Interview With a Character — Part 2

Yesterday I posted a part of an interview I’d once done with the hero of my grieving woman book. Talking with a character like this is a good way of solidifying ideas, especially for finding out who the character is and what she wants. Here is another part of that interview:

Pat: David was always so busy, he never had much time for you, but did he have time for your daughter?

Amanda: He always managed to make time for our daughter Thalia, for which I’m thankful. She loved him very much, though she doesn’t seem to be grieving. But maybe it’s different for her. She’s a grown woman with a life of her own, so she’s not panicking about growing old alone, or worrying about money, or any of the other things that go along with grieving a spouse. But everyone’s grief is different, so she could be internalizing it. Also, she feels betrayed. Apparently, she knew I was having a cyber affair. She doesn’t understand. Heck, I don’t understand. Can you explain it to me?

Broken heartPat: Perhaps you were at a vulnerable time, grasping at life any way you could. Perhaps you needed someone to help you through the worst time of you life. Perhaps you really did think you’d moved on and didn’t realize you’d been denying what David’s death would mean to you. The best way to show yourself that he no longer meant everything to you was to find someone else who meant something to you.

Amanda: But I do love Sam. He isn’t just a replacement. And anyway, he can’t be a replacement. He’s married.

Pat: Yeah, I’m sorry for that, but there’s no way around it. I mean, I could make him single, but then there’d be no story. You’d go from David’s life to Sam’s. Period. No identity crisis. (Do they even call it an identity crisis anymore?) No coming of age story. No money problems.

Amanda: Seems good to me. After all, I’m the one who has to go through all that turmoil and grief. Alone. Hey! How come I don’t have any friends?

Pat: Maybe you were friends with other preacher’s wives. They are as busy as you once were and have little time for you. That seems to be a growing theme in the story — no time for Amanda. David had no time for you — he was too busy before he got ill, and afterward he became reclusive. Thalia has no time for you — she’s busy with her work and she’s angry at you. Sam doesn’t have much for you any more. And your friends have no time for you.

Amanda: That makes me seem pathetic. I don’t like feeling pathetic.

Pat: I don’t much like it, either. A pathetic hero is not much of a hero. Maybe I should throw more trauma your way.

Amanda: As if losing my husband, losing my daughter, and losing my home isn’t trauma enough. Maybe you could plan a trip for me to meet Sam. I’d sure like to get naked with him!

Pat: You would, you hussy.

Amanda: Not a hussy. Just a woman lost. A woman who doesn’t see herself as special yet who managed to find two great loves. It was fate’s joke that the two loves overlapped.

***

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.

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Interview With a Character

Three years ago when I was deep into my own grief, I started writing a book about a grieving woman. It’s been so long since I worked on the novel that while I remember the story, I don’t remember everything I wrote. Today I discovered something interesting. (Interesting to me, anyway.) Apparently one day I couldn’t think of anything to add to the story, so I interviewed the character. Here’s part of that interview:

Pat: Who are you?

Amanda: I don’t know. Isn’t that your job? To create me?

Pat: I was hoping you’d do it for me. Writers always talk about how their characters take over and do things the writers never intended. It’s never happened to me, but I thought perhaps this time things would be different.

Amanda: Different? Why?

Pat: Because you’re me. Or part me. The character of a grieving woman is based on me since I only know grief from my point of view, but the story is not my story. Well, it is my story since I’m writing it, but it’s not the story of my life. That part is made up, though I’m hoping some deeper truth will emerge from it.

Amanda: What sort of truth?

Pat: Hey! Who’s the interviewer here? I’m the one who’s supposed to be asking the questions.

Amanda: But you’re the one with the answers. So how can you be the one asking the questions? And anyway, you’re evading me. What sort of truth are you looking for?

Pat: The true sort. The universal sort. A truth that will mean something different to everyone who sees it.

Amanda: Clear as a bell.

Pat: Good thing you’re not the writer—clichés are so passé. But we’re getting off course here. Will people believe that a woman grieving her husband can love another man? Won’t they think that new love negates grief?

