YOUR CHARACTERS

Natalie Bright

 

A discussion at a writer’s workshop led by Jane Graves, an award-winning author of contemporary romance, changed the way I think about writing.

Her advice was to, “Hone in on the one thing that speaks to you. Freshness and originality comes from what you can imagine.”

Are your characters waking you up at night? Do their conversations light a fire in your gut? What do they want? Who are they?

I know this may seem abnormal to most folks, but my characters have complete conversations. I have no idea where they are or even who they are, but I know without a doubt that what I’m overhearing is important to my work in progress or something I’ll be writing in the future. My writing took on new meaning and depth when I started listening to what they were saying.

My big dreams were to be an award-winning romance novelist, but the words in my head were mostly kids, more specifically children who lived in the Texas frontier of all places. In the beginning of my writing journey, I pushed the voices out of my head and tried to create romance stories. The whole creative process was a chore; I hated the characters, the dreary plotline, and the editing process seemed like torture. What made me think that I’d ever be able to write a novel?

Janes’ words got me to thinking. What I’ve been obsessed with since a very early age, besides writing a book, is history and stories set in the Old West. Everything about that time period fascinates me and I consume historical fiction and nonfiction like air.

Believe me I’ve tried to change the ages of my characters so they’d fit a publisher’s specs, follow the advice of my husband who said if I’d write a marketable romance it would be easier to sell, and considered the ideas of a well-meaning editor who insisted I add a werewolf to make a western tale marketable. The writing process wasn’t fun anymore until I finally gave in the voices inside my head. I haven’t looked back since.  You are unique, and only you can write the story that needs to be told. Have confidence in your abilities and story-telling instincts. Have confidence in your characters. Let them show you the way.

 

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LET’S TALK BOOKS: Outlander by Diana Gabaldon


LET’S TALK BOOKS: Outlander by Diana Gabaldon

Natalie Bright

In keeping with our January theme of characterization, I’d like to discuss Claire, the main character of the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon. I’m late to the party, but admittedly Book One in the series is next to impossible to put down. I’ve been reading every evening instead of writing over the past week. So much for the New Year’s word count goals.

As far as characters go, Claire is not that complex or memorable. She doesn’t really leap off the page, even though the book is written in first person POV. She has likable qualities; beautiful, smart, always wants to help and heal, faithful wife who loves her husband. The guilt she feels about loving two men in different centuries makes for great internal conflict.

Last night I realized her flaw. Claire never does what she is told which always results in something bad. And the consequences are the worst scenario, the worst possible outcome that adds a surprise plot twist and keeps us reading. Gabaldon does an excellent job with story hooks.

SPOILER ALERT

Jamie tells Claire, do not go the Geilie’s house. “I dinna want ye anywhere near her…” he says. Jamie has to leave to accompany the Duke. Of course, Claire is summoned to the witch’s house through deception. We suspect it’s a lie. We know she shouldn’t go, but Claire grabs her healing herbs and of course, the consequences are horrific.

I was so angry at Claire! Why can’t she just do what she is asked? What an idiot! I felt the same frustrated, anger experienced sometimes with raising two teenaged boys. Wow!  It surprised me how much I am invested in this fictional character’s journey.  Now that’s powerful characterization.

Are you reading OUTLANDER by Diana Gabaldon? I’d love to know your thoughts…

 

Characters have Secrets


Characters have Secrets

Natalie Bright

 

Grey’s Anatomy has me captivated again. Since first premiering on ABC in 2005, I’ve got thirteen yeas of writing experience and I’m watching the show in a whole new frame of mind. A writer’s mind. And thanks to Netflix or Hulu, I don’t have to be patient for another season to begin. Binge watching is extremely inspiring for a creative soul.

The characterization in this medical drama television series is brilliant and addictive. This show is the perfect example of developing depth in fictional characters. One of the ways you can make your characters leap off the page is to give them secrets. Real people have secrets. We have things buried deep within us that we’ll never tell. What we say out loud is not always reflective of what we may be hiding inside.

You’ve probably heard the story craft tool of throwing everything at your character. Conflict keeps the plot moving and holds the readers’ interest. As authors, we are all border line sadistic when it comes to the things we put our characters through.

