Tag Archives: characters

Words Of Ernest Hemingway

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Nobel Prize winner Ernest Hemingway is seen as one of the great American 20th century novelists, and is known for works like ‘A Farewell to Arms’ and ‘The Old Man and the Sea.’
Born on July 21, 1899, in Cicero (now in Oak Park), Illinois, Ernest Hemingway served in World War I and worked in journalism before publishing his story collection In Our Time. He was renowned for novels like The Sun Also RisesA Farewell to ArmsFor Whom the Bell Tolls, and The Old Man and the Sea, which won the 1953 Pulitzer. In 1954, Hemingway won the Nobel Prize. He committed suicide on July 2, 1961, in Ketchum, Idaho.

Hemingway left behind an impressive body of work and an iconic style that still influences writers today. His personality and constant pursuit of adventure loomed almost as large as his creative talent.

When asked by George Plimpton about the function of his art, Hemingway proved once again to be a master of the “one true sentence”: “From things that have happened and from things as they exist and from all things that you know and all those you cannot know, you make something through your invention that is not a representation but a whole new thing truer than anything true and alive, and you make it alive, and if you make it well enough, you give it immortality.”

In August 2018, a 62-year-old short story by Hemingway, “A Room on the Garden Side,” was published for the first time in The Strand Magazine. Set in Paris shortly after the liberation of the city from Nazi forces in 1944, the story was one of five composed by the writer in 1956 about his World War II experiences. It became the second story from the series to earn posthumous publication, following “Black Ass at the Crossroads.”

 

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Resources:

Image: https://medium.com/@Reedsy/30-inspiring-writing-quotes-from-famous-authors-ca601bfa5915

https://www.biography.com/people/ernest-hemingway-9334498

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Mystery Genre Workshop Part Two: Mysterious Characters

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When someone mentions “mystery novel” what image comes to mind? The cloaked Sherlock Holmes, the wax mustache of Hercule Poirot, the trenchcoated Columbo, the clever Jessica Fletcher, Clarice Starling’s strength, the gritty Harry Bosch, or— any number of detectives that leap from the pages of our favorite mystery stories.

Why? Simple, the writers and screenwriters made them memorable.

As discussed in the previous article on plot, many writing “experts” debate whether a novel is plot driven or character driven. I believe both must be present. An excellent plot will not save a poorly written character, nor will an excellent character save a poorly written plot. Writers need both.

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Attributes of Mystery Characters

What makes a strong and identifiable protagonist in a mystery story?

The answer is the same components that create any good character. The reader must empathize with your main character’s goal and become vested in the same desire to achieve the goal. The protagonist needs to be multi-dimensional, and that complexity can be obtained by providing the reader with recognizable attributes. Creating a complex and compelling protagonist and applying these traits to secondary characters as well adds depth to the story.

Let’s first talk about characterization, a process that displays the character’s persona.

Developmental Strategies

General Characteristics

  • Physical Description: Convey to your reader only what you want them to see. Do not assign a grocery list of hair color, eye color, height, etc. but weave descriptions into the story. Allow your character to have a flaw—a scar, a crooked eyebrow, an old sports injury that flares up at times. Perfection is not realistic.
  • Personality: Is your character open to experience or resistant, conscientious or untrustworthy, an extrovert or introvert, agreeable or disagreeable, neurotic or even-keeled?
  • Interaction: How do they behave with others? Do they relate to people positively or negatively, or do they feel superior or indifferent? Do they have a sense of humor? Are they at times sarcastic? Are people comfortable in their presence?
  • Mannerisms: Do they gesture when they talk, twirl hair through their fingers? Do they tap a surface with their fingers or a pen? Give your character a quirk. Annoying or appealing, mannerisms add depth.
  • Environment/Culture: Your character’s living conditions reveal a great deal about them. Are they tidy or messy? What kind of car do they drive or food do they prefer? Does your character have a passion for the arts, or sports, or reading or are they committed to their job?
  • Communication: How your character speaks brings them to life. If they have an accent use it (do not overdo jargon) to add depth. Vary their speech pattern from the norm when they are nervous or happy. Include the character’s inner-thoughts to bring intimacy between the character and the reader.
  • Names: A character’s name can be very telling. It can provide insight into their background, profession, or where they come from. Choose names that will provide insight into who the character is. A judge would not likely be called Junior in the courtroom, a prostitute Elizabeth on the streets.

 Sleuth Specific Attributes

While these attributes are also vital to other genres, a detective—professional or amateur—often possesses these traits.