Amanda: Seems as if it’s your responsibility as a writer to make people believe what you want them to believe.

Pat: The problem is that you’re boring. How do I make you interesting? I mean, you sound like a whiner, always screaming, “I can’t do this.”

Amanda: But if you notice (and you should since you’re the one who wrote it), every time I say I can’t do something, I do it. Isn’t that the point you’re trying to make, that I don’t know who I am? That even though I’m in my fifties (cripes, couldn’t you have made me forty-something? Fifty sounds so old), I’m a chrysalis, or maybe I mean I’m in a chrysalis. I’ve been alive a lot of years, but never lived. I’ve defined myself by other people — first as a daughter, then wife, mother, and now cyber-lover. I need to learn how to define myself by myself, to find my home within me now that David’s death has stolen my home from me. He was my home, not the manse we lived in for the past fifteen years. I have to leave the manse, too, since I’m no longer the preacher’s wife. And anyway, the church is selling it.

Pat: I never asked you if you wanted to be a preacher’s wife. Would you rather be a different character? A cop, perhaps, or a CEO?

Amanda: I don’t know what I want to be — isn’t what the story is about? Me finding out who I am? A coming-of-age in middle age story? For that purpose, a preacher’s wife is as good as anything. Also could explain why I led such a sheltered life. A CEO probably wouldn’t have defined her life by her husband’s life. A preacher’s wife, by definition, defines her life by his.

Pat: I just thought of something — how about if I make you the preacher?

Amanda: Wouldn’t work story wise. I wouldn’t get kicked out of the manse when David died, I wouldn’t have defined my life by his, and I’d probably have been too busy to have an online affair. Until David got sick and was forced into idleness, he never had much time. I guess I’m stuck being the preacher’s wife until we can figure out who I will become.

***

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.

Foreshadowing and Backshadowing: Making Our Writing Seem Inexorable

I’m not one of those authors who are so overflowing with ideas that they can sit down and just let the words spew out of their fingers onto the page. I have to think of everything, which is why beginning a novel or creating a new character is so hard. I am faced with a universe of choices where all things are possible.

What am I going to write? How am I going to write it? First person or third? Sassy, sarcastic, serious? Who is going to be the main character? What does she most desire? Who or what is stopping her from fulfilling this desire? What does she look and act like? What are her internal traits, both her admirable ones and less admirable ones? Who are her allies? Who are her mentors?

askingAnd those choices lead to other choices. What does the character need? (As opposed to what she wants.) Is she going to get what she wants or is she going to get what she needs? For example, maybe she wants to be a homebody, to marry the boy next door, but what she and the story need are for her to become a senator and possibly leave the boy behind.

And so the choices continue, each choice narrowing the story’s universe a bit more.

One of the best parts of writing for me is when the weight of those choices become so great that the answer to future choices can be found in past ones. It gives the story a sense of inexorability, as if there were always only one way to tell the story.

For example, yesterday I wrote about creating a new character. Although Lydia was not originally my creation, but instead was an offscreen character created by Lazarus Barnhill in the first book of Rubicon Ranch, the serialization I am writing online with other Second Wind authors, I have adopted her as my own. Even if readers don’t remember who Lydia is, she will still pull the first book into the third, connecting them in a seemingly inexorable way, by making the sheriff confront his past. Ideally, it will seem as if this was our intention all along, with the first book foreshadowing the third when it is actually the third book backshadowing the first.

Lydia being a previously mentioned character narrows my choices, since she already has a name and a past, but there is still plenty of scope for choices. And in the end as in the beginning, writing is about the choices we make.

***

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.” All Bertram’s books are published by Second Wind Publishing. Connect with Pat on Google+

Getting Sass From My Character

Sometimes when I can’t think of where I am going with a story, I talk to my characters. Sort of. My characters don’t take on a life of their own — I am always aware they are my creations — but sometimes when I begin to make choices for a character, the character seems to be determining her own fate. If a character has a particular daughter, a particular problem, a particular job, then all those things bind the character and make her act a particular way.

