Dealing with Myriad Characters

It’s amazing how much I have forgotten about my work in progress, the one that’s been paused for the better part of three years. (I’ve been writing it on again and off again for six years, actually. Life and death have so often broken me away from the work, that it’s progressing on an average of 8,000 words a year. At this rate, it will be finished in three more years.)

During the first third of the book, my poor hero was mostly alone as he dealt with the affects of a world gone berserk, which created many writing challenges. It’s much easier to write with two characters so they can play off each other, butt heads, have dialogues, or whatever is necessary for the story.

The second part of the book presented an entirely different challenge — too many characters. I’m typing up a stray chapter, one I wrote three years ago, and it astonished me to count fifteen characters: my hero, his nemesis, three starfish-like aliens, plus ten supporting characters. Ouch.

Luckily, I’d done research on group dynamics shortly after I started writing this book, and so I was able to give each human an identifiable role in the group. As I found out, at times groups act like a single entity, so that also helps in dealing with myriad characters. As I wrote in On Writing: Characters and Group Mentality:

massesThere are five stages of group development:

1. Coming together and finding roles
2. Defining the task
3. Disenchantment with the leader, each other
4. Cohesion, feeling like a team
5. Interdependence, acting like a team, becoming more than the sum of the parts.

Most groups unconsciously assign roles to the members, and once these roles have been assigned, tacit agreement maintains them. The most common group roles are: leader, seducer (wants to bewitch others), silent member, taskmaster, clown, victim, oppressor, conciliator, combatant, nurse, young Turk (wants to take over the leadership), the naïf, and the scapegoat.

Groups tend to isolate one person as the source of any conflict, whether warranted or not, and they deposit their negative feelings on that person. Because my hero keeps to himself, and because the others think he’s “teacher’s pet,” he becomes the scapegoat. I don’t think he cares, though, so if you don’t care, are you still the scapegoat? Either way, that’s the role the group has assigned him.

Well, the group didn’t assign him that role; apparently I did once upon a time. It should be interesting to see what other treasures I find as I rediscover this story.

***

Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Follow Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

The Transformation of the Hero

One of the best books about writing I ever read was David Gerrold’s Worlds of Wonder. It’s a how-to for writing science fiction and fantasy, but it’s applicable to all writers since, in the end, we are all creating worlds of wonder.

The aspect of the book I would like to discuss is the transformation of the hero. In the beginning, the situation is introduced and the hero discovers she has a problem. She attempts action and, though she gives it all she has, she is beaten by the problem. She gains a deeper understanding of the problem, then tries again, exhausting all possibilities she knows. All that is left is what she doesn’t know. Finally, because some event occurs or some person says something that triggers the hero’s realization of what she has to do, the hero goes through a shift in being, a reinvention of herself, and confronts the problem directly.

This transformation of the character is the reason you’re telling the story. A story is an account of how a particular person who started out like that ended up like this.

Most problems are about not handling the problem. By choosing to make the situation the problem, the hero creates herself as the source of the problem. Until she recognizes her own authorship of the dilemma, she cannot create herself as the source of the resolution. She has to give up whatever investment she has in not solving the problem. The hero has to be awakened to the possibility that there is another way to think about this. Another way to be.

So transformation is not only the re-creation of the hero as the owner of the situation, it is self-empowerment as well.

In science fiction and fantasy, this transformation is not metaphysical but real. In the process of transformation, not only is the hero changed, but the world in which he exists is also transformed.

In all other fictions, this transformation is more internal, but still real.

I have been thinking about transformation lately as pertaining to my real life. In order to become one of those rare writers who can support herself with sales of her books, I need to transform myself into an “Author,” to recreate myself as if I were a character in one of my books. Don’t know how to do it, and the only reason I’m mentioning it is to show the validity of the hero’s transformation.

So, what problems confront your heroes? How do they attempt to solve them? How are they thwarted? And finally, how do they recreate themselves to solve the problems?

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On Writing: Characters and Group Mentality

I’ve been trying to develop the middle part of my current work. I have an idea of how my hero, Chip, will progress and how he will change due to the psychological problems he will be dealing with, but I still have to figure out how he will fit in with the group.

Groups take on a life of their own, with a culture and a group mentality that is different from the sum of the individual members. The group, in effect, becomes a character, so I need to develop this character while I am developing my hero’s character.

There are five stages of group development:

1. Coming together and finding roles
2. Defining the task
3. Disenchantment with the leader, each other
4. Cohesion, feeling like a team
5. Interdependence, acting like a team, becoming more than the sum of the parts.