Let’s look at the characters and their secrets in the show Grey’s Anatomy:

Meredith Grey: central protagonist, is hiding her mother’s illness, who was a brilliant surgeon herself, and is sleeping with her boss while trying to succeed under her mother’s shadow.

Izzie: feels unworthy of her smarts and success because she grew up very poor in a trailer park.

Christina: sleeping with her boss and she has an almost unhealthy obsession with cutting people open.

Dr. Burke: begins a romantic relationship with an intern.

George: is secretly in love with Meredith and is extremely smart,  and not the goof-ball that the world sometimes sees.

Alex: cares deeply about his career and relates to patients on a deeper level, as opposed to the A-hole, shallow attitude he sometimes displays.

Dr. Webber: Surgery chief hides a medical issue with his eyes and had an affair with Meredith’s mom when they were in medical school.

Dr. Shepherd is married and does not tell his girlfriend Meredith, who is an intern.

That barely scratches the surface as the show develops, but you get the idea. The fun part is that we know their secrets as an audience, and we can’t help but watch to see if, and when, they will reveal all to each other. It’s very entertaining and can be applied to the characters in your books.

In season 2, Izzie prepares a Thanksgiving meal for everybody. She explains to Dr. Burk that she wants just one day where they can be normal and act like everybody else. Dr. Burke mumbles, “A day without surgery.” That one line says so much about him as a character and about the entire theme of the show. You have to watch carefully and pay attention to those one-liners. When I first watched the show every week thirteen years ago, I was caught up in the medical issues of the patients. Now I’m focusing my attention entirely on the characters.

As an added bonus, Shonda Rhimes explains her writing process and development of the series at MasterClass.com.

Happy writing, and thanks for following WordSmith Six!

 

LISTEN TO YOUR CHARACTERS…Or They May Abandon You Forever


LISTEN TO YOUR CHARACTERS…

      Or They May Abandon You Forever

By Natalie Bright

My novel about a 14 year old boy set in the Texas frontier is a typical coming of age story, which involves him finishing the job of delivering a wagon load of goods after his father died. Ben has a run in with outlaws, is shot by a Comanche arrow, gets lost in the wilderness; just your typical Wild West adventure. The young Comanche brave would not leave me alone. The only thing I could do to get that kid out of my mind was to write key scenes in his viewpoint. I realized I liked him and instead of being my antagonist, the story changed. I inserted Roving Wolf’s scenes where they belonged in the already finished book. I now have two protagonists who become friends.

LESSON LEARNED

Here’s what I learned from that experience: you don’t have to write an entire book chapter by chapter in that exact order. For some of us, Point A to Point B is not how our mind works when it comes to creative fiction.

Don’t be afraid to explore those flashes of imagery in your brain. It might be a piece of dialogue. Maybe it’s a minor character that keeps nagging you about a scene you left them out of. It might be a place that flashes in your mind, and then poof, it’s gone again. You know someone was there and something happened, and you have to write it before you learn why that place is important. For me, it’s like an explosion in my head. The imagery of that character is so alive. Sometimes it’s a conversation that seems so vibrant and real, it can’t be ignored.

TALKING CHARACTERS

Some writers say that their characters never talk to them, and usually it shows in their stories. Their characters are flat, lifeless, with no personality. When you take the time to dig into your character’s head and heart, then their personality will become real. When they are real to you, they’ll be real to your readers.

DIG DEEP: HERE’S HOW

If your book is in 3rd person, rewrite several scenes in 1st person POV. Free write, in your character’s POV, about their childhood, favorite things or people, life experiences, greatest fears. The deeper you dig, their motives, desires, angst will become clearer. That protagonist will begin to tell you even more (truth!). I know, it’s a creepy, strange and glorious experience, so I wouldn’t mention it to your non-writerly friends. I promise, one of your characters will pop into your mind out of and tell you something wonderful. Keep in mind, that the majority of the things you learn about your protagonist and antagonist during this process will not make it into your manuscript. When you’re character is faced with a conflict, you’ll know exactly how he or she will react and that’s what endears them to your readers. We learn more and more as the story progresses.

Don’t be afraid to give your characters the attention they deserve. Allow them to tell you their secrets. Just make sure you’re taking notes.

TRUE GRIT TIMES TWO


 

 

TRUE GRIT TIMES TWO

By Natalie Bright

 

Writing Exercise #1.

