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Tag: character development

Believable characters

I just finished Laura Spinella’s Beautiful Disaster.  It’s about a woman, Mia, who was madly in love with a drifter guy, Flynn, when she was in college.  He vanished, and twelve years later she’s mostly moved on with her life.  Then he comes back into town, gets hit by a car and knocked into a coma, and she stays at his side.  The story is split between the present and their relationship in the past.  While it’s well-written, the entire time I was reading I couldn’t figure out, why did Flynn love Mia?  We’re told again and again that she’s smart and gorgeous, and who wouldn’t want that, right?  But Flynn is so well-developed compared to Mia that I just can’t buy that’s all he’d want in someone.  Mia is pretty much blandly perfect and it just irked me the entire time I was reading.

Part of the reason, of course, is that I’m struggling with the same thing in my novel, The Lone Wolf.  There are two main characters, Kasey and Andrew.  Andrew is interesting, flawed but still mostly likable because his flaws just add to his character.  Kasey, on the other hand…  Kasey is giving me problems.  Serious problems.  She’s passive but she has a strong inner core, an unwavering devotion to her daughter.  The novel is about her growing as a person, into someone stronger, and I think that shows by the end.  But not in the beginning, and how many people will keep reading if they don’t like the beginning?

I’ve been working on this novel for over a year and a half; a year to write it, and going on 8 months of editing.  I know I need to just walk away, but I’m too stubborn.  I want to fix it, want it to make sense.  And each rewrite is getting me closer to what I want it to be.  So maybe in a few months, when I’ve hit the two-year mark, I’ll be able to let it go.  Maybe.

What are some of the things that you struggle with in your writing?  How do you make characters believable?

The problem with novel writing

The problem with novel writing is that it takes so damn long.  I started the one I’m working on in the fall of 2009.  I had an idea for it, based on a song and a couple dreams that I’d linked together.  It evolved based on life experiences and perceptions, and I finished it in October 2010.  And now that I’m editing, things are changing that are coloring my perception of the novel.  The characters are the same but I’m not, and I have the big question – do I change the novel to reflect me, or do I let it stand and try to keep it how I would’ve written it 6 months ago?  Because right now the ending is perfect, absolutely fitting and perfect, but I’m not sure my characters now deserve it to end that way.

As I said in the previous post, Kasey isn’t me.  The other characters are fictional as well.  Gotta remember that.

Who my MC is, and who she isn’t

As I may have said before, character development is a struggle for me.  As I rewrite I learn more about my character, but recently something dawned on me that’s helped immensely – my MC (main character) Kasey isn’t me.  She has her own goals that are different from mine.  She has mannerisms that aren’t mine.  And she reacts in ways that aren’t the same as how I would.

This realization has greatly helped me.  Of course she wasn’t working because I wasn’t writing her as who she truly is.

So who is she?  One of the ways to figure this out is to find a character in a movie or an actor that portrays a character similar to what you want, and then study them.  I watched Michelle Williams in Me Without You and realized that was how I wanted Kasey to be.  So now I’m watching Michelle in all the movies I can find (meaning everything NetFlix has on-demand), to see what she does that’s similar to Kasey, to see what I can apply to my main character.

The other characters have been easier.  Andrew – I know Andrew.  “You maybe able to read me like an open book, but you’ll never know what page you’re on,” he told me.  I know Andrew, better than he knows himself.  I know he would be played by Alexander Skarsgard because of his role in Generation: Kill; his eyes were what hooked me, that haunted combat look that I know Andrew has.  As for David, my third main character, I haven’t found who would play him yet.  I’m not as concerned, as he doesn’t matter to the story quite as much as Kasey and Andrew.

So, if you’re stuck on a character, take a movie break.  You never know what you might learn.

The First Date

Another tip for character development – outtakes!  Write a short story using your main characters, and look at it as fulfilling a duel purpose – get to know your characters, and practice your writing skills.  Maybe even enter it in a short story contest or something.

In the first chapter of my novel the main characters reminisce about their first date.  When I came across an amateur writing contest requesting a 1500 words-or-less story about “a date which ended with a good night kiss, and how that came to be,” I realized that my characters’ date would work perfectly.  So, here it is, my first outtake.

