9 Ideas for Resolving A Character Crisis

Chinese character for crisis. Danger plus Opportunity.The adventure in novel-writing continues. This week I finished part two of four, which was great. Unfortunately, this accomplishment is overshadowed by a minor literary crisis I ran into last week, courtesy of my writing group.

My writing group is terrific—we read each other’s stuff, mark it up and tell each other what we think is right and wrong about a piece in a straightforward, but supportive way. One of the folks observed that he didn’t see any particular reason to like, or root for, my main character. The others tended to agree.

Why, he asked, should I like this guy?

I couldn’t answer. Minor literary crisis! So what are some steps I can take?

I’m thinking out loud here. Here’s what I’ve come up with, in no particular order because, honestly, I don’t know in what order to do these things yet.

  • Look at pictures. I can get on Google Images, Flickr, etc. and look for photos of guys who strike me as Colin-like. Seeing an image might spark some ideas.
  • List characteristics. A while back, I completed a list of characteristics for Colin. I can review that. I can also write another one.
  • Try situations. One thing that works for me is to put the character into a random situation—standing in line at the grocery store, taking a shower, fighting a zombie—whatever comes to mind. Something about dreaming up the situation and seeing how the character reacts seems to break loose my intuitive knowledge about him.
  • Think about reasons a person is liked. I’m trying to make this guy likable, or at least supportable. What do people like? What makes a person interesting and attractive? How do some of those things fit in with the person I think Colin is?
  • Research. I have some favorite how-to resources. I’ll go back to them and see what advice they have.
  • Stare at the ceiling. I wrote a post about this not long ago. Sometimes just letting the mind wander around a creative problem on its own will produce solutions, or at least hints.
  • Enlist the universe. There’s a whole interconnected web of being of which I am a part (setting aside metaphysical questions of who or what “I” really am). Through prayer and meditation I can bring the subtle power of that whole thing to bear on the problem. I know this isn’t for everybody, but it works for me.
  • Let go. It’s all to easy for me to get something like this between my teeth and shake it like a terrier. Then I’ll shake it some more, and then some more until my head pops off. By that time, I can’t see the problem or the solution for all the worry in the way. If I can remember to relax and allow this to happen, rather than trying to make it happen, I’ll be a lot farther along.
  • See the opportunity. I do have a little crisis here, but I can already see how rewriting Colin’s first section or two might enable me to solve some story problems that have cropped up down the line. I’m reminded of the old cliché about the Chinese character for “crisis” being a combination of the symbols for “danger” and—you guessed it—“opportunity.” So there’s hope for me yet! And for my main character.

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:

Getting It Right Enough

Cat says "What absolute twaddle."I recently came upon a section, the first one featuring Tanya—waitress, shaman and romantic interest extraordinaire—as the viewpoint character, that I just couldn’t turn loose. I didn’t want to get wrapped up in making it perfect, but I needed it to be good enough to build more story on top of.

In seemed to me that most of the writers I’d read or heard from said that its best to forge onward, full steam ahead, no matter what. Roz Morris even advises leaving your typos to be corrected later on. Lawrence Block is the only writer I’ve heard that advocates getting it right, or at least as right as possible, the first time around.

I originally started the section with Tanya in her apartment, getting a visit for shamanic services from a timid little man named Mr. Thomas. Mr. Thomas had nothing to do with the story otherwise and was really only there to discover lead character Colin’s inert body in the bathtub, hopefully causing the reader to ask what happens next. The scene dragged on and I kept thinking, “Get to the bathroom already, you sap!” Besides that, I realized that if Mr. Thomas showed up in the story now, I was going to have to clean him up later on.

So I 86’d Mr. Thomas before finishing the section. On to round two.