In the case of poor Amanda, the hero of my newest work in progress (the one that got its start as a NaNoWriMo project), her life is bound by a dead husband, a rebellious twenty-something daughter, and an online lover she’s never met. Once a preacher’s wife with an entire support system, she now has to deal with everything on her own. In addition, she’s going to have to leave the parsonage where she’s lived for the past fifteen years, and she barely has enough energy to get out of bed in the morning. All these problems bind the poor woman, creating more dilemmas than she can handle. Still, with all her trauma, she seemed boring to me, so I sat her down and tried to find out why I am having a problem with her. Don’t know if I solved the problem of why I find her so boring, but at least I got a better understanding of who she is and where to go with the story.

Bertram: I can’t get into writing your story. You’re nothing special, just a woman grieving. Boring.

Amanda: Sam thinks I’m special and unique.

Bertram: Who’s Sam?

Amanda: Don’t you know?

Bertram: Of course I know. I created him. I just wondered if you knew.

Amanda: I know he’s a special man. We met online at a support group for people whose mates are dying of cancer. His wife and David—my husband—were both told they had three to six months to live. Having something so real to talk about cut through all the usual crap people go through when the meet, even online, so we got to know each other very quickly. And we fell in love. Took us both by surprise. Neither of us were looking for that, and we didn’t know you could develop such powerful feelings without ever having met.

Bertram: What happened to Sam’s wife?

Amanda: She rallied. Is in remission right now. Still not well, but doesn’t seem to be terminal. Sam is staying with her. We want to get together, but he lives halfway across the country. In Ohio. I need so much to feel his arms around me. I am stunned by the depth of my grief for David. I thought I was over him—he took such a long time to die, you see. Over a year. I thought I’d finished with my grief and moved on, but when he died, it felt as if I were dying, too. If I didn’t love Sam, I couldn’t have gone on.

Bertram: I don’t understand how you can love one man while mourning another.

Amanda: I don’t understand it either. Sam says I’m a complicated woman. He says that there’s a part of me that will always belong to him, a part David never knew. Apparently I need to men to fulfill me. Yet here I am . . . alone. And grieving.

Bertram: What part belongs to Sam?

Amanda: The passionate part. I always thought I was a passionless woman—I’d have to be, being David’s wife. He wasn’t much for sex. I think it had something to do with his childhood, something that happened to shape his life, but he never talked about it. I’ll find out, though—it’s important to the story. See, when I find out that he’s different from the man I knew, then I panic and wonder who I am. For most of my adult life, I defined myself by my relationship with him. He gave my life focus and meaning. Which is why finding out the truth about Davis is important. I need to know who he is so I can find out who I am.

Bertram: And who are you?

Amanda: I don’t know. Isn’t that your job, to create me?

You can read the entire conversation here: Pat Bertram Introduces Amanda Ray, Hero of a New Work-in-Progress

Would You Like Me to Interview Your Characters?

I am starting a new blog, Pat Bertram Introduces . . .  where I will be posting interviews with fictional characters. The first interview has been posted: Pat Bertram Introduces Siegfried Marggrander, close friend and brother-in-law of Gus LeGarde, of the LeGarde Mystery series, written by Aaron Lazar.

If you wish a character to be interviewed by Pat Bertram, please answer fifteen to twenty questions from the Character Questionaire Page and submit them in the comment section along with whatever links you’d like included. Be sure to answer in your character’s voice, and be sure you mention the title of the book and who wrote it. If an answer to a question is yes or no, please explain why. (Example: Do you run away from conflict? Yes. Why? I don’t like fighting. See, there was this time in third grade where I got in a fight and . . .) Feel free to include your own questions. The character interviewed does not have to be the hero. Even if you don’t want your character interviewed, you can ask your characters these questions to help you profile them.

