Conference Lessons: Character Creation


Sketch by Diane Wu

One of the last sessions I attended at last year’s conference was taught by author Robert Dugoni.  He taught us about crafting characters in his presentation, Playing God: Creating Memorable Characters.

He opened with this idea: “Whatever your character is, make them like everyone else, but a little bit better.”  So characters should be real (and relatable), but also larger than life.  We must believe them and believe in them.  If readers don’t believe the character is able to do the extraordinary things they must do, they won’t care whether your character makes it or not, or just won’t believe it when they do.

While building up an interesting character, think about their strengths, inner conflicts, and weaknesses.

A character’s strengths can be physical (muscles, speed, laser eyes, etc), mental (humor, a knack for lateral thinking, mind reading, etc), or moral (loyalty, a sense of justice, compassion, etc).  As with all  things, there’s room for overlap, so don’t stress categories. (Is resilience mental or moral? Is the ability to perform magic a physical trait or a mental one?  Who cares?)  Whatever you choose, make your characters’ strengths just a little bit stronger than average.  And be sure that these strengths come up throughout the difficulties that your characters encounter.

Consider as well the inner conflicts that plague your character.  These are different from the conflicts that the antagonist or the plot inflict on them, and from the internal conflicts that arise throughout the story.  (This caused a bit of confusion for me during the presentation at first.  I kind of wish he’d used a more dissimilar term, but I figured out what he was talking about eventually.)  Inner conflicts are things like anxiety, addiction, insecurity, low self esteem, a huge ego, phobias, or guilt.

By Mr. Dugoni’s definition, an inner conflict is not the same thing as a weakness.  A weakness is something you can fix, but for whatever reason, you don’t.  Inner conflicts are a part of who you are.  For example, your character may learn some better coping mechanisms for dealing with their depression, without ever being ‘cured’.  Mental illness is an inner conflict.  A refusal to wash the laundry until you’re out of underwear is a weakness.  (I am weak.)

Also, characters must have what Mr. Dugoni called ‘self regard’.  Self regard is recognition of one’s own shortcomings.  Plus, it makes their development more plausible.  A character who doesn’t realize they’re a misogynist isn’t going to change.  If you don’t realize there’s a problem, you can’t fix it.

So now that you have this cool character, how to you show all these traits to the reader without telling?  Mr. Dugoni specified these five ways:

Physical Appearance  A character’s physical appearance changes how they interact with the world.  When learning about this aspect of character, I immediately thought of CM Schofield’s character Tony (who is a tiny fairy in a human world) and Madison Dusome’s character Adrien (who is a skinny, scrappy one-armed orphan).  Both these authors are fantastic at showing their characters’ personalities and strengths through the lens of their physical differences.

How They Dress  People wear what they wear for a reason, and these sorts of details tell us something about them.  So think about how your character might express themselves through dress.  I also like to consider makeup, piercings, tattoos, anything unnatural that a person chooses to add to their body.  Do they wear their uniform even on their days off?  Do they favor Gothic Lolita?  Leather and spikes all week, and an airy dress for church on Sundays?  Think about what they wear, understanding that your readers will be forming ideas about why they wear it.

Physical Behavior  Think also about the way your character carries themselves.  How do they sit, stand, walk, or run?  Stance and cadence can tell us a lot about a character, like the difference between James Bonds’ cool, one-hand-in-pocket smirk and Steve Urkels’ bespectacled, face-scrunching squint.  Whenever your character guffaws, slouches, sneers, or pops a knuckle, it tells readers something.

Dialog  How does your character speak?  What does their diction say about their past and experiences?  Consider word choice, phrases, accent.  Even topic choices can tell us something about characters- for example, think about the Lego Movie and the differences in voice between Batman (gravelly, growly tone and an insistence on trumpeting his own awesomeness) and Unikitty (high, cheerful tone and a refusal to hold an unhappy thought).

Character Insight  Each of us sees the world through a different lens, a lens which is carved and polished by our past experiences.  How does your character view the world?  Who do they vote for?  What do they believe in?  What do they argue about?  What’s worth fighting for?

Use all of these cues to show readers your character, and what’s going on in their head.

So!  Once you have a realistic, believable, and interesting character, toss them into the shark tank of your story.  How does the character change over the course of the events?  Mr. Dugoