WHY DO WE LIKE QUIRKY CHARACTERS?
Is there a right way to develop a character?
Recently, I attended a writer’s workshop presented by the St. George 2014 Book Festival on the Dixie State University campus. Among many great presentations, I attended a class by Dean Hughes called An Effective Writing Process. Mr. Hughes has been writing for several decades and has published more than 100 books, both fiction and non-fiction, for all ages.
Mr. Hughes explained eight rules of writing. Rule One is don't start writing until you know the main characters. He said the story comes out of the characters, so invent each key character first.
Do a summary of each character’s life and personality--really get into the character’s head. Even though much of the character’s summary will never get into the story, a writer needs the summary to accurately and consistently describe what the character thinks, says and does, because that controls the direction the story will go.
By the way, one cure for writer’s block is to reanalyze (even rewrite) key character summaries. Another cure is to take a break and get something to eat.
Character development is a critical writing skill that is handled differently by different writers, but much of the strength of the story is built on the reader’s love (or hate) for the story’s key characters. What is the best way to create a protagonist that readers will bond with or an antagonist that readers will loathe? The correct answer depends on the writer’s personal style and writing skills.
Working together, my brother Andy and I are co-writing The Dimensions in Death series, a young-adult horror series--the third book, FATAL GREEN, comes out this year. As the story develops, I am fascinated by my brother’s thought processes and writing techniques. In connection with the issue of character development, Andy has shared the following insight into his personal style:
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A Few Thoughts on Character Development
(Or what I DID by the seat of my pants.)
By A. L. Washburn
Dissociative identity disorder (DID) is the technical name for what we laymen refer to as a multiple or split personality. It is a controversial diagnosis with some experts believing it is not real, or maybe even therapist induced. (Isn’t Wikipedia wonderful?) I bring this up, because I sometimes believe I may have a form of DID, though I have never seen a therapist. (I was going to say, “Where is the fun for a writer in having a mental disorder if you get it fixed?” but then I worried that someone with a real mental disorder would be offended, and yes, I think that people with mental disorders are the most likely readers of my stuff. Whatever.)
|Andy on the Fly|
Las Vegas NV Airport
When I’m writing, I believe I have multiple personalities all battling to get out, or at least take control of the writing process. And, most of these personalities, wait, no, all of these personalities are younger than me; healthier than me; and without a doubt, thinner and better looking than me. The sixteen year old personality is especially keen to take over. He must not have caught a look of me lately in the mirror.
It is from these disparate and distinct personalities that I form the characters I write about in my novels. To some extent or another, everyone I write about, or maybe I should say, everyone I write for is down inside my id somewhere. (Damn, I am esoteric!) So, when I write about different people I am really just writing about some part of myself. I am the young, good looking, high school football star, Cal. I am also the middle aged, overweight, balding, mean and obnoxious Mr. Samuel. (Both are characters in PITCH GREEN.)
In real life, I am not young or good looking, but neither am I mean or balding. I’m only a little obnoxious. But both these characters are inside me. I only need to bring them out and put them in the story to write about them. I am not writing about people I observe, though I love to observe people. I am writing about myself. No matter how different or unique each character is from the others, I’m there.
Of course, this begs the question: What about the female characters? (My sons will stop reading right exactly at this point.) If I were cool, and politically correct, I would claim to have female personalities along with male personalities. But I’m only cool, not politically correct, and no matter how deep I look inside me, I do not find a woman, or even any female-type being. My wife will confirm this.
This does not mean I cannot write for the women in my story. Women are people (which sounds so patronizing), and people overlap as people, so I don’t have a problem writing from a woman’s perspective, as long as I have women, like my wife and daughters, who read what I write and then tell me when I have it wrong.
|A microscopic view inside|
one of Andy's brain cells.
This means, analogous with the way I write for guys, when I write for women, I look out their eyes at the world that is being created for them. So, if I’m not part woman, (there are bullies from my high school days who claim otherwise), the women that I write about are part me. (I said I was esoteric.)
The way this works, evidently, is the guys I write for are looking out my eyes as I write. But as I write for the women, I am looking out their eyes. Weird, huh? But, that is the way it works, and for me, it works pretty well. So far, I like the characters that grow up on the pages of my stories.
Whether or not this means I have DID, I don’t know. Though it is probably indicative of a need to at least go to therapy. Yea, well, I’m still not going. Why mess with all those extra personalities? I need them to keep my id in balance as well as when I’m developing new story characters. After all, that’s how I write.
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Now, while drawing on multiple or split personalities may not work well for all writers, I agree with Andy that it doesn’t hurt to be a little bit crazy and that a whole lot of creativity can come out of being in touch with the crazy side of your own id.
Taking the character development process a step further, I got some good pointers in a class on Plot, Character and Conflict presented by Teri Harman at that same Book Festival workshop mentioned above. Ms. Harman has published a young-adult fiction series of magic and wonder (BLOOD MOON, BLACK MOON, and STORM MOON)) and writes a book column for ksl.com and contributes regular book segments to Studio 5.
She said that key characters (both good and bad) must be compelling in at least four fundamental ways. So, when you summarize a character’s life, as Mr. Hughes advises, be sure your summary includes strong descriptive words and in-depth explanations in each of the following four character categories:
1—Be REAL—create a whole person with real strengths and real flaws (give the person a balanced history with both good and bad experiences), maybe a person with poor coping skills in certain situations.
2—Be UNIQUE—create a personality that is different, quirky and interesting, and depending on whether your building a protagonist or antagonist, make a person who is fun or crazy, lovable or scary, timid or wild, etc.
3—Be FLAWED—create an emotional or moral expectation that exceeds the person’s current commitment level or capability to comply; allow the person to disappoint herself as well as others, but then allow the person to learn and grow.
4—Be COMPLICATED—create both an internal as well as external conflict of good and evil; allow the person to be spontaneous, out of character when under stress, surprised by her own actions in new situations.
In Andy’s esoteric musings above, he mentioned that he loves to observe people. So do I, especially when they’re unconsciously showing part of their crazy side. Next week we’ll speak to the benefits of people-watching as that might help us polish our character-development skills.