  1. What is your story?
  2. Who are you?
  3. Where do you live?
  4. Are you the hero of your own story?
  5. What is your problem in the story?
  6. Do you have a problem the wasn’t mentioned in the story?
  7. Do you embrace conflict?
  8. Do you run from conflict?
  9. How do you see yourself?
  10. How do your friends see you?
  11. How do your enemies see you?
  12. How does the author see you?
  13. Do you think the author portrayed you accurately?
  14. What do you think of yourself?
  15. Do you have a hero?
  16. Do you have a goal?
  17. What are your achievements?
  18. Do you talk about your achievements?
  19. Do you keep your achievements to yourself?
  20. Do you have any special strengths?
  21. Do you have any special weaknesses?
  22. Do you have any skills?
  23. Do you have money troubles?
  24. What do you want?
  25. What do you need?
  26. What do you want to be?
  27. What do you believe?
  28. What makes you happy?
  29. What are you afraid of?
  30. What makes you angry?
  31. What makes you sad?
  32. What do you regret?
  33. What is your biggest disappointment?
  34. What, if anything, haunts you?
  35. Are you lucky?
  36. Have you ever failed at anything?
  37. Has anyone ever failed you?
  38. Has anyone ever betrayed you?
  39. Have you ever failed anyone?
  40. Have you ever betrayed anyone?
  41. Do you keep your promises?
  42. Are you honorable?
  43. Are you healthy?
  44. Do you have any handicaps?
  45. Do you have any distinguishing marks?
  46. What was your childhood like?
  47. Do you like remembering your childhood?
  48. Did anything newsworthy happen on the day you were born?
  49. Did you get along with your parents?
  50. What in your past had the most profound effect on you?
  51. What in your past would you like to forget?
  52. What in your past would you like others to forget?
  53. Who was your first love?
  54. Who is your true love?
  55. Have you ever had an adventure?
  56. What is the most important thing that ever happened to you? Why?
  57. Was there a major turning point in your life?
  58. Was there ever a defining moment of your life?
  59. Is there anything else about your background you’d like to discuss?
  60. What is your most closely guarded secret?
  61. What is your most prized possession? Why?
  62. Do you have any hobbies?
  63. What is your favorite scent? Why?
  64. What is your favorite color? Why?
  65. What is your favorite food? Why?
  66. What is your favorite beverage? Why?
  67. What is your favorite music? Why?”
  68. What is your favorite item of clothing? Why?
  69. Name five items in your purse, briefcase, or pockets.
  70. What are the last five entries in your check registry?
  71. What are the last three books you read?
  72. If you were at a store now, what ten items would be in your shopping cart?
  73. If you had the power to change one thing in the world that didn’t affect you personally, what would it be?
  74. What makes you think that change would be for the better?
  75. If you were stranded on a desert island, would you rather be stranded with, a man or a woman?
  76. How do you envision your future?

The Meaning of Gestures

My guest blogger today is . . . me! I’ve been getting so many authors to host that I feel like a guest on my own blog. Inviting authors to guest might have started out as a generous gesture, but it turned out to be entirely self-indulgent. It’s like school: having a more advanced student do your homework and not getting in trouble for it.

Most gestures have meanings, and as writers, we need to know what that meaning is so we can have our characters use the gesture properly, either to work for or against the character. For example, open palms generally connote that the person or character has nothing to hide, but a liar can purposely show his palms in order to hide his lying nature. Animated hands show that the character is interested in the other person, or they say that the character is running a con, wanting you to think he’s interested. Psychopaths use expansive gestures, which disarm those they come in contact with, but as we know, psychopaths have no interest in anyone but themselves. Shoulder and head turned sideways means disinterest, but can also be a symptom of a crick in the neck.

Other common gestures and positions:

Clammy hands show nervousness.
Open hands show friendliness.
Hidden hands show guilt.
Biting the fingernails shows nervousness.
Gripping the arms of a chair can show nervousness or anger.
Fists show defensiveness or aggression depending on how they are used.
Hands to cheek show pensiveness.
Ankles locked mean withholding information.
Fingers in front of the face mean the character has something to hide.
Fingers drumming show nervousness or boredom.
Hands spread show openness.
Legs stretched out mean shame.
Sudden gestures connote threat.
Leaning forward shows interest.