  • Intelligence, excellent deductive reasoning skills.
  • Experienced and knowledgeable, either as a law enforcement professional or in the case of an amateur sleuth a comprehensive knowledge of some component of the crime.
  • Are often loners, misunderstood, not comfortable in social situations, yet only the reader might be aware of this aspect. They often do not trust others.
  • May experience a physical or psychological challenge, an addiction or phobia.
  • Often have an experience in their past that either disrupted their personal life or impacted their career.
  • Has a foil to play off, someone who is their opposite but not necessarily their enemy such as a by the book superior.
  • Possesses a strong sense of justice but doesn’t always play by the rules to achieve their goals.
  • Willing to risk everything to solve the crime even if their reputation is at stake.

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When considering a list of traits such as this, it is evident that creating a compelling character is a complex but worthwhile task. Readers are drawn to a story by the plot, but they return to read an author’s other book or series of books because they identify with the characters within and empathize with their desires. The attributes discussed can be utilized by characters in any genre, and all do not need to be present in every character, but the more complicated—and human—you make your protagonist, the stronger the bond with the reader.

Characters, whether in a mystery story or other genre, should want something so badly that they will risk all to achieve it. They carry burdens of secrets from their past they don’t want to confront, but those secrets make them vulnerable. When you can create a character that becomes a reflection of the hopes and fears of your reader, then you have achieved your job as a writer.

 

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Deborah Ratliff: We Just Click, Dude!

How a deep connection between characters engages your reader.

 
“What is a friend? A single soul dwelling in two bodies.”    ― Aristotle

A writer recently posted a question in a group discussion. What causes a reader to return to subsequent novels by an author? He wondered if the author and their writing style was the reason.

I have heard this question many times, and I think that while an author’s style is important to a reader, what brings a reader back repeatedly is how the author crafts characters.

Once at a meeting of a writing group, we were discussing the merits of writing a novel series and what would cause readers to continue to follow the books. A local playwright listened to this discussion before pounding the table. He declared that there was only one reason a reader came back: the characters. Provide a character that a reader can identify with, care about, connect to, and they will respond and read everything you write about that character.

This is true for me personally. The first author and character I became enamored with were John D. McDonald and the infamous Travis McGee. Everything about his books drew me in. The main setting, the coast of South Florida, remains a favorite to this day. Every detail, the ancient Rolls Royce McGee converted into a pick-up truck, the houseboat he won in a poker game, the marina where the boat docked, all characters within the novels. But that alone did not bring me back.

Travis McGee was larger than life. A man of honor with a strong moral center who, while he would bend the rules to accomplish his goals, never lost sight of the truth and what was right. He was reliable, counted on to help people when they had exhausted all other possibilities to undo a wrong. I think we all want that level of stability and strength in our lives.

McDonald didn’t stop with his main character. He created a world of characters that existed from novel to novel. McGee’s best friend, the economist Meyer, was unique, along with a cast of colorful and eccentric characters. From Chookie, who danced at a local club, to The Alabama Tiger, who held a constant floating party on his boat, these characters became old friends. The last Travis McGee novel may have been the saddest book I have ever read. My friends were gone. There would be no new adventures.

However, that instant connection I had with McGee and company will never leave. I read those books over often and feel nostalgia and peace simultaneously. Once you have felt that connection whether in real life or in your imaginary life that feeling will never leave.

The question then becomes this. How do writers craft characters that readers can connect with at the desired level? Let us examine what makes a character memorable.

 

Who is this person?

You must establish your main character as likable and relatable. They do not have to be perfect but do need to have characteristics the reader can identify with, or there will be no connection.

An important consideration is not to stereotype your character. Perfection is not the goal here, realism is. The reader wants to see someone who is strong and heroic but with flaws that they have themselves. Then they can project themselves into the action. Remember, Indiana Jones was afraid of snakes.

Construct your character through show and tell, don’t provide a litany of characteristics. If your character is short (which I identify with) frame the description as “she stretched to reach the top shelf” not she was five-one. The reader will have experienced the reaching or watched someone who did and identify without an exact reference to the character’s height and create an image in their imagination.

Above all, reveal your character’s flaws. Are they afraid of new love because of hurt in the past? Are they devastated or angry because of a tragedy? Did they lose everything and have to start over? Show the fears they feel, the pain and anger. You should also give them a reason for hope—a faith that they will survive and reach their goal. Give them humor and confidence, even if you shake it from time to time. Let them laugh, cry, rant, and fight for what they want. Your reader should be cheering for your character to succeed with every word.

 

What are they seeking?

Establish your MC’s goal as soon as possible. What do they want? Once you have established the task before them, throw obstacles in their way. Create the need for the reader to become engaged in their quest. We have all wanted something we seemingly can’t have, and as problem after problem piles on, we think we will never reach our goal. Let the reader feel that frustration, fear, anger as they fight through the issues keeping them from their goals.

 

Who are their companions?

As with the Travis McGee series, secondary characters are significant to how your reader identifies with your main character and invests in the story. They need to be memorable as well.