With Thomas gone, now I could bring in Doc, a character who shows up in the first section, who interests me and who I know is going to figure into the greater scope of the novel. That felt better. I could delve into Doc’s character a bit and build a relationship between him and Tanya that would round out her character, too. I got further into the section, but stopped again before it was done. There was something wrong I couldn’t put my finger on at first, but at last my finger landed… in giant pile of twaddle.

The section was dripping with useless babble. My favorite example is a fairly lengthy description of a sort of river of light. That sounds a little cool, maybe, but then hippos and chimaeras and stuff start to float by in it and it’s just ridiculous. More important, it was completely unnecessary. I went back again, stripped out the twaddle and finished the section with Doc discovering the inert Colin. (Not dead, just inert—let’s be clear here.)

What with all this rewriting, I was fearing that was slipping back into my old habits of perfectionism, but after some reflection I had a little epiphany. I wasn’t worrying about the beauty of the writing or the typos or any of that while I was reworking, and that’s the kind of thing the writers I consulted warn about. Instead, I was solving a story problem, the kind of thing that’s sure to crop up again and again as I cobble together this novel. And I’ve even left the solution a bit clumsy—as I think the writing authorities would say I should—it will need plenty of polish later on.

Now I can move on with the story feeling like I’m building on a solid foundation, because I didn’t get the section just right, I just got it right enough.

Ty Johnston Interviews Kron Darkbow

Fantasy writer Ty Johnston is touring the blogosphere this month, in part to promote his latest e-book novel, Demon Chains, but also because he loves blog touring. His other fantasy novels include City of Rogues, Bayne’s Climb and Ghosts of the Asylum, all of which are available for the Kindle, the Nook and online atSmashwords. To learn more about Ty and his writing, follow him at his blog tyjohnston.blogspot.com. Below, Ty interviews Kron Darkbow, the main character of most of his fantasy writings.

Ty: Hello, Kron. Been a while since we’ve seen one another.

Kron: Hrrm.

Ty: What’s that supposed to mean?

Kron: It means you are wasting my time, and it means it has not been that long since we have seen one another. You were just proofreading the Demon Chains novel.

Ty: Well, yeah, but I guess I meant it’s been a while since we were … uh … writing together. After all, it’s been a month or so since I finished writing Demon Chains.

Kron: Fine. Be on your way, then.

Ty: But I just got here!

Kron: Which means you can turn right around and leave.

Ty: Why are you being this way? Why so obstinate?

Kron: You created me. You should know.

Ty: Um, well, I realize you probably don’t like me very much.

Kron: True.

Ty: But I guess it’s not because I put you in perilous situations.

Kron: Again, true.

Ty: You probably don’t like me because —

Kron: Because you are wasting my time.

Ty (smirking): Oh, yeah? What else do you have to do? I’m the one who sends you off on your adventures, and since finishing Demon Chains, I’ve yet to send you on another one.

Kron: Just because you are not forcing me to face down demons, cannibals or dark wizards does not mean I do not have other things to do. In fact, I have better things to do than talk with you.

Ty (whining): But I’m your creator!

Kron: You are also a writer, which is a notoriously wasteful way to spend one’s life.

Ty: What do you mean?

Kron: What, exactly, do you do to make the world a better place? Do you go out of your way to help your fellow man? Do you —

Ty: Now hold on a minute! I might spend my days and nights in front of a keyboard, but I try to entertain others with my prose, and from time to time I try to say something important about humanity, the universe, etc.

Kron: Which accomplishes nothing. Words, words and more words.

Ty: There’s nothing wrong with trying to entertain people!

Kron: Except you could be out there saving lives.

Ty: Well, excuse me if I’m not two hundred pounds of solid muscle with a big sword hanging on my back, and trained in the arts of melee from a dozen different nations!

Kron: You forgot about my years of training in alchemy, languages, and all manners of thwarting magic.

Ty: Yeah, you’re a regular Batm —

Kron: Don’t say it!

Ty: Say what?

Kron: You know what! Bruce and I are only distantly related. I am not based upon him.

