Have you ever struggled to come up that character to add comic relief to a story? What about the little kid who holds the hearts of everyone in a five mile radius with the look on his face and the expression in his eyes? Or, the old lady down the street who is always there with a kind word and an understanding presence?
Use a different model for your character. Let’s say you’ve chosen to have an old lady for your story. She’s going to live next door to the family you’re writing about. Let’s also assume that that’s all you know about this character.
One way to get a fresh perspective on this character is to change your own perspective. The only thing you know for certain is that this character is old and lives nearby. With this in mind think of others that could be old and live nearby.
- An aged golden retriever that’s been faithful and gentle all her life. Her slightly coppery locks have grayed. Her step is more measured now. Her ability to rush is curtailed with age. She is always available for a hug, and she thinks nothing of spending an afternoon with anyone who needs a companion, to sooth and ease a hurt.
- An older Scot Terrier that doesn’t take guff from anyone for any reason. Female she might be, but tough, and knows her own mind. Short legs don’t keep her from taking long walks each day; even if they tire easily, she’ll push through to the end.
- An older mare that’s birthed her last foal and been put to graze and grow complacent in her last years. She stands at the fence looking to the west, her eyes seeing the wild herds that used to roam the plains and mountains, whose king stallion stands guard at the edge of his circled harem.
You choice of character models are endless, when you realize that all creatures as they age share common traits. By removing the “animal” from the model and concentrating on the behavior, the visible traits, your own story character takes on a new dimension. You could find these characters in your own home.
Remember that comic relief character? Can you think of models to give you a handle on such a role in your story? Here are three that might work.
- A Jack Russell Terrier. That’s the hyper pup on springs. If you don’t laugh at the antics of one of these little clowns, there’s no hope for your character.
- Chickens are comic creatures, often overlooked for their relief value. Watch a small flock during evening feeding of veggie scraps. Or, watch them tussle over the use of the swing or perch. They also have personalities.
- Wild birds during nesting season. They are a hoot; stealing each other’s nesting materials, poking each other, squabbling, all while trying to attract a mate.
Writers must look outside their usual views in order to keep their perspectives out of stereotype territory. One of the surest ways of doing that is to create different criteria for developing characters. Substituting aspects and traits of animals is one of the easiest methods for ensuing uniqueness.
Give yourself time in the park to watch those creatures that frequent it; ducks and geese on the pond, squirrels racing from tree to tree, or birds arguing back and forth. Go to a quiet wooded area and sit down next to a small stream. Wait in silence. You’ll find more inspiration that you know what to do with if you’re patient.
Come back and tell me of your adventures. Let me know how this process works for you. We can always discuss what you learn along the way.
Until then, a bientot,
- [Observations of the Fox] Exactitudes – A tool, an artform, a social comment (vulpinoid.blogspot.com)
- Home Theater: So, What’s in a Name? (2voices1song.com)
- Make ‘em Breathe (thewriteinspiration.wordpress.com)
- A Brief Lesson on How to Write Strong Characters (ifanboy.com)
- Hell on Eight Wheels: Fourteen – Traits from Observations of the Fox (vulpinoid.blogspot.com)
Okay, so you’ve got your main character into a situation that has no recourse, outlet, or salvation in sight. She’s somehow maimed and in desperate need of direction. You’re not sure how she came to fall into such distress; you hadn’t planned it. What are you going to do?
Don’t panic. You’ve been there before. You know that there’s always a way out of any situation, even if the only action possible to have the character sit on the floor, leaning against the wall, and cry. That is still emotive action that sets up a change of scene.
Now what? Pause. Regroup your thoughts. That is something your character can do while wallowing in emotional release on the floor.
Regardless of the circumstance that trapped your character in this situation, focus on logical solutions. If the movement forward isn’t logical, the reader won’t buy it. You’ve heard that before. This is the time to implement that thought process.
If the problem is a relationship, think of the options available to the character. Is the relationship viable, retrievable, and healthy for the character? Make a decision based on your gut response and earlier content. If dumping this relationship creates more conflict down the road—conflicts that will ultimately create a stronger plot line or twist—you might want to consider this new strand of plotline.
If this is a physical threat situation—character is trapped in a house, cave, castle, etc. you must decide her most logical action to help herself or to gain help from another character, perhaps a walk-on character written specifically for this purpose. Unless the place is deserted, there will be someone around, even if it’s only a rat. Hmm, there’s a thought. What if that rat is someone who has, up to this point in the story, been a candidate for villain?
Think about it. Why would this character have followed your heroine to the place? What does that question bring to mind to add plot, suspense, backstory, etc. to this new situation? Are ulterior motives in play and if so, what kind? Perhaps, this is the true hero for your heroine and the one that was designated previously is actually the villain. It’s your story to develop as you see fit.
Once you have a new direction, fill in the blanks. Think of your story as a fill-in puzzle. That’s really what it is. You have key points to consider. You need paths to connect these key points. Here’s an example of questions to help develop the story.
Heroine is running away
- Why is she running?
- Is her life in danger?
- What is the truth she’s looking for?
- How far does she have to run?
- Is she alone?
- What is her reward for finding this truth?
Heroine’s only hope of finding out the truth is to find a specific character
- Who is this person who holds the truth?
- Is there a connection—out of the past—between these characters?
- Is this character willing to dispense the truth she’s looking for?