I wrote a story where I introduced a character, a bartender in the New Orleans French Quarter, who was meant to be a vehicle for my protagonist to run into her former lover. Within two paragraphs, I had fallen for the bartender, and he morphed into a cousin and best friend of the former lover and became an integral part of the plot. The story became more vibrant with more depth because I added a character who had a vested interest in the outcome.

Create the friend, the mentor, the grandmother, the housekeeper, whatever character you need to help you present your MC’s human side. Someone who recognizes their flaws and is not afraid to tell them. Someone they can confess their thoughts to, someone they trust. With each interaction between these characters, the reader will become more attached to the main character.

 

What does this effort give you, the author?

Going back to our original question, why do readers return to a writer, they come back because they like the characters.

They “just click” with them. Standalone stories with great characters will bring readers back to an author. A series of novels with the same character succeeds because, while writing style may have allowed them to enjoy the first novel, readers will want to read the second and third and so on because you gave them a character who reflects their desires and one they can identify with time and again.

Never forget how it felt to instantly connect to someone important in your life. A good author will give that incredible emotion to their readers. Those readers will be back for more.

 

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Deborah Ratliff is Southerner with saltwater in her veins and love of writing. A career in science and human resources provided the opportunity to write policies/procedures and training manuals, articles, and newsletters but her lifelong love of mystery novels beckoned. Deborah began writing mysteries and her first novel, Crescent City Lies will be published shortly with a second novel, One of Those Days to follow. Deborah regularly contributes articles on writing to the blog, Writers Unite! and serves as an administrator on the Facebook writing site, Writers Unite! which has 43,000 + members from around the globe.

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Resources:

https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/18077-what-is-a-friend-a-single-soul-dwelling-in-two

https://www.goodreads.com/series/52264-travis-mcgee

https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0082971/

Fantasy Genre: Characters Verisimilitude

 

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Fantasy Characters: Verisimilitude

Since we are discussing characters, let’s talk about the most important tool an author can utilize when dealing with character development…

Verisimilitude!

Verisimilitude, defined as the appearance of being true or real, is the author’s ability to make the character seem real. “How do I make my characters seem real,” you might ask. Your character should seem just as real to you as your best friend. You should know them like you know yourself. Make them unique, give them quirks, flaws, and traits. Give them jobs, families, and friends. To truly convey your character in a way that seems real, you must understand who that character is. Deborah has been kind enough to cover your crucial character types and some of the traits that make your characters stand out from the rest so, let’s dig a little deeper into the character’s and how detailing their profession can add considerable depth to a character.

 

Professions: In literature as a whole, people love reading about work, especially if it’s a job that they have been exposed to. This is just as important to a fantasy novel. You may not be able to write about jobs that are directly identifiable with the reader. Let’s face it unless it’s an Urban Fantasy, your Protagonist won’t be working behind the counter of a local McDonald’s.

However, you can still add a sense of realism to the professions included in your fantasy. Do some research into jobs that were held hundreds of years ago. Compare what you know about fantasy to what they were doing in the real world. We all know what a blacksmith is but, do you know what a quartermaster is? Do you know about the smithing process? The heat treat and the quench of the blade are crucial to the hardness, and its ability to keep an edge. It’s adding small detail like this into your work that really makes your story stand out. It also gives you credibility with the reader. Trust me, if you.re talking about a profession that actually exists in the real world you want to have your facts straight. Being an author means opening yourself to constant scrutiny by your peers and the public. They will be all too happy to point out any mistakes you have in your details. This is not meant to discourage you but, to help you add the sense of realism that readers are looking for when they want to totally immerse themselves in your world.

What about professions that don’t exist in the real world? No, your protagonist won’t be working the drive-thru but, they might be an apprentice to a wizard or a master of potions. They could be a demon hunter, or maybe they are something we’ve never seen before. Regardless of the profession, all professions have rules and a lifestyle that comes with it. Compare your profession to real-world professions and find similarities. Find common complaints that your character might have about the work. Maybe your character absolutely loves his job but, doesn’t make a great living doing it. Put yourself in their shoes and see what they would be doing on a day to day basis. Would a sorcerer’s apprentice just hold things and watch his master perform magic? No! He would have to have detailed knowledge of the spell components his master needs and the properties of each. He would be charged with keeping the wizard’s study clean and organized. He would file all the books and scrolls for his master as well as run errands as needed. Again, it’s the small details that you add that make a profound impact on the immersive nature of your world.

Can you overdo it? Of course, you can! You don’t want to add small details to every little thing that your reader encounters in your book, or you’ll end up with a 2,000-page tome with step by step instructions on everything from blacksmithing to knitting. Details are important but, it’s the finesse that they are delivered with that make an author stand out. Your characters, your world is completely your own. You should know as much as you possibly can about them to deliver a real experience of suspended disbelief.

