I Completed a Character Interview and Didn’t Scream Once

Crafting Unforgettable CharactersI’m getting ready to go to the beach today (Monday) and by the time this is posted (Wednesday) I’ll be there, so this entry is going to be brief!

Ahh… I can already hear the sound of that gentle Gulf Coast surf… oh wait… where were we?

Oh, right. Blog entry.

I’ve written before about how mind-numbing I find the work of doing fill-in-the-blank character sketches. You know…

Hair color:

Place of birth:

Favorite food:

In the past, two minutes of this was enough to make me run screaming away from the laptop.

Since then, I’ve rethought matters. In my current project, I found my lead character was sort of an automaton. He was doing some cool stuff, but I didn’t have a real feel for why. I mean, sure, he’s in Hell and he wants to leave, but I am talking about a deeper why, the psychological underpinnings of his nature that make him respond to the situation in the exact way he does.

When I started using terms like “psychological underpinnings” I knew I was in trouble, so for help I turned to Crafting Unforgettable Characters by K.M. Weiland. This little book is available at the author’s website for the price of signing up for her mailing list. I had already read Weiland’s Outlining Your Novel to some profit, so I went for the free book on characters.

I haven’t read the whole thing. Instead, I skipped right to the section on the character interview, which gives you a load of, yes, blanks to fill in. It’s an exhaustive list with some items that go beyond the usual fare.

I have completed three of these lists so far and found them very useful, especially for Colin, my main character. I didn’t complete every question; I don’t think you have to. Having done this work, I think I have more than an automaton now, I have a person, or at least the start of one.

If you’re in need of help with character development, I recommend this character interview list. Now, here’s a list I came up with and that’s all. Off to the beach!

Name: Colin Davis

Background: White, middle class

Birthday: July 23, ????

Place of birth: Columbia, SC

Parents: Hortence “Bebe” and Frank Davis

What was important to the people who raised him: Hard work, discipline and the American Way

Siblings: One sister, Mary Eliot

Economic/social status growing up: Middle class; a bit strapped after his parents divorced and his mother became primary caregiver

Ethnic background: White bread Scotch-Irish

Places lived: Columbia, Atlanta

Current address and phone number: N/A

Education: BA, English, USC

Favorite subject in school: English; creative writing, medieval studies

Special training: Pizza making and delivery. Society for Creative Anachronism fighting and weapons making. Singing

Jobs: Cafeteria utility in college. After moving to Atlanta, Pizza Haven guy.

Salary: A bit over minimum wage plus tips.

Travel: None

Friends: Pizza Haven guys, SCA & D&D gang. There is a portion of these that overlaps; these are his best pals; that is, the Haven/SCA/D&D-all-three folks.

How do people view this character: A nice guy, but a bit of a geek. He’s just average size, but has an athletic build from doing bodyweight exercises to burn energy; people wonder that he never played sports.

Lives with: Two roommates in a two-bedroom apartment; two of the Haven/SCA/D&D-all-three folks. Pete and Dundee, known as “Croc” because of the movie.

Fights with: Words and story lines. Sometimes his roomies, but not much.

Spends time with: His friends and co-workers.

Wishes to spend time with: A girlfriend, any girlfriend.

Who depends on him and why: He depends on himself; no parental contributions. His roommates depend on him for mutual support.

What people does he most admire: John Steinbeck, because he was a great modern writer and also took on the King Arthur legends.

Enemies: None

Dating, marriage: He knows some girls, but there’s no romance. He’s a bit awkward about it.

Children: None

Relationship with God: He is sure there is one, but not sure what the nature of it is.

Overall outlook on life: Romantic

Does this character like himself: Mostly, but he demands a lot of himself when it comes to writing.

What, if anything, would he like to change about his life: He’d like to not be poor, to have a girlfriend and to be a successful novelist.

What personal demons haunt him: Both his parents and his sister yelled at him a lot. When he first tried sports—peewee football—the coach yelled at him and he quit, never to play sports again. After his parents’ divorce, it just got worse. He is haunted by the sorrow over the split, the pain and anger of the psychological abuse, the feelings of inferiority that caused.

Is he lying to himself about something: He tells himself he is really a peaceful guy, that the SCA and D&D are just fun escapism, but deep within he is seething with rage.

Optimistic/pessimistic: Despite everything, optimistic. Otherwise, he couldn’t write.

Real/feigned: Real

Morality level: He’s a good guy, though at times mischievous.

Confidence level: He is plagues by an inferiority complex.

Typical day: Work making/delivery pizzas, hang out with friends, write. Weekends and evenings are often for D&D, SCA. Writing happens first thing in the morning and often last thing at night.

Physical appearance: He’s just average size, but has an athletic build from doing bodyweight exercises to burn energy; people wonder that he never played sports.

Body type: Medium, athletic, but not totally ripped

Posture: Upright

Head shape: Like a head!