- What’s in it for the truth-bearer?
- Will the truth-bearer travel with her to the end?
Heroine falls for villain’s trap and has nowhere to run
- Can she come up with a plan of escape that doesn’t get her killed?
- What are the resources at her disposal to use for escape?
- What does she hear, smell, taste, see, feel?
- Does she hear something/one outside her confinement area?
- Will this new entity help her escape?
- Is it a villain or the good guy or is it another female?
- What reward is there for someone to help her?
Heroine escapes to continue her search and now has traveling companion
- What does she talk about with this companion?
- How much time does she have left to find the truth she seeks?
- Can this companion continue to aid her in her quest?
- What kind of relationship develops between these two travelers?
- What is the next obstacle in heroine’s way to delay her travels?
This type of thinking keeps the storyline moving, but it also fills in the blanks in a way that doesn’t require so much backstory that the reader drowns in it. If you have to redefine along the path to this stage of plotting, so be it. This questioning procedure does more than define—it moves the story.
Whether your character has been maimed or stalled, or you’ve written yourself into the proverbial corner, you can do painless surgery by allowing yourself the right to speculate, deviate, or anticipate within your plotline.
You have questions that you need to ask about your story. Take the time to bring them out into the light and spend time with them. You won’t regret the digression. Enjoy this lovely process of getting to know your character and her life complete with pitfalls. That’s what adventure is all about.
How does your main character arrive? Does she pop into the mind, complete with secrets, aspirations, and whimsy? Or, do you have to sit down and get out your character building blocks to begin construction on the kind of character you want to deal with for however long it takes you to write an entire story?
Each type of character has possibilities for the writer. Think of the yourself as a casting director. A movie is being planned inside your mind and needs a cast to people the sets that are built to show/tell the story.
Cast of Characters: Primary figures
- Heroine—late twenties, had to leave college during junior year due to family crisis, didn’t finished education, works at local veterinarian’s office as a vet tech rather than the physician she wanted to be.
- Male lead—perhaps late twenties/early thirties, civil engineer, rugged and cocky in looks and attitude, considers heroine interesting but not worth the trouble of getting to know better—he has secrets hiding behind his eyes.
- Female support character—high school classmate, Miss Popularity, divorced socialite in town, waging intimacy war with male lead, has always looked down on heroine.
- Villain—possible murderer, keeping police baffled and jumping through hoops as she/he kills off various townspeople for no apparent reason, leaves too many conflicting clues as if playing cat and mouse with cops.
- Police detective—has known heroine all her life, used to date her in high school, pallbearer at her father’s funeral, struggling to stay in control of murder case even when he knows he’s over his head on this one, rethinking his career choice.
- Setting—rural town, population 12,000, Midwest locale, farming and college town.
With this list of pivotal characters, you can begin to build both plot and character studies. You must decide which to pursue first. For our purposes here, concentrate on characters.
Building a character takes planning. How would you tackle the heroine? When you close your eyes and think about this character, what do you see? How tall is she? What kind of clothing does she typically wear? What color is her hair? Keep thinking about her. Write down what you envision about this person. Listen to her voice, her speech patterns, and her quirks of expression. Have you learned her name yet?
Take a moment to meet her. Shake her hand. Is it callused, soft, long and lean, or square and pudgy? Do you join her at a table at the local diner?
What kind of people are in the diner and what is their behavior like? Is there a feeling of camaraderie among the locals, one of friendship or tension? Do you feel comfortable within this group? If so, describe what you feel as you sit at the table with the heroine.
Do this ceremonial meet and greet with each of your new characters. Find your place among them. Develop a rapport with these people that you’ll be working with for a while in the future.
The story’s setting is a character as well. You noticed it on the casting list. Setting is the biggest and can be the most complex of your characters. Take the time to get familiar with it. Learn so much about it that you can taste the dust kicked up by the pick-up speeding down the county road on its way south. Close your eyes and feel the soft summer breeze on your bare arm as it slides by on a moist July night. Is that thunder in the west?
Spontaneity is a terrific starting place. If you wake up in the middle of the night with an image in your mind and a glimpse of a story behind it, you’re on your way to writing a story. The same type of vision can happen anywhere, at any time.
The construction work that follows that spontaneous burst of mental creation fleshes out the initial character image, takes it to a new depth and richness that brings the character to life for the reader. You can have the loveliest character in the literary world, but without the tiny flaws, the midnight kitchen sessions, or the mental confessions, indecision and questions, the character is, at most, only two-dimensional.
Without placing your characters in a place that feels real, they remain merely players on a stage with recognizable sets. Spontaneity gets the juices flowing, creates the spark that draws your interest, and emblazons the images for your use. The time you spend and construction work you do with those images, those feelings, are what carry you, the writer, through to a complete story; one that will hold the reader’s interest and cause them to catch her breath in anticipation.
Whether spontaneous sparks get you started at the keyboard or a planned and executed list of possible characters puts your butt in the chair, each mode has its place in writing. You can plan and build tight studies and scenarios all you want. When you get to the revision stage of the process, spontaneity will become your best friend.
The minute details that have been missing so far will pop out to explain the motives of a character in chapter five. A flash of insight will inform you how something happened so quickly in your plot. These are as important to the overall health of a story as your casting couch. Make good use of both planning and seat-of-your-pants writing techniques.
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