Ty: I guess. I suppose you also have a little Frank Castle in you, and some Mack Bolan. Maybe even a smidgen of Max Rockatansky.

Kron: I have no idea who those people are.

Ty: That’s what Wikipedia is for. Look it up.

Kron: What?!? Look, I have to go. There are street scum needing beaten up, and monsters that need killing.

Ty: I suppose you’re the man for the job.

Kron: I am.

Ty: Okay, okay. I get the picture.

Kron: The what?

Ty: Nevermind. Maybe you’ll find out some day if I ever send you into the future or into my world.

Kron (grinning, all teeth): That would be interesting.

Ty: How so?

Kron: Because then I could hunt down you.

Ty (gulping): Okay, uh … that’s enough for the day, I think. We’ve taken up enough space on Carson’s blog. Um, Carson, thanks for putting up with our nonsense, and I look forward to any replies to this post.

Kron: You forgot to say goodbye, idiot.

Ty: Okay. Goodbye, idiot.

Kron: Hrrm.

Getting to Know You: Character Sketches

Having started sometime in October, by some other time in December I was twenty thousand words into the first draft of my novel-to-be, Thin Spots (coming eventually to an e-bookstore near you). Pleased as I was about the word count, a couple of things started to bug me. One was a flaw in the plot structure, which maybe I’ll talk about another time.

The other bugging item, which I’ll talk about now, was the characters.

The story’s got characters, all right—good guy, bad guy, love interest, the works—all moving around, doing stuff. Great, right? Except they felt flat, like cardboard cutouts moving around against a watercolor backdrop. Not really knowing what to do, I just kept moving them around, having faith that an answer would bubble up from the kettle of creative process in due time.

Sure enough, due time came around and I realized the problem, or at least part of it, was that I didn’t know the characters. Oh, I knew their names, physical characteristics, motivations and that sort of thing, but I hadn’t sat down with each one of them and let them speak or act as they wanted to. Another way of putting this might be that I hadn’t let their true natures rise out of my unconscious into the daylight.

I started this project with a novel-writing cookbook that advised me to define characters by filling out a list of specifics for each one. Here’s a partial example, for the lead character:

  • Character Type: Lead. Name: Colin Davis. Colin is a short form of “Nicholas” means “victory of the people”…
  • Connection to Lead: Is
  • Story Goal: He wants to get back to his body so he can stay alive, end his torment…
  • Gender: Male
  • Age: 30
  • Appearance: Blonde. Late 20s-early 30s. Average height & build…
  • Height & Body Type: Average American; 5′ 10″. Body type: Just a shade on the stocky side…
  • Hair color: Blonde
  • Eye color: Dark blue, unusually so.
  • Mannerisms: Combs his fingers backwards through his hair when thinking…

You get the idea. It’s all well and good, and it probably helped me start thinking, but not a bit of it gave me a gut feel for what this guy is like. These items are details for building an automaton, not for bringing a character to life.

What to do? I cast my mind back—way back—to a wonderful high-school English teacher who had the class write character sketches, which were just a page or two putting a character in an everyday situation and letting him or her move through it. I’ve been doing that over the past few days and I like what’s happening. The sketches don’t give me all the details of the character’s high school romances, dental work, etc., but they do make me feel as though I’m getting to know them well enough to work with them in a story.

I’ll be sharing these sketches in the next several posts. Here’s the first one. It’s for Doc Lutz, a character I didn’t even know I had until I started working out the plotting problem I mentioned earlier.

Doc Lutz was running late, which wasn’t good, because he was the only one with a key to Pizza Haven. That was only good sense—he was the owner, after all—but it meant the help would be piling up around the back door, bitching, building up a bad attitude that would last all the way until quitting time. Their attitudes were bad enough—he didn’t need to give them any help. He put the pedal to the metal, blasted through the last red light between him and the Magnolia Walk strip mall and arrived in a handy handicapped-only spot with a squeal of brakes.