One final note: Tapping feet show nervousness or lying, which could be why people in a position of power need big desks. They don’t want anyone to see those constantly moving feet.

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Making a Character Come Alive

Even though I never planned to enter another writing contest, I did. It’s a local one, nothing major, but the concept intrigued me: the first 650 words of a novel. I could have submitted something I’d already started, but I liked the idea of baiting a hook without having to figure out what comes next.

To my surprise, that character in that hook really came alive for me, which is more than the hero in my work-in-progress has done. The character in the contest entry is a bumbler, an artist who barely knows the difference between a brush and a broom, and this disparity between reality and the character’s self-concept has made her real.

According to psychologist Prescott Lecky (1892-1941), people can only be true to themselves. Individuals will behave in a way that is consistent with their self-concept, even if this behavior is unrewarding to them or inconsistent with reality, and people will do anything to preserve this self-concept.

And that is why the hero of my work-in-progress is not coming alive to me: he is not alive to himself. He has no self-concept. A novel is filtered through the senses, emotions, and point of view of a major character. And it is filtered through the character’s concept of himself. For example, a character who sees himself as a loner will not, perhaps, accept a proffered helping hand when needed, where a character who sees himself as part of a community might feel entitled to that same help.

So how does my hero see himself? He identifies more with animals than humans, so he probably sees himself as a lone wolf who is self-sufficient and needs no one. This would fit with his need for freedom, his defining characteristic. It would also explain why, when he meets his mentor, he watches the man leave without any thought of accompanying him, and why, when he meets the crone, he doesn’t recognize the subconscious need for family she raises in him.

I haven’t yet read the finished chapters with this in mind, but there’s a chance I won’t need to make any revisions. It could be that this change — knowing the character’s self-concept — is merely for me, a new way of seeing him, a new way of making him come alive.

And now, because the character in the contest entry is also alive, I have two books that I’m not writing.

Creating a Character — Part VI

The second half of a book is easy for me to write — I know the characters, their backstories and motivations — but I have trouble with the front part. My poor hero, Chip, has been running from a volcano for the past month while I’ve been trying to figure out who he is, what I need him to be, and what he needs to become.

According to Robert McKee in Story, “The most fascinating characters have a conscious desire and a contradictory unconscious desire. What he believes he wants is the antithesis of what he actually but unwittingly wants. (Although the protagonist is unaware of their subconscious need, the audience senses it, perceiving in them an inner contradiction.)”

After the volcano incident, Chip is going to meet an archetypal crone who was supposed to get him to thinking that now he wants a family (this after I’ve killed off almost everyone in the world and despite his need to be free) but it’s too soon in the book for him to want that. It would change the way he interacts with his mate when he finally meets her, which means it has to be a subconscious desire the old woman invokes in him, which changes my perception of the story, which means my WIP comes to a crashing halt while I rethink Chip’s wants and needs. And there he is, running from the volcano, waiting for me to figure him out so he can move on to the next disaster.

If a character wants something he himself doesn’t know he wants, it brings out different facets of personality than if he does know what he truly wants. The secret is to give character hints for the reader to pick up on without the author (or an authoritative character) explaining it. Much of reading is subconscious. We notice things without realizing we are noticing them.

Robert McKee also wrote: “The revelation of true character in contradiction to characterization (the sum of all observable qualities) is fundamental to all fine storytelling. What seems is not what is. People are not what they appear to be. A hidden nature waits concealed behind the facade of traits.”

If Chip doesn’t know what he truly wants until he gets it, it also will add a different dimension to the theme, which is freedom vs. safety. He first chooses freedom, next he chooses incarceration and saftey, then he chooses the excitement and danger of freedom over the boredom of safety, finally he chooses responsibility, a different facet of freedom.