Develop a new twist on the characterization of an iconic character.

On a cold, foggy Saturday this past weekend, my husband popped in True Grit (TG#2) starring Jeff Bridges. Later that afternoon John Wayne’s True Grit, from 1969, (TG#1) happened to be on television. Over dinner we talked about the differences between the two movies.

My husband made a good point in that Bridges played a meaner, darker version of a crusty, old Marshall, which is why he likes TG#2 better. Directed by the Coen brothers and released in 2010, I agree that TG#2 is more realistic to the old west. It never made sense to me that the Marshall would have walked that far in TG#1. In TG#2 they rode Little Blacky to death first and then Mattie was carried by the Marshall on foot to save her life.

On Sunday afternoon, we introduced my son’s girlfriend to The Cowboys (1972) with John Wayne. If you don’t own the blue-ray version of this movie, you must find it. Filmed on locations in Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico the scenery stands out as a character on its own. TV reruns don’t do these ranches and sweeping landscapes justice. Roscoe Lee Browne is my favorite character as the chuck wagon cookie, and I’ve had a crush on A. Martinez as Cimarron from the moment he defiantly proclaims, “I’m a mistake of nature.” This movie is so good. Tommy Lee Jones is reportedly writing a new screenplay for The Cowboys. I’m happy/sad about that news.

To sum up our weekend, my 18yo likes TG#1 and TG#2 equally as well. His girlfriend loved The Cowboys. Our 14yo tells me he’s not really into John Wayne, but he really likes that new Netflix show Lonesome Dove (What? I thought he only watched Walking Dead). I’m so glad new generations are discovering these “new” western type shows! When’s the last time you watched a good ole’ family western?

Writing Exercise #2.

Using one of your own characters, rework the description into something more… more dark, more funny, more brave. Dig deep into their personality and motives, and see what you can find hiding there.

Thanks for following WordsmithSix!

nat

Author. Speaker. Girl About Town.


Author. Speaker. Girl About Town.

Natalie Bright

The Amarillo Club is located on the 30th and 31st floors of the tallest building in downtown Amarillo. I was invited to join a study club for lunch and to present a program on the history of energy in the Texas Panhandle. It’s a very interesting group of ladies, mostly retired educators, several local, long-time business owners, ranchers and professional women. This group is fun. They had lots of comments and questions, which makes for lively conversation and an enjoyable experience. This is my second time to present a program for them.

The view is breathtaking from this lofty vantage point. I posted a picture on Instagram and Facebook of the downtown skyline and the flat Texas Panhandle.

When I got back to my car, I checked the mirror to apply lip gloss and noticed a speck of food. In my teeth. For the entire talk? Gross! I held on to the hope that perhaps the people at the back of the room couldn’t have seen it. I half cried as I checked Facebook comments on the picture I had posted. My Uncle commented: “Eating at high altitude produced gas (Boyle’s Law). You can control it by eating slowly.” So much for hanging on to any credibility for my #authortalk.

Embarrassment and horror turned to giggles as I drove back to my office. No matter how sophisticated and worldly I might be in my own mind, I’ll never escape these redneck roots. I’ll always be a small-town Texas girl, even in pearls and high heels while dining at the top of the world.

The same holds true for my writing.

No matter how hard I wish it, the stories in my brain are not mainstream. Honestly, I had big plans of being a romance novelist. I’d love to write the next zombie mega hit. Or even better, why can’t my muse ignite me with an earthshattering future world adventure that breaks all records as a New York Times Bestseller? Yes please, I want to write that.

Reality check. More than likely, it’s not going to be my book with, “Now a Major Motion Picture” printed on the cover.

The stories in my head are set in the past. My characters are thundering across the wide open prairie on a paint pony, or storming through a clump of Redcoats. In my mind’s eye, I see wagons and horses and Comanche braves. I have no idea why.

The why is a mystery.

The where and who are moving picture shows in my head.

The doing is the hardest work I’ve ever done.

Follow your characters, no matter where they may take you….

 

Characterization


Characterization

By Natalie Bright

 

Creating well-rounded, believable characters.

During a snowy, lazy day of watching The Big Bang Theory marathon, I started thinking about the complex dynamics of characterization. The character traits go deep in this sitcom and play off this group of friends to compliment, define, and often times clash with each other.