Most groups unconsciously assign roles to the members, and once these roles have been assigned, tacit agreement maintains them. The most common group roles are: leader, seducer (wants to bewitch others), silent member, taskmaster, clown, victim, oppressor, conciliator, combatant, nurse, young Turk (wants to take over the leadership), the naïf, and the scapegoat.

In the first part of my WIP, where Chip deals with the loss of everything he loved, he meets three mentors, but he is mostly alone. Even his cat deserts him. In the second part, he has to become a part of a group that will escape the place of refuge, choosing freedom over safety, but he is still a loner. I know readers like forceful main characters, the go-to guys and gals (for those of you who hate the word “gals,” sorry, but I couldn’t resist), but I prefer the quieter types, the ones don’t take charge until they are pressed into it out of necessity. So, in the group hierarchy, Chip will not be the leader. He will be the silent member and he will be the scapegoat.

Groups tend to isolate one person as the source of any conflict, whether warranted or not, and they deposit their negative feelings on that person. Because Chip keeps to himself, and because the others think he’s “teacher’s pet,” he becomes the scapegoat. I don’t think he cares, though, so if you don’t care, are you still the scapegoat? Either way, that’s the role the group has assigned him.

Chip’s eventual love interest will fulfill the roles of nurse and taskmaster. A serial killer will fulfill the role of clown. A woman who never quite fit into her other life will find a fit as the leader. The combatant and perhaps oppressor will be a soldier. A lawyer, an erstwhile ambulance chaser, will be the conciliator. But I don’t yet have characters to fill the other roles. So that’s what I need to work on — creating those characters.

This was supposed to be a silly book, a story just for fun, but in the development, it’s becoming something different, something I have to learn how to write as I go along. I keep promising myself that my next book will be one I know how to write. It would make it a heck of a lot easier. But then, where’s the challenge in that?

***

Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Follow Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

Heroes, Heroics, and Heroism

Writers generally use the word hero to mean main character, though often that main character is not particularly heroic. So what makes a hero heroic?

Note: For the purpose of this discussion, hero refers to both men and women for no other reason than that I don’t like the word heroine. For one thing, it’s too close to heroin, which is how many people misspell it; for another, it reminds me of intellectually lightweight females more given to heroics than heroism. (Heroics meaning “ostentatious and overly dramatic conduct.”)

The other day I watched the movie Lone Hero (an older movie starring Lou Diamond Phillips), and it struck me it had the same basic premise as Hero (an even older movie) starring Dustin Hoffman. A character instinctively does something heroic, (meaning, in this case, “marked by courage and daring; noble”) and at the end of the movie, he consciously chooses to do another heroic act. (I know movies aren’t books, but they are the result of writing, and as such fall within the purview of this group’s discussions.)

So, which was the true heroic act — the instinctual one or the calculated one? I got the impression from those movies that both writers thought the second one was more heroic since the characters chose the action, but to me that was merely bravery — true heroism comes from within, the instinct.

So, are your heroes heroic (in any sense of the word)? Do they act instinctively or calculatingly? What do they do that is so heroic? Does it change them? Does it change those around them?

And, on the opposite side of the spectrum, to be worthy of note by the hero, does the villain also have to behave heroically? All too often, writers give their villains heroics (overly dramatic bad conduct) but not heroism.

The group No Whine, Just Champagne will exchange ideas about heroes, heroics, and heroism during our live discussion on January 15, 2009 at 9:00pm ET. Hope to see you there! (Or you can discuss this matter here.)

(Could I have used more parentheses?)

Sports As Story

The one thing that separates humans from other animals is not our ability to communicate; most (perhaps all) creatures possess that ability to some degree. What separates us from animals is how we communicate: by words, by stories.

We all have stories to tell. At work, we tell colleagues, “You’ll never guess what happened to me last night.” At home, we tell our families, “You know what Sally did today? She . . .” Out with friends, we top each other’s jokes.

Stories. That’s what we’re about.

We love to hear other people’s stories, we love to tell stories, and we love to read stories, both real and imagined. “I don’t like stories,” you might say; “I like sports.” Ah, but sports is all about story. The hero, the villain, the conflict, the passion, the suspense, the unexpected or the hoped-for ending. We identify with the characters; we empathize with their plight; we feel as if we have a stake in the outcome of the game. All elements of story. No wonder so many sports movies have been made, so many sports novels have been written. The story of a game within the story of a character. Heady stuff.