By giving Chip an inner character in contradiction to his outer one, he should become a richer character which in turn will allow the story to explore all the facets of the theme rather than the rather simplistic one of freedom vs. safety.

Now all I have to do is get the poor guy away from that volcano or else there will be no story.

Creating a Character — Part I

Creating a Character — Part II

Creating a Character — Part III

Creating a Character — Part IV

Creating a Character — Part V

How Do You Create Characters That Readers Will Fall In Love With?

The main reason editors give for rejecting my work (when they give a reason) is that they didn’t fall in love with my characters as they had hoped. This puzzles me because I have never fallen in love with any character I have read. I’ve liked some, found some interesting, but love? No.

I know what makes good characters — their strengths, their vulnerabilities, their flaws — but are these the things that make us love them? All I know is that I don’t like characters that have purposely been given flaws; they seem contrived and clichéd, like the boozing cop or the mother who can’t communicate with her teen-ager. Such purposeful flaws remind me of the Persian flaw. Supposedly, the Persian carpet makers put a flaw in every carpet because only God can be perfect; what that says to me is that they thought they were so perfect that they had to try to be imperfect, but such arrogance in itself is a flaw so they weren’t perfect after all.

I always wondered about that flaw in the carpet. I think the flaw come first and the rationale second. Can’t you just see the carpet maker in his stall at the bazaar telling an aggressive haggler, “No, ma’am, I can’t bring the price down any further. A flaw? What flaw? Oh, that. It’s not a flaw, it was put there on purpose because . . . because . . .only God is perfect. Yes, that’s it.”

But I digress.

I do know that interesting characters make interesting stories, not the other way around. And how you make characters interesting is to make them come alive by giving them traits that are a bit more exaggerated than real life. Who wants to read about a character who sits around watching television all the time, or who repeatedly has the same tiresome argument with their child, or who can’t resolve their problems? We deal with that every day. We don’t need to read about it. On the other hand, if the traits are too idealized, characters come across as comic book silly.

So how do you create characters that readers will fall in love with? I don’t know. Sometimes while writing this blog I can figure out the answer to a question that’s troubling me, but not today. Sorry. I’ll let you know when I do figure it out.

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Creating a Character — Part V

Interesting characters make interesting stories, not the other way around. Cardboard cutouts and comic book heroes serve the needs of many popular books today, but I want more than that for my current work. A tongue-in-cheek apocalyptic novel, it could easily dissolve into foolishness without a well-developed character to give it credibility. During my last few posts, I have been profiling this character, but he is still not fleshed out. He needs physical characteristics, though not all characters are defined by the way they look. If I remember correctly, Mark Twain never described Huckleberry Finn.

Does it matter what my character looks like? I won’t know for sure until I start writing the book, but I doubt it. He is an ordinary guy who becomes extraordinary because of all he endures. Now that I think about it, that is the basic plot of all of my books, and one I never get tired of reading or writing. I realize that to sell in this tight market, a book has to immediately capture the attention of an agent, an editor, a reader, and to do that you need more than an average guy. But I am so tired of reading about gutsy females, stone-cold business executives, leftover war heroes, beaten-down cops, bitchy/successful/beautiful/rich women, muscle-bound gunslingers, that an average guy suits me and my story just fine.

My main characters all tend to be stoic, which make them seem unbelievable or standoffish. Most people like to experience emotions vicariously, and if characters react stoically, it makes it hard for readers to identify with them. So I need a character tag: a habit or trait that helps Chip stand out from the page. It’s a simple thing, but I decided he likes candy — not just any candy, but something specific like licorice or butterscotch. He always carries a few pieces with him, and then one day not long after the world ends, he reaches into his pocket for a candy that isn’t there. This, more than anything else he has experienced, tells him that the world he knew is gone, and his stoicism slips. Does he cry? Scream? Have a temper tantrum? Throw things?

I don’t know. I guess we’ll find out after I write the book.