Profiles

I began to write down the character profiles from the television show. This reminded me that well-rounded characters have good traits and bad traits, just like real people. There’s some things we really love about our BFFs, but there are other things that make us cringe. Real people are complicated. Folks have good qualities and bad qualities. They have issues from multifaceted pasts, or habits based on where they spent their childhoods.

Think about this: Real people have deep, dark secrets.

The way to avoid boring, cardboard characters is to make our fictional characters complicated too.

Character Study

Sheldon Cooper:      often times seems very rude

Inappropriate, no filter for what he says

Whiney, immature

We love him because: his endearing quality of a child-like innocence. He trusts his friends, does what his mother says, and loves his MeMaw. She calls him Moonpie because he’s yummy, yummy and she could just eat him up.

I think the characters of The Big Bang Theory are likeable because we can recognize in them the people that we know in real life. For a television series these recognizable traits are taken to the extreme to create believable fictional characters.

Heroes are not absolutely perfect. Give them a physical limitation, deep-burning issues from a past experience, or a personality mannerism that’s far from impeccable.

Villains aren’t all bad. Give them a loveable quality that readers can relate too, but take it to the extreme. Make them leap off the pages of your story. This past weekend I watched Silence of the Lambs again. I had forgotten how powerful that movie is. What makes us like Hannibal Lector? Why are we glad that he escaped prison?

Secrets: your characters must have a few secrets. Whether or not to reveal those secrets in your story is up to you.

Writing Exercise: Profile characters from your favorite TV show or movie.

Fictional Characters with Family Traditions


Fictional Characters  with Family Traditions

By Natalie Bright

As you develop your characters and identify their quirks and traits, consider their past family experiences and traditions. These incidents shape their personality and can add depth to your story.

Holiday traditions can leave heartfelt memories or tormenting heartache. Is this something that can play into your characters motivations, or become a component of your plot?

Dig Deep and Draw From the Things You Know

Holidays always make me think of my grandparents. I never realized how much I would treasure those memories. For my mother’s family, it was a bustling affaire of preparing the meal, watching football, and opening gifts with cousins. My grandmother planned the menu months in advance, and my aunts and mom arrived early to help.

My in-laws, on the other hand, arrive right at the appointed meal time and leave shortly thereafter. Plans are made at the last minute. The holiday with them seems strange and awkward, leaving me feeling that something is missing. After 28 years of marriage I’m still not used to their way of doing things. The experience only makes me miss the holidays of my childhood even more. So does that past memory affect my attitude? Of course, it does.

What about you and your memories? How can past experiences create tension, either external or internal, for your characters? These past memories might cause resentment, deep depression, intense joy, or a myriad of emotion.

A Past Life

Think about creating a past for your character. Where did their parents come from? How did their parents meet? Where did their grandparents live? Did they even know their grandparents? If not, why?  Maybe the main characters’ mother wasn’t welcome in her family home, and what if your character has to know why. This might not be your primary plot, but it could be a component of your character’s make-up and motivation as to why he/she acts they way they do. You see where I’m going. The possibilities are endless. You may not use even a fourth of this information in your story, but you need to know these details about your main characters and major villain.

You’re on a roll now, so keep going. Childhood experiences? Most frightening time? Most embarrassing time? Childhood friends? Worst enemy? Favorite uncle? Hated aunt? What about that evil sister-in-law who joins a cult and becomes dependent on pain killers? Self-centered brother-in-law? Famous cousin? Wealthy grandfather? How do these people influence your character’s moral fiber?

Write On My Friends!

2013 was a great year. Goals were realized, I garnered a few thrilling publishing credits, and received several devastating rejection notices which means my work is getting out there. I leave you with the most inspiring message for me, one that I heard repeated many times during 2013: keep writing. Finish. Submit.

Thanks for following Wordsmith Six.

nataliebright.com

Characterization Profile List


Characterization Profile List

By Natalie Bright

 

Strengths

Weaknesses (give your character flaws to make them believable)

Self-perception

How others see him/her

Hobbies/Collections

Natural talents

Cultivated talents

Fears (What does your character fear the most? Make them face it)

Habits

Dreams (bad/good/reoccurring)

Most comfortable when

Most uncomfortable when

If granted one wish, what would it be? Why?