They were there, all right. Manny, his lead cook, leaning against the graffiti-spattered brick wall with a cigarette dangling from his perpetual frown; Tanya the waitress in her usual form-fitting mini-skirt, hugging a black leather jacket around her against the cold and Colin, the delivery guy, utility player and general waste of space, sitting cross-legged on the ground, scribbling in a notebook as usual.

“Okay, people, spread out, Daddy’s here.”

Tanya spit her gum into an open trash bin. “If you were my daddy, I’d have grown up in foster care.”

“Nice. Merry goddamn Christmas to you, too. Manny, stomp out that butt before you come inside. And wash your hands before you start in the kitchen. How many times I gotta tell you?”

“Hell. I just lit up, Doc. These things are expensive.”

“So, quit. Hey, Shakespeare, you going to finish your masterpiece there and grace us with your presence?”

Colin stayed where he was and chewed his pencil. “Any of you guys know a good word for ‘sticky’?”

“How about ‘fired’? Do anything for you?”

“All right, all right.” Colin slapped his notebook shut and stuffed it into his backpack. “Ready to ride at your command, my captain.”

After he had made sure that Manny’s hands were washed and Tanya knew the specials, Doc went to do the liquor count. Colin Davis, he knew, would take care of himself, scribbling, until there was something he was needed for.

He grunted as he squatted to peer into the liquor cabinets beneath the bar. His weight wasn’t going anywhere but up—an occupational hazard—and his knees weren’t what they used to be. Heedless of the discomfort, he painstakingly counted each bottle, reaching to the back to be sure nobody had hidden a partial there, hoping he’d get lazy and count it as a full bottle. He also spot-checked a few bottles by upending them and watching the liquor cling to the glass or, if they were already open, removing the tops and sniffing the contents, to be sure they hadn’t been watered down. After recording the results of the count on a tally sheet, he went to his office to check the results against the previous day’s sales.

The office was a Spartan affair, consisting of a metal desk, a battered swivel chair—both bought used—and a safe set into the concrete floor. There were filing cabinets, a time clock and a bulletin board. The board contained the only personal items in the space: the first dollar Doc had made at Pizza Haven, sealed in a baggie, and a picture of his daughter, Rosalie, the one good thing to come from a marriage that had broken up many years before.

The liquor count and the sales sheet didn’t match up; the sales figures accounted for less liquor used than did the count, even with a give-or-take of five percent to account for the general inexactitude of the process. This was the third night in a month it had happened. Doc pulled a file and checked the staffing logs for those nights. There were only two employees common to all three nights: Lequoin, a kid he’d hired to bar-back about six weeks back, and Colin Davis, a.k.a. Shakespeare.

Doc scratched his belly and mulled over the matter. It was unlikely Colin was the culprit. He was too young to drink and, anyway, his job was driving, and on a motorcycle at that—not something that lent itself well to sneaking booze. Lequoin, on the other hand, was around the bar a lot, and he was so taciturn and slow-moving anyway that it would be hard to tell if he’d had a couple, unless you got right up in his face and smelled his breath.

“You’re my guy, coonass,” Doc muttered. He pulled up a number on his cell phone and hit dial. In a moment, he heard “Yo, this is Bobby Lequoin. Hit me up at the beep.”

The phone beeped. “Hey, Lequoin, this is Doc over at Pizza Haven. You’re fired. Come get your last check anytime we’re open. Merry goddamn Christmas.”

That’s a helluva cold message if it ain’t him, Doc thought, but he didn’t have any serious doubts. He trusted his instincts in these matters and was seldom wrong. And if he was by some outrageous chance wrong, he knew better than to ever admit it. He pulled an apron from a hook and headed out for the floor, pausing just long enough to look at his daughter’s picture and say a quick prayer for her. It was Christmas, so he was running with a skeleton crew and would have to do some of the heavy lifting himself.