Conflict keeps us reading a story, conflict keeps us watching a game. When a character or a player with whom we identify runs up against an obstacle, we want to find out how things will turn out. That conflict forces us to pay attention. When a book is too slow or too predictable, we will toss it aside. When a clear winner of a game is indicated, we will leave the ballpark or turn off the television. When a game is desultorily played, neither team giving that fabled one hundred and ten percent, we lose interest.

We might try to avoid conflict in our lives, but when in comes to story, we need conflict. We need characters, we need to care, we need the contrast and the conflict between the hero and the villain, and we like to see characters change. We love when underdogs win, when they pull out the best in themselves and change from loser to champion. Doesn’t matter whether we hear an anecdote, tell a joke, read a book, or watch sports. It’s all the same.

We are human. We are story.

Depth of Character

Sherilyn Winrose, author of Safe Harbor published by Second Wind Publishing, speaks about depth of character:

There are a few things which will make me stop from reading a story.

Cookie cutter, cliché characters is one of them. Or characters who lie flat on the pages like paper dolls.

There is one author I just don’t read anymore, because her characters repeat, repeat, repeat. I gave up on any hope of some miracle of original characters with her. She’s popular and vastly successful in the publishing world. Three pen names last I heard, all of them have best sellers. We should all be so lucky. All the same, she lost me for lack of originality in her characters.

When I approach a story, generally the characters come to me first. I write romance, so there are some things my Hero must have. Momma’s boys, short, no morals, weak of will or ego-driven men need not apply.

Heroine – Pretty much up to the author. I personally refuse to give voice to damsels in distress, clingy, needy types, martyrs, and drama queens.  Heaven save me from weak women!

For supporting characters the sky’s the limit so to speak. I have a lot of fun with my supporting characters.

The ‘complications’ or skills my characters have dictates the amount of research required to make them real.  Some of the complications/skills I have, so it comes pretty easy.  Other times they come to me with things I know nothing about.

How do you bake biscuits in a camp fire?  What would it be like to have the hopes of many rest on your shoulders?  How many miles can two riders and a pack animal travel in the Sierra Nevada?

All of these things add depth and reality to characters.  If your heroin loves and grows roses, please don’t tell me she has a miniature rose growing over an 8 ft arbor..that ain’t gonna happen, and she should know that.

How do you approach your characters, their quirks, skills and inner being? Do you get lost in research? Or find not much is required?

I Do Not Have Writer’s Block

My hero is running from a volcano and has been running from the dang thing for at least three months. I can hear him panting from exhaustion, but I sit at the computer and spend my words writing articles, leaving comments, sending emails. I have no words left to get him out of his predicament.

In the end, that’s why I write. Not for the fulfullment, not because of a compusion, but because the words gang up on me, using all available brain space. The only way to free myself is to let the words out. But the words I’m letting out now have to do with the mechanics of writing, and so my poor hero runs. And runs.

I thought for sure by getting guest bloggers to do my work for me that the words would begin to weigh heavy on my mind, but I wasted those words on other websites. And I used to be such a thrifty sort. 

I did come up with another idea for getting me back on track with my WIP: start another blog, one just to let my hero run free. Maybe I’ll post my research, notes on character, anything that pertains to the WIP. It seems like such a great idea, but here I am, planning to waste more words while not writing my novel.

But it could work. Especially if I can put one of those widgets on the site that shows how much of the book I’ve finished. Could shame me out of my not writer’s block.

On Writing: How To Use a Character Profile

Lately I’ve been coming across many different character-building worksheets, both online and in how-to-write books, but one point most fail to mention is how to use the biographies you create.

Knowing your characters’ families, friends, education, jobs, hobbies, strengths, weaknesses, goals, regrets, fears, desires, needs, might help you define your characters, but the real benefit of character biographies is to help you create the story.

It’s not enough simply to know what your hero believes, for example. If the belief doesn’t add anything important to the development of the story or the development of the hero’s character, it’s hardly worth mentioning. It’s not enough simply to know the hero’s background. If it isn’t important for the reader to know, if nothing is gained by its inclusion, if nothing is lost by its omission, then that, too, is barely worth mentioning.

On the other hand, if your story goes stale halfway through the book, you can mine both the hero’s beliefs and background for additional conflicts.

More than that, though, a well-constructed character biography can tell you what your story is and where it is going.

When you know your hero’s main goal, you will find the beginning of a plot line. When you know what will make the goal’s attainment the most difficult for the hero, you will find the central obstacle in the story. And when you know your hero’s greatest strength, you can figure out how your hero will eventually overcome the obstacle.