Present problems

External conflict or problem

Internal conflict or problem

Main obstacle or problem keeping character from obtaining goal

Character Arc

How does your character change from the beginning to the end of your story.

As the saying goes, you must know all of your characters secrets. What’s hidden in their closet? You may not use this information in your story, but you still need to know.

For Your Reference Library

Psychology of Creating Characters – by Laurie Schnebly Campbell

Creating Character: Bringing Your Story to Life (Red Sneaker Writers Book Series) by William Bernhardt

45 Master Characters by Victoria Lynn Schmidt

Writer’s Guide to Character Traits by Dr. Linda Edelstein

Happy writing!

www.nataliebright.com

Characterization Part 6


Characterization Part 6

by Natalie Bright

I’m ending my series on tips for developing fictional characters with a recommendation of a useful reference tool that you might consider for your writer’s library.

Before I write down one word, I have to have the character in my mind through and through. I must penetrate into the last wrinkle of his soul.”  HENRIK IBSEN, playwright and poet

Best Tip Ever on Characterization

I’ve spent the past month pouring over conference notes in search of tidbits I’ve learned about characterization (click on my name, Natalie Bright, at right and scroll through previous posts on Characterization).

I hope you’ve found the information useful. The best technique that I’ve used over and over, unfortunately I can’t remember where I heard it or who said it, but it has stuck in my mind and I’ve never forgotten:

Use at least one of your character’s traits in every scene.

Show, don’t tell, through dialogue or actions.

Writer’s Reference

Now that you’ve completed a character profile relating to social and family issues that may have influenced your character, no matter how subtle, let’s take a look at personality traits. This is where we can dig even deeper and get to know our character better than anyone. You may not use hardly any of your characters’ background that you’ve developed, however I’ve learned that we should know it so that your character will stay in character throughout your book.

There are many useful tools to aid you in developing fictional characters, both on the web and in print. I’ve invested in several.  The most useful book that I keep referring to again and again is 45 MASTER CHARACTERS by Victoria Lynn Schmidt.

Archetypes

Character archetypes are emotions, ideas, and actions that reveal the details about personality. As Schmidt points out, these basic archetypes have been around for centuries and can be found in mythology, movie screenplays, and literature.

One of the unique things about this book is the examples based on legendary heroes and Hollywood block busters. If you’ve seen the movie, you’ll recognize the character archetype immediately.

‘The Protector’ is Han Solo. The villainous side of ‘The Woman’s Man’ for example, is the ‘Seducer’ best portrayed by Count Dracula. The book breaks down traits into female and male, as well as supporting characters. And although the information tends to lean towards human relationships and developing love interests, the traits can be applied to characters of all ages which is why I find it a useful tool in developing characters even if they’re children.

As an Example

I’m working on a middle grade historical novel set in 1870. My two main characters are a frontier kid, Ben, and a Comanche kid, Wolf. Obviously the conflict is a given for the time period; Texan against Comanche. So how can I add even more conflict?

Because Ben’s father has just died and left him with a momentous task to complete, this kid feels the weight of the world on his shoulders. He is serious, focused, and acts much older than his age. He’s worked all of this life, and to him, life is drudgery, endless days of work, and hardships with little emotion or joy. Referring to 45 MASTER CHARACTERS, “The Businessman” seems to fit this character the best. The book provides specifics as to what he might care about such as fears, motivations, and the best pairing for that character. The ‘villainous’ section for each archetype gives you traits to make your hero well rounded. He needs some bad habits too.

As I study Ben’s personality, I consider someone who would bring the most conflict for him.  Based on the book, ‘The Fool’ seems to fit Wolf. The archetype name is not in reference to his intelligence, because this Indian brave is very smart. He’s a free-spirit and loves to have fun.  Others see him as unpredictable. Ben and Wolf begin their journey as bitter enemies, but come together as friends. Based on their personalities, can you imagine the conflict and trouble they might create for each other?

A Place to Begin

Schmidt’s book is by no means an exact literal guide to your characters. It’s a place to start, and as you write, your characters will develop even more and surprise you with their reactions.What are some of the most useful tools you’ve found when developing your fictional characters?

Next week’s topic: Motivation. Just keep writing! And thanks for following WordsmithSix…