Eyes: Hazel

Nose: Straight, short

Mouth: Medium

Hair: Red

Skin: Freckled

Tattoos/piercings/scars: A small scar over his left eyebrow from a childhood encounter with a bully, which he won.

Voice: N/A

What people notice first: The hair

Clothing: He’s a jeans and t-shirt guy, with tennis. If it’s hot, cargo/boarding shorts.

How would he describe himself: I’m a fiction writer, so of course I work at Pizza Haven.

Health/disabilities/handicaps: None

Characteristics: N/A

Personality type (choleric, sanguine, phlegmatic, melancholy): Laid-back about most things, but fiery about his passions, which are writing and his friends

Strongest/weakest character traits: Determination is his strength—he is determined to be a successful writer. The inferiority complex is his big weakness.

How can the flip side of his strong point be a weakness: He can be so bullheaded he ignores other factors, ignores the big picture.

How much self-control and self-discipline does he have: A good amount.

What makes him irrationally angry: Bullying or yelling, at himself or others.

What makes him cry: Big life moments—births, weddings, etc.

Fears: Failure as a writer. Never being loved.

Talents: Writing. Singing. Making SCA weapons. Being dungeonmaster.

What people like best about him: His easygoing warmth.

Interests and favorites: N/A

Political leaning: N/A

Collections: N/A

Food, drink: N/A

Music: Medieval music, to listen to and sing [research]

Books: All of Steinbeck.

Movies: N/A

Sports, recreation: SCA, D&D

Did he play in school: N/A

Color: N/A

Best way to spend a weekend: SCA battle during the day, D&D-cum-drinking-game in the evening

A great gift for this person: N/A

Pets: None

Vehicles: Chinese scooter

What large possessions does he own (car, home, furnishings, boat, etc.)

and which does he like best: Just the scooter and his laptop. The laptop is best.

Typical expressions:

When happy:

When angry:

When frustrated:

When sad:

Idiosyncrasies:

Laughs or jeers at:

Ways to cheer up this person:

Ways to annoy this person:

Hopes and dreams: Successful novelist. Happily girlfriended guy.

How does he see himself accomplishing these dreams: Novelist: He works hard and succeeds. Girlfriend: He has no idea, but dreams of her just kind of falling into his lap.

What’s the worst thing he’s ever done to someone and why: He beat the crap out of that bully.

Greatest success: Published a short story in a well regarded regional journal.

Biggest trauma: See above.

Most embarrassing thing that ever happened to him: Tried to ask a girl out and halfway through spilled his beer on her.

What does he care about most in the world: Writing

Does he have a secret: No

If he could do one thing and succeed at it, what would it be:

He is the kind of person who:

What do you love most about this character: That he is so committed and kind of naïve.

Why will the reader sympathize with this person right away: Because he has big dreams and is willing to work hard to win them on his own.

How is the character ordinary or extraordinary: He has extraordinary talent and determination. He has ordinary needs & wants of a young man.

How is his situation ordinary or extraordinary: It’s ordinary except for his writing.

Core Need: His core need is to overcome his feelings of rage and inferiority.

Corresponding psychological maneuver (delusions, obsessions,

compulsions, addictions, denials, hysterical ailments, hypochondria, illnesses,

behaviors harming the self, behavior harming others, manias, and phobias): The maneuver that comes from rage and the inferiority complex is the writing. Also the SCA battling.

Anecdote (defining moment): He pulled a bully off a smaller kid in the sixth grade. The bully punched him hard, giving him the scar over his eye with a ring. After reeling a moment, Colin freaked out on the bully and was all over him. Colin’s dad pulled him off the bully and yelled at him for fighting as the bully ran off. Later Colin’s mom yelled at him and his sister made snide remarks. So, even though he felt good for his victory on the one hand, he felt miserable and put down on the other hand.

History:

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Sharing Some Inspiration

InspirationIt’s always good to have someone considered more or less an authority confirm your beliefs. That’s why I want to share some quotes from Story Engineering by novelist and writing teacher Larry Brooks.

Story Engineering contains some of the best stuff I’ve ever read about crafting a novel. It’s practical advice that’s directly applicable to one’s writing, presented in a matter that is neither straight-jacketed by process nor clouded with vagaries.

That’s not the stuff I want to share, though. At least not this week. I want to give you some of the inspirational language from near the book’s end, in Brooks’s thoughts about why we write.

“If you are a writer–and you are if you actually write—you are already living the dream. Because the primary reward of writing comes from within, and you don’t need to get published or sell your screenplay to access it.”

Confirmation! Those who visit this site on a semi-regular basis (both of you) have heard me say similar things before. Writing is its own reward, even according to somebody who actually knows what they’re doing!