 

Smithy

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Resources:

https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/verisimilitude

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Since Adam Johnson was a child, he had an insatiable craving for a great story. Whether movies, comic books, TV, he was hooked on the story. An invitation to play Dungeons and Dragons led Adam to write a backstory of one of the characters, and the desire to write fantasy was born. When not writing high fantasy, Adam is restaurant management and a tattoo artist. He also serves as an administrator for the Facebook group, “Writer’s Unite!,” with 41,000 + members from around the world.

Writers Unite!:    https://www.facebook.com/groups/145324212487752/

The Fantasy Genre: Characters

The Fantasy Genre

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Fantasy Characters

 

“just because a mage wears the black robes does not make him evil.” 
― Margaret Weis

 

Fantasy characters. The moment we begin to think about them I suspect images of characters from our favorite books, movies, or cartoons begin to rise from our memories. Could be a witch or wizard, a dragon or troll, a superhero or an evil stepmother that reminds us of our favorite story. The question is not which character we remember but why. What characteristics of a fantasy character makes them memorable?

Fantasy stories are rarely simple. They are an incredible tale of the impossible told on an epic scale. With such a grand story there must be characters that are equally majestic. They form the core of your story and the conduit to complete the quest.

Overall, our main characters, the protagonist, and antagonist regardless of genre are the hooks we use to draw our readers into our realm. If we don’t provide a character that a reader can identify with the reader loses interest. In a fantasy, while there may be several main characters, the focus will always be on the one character who faces the ultimate conflict. Secondary characters also hold a very important role in the story. In addition to providing support for the main character, they carry subplot arcs to drive the story to its conclusion.

The Protagonist

The most important character in any story is the protagonist. If your reader does not identify with the protagonist, the quality of the story and other characters won’t matter. It is imperative to capture your reader’s heart for them to become engaged.

The protagonist is the hero, and in fantasy as in other genres, this character should possess the strength of soul and determination. Their commitment to the story’s goal and how they deal with conflict and obstacles in their path drives the narrative. Your hero should be flawed, hold secrets, be at times uncertain and afraid. The more human and ordinary the character is the more endeared they become to the reader.

Fantasy adds another level to the protagonist’s abilities, magic. Decide how your character will reveal their powers or skills or react to magic if they do not have powers. Is this quest the hero’s destiny or was he drawn in by accident? Does your character have a dark side, something that must be quelled to complete their task?

This is fantasy. Allow the magical tone of your story to flow through your protagonist.

The Antagonist

Ah, the evil genius. But should your antagonist be entirely evil? The answer is no. It is easy to assign only vile characteristics to a villain. Resist the temptation. As you give your protagonist flaws, give your villain some qualities that your reader can identify with as well. Remember, the villain thinks his motivation is correct. By giving your villain a reason for his evil ways, you bring depth to his actions. Weaving the villain into the lives of the protagonist and his sidekicks also strengthens the power of the antagonist to create greater conflict.

Secondary Characters

There will be sidekicks. There must be sidekicks. They provide a support network and are needed to show the human and vulnerable side of your hero. These characters may not always be physically with the protagonist, but they are an integral part of the story. In fantasy, the variety of characters is boundless and the more imaginative, the more interest for your readers. Think Muggles and Hobbits and dragons and begin to create.

Among the secondary characters you will find the following:

Best Friend: A single secondary character who is a confidant, loyal to a fault, someone, who would give their life for the hero. To create a stronger bond between hero and best friend add depth by disagreement, estrangement, competitiveness, or humor. Placing the best friend in mortal danger often provides the catalyst for the hero to grow and face the conflicts ahead.

Mentor: A classic figure in fantasy, the mentor gives guidance and educates the hero as he follows his destiny. The mentor, who may have magical powers or wisdom, could be someone familiar or a stranger, the relationship strained or close. At some point in the story for the hero to prove they have grown and no longer need their mentor, there could be an emotional parting of the ways.

Romantic Interest: We all love a good romance, and the fantasy genre is no different. A love interest also humanizes the protagonist, adding another layer to the hero’s vulnerability. Often a romantic partner can serve to challenge the hero to remain committed to the quest despite whatever adversities are encountered. Do not make the romance larger than life or it will overshadow the ultimate quest, keep the relationship grounded and real.

 In truth, these characters minus a magic spell or two, are characters found in any genre. The differences are often in the minute details. Be inventive, allow some characters not to be traditional. Never lose sight of the world you have created and allow your characters to reveal the magic it holds to your readers.

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Resources:

https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/tag/fantasy-fiction

https://www.jkrowling.com/

https://www.tolkiensociety.org/

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Deborah Ratliff is a Southerner with saltwater in her veins and love of writing. A lifelong mystery fan, her first novel, Crescent City Lies will be published soon and a second novel, One of Those Days to follow. She has also written numerous articles on writing. Deborah serves as an administrator for the Facebook group, “Writer’s Unite!,” with 41,000 + members from around the world.