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       Kasey checked her watch again.  Seven-oh-eight.  David had said he would pick her up at seven.  Why was he late?  Maybe he’d spent too much time picking out the perfect shirt.  Maybe his car bad broken down.  Maybe he had found himself a more attractive date while driving across campus to pick her up.  Kasey gave herself a mental shake.  First dates always made her nervous.

         And then he was there, in front of her dorm, illegally parking an older Honda Civic next to the doors.  She hurried out to meet him before campus security noticed him.  Sometimes it seemed like they had a sixth sense for parking violations.

         “Wow, you look great!” David’s brown eyes took in every detail as she sat got in and pulled the door shut.

         “Thanks.” Kasey blushed and looked down at her hands in her lap.  She had picked a short black skirt, white silk camisole, and thin gray cardigan, with her dark thick hair pulled into a low ponytail.  David had been secretive about the restaurant so she had aimed for something that would work no matter where they went.

         “Is Italian okay?” David asked as he pulled away from the curb.

         “Yeah, that’s fine.  Anything beats the dining hall.”

         “At least it’s all-you-can-eat, which works great with the one-third rule.”

         “The one-third rule?”

         “Yeah, one-third of the stuff you put on your plate is edible.”

         Kasey chuckled.  “True.”

         “I’m glad you said yes.”  David reached over and squeezed her hand, then quickly put his back on the steering wheel.

         “What do I have to lose?”  She grinned at him.  “It’ll work out or it won’t; either way I’m getting a free meal.”

         David pulled into the parking lot of Carducci’s, a small upscale Italian restaurant.  Kasey was impressed; most college guys she had dated were more the Olive Garden type.  As the waiter led them to a candle-lit table in a secluded alcove, Kasey mentally promoted David to a new league far above the others.

         “How’d you get this table?” she asked him.  It was a Friday night and the restaurant was packed.

         “Can’t a guy have his secrets?”  He grinned at her.  

         They made small talk as they ate the freshly-baked bread and roasted garlic and waited for the main course to arrive.  Kasey worked at their university library between classes as a way to earn extra money, and David, as a pre-law student, spent a substantial amount of time in the building.  His casual flirting as he checked out materials had gradually grown into long conversations, and finally he had asked her out to dinner.

         As they finished the bread, the conversation died.  Kasey tried to think of something to say, something interesting, but nothing came to mind.  This was just David, she told herself, the same guy she talked to all the time at the library.  But somehow being in the restaurant, on an actual date, transformed him into someone else, someone foreign to her.

         David, perhaps sensing the growing awkwardness as well, regarded her seriously.  “It’s at this point in a date that I have to ask you a very important question, a question that will determine our compatibility and, ergo, whether there’ll be a second date.”

         Kasey swallowed hard.  She liked David and didn’t want to mess things up.

         “The big question: Batman or Superman?”

         “Batman.”  No hesitation.

         David exhaled.  “Good answer!  You really had me nervous on that one.”

         Kasey threw her straw wrapper at him.  “You’re a jerk sometimes, you know that?”

         “Yeah, but it only adds to my charm.”  He grinned and she shook her head, helpless to keep from smiling back.

         At that moment their food arrived.  David had ordered shrimp scampi, and Kasey the house lasagna.  As the waiter climbed the few steps to their alcove he tripped, spilling his tray of food onto Kasey’s lap.  She gasped as the food stained her clothes, then reddened to the color of the sauce as she realized the entire restaurant had turned their eyes to her.

         David jumped up.  “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” he forcefully demanded of the waiter.  “How could you be so clumsy?”

         “I apologize, sir,” stammered the waiter.  “It was an accident!”

         “My date’s outfit is ruined!”

         “It’s fine, David,” Kasey said, knowing full well that the white shirt, at least, would never come clean.  “Please sit down.”

         “No, it’s not fine.  We come here expecting high standards, and having our dinner dumped on your lap is not part of that!”

         “I swear, sir, it was an accident!” The waiter dabbed at the edge of Kasey’s lap with a napkin, and she swatted his hand away, preferring her own administrations over those of a stranger.

         “Be that as it may,” David continued in a loud voice, “her clothes are ruined!  Something will need to be done about that!”

         “I’m trying, sir!”  The waiter, near to tears, again attempted to wipe off Kasey’s skirt, and she again swatted him away.

         A short balding man approached the table, hands clasped in front of him.  “I am so sorry!” he said in a heavy Italian accident.  “This should not have happened.  Lucas, run and tell the chefs to remake their meals as quickly as possible.”

         The waiter dashed off, relief visibly written on his face.

         The bald man turned back to Kasey and David.  “Of course, sir and madame, we strive for the best possible dining experience.  Your meal tonight will be on the house.”

         “Thank you, sir,” said Kasey.  The other patrons were still watching her table closely.  She wished they would focus on their food rather than the spectacle that her date had become.

         David remained standing, jaw clenched.  “David, sit down please,” she told him.

         “What about her clothes?” He waved his hand at Kasey.  At that point she had managed to clean the chunks of food off her lap, although an enormous red stain remained.

         “That is unfortunate, sir.  Would you like me to have your meal put in a box for you?”

         “No, I would not like it boxed.  Her clothes are ruined because of your waiter.  I want you to pay for the drycleaning bill.”

         “Sir, as I said, the accident is unfortunate, but you are getting the meal for free.”

         “David, it’s fine.  Please sit down.”

         “No, it’s not fine!  I want Mr. Carducci here to pay for the drycleaning!”

         “Sir, I must object…”

         “Really, it’s fine. Really.”

         “No, it’s not.  Pay for the drycleaning.”

         “David!” Kasey pleaded as his voice grew louder.  She wondered if she would fit under the table.

         “Please, sir…”

         “Is this how you treat your customers?”

         Kasey leaned her forehead on her hand and groaned softly.  She could feel the eyes of everyone in the restaurant upon her.  She wanted to melt onto the floor.

         The bald man sensed it as well.  “Very well, sir.  Send us the drycleaning bill and we’ll pay it as well.”

         “Thank you.”  David smiled and sat down.  “Could we get some more bread while we’re waiting for our food?”

         Kasey was quiet on the drive back to her dorm.  As soon as possible she wanted to change into pajamas, fall asleep, and pretend that night had never happened.

         “That didn’t turn out quite like I’d hoped,” said David as he pulled up to the doors of her building.

         “Well, I guess it’s a small relief that you didn’t plan for me to wear dinner.”  Kasey gave him a weak smile.

         “I did however have this planned.”  He leaned over and kissed her softly on the lips.  She closed her eyes, delighting in the warmth that spread through her body.  He gently placed his hand on her cheek and pulled her closer to him.

         She didn’t know if the kiss lasted a second or a minute; she just only knew that David’s lips felt perfect on hers and she didn’t want him to stop kissing her.

         The moment was over too soon, however, as seemed to be the case for most perfect kisses.  A tap on the window broke them apart.  David turned away from Kasey, regretfully it seemed, and rolled down his window.

         “Sir, you can’t park here,” said the security guard standing next to the car.

         “Alright, fine, I’m almost done,” David told him.

         “For tonight.”  Kasey smiled.  “Should we try burgers tomorrow?”

Character Development

I freely admit, character development is something that I struggle with.  I’ve solicited advice on various writing sites to which I belong, and here are some tips I’ve received:

  • Create a character sheets.  This technique involves filling out a survey about your character – appearance, history, likes, dislikes, etc.  While interesting, most of it is irrelevant to my character, as it never comes up in the story.  It’s a nice time-wasterfiller though.
  • Give your character a secret or purpose or goal or dream that only she knows.  This one is a bit harder.  After much reflection, I finally realized what it is that drives my main character, and I’m hoping that because of that I can make her more three-dimensional and likeable, rather than the vacuous vanilla doormat she’s described as now.
  • Figure out your character’s zodiac sign.  Whether you believe in astrology or not, there are twelve personality profiles out there for you to use.  This will give your character personality traits as well as likes, dislikes, and tips on how he’d interact with others, based on their own signs.

I’m not suggesting these steps are necessary for every single one of your characters, but if you’re stuck with a flat character, give some of these ideas a try.

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