Here’s more:

“The inner reward is the gift of life itself. Writers are scribes of the human experience. To write about life we must see it and feel it, and in a way that eludes most. We are not better people in any way—read the biographies of great writers and this becomes crystal clear—but we are alive in a way that other are not. We are all about meaning. About subtext. We notice what others don’t. If the purpose of the human experience is to immerse ourselves in growth and enlightenment, moving closer and closer to whatever spiritual truth you seek—hopefully have a few laughs and a few tears along the way—wearing the nametag of a writer makes that experience more vivid. We’re hands-on with life, and in the process of committing our observations to the page we add value to it for others.”

If that’s not a top-notch assessment of writing’s true rewards, I don’t know what is. We only get one life (even if you believe in reincarnation, you only get this life once) and as writers we get to create a richer experience of it for ourselves and, with skill and luck, for others. If you ask me, it doesn’t get any better than that.

The Long Haul

Calvin Coolidge pinOne of my favorite quotes, from Calvin Coolidge, has been on my mind of late. It reads thus:

“Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan, ‘press on’ has solved, and always will solve, the problems of the human race.”

I’ve been thinking about old Cal and his words of wisdom because as I work away at restructuring Thin Spots I get the distinct feeling this whole novel-writing business is going to take a while. Early on, convinced of my innate storytelling prowess, I thought I could whip up a half-baked outline, spit out about two thousand five hundred pages a week and have the first draft done in under a year.

Then, reality reared its ugly head.

My first hint was when a writing group friend told me she’d heard a tip at a workshop, something about spending eighty percent of your time on structure and about twenty percent on the writing. Things were bubbling along pretty well at that point—I was in the first sections of the book—so in my right ear went the advice and out the left it fell. And for a while, I didn’t miss it.

Then came the first re-plot. It started in my gut, with the uneasy feeling that the story was sliding out from under me, even with my lackadaisical outline to use as a semi-guide. It wasn’t long before I was struggling with the subplot, trying to figure out a reason why the guy’s wife (or sister—it went back and forth for a while) would betray him while he was in a coma. Well, there wasn’t a reason, at least not one I could dream up.

So, along came the first re-plot, with a nefarious coven of warlocks in place of the evil wife-or-sister. This re-plot also included Tanya, a waitress who, in addition to being mighty cute, was a shaman capable of traveling through different planes of reality. With these changes in mind, I tweaked the novel’s structure, but again left off after I’d gotten about halfway through the work, figuring I’d clean up all those ugly plot holes while I wrote. No problem, right? Innate storytelling prowess, remember?

Welcome to re-plot number two.

I loved Tanya, but she was just too much. She was a super-hero, really, intruding into a story about a guy who gets his soul sent to Hell, through no fault of his own, while his body remains alive on Earth. And as I looked more closely, I realized that all the plane-travelling shenanigans weren’t moving the plot forward. So I bid Tanya farewell and started again. Now the romantic interest is in already Hell when Colin (the hero) gets there and has a role in the motion of the story.

Slowly and carefully now go I, creeping along scene by scene. What’s next? What makes sense? Where’s the conflict here? Would this character really do that thing. Mark a question here, a hole there. It’s a lot of work, this plotting, but I’m finding it fun and starting to see how making a few passes through it could make my life much easier. I’m reading a couple of books about technique to help me out. They are Outlining Your Novel: Map Your Way to Success, by K.M. Weiland, and Story Engineering by Larry Brooks. Both authors are actual published novelists, not folks who only write how-to books for novelists and I’m profiting from both reads.

I’ll keep working on it and, with luck, I’ll be writing prose again by September. Or maybe October. I’m in this for the long haul, gang, betting that Coolidge was right.

Three Fave Writing Sites

Today, since I’m feeling a little lazy and bereft of ideas, I thought I’d share a few of my favorite writing sites with you, in case you haven’t run across them yet and are remotely interested.

I always enjoy Chuck Wendig’s Terribleminds blog. It’s got flash fiction challenges, 25-point writing articles and other goodies. My favorite post so far has been “25 Things Writers Should Stop Doing (Right ******* Now).”

Terrible Minds blog

Another favorite is J.A. Konrath’s blog, A Newbie’s Guide to Publishing. Mr. Konrath feels passionately that e-publishing, specifically e-self-publishing, is the future. I love his no-holds-barred approach to posts on this topic. One of many good examples is “JA Konrath vs Stephen King,” which combines thoughts on e-publishing, e-book piracy and cool animated e-book covers in a way that’s sardonic and pithy at the same time.

A Newbie's Guide to Publishing blog

I like the Stadler Style blog because William Stadler tends to offer a lot of how-to writing advice in this space and I can use all the help I can get. Topics like “How to Keep Your Momentum,” “How to Follow a Scene” and “How to Construct the Perfect Scene” encourage me to keep an eye on this site.

Stadler Style blog

Okay, there are three good ones to get you started. I’d give you more, but it’s Saturday, it’s supper time and there’s barbeque on the table. So, if you’ll excuse me… later!