 

Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/D-A-Ratliff-594776510682937/notifications/

Blog; https://thecoastalquill.wordpress.com/

 

 

WU! Workshop: Fantasy Genre

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The Fantasy Genre

 

According to “Cliffnotes,” Fantasy fiction is a genre of writing in which the plot could not happen in real life (as we know it, at least).

As “Cliffnotes” is wont to do, a very succinct description. Factual but an injustice to this wonderous genre. The very word conjures up mysterious adventures, characters, creatures and most of all magic. Fantasy is a tale about the impossible.

The fantasy genre is part of speculative fiction which includes science fiction, superhero fiction, and horror/paranormal fiction. These speculative subsets differ from fantasy in one major component, plausibility. The characteristics of these genres need to reflect a familiar world. We measure the concept of space travel against our knowledge of physics. To have a superhero character, people of “normal” abilities must exist. Fantasy does not need that restriction. Trees can talk. Horses can fly. And magic exists.

Neil Gaiman in Stories: All New Tails writes, “I love the word ‘fantasy’… but I love it for the almost infinite room it gives an author to play: an infinite playroom, of a sort, in which the only boundaries are those of the imagination.” 

Fantasy need not be realistic. However, there are common characteristics that must be present.

Characteristics of the Fantasy Genre 

  • Magic: Fantasy must include a system of magic and that system have established rules that are followed. This element of the story alone separates fantasy from other genres. Creating a unique magical system is one way to set a story apart from others. Remember, magic is a character in your story, create a memorable one.
  • Characters: The development of characters, while very important in all genres, is paramount in fantasy. The scope of a fantasy story lends itself to larger than life characters and to quite a few of them. While you will always have your hero and evil villain, you may have many main characters and strong secondary characters to drive the story.
  • The Challenge: The core of your story is the challenge facing your characters. Conflicts that both drive them toward and keeps them from their goals create tension and interest in your reader. With an extensive cast of characters, conflict can be internal, between friends or between enemies. To create a cohesive story, there should be one arcing storyline which includes all your characters striving for the same goal.
  • Environment: Where does your story exist? When you create your imaginary world consider its terrain, flora and fauna, its social structure, educational systems, entertainment, military, and how it is governed. The more intricate you construct your world, the more drawn your reader will be to it.

In addition to these basic characteristics, fantasy also has many sub-genres, each of which brings unique characteristics of their own. Marcy Kennedy compiled a list of the most popular fantasy subgenres on her webpage, www.marcykennedy.com.

Fantasy Sub-genres:

Historical Fantasy – Historical fantasy takes place in a recognizable historical time period and in a real-world location. This sub-genre encompasses things like the King Arthur legends and Robin Hood. It’s more about how the author plays with history, myth, and legend than it is about magic.

Epic Fantasy – Epic fantasies are what most people think of when they hear “fantasy.” They’re defined by a large cast of characters, multiple POVs, and complex plots. They’re set in a fictional world, and the plot often revolves around the rise and fall of kingdoms. The ultimate epic fantasies are George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice series and J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Urban Fantasy – First of all, urban fantasy is set in a primarily, well, urban/city setting. You can’t set your fantasy in a medieval-esque pastoral setting and call it “urban fantasy.” It’s darker, grittier than most other fantasy, and you’ll usually find it populated with demons, vampires, werewolves, witches (not the Harry Potter kind), or zombies. Kelly Gay’s The Better Part of Darkness is an urban fantasy example. Urban fantasy is often confused with paranormal romance. While they can and do often have blurry lines, the best way to tell them apart is to ask if the core conflict is about two people falling in love. If the main focus of the story is on the relationship, then it’s a paranormal romance. If the main focus of the story is somewhere else, on some other conflict, even if it has a romantic subplot, it’s still an urban fantasy.

Superhero Fantasy – Secret identities, superhuman powers, and villains who are more than a little unhinged are part of what makes superhero fantasy so much fun. Superhero movies like X-Men, Spiderman, The Green Lantern, and Captain America are all great examples of this genre.

Traditional Fantasy – Traditional fantasy is basically a teeny, tiny epic fantasy. It’s set in a secondary world (i.e., not our world) like epic fantasy, but it has a smaller cast of characters, fewer POV characters, and a plot that focuses more on a single character (or small group) and their unique struggle than on the creation or destruction of worlds/kingdoms. Magic in some form is usually a key element of traditional fantasy. A classic traditional fantasy is The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle.

The fraternal twin sister of traditional fantasy is sword and sorcery, where the plot focuses more on the swashbuckling adventures and daring doos of the main character than on the magical elements. In other respects, they’re the same. Scott Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamora is an iconic sword and sorcery fantasy.

Contemporary Fantasy – This sub-genre of fantasy sets the story in our modern-day world (as opposed to historical fantasy) and, although they can have dark elements to them, they also aim to give their reader a sense of joy and wonder. Contemporary fantasies often involve a “world within a world.” If you’ve read any of the Harry Potter books, you’ve read contemporary fantasy. (Urban fantasy is actually a sub-genre of this sub-genre, but it’s easier to consider it as its own sub-genre. Confused yet?)

Alternate History – Don’t let its name fool you. Alternate history plots actually usually fall into the fantasy genre rather than the historical fiction genre because at some point in time the history of the story world diverged from the history of our world. What if the Nazis won World War II? That became the inspiration for The Man in the High Castle by Philip K Dick. Depending on the focus of alternate history plots, they can also be categorized as science fiction.

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Regardless of the type of fantasy that you choose to write, remember the world you are entering is full of magic, wonder, and the impossible. It is your job to take your reader there with you.

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Resources:

https://www.cliffsnotes.com/cliffsnotes/subjects/literature/what-is-fantasy-fiction

https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/745687-i-love-the-word-fantasy-but-i-love-it-for

http://marcykennedy.com/2014/04/crash-course-fantasy-sub-genres/

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Deborah Ratliff is a Southerner with saltwater in her veins and love of writing. A lifelong mystery fan, her first novel, Crescent City Lies will be published soon and a second novel, One of Those Days to follow. She has also written numerous articles on writing. Deborah serves as an administrator for the Facebook group, “Writer’s Unite!,” with 41,000 + members from around the world.

Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/D-A-Ratliff-594776510682937/notifications/

Blog: https://thecoastalquill.wordpress.com/

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WRITING YOUR FIRST NOVEL PART Five: Creating Unforgettable Characters

“Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations.”
― Ray BradburyZen in the Art of Writing

 

A playwright in a local writing group I attend posed an interesting question. He wanted to know what the group thought attracted readers to read the same authors repeatedly. The consensus reached was that we return to our favorite authors because they give us characters we identify with, cheer for and care about.

Think about a series of books you are fond of and consider what brings you back every time that author publishes a new novel. I’m certain the genre is appealing and likely the author writes well and is entertaining, but many authors are as well. I think one of the main reasons we favor certain authors is the characters they create.

Harry Bosch, Jack Ryan, Kay Scarpetta, Sherlock Holmes, Dirk Pitt, Eve Dallas, Travis McGee.

These characters and countless others are part of our lexicon. They become important to us and remain with us long after we have read the first or the last novel of the series. My father handed me my first John D. McDonald book featuring the character Travis McGee when I was sixteen, telling me I would learn about life from McDonald’s words. I cannot tell you how many times I have read each of the twenty-one novels in the Travis McGee series over the years. A self-identified beach bum and salvage operator, McGee was more than that. He was a believer in justice, respected women, hated drugs and drug dealers, greed, and corruption. A modern-day Robin Hood who helped those who could not fight the system, a characteristic of many of the characters we embrace.

As a mystery writer, many of the names I have listed above are old friends, and while I do realize they are not real, their familiarity from novel to novel allows that suspension of belief we need to immerse ourselves in fiction. These authors make their characters unforgettable and so should we.

First Impressions

The first time we meet anyone we form an immediate impression, despite knowing we should not judge a person until we get to know them better. But we do, and your reader will form an opinion of your characters when they first meet.

As we discussed in Part Four of our series, “Plotting Your Story,” you should introduce your main character, or protagonist, as soon as possible in your first chapter. If you want the reader to become engaged in the story and read until the end, then make your protagonist compelling. Give your readers a reason to like the character, to feel empathy for them, for their plight.

You should introduce your main character quickly and important supporting characters within the first chapter, even if only by name, not appearance. Your protagonist should be alluded to even if not present in the first chapter. Let your readers see who they are rooting for and who they are not.

 

Types of Characters in a Story:

 

The Protagonist

Your story revolves around this character and your readers’ interest will, as well. As we discussed, you must define them clearly and quickly. This character is your story, he/she must define the plot and be the focus of the central action of the story. The conflict that exists in the story is what this character must face and ultimately make a choice on how to deal with. Put you protagonist in peril throughout the story to involve the reader in their plight.

 

The Antagonist

The villain is the foil for your protagonist and the source of their conflict. Introduce the antagonist early as you would your protagonist. However, you may introduce their evil deeds first and, dependent on the genre you are writing in, have them appear in the story or reveal their identity as the antagonist at an appropriate time.

 

Secondary Characters

All character’s other than your protagonist and antagonist fall into this category. These characters can play a pivotal role in the story or serve a role in a transitional scene, a clerk or service technician, a doctor, any role you need. The role of side-kick falls into this category, and these characters need development to convey the level of importance they carry in a story. Keep in mind, even the most mundane of characters is an opportunity to enrich your story. A taxi driver might appear briefly in one scene, but you have the choice to make that character memorable.

 

“There are no hundred percent heroes.” — Travis McGee, Cinnamon Skin, 1982, by John D. MacDonald

Making Your Characters Unforgettable:

  • Appearance: As you write your characters, no doubt you will know exactly what they look like. The question is how much of that description do you impart to your readers. There are two schools of thought, describe your characters the way you want your reader to see them or allow your reader to imagine them as they choose. Whatever you decide, do not throw out an ingredient list identifying characteristics. Incorporate those characteristics into dialogue or the character’s internal dialogue as your story unfolds. If you do intend on revealing hair color or any other feature, do so within the first chapter. If you tell your reader in chapter five, your character is a brunette, and your reader thinks redhead, their connection with the character could be destroyed.
  • Background: Your characters origins, place of birth, ethnic background, ancestry, education, career choices, sports participation, hobbies, etc. can all play a role in their development. What did their parents do for a living, what unusual events occurred to impact their lives, what childhood pets did they have, all impact who they are.
  • Communication: How do they interact with people? Is he friendly, curt, argumentative? Do they have an accent, special words, or phrases that they use that shows their personality and makes them unique? What does their voice sound like? What is their internal thought processes?
  • Relationships: How do they interact with family and friends? Do they make friends easily, are they awkward in social situations? Do they genuinely like people, are they shy?
  • Goals: Decide what do your characters want. What are the goals, desires, need that you should address in your novel to move the story to its conclusion. Stories are based on conflict, and you need to show how that conflict interferes with their goals and how to resolve the issue.
  • Flaws: Do remember that your characters do not need to be perfect. While Hollywood prescribes that all characters must be handsome or beautiful, the fact is real life doesn’t look like that. Give your MC a scar, have them throw a temper tantrum, have them drink too much or hate dogs or apple pie. Let them complain about their weight or their cousins. Make them real people.

 

There are some things to avoid.

  • All those classic boys/girls next door, the dumb sidekick, the brave solitary cowboy, doting mothers, rough Marine drill sergeants, all those stereotypes we have come to expect, don’t use them. Do not write the expected, give your reader a character that is unique.
  • Do not create simple characters. Give them dimension. You have a cast of characters that should be interesting. While you will focus on developing your main characters and those secondary characters that are important to the story arc, don’t forget to humanize your minor characters. Make them stand out, give them a funny line or a unique attribute. If you cannot make them real, don’t use them as placeholders to take you to the next scene, cut them from the story.

 

How do you create these characters?

“It begins with a character, usually, and once he stands up on his feet and begins to move, all I can do is trot along behind him with a paper and pencil trying to keep up long enough to put down what he says and does.”

― William Faulkner

Story coaches and experts will tell you that writing a character biography down to shoe size and favorite dessert along with a list of books they’re read is the only way to properly develop your characters. There are numerous character development sheet templates available online if you choose to microscopically dissect their personalities. There are some authors who write a multi-page biography before they commence writing their novel.

Then there are writers like me. I think of my story arc, imagine the character, give them a name and start typing. They will tell me their likes and dislikes as we experience the story together.

Again, as in all things writing related, choose what works for you. The main thing is to remember to create multidimensional main and secondary characters that enrich your stories and propel the plot to its conclusion.

 

“I will go to my grave in a state of abject endless fascination that we all have the capacity to become emotionally involved with a personality that doesn’t exist.”

― Berkeley Breathed

 

Resources:

https://www.mysteryscenemag.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=3055:are-travis-mcgee-and-john-d-macdonald-still-relevent-&catid=54:reviews&Itemid=187

https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/tag/characters

Memorable Characters

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The one thing that makes any story for me stand out is a memorable character. They don’t have be heroic, or even that good. But they have to be compelling and as an audience member, you have to want to know what happens to them. So as a writer, how can you make your characters memorable?

First, I think you should be able to say things about them. Like for example, they’re kind, smart, sensitive, or tough, impulsive, and moody. You can identify traits about them right away based on what you’re seeing with them in the story. They make you care about them not because you might like them, but because you want to see how they will handle whatever the story throws at them.

Second, you learn things about them. You learn about their past, their likes and dislikes, their problems, their demons, and how they feel about other characters. Because when you learn things about them you get a picture of who they are, where they’ve been, and where they’re going.

Recently, I started watching the television series ‘Grantchester’, a mystery series set in the 1950’s in a small village in Cambridge, England. The main character is Sidney Chambers, a young handsome vicar who is a bit shy yet sweet. But we learn that he’s haunted by his war-time service, and an unrequited love for a woman. What makes Sidney compelling and memorable is that he’s not perfect. He doesn’t utter empty platitudes but is cautious with his words. He’s also cautious with his feelings, perhaps too much. So we have a character who could be made out to be a paragon of virtue and perfect in every way but instead, we have a real character with good and not-so-good qualities who has a lot of potential to grow.

On the other end of this spectrum would be Tony Soprano, from the HBO television series ‘The Sopranos’. Tony is a mobster running a strip club in New Jersey and head of a crime family. So he’s not what you would refer to as a good person. He breaks the law and has people murdered. He lies and cheats and is brutal in how he deals with things. Yet in the first episode we see him having a panic attack and subsequently seeing a therapist. So this shows he’s vulnerable, and able to feel things though not deal with them very well. It’s this dichotomy that makes him memorable and compelling because we know things about him, see how he interacts with the world around him, and see his conflicts.

So to make a memorable character you want to show the good, the bad, and in some cases, the ugly. You want your audience to learn about them and because of that, your audience will want to know what happens to your characters in the story. And that’s what not only makes a character memorable, but what makes a story memorable after it’s over.

What The Bandit can Teach Us About Writing

by Kenneth Lawson
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This last Sunday I went with my son back in time.

40 Years ago, this week.

May 27, 1977.

I was still in high school. The movie was “Smokey and the Bandit.”

Burt Reynolds, Sally Fields, Jerry Reed, and Jackie Gleason as Buford T Justice.

The epic car chase across three states that ended in a big beer party. But that’s not the real story.

The real story is the fact that I saw this movie when it first came out in 1977 while I was in High School. Since then, I have seen it probably more times than I can count. My son has grown up watching this film we have seen it numerous times together over the years. It’s the first time we’ve seen it the way it was originally presented on the big screen.

The movie is just as silly and in some ways as stupid as it was 40 years ago. The now “Classic” scene where Burt Reynolds and Sally Field jumped the bridge that was out is just as good as ever, even better on the big screen.

But why does anyone care about a chase movie made 40 years ago?

Characters.

Afterward, in the car, my son and I discussed the film for about 10 minutes. We picked a picked apart the plot or the “sort of plot” and the silliness of the whole thing. The likelihood Sally Field’s character did not recognize Jackie Gleason’s character on the CB radio it’s pretty slim if she knew the family well enough to almost married the stupid son. Then she would have recognized his voice over the CB; having probably heard it there many times before. All that aside, the movie still works pretty good.

But that’s the reason the movie works is not the story; the story sucks. What works is the characters. The characters are memorable. Burt Reynolds character the Bandit is likable he’s Every Man’s anti-hero he just doing the best he can and along the way he manages to do things that other people have not been able to do and mostly have fun doing it.
Jerry Reed is also excellent as the Snowman. Snowman is dragged into this crazy bet, he asked Bandit why we want to this silly thing; Bandit explains;

“‘For the good old American life: For the money, for the glory, and for the fun… mostly for the money. ”  — Burt Reynolds as Bandit in Smokey & the Bandit, 1977

You may wonder what this has to do with writing?

Theses characters resonate they speak to us, we can relate to them. They’re doing something that we would like to do. Granted, the story needs work, but that’s okay. In this case, it’s not so much about the story.

Face it, the actual story of “Smokey and The Bandit” is pretty thin. There are holes in the plot we could drive both Bandit’s Trans Am and Snowman’s tractor through. But that’s OK.

This story is “character” driven. We like Bandit, and “Frog” and Snowman, in spite of ourselves we like Sheriff Buford T. Justice. That’s why it works. It’s not so much the grand adventure, or the danger. It’s watching them do stupid stuff and getting away with it. As a teenager, in 1977, I probably wanted to be Bandit so bad I couldn’t stand it. To drive a Bad-Ass car, get the girl, and generally, do whatever the hell I wanted. That’s what these characters embody.

So must you write clones of Bandit, and Snowman, and Justice?

No. But your characters should be something either your readers can relate to directly, or in the case of Bandit, someone they can wish they were.

Bigger than real life. Characters that take over the story. They should ideally be relatable on some level, either age, sex, or occupation, or situation.

But above all, they must be memorable. Granted the movie has the added advantage of “Star Power” The actors bringing the characters to life. While we can’t have a young Burt Reynolds playing our hero, or probably not even the old Burt Reynolds, we must build our characters in ways that make them memorable, and for our readers to care what happens to them.

If we build good enough characters, then the audience will go along for the ride, silly as it may be.

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Kenneth Lawson was born in 1961 in Western NY.  He was born with a heart disease, called Transition of the Arteries, and is believed to be the first in the US to survive the procedure called the Mustard procedure.

He started writing as a teenager. Today he lives in Central Virginia with his wife of 30 years and the youngest of their four children.

Kenneth enjoys classic movies and television, and a variety of music. When not enjoying movies, he can be found writing his eclectic mix of science fiction, mystery, and time travel.

Find Kenneth at his blog


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