By exploiting your character’s greatest fear, you will be able to draw the most depth from your character because, of course, your hero must confront this fear or else you miss the point of your own story.

Through knowing your character’s weaknesses, regrets, needs, desires, vulnerabilities, you will find inner conflicts, subtexts, subplots, and all the bits of drama that pull readers into your world.

As your story progresses, you may find in your hero’s biography untapped wells of strength, previously undisclosed facts that might alter the situation, even characters from the hero’s past who might take unexpected and relevant action.

Most of all, a biography can help keep you focused on your character’s goals. It can help you avoid annoying little inconsistencies such as hazel eyes on page ten and blue or brown on page one hundred and ten. It can help you create a character arc because you will know which traits are static (an intelligent person doesn’t suddenly become stupid for no reason), and you will know which traits can show the character’s growth (perhaps a fear of commitment that becomes a willingness to commit).

But most of all, the biography tells you the story because character is so entwined with plot that it’s impossible to create one without the other.

Click here for a character questionaire to help you create a profile for your character.

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On Writing: The Name of the Game is “Hurt the Hero.”

I like my characters and don’t enjoy hurting them so my novels tend to focus on unraveling the mystery of the situation, because one thing I do understand is that at the heart of all books is a discovery. In a mystery, the discovery is the killer. In a romance, the discovery is love. In a character driven novel, the discovery is the nature of the character himself.

For the first time, though, I understand why the hero needs to be hurt. If the hero doesn’t hurt, why should we care? And if he doesn’t hurt, how would we ever discover his emotional core, what it is that he really cares about? When we discover what the character cares about, we care about him, and want to read to see how he reacts to the hurt and to find out what he is going to do to make it stop.

True character is revealed in the choices a person makes under pressure or when he is hurting or both. The greater the pressure, the deeper the revelation will be and the truer the choice to the character’s essential nature. Pressure is necessary. Choices made when nothing is at risk mean little.

In Worlds of Wonder: How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, David Gerrold wrote: “You need to ask yourself these questions in every situation. Asking these questions brings each scene to life: Why is the moment important? Where is the pain? Why does it hurt? And most important — what will make it worse?”

In life, experiences often become meaningful with reflection and time. In retrospect, a horrendous experience takes on an aura of excitement or even happiness because we remember being fully alive. In art, experiences are meaningful now, at the moment they are happening on the screen or in the novel. We can see instantly that the character is hurting, but we can also feel the excitement of the moment, the adrenaline rush. It all happens at once, the reflection and the experience, which explains why movies and books sometimes seem more real than life itself. Without the character hurting, however, the experience becomes muted, less real.

So: hurt the hero. I guess I’ll just have to learn to like it. Or at least learn how to do it well.

Your Mother-in-Law, the Sociopath

Anyone who writes crime fiction, especially novels about a serial killer, is familiar with the sociopathic personality. But not all sociopaths are killers. Some psychologists estimate that there are thirty thousand psychopaths who are not serial killers for every one who is. So who are these non-killing psychopaths? Your neighbor, perhaps, or your mother-in-law. Maybe even the psychologists who came up with the sociopathic profile. Possibly even you.

Abused children who were not born with a sociopathic personality usually grow up to lead normal lives. Sociopaths who were not abused usually grow up to lead normal lives or lives that mimic normalcy. Sociopaths sometimes become killers because of childhood abuse, and sometimes they become killers simply because they want to. (The killer in the Dutch version of The Vanishing was a classic sociopath who killed to see what it would feel like.)

Even if you don’t write crime fiction, familiarity with the sociopathic personality can help you create dynamic characters and even interesting dialogue. For example, sociopaths frequently use contradictory and illogical statements such as “I never touched her, and anyway, she wanted it.”

A sociopath has difficulty connecting to others, though people often like them. They are charming, glib, witty, and use captivating body language. Because of their impulsiveness, need for excitement, poor behavior controls, and lack of responsibility, they can be fun companions, but because they lack empathy, conscience, and remorse, they can never truly connect with anyone.

Other characteristics of the sociopath are shallow emotions, egocentricity, lying for no reason, no need to conform to societal standards, the skill to detect and exploit the weaknesses of others. They are also well satisfied with themselves, never looking back with regret or forward with concern.

One characteristic that keeps a sociopath from being a good fiction hero is that in fiction heroes need to change during the course of the novel, and sociopaths have solid personalities that are extremely resistant to outside influences. But, being the manipulative creatures that they are, they can make us believe they have changed.

Sounds to me like an interesting character. With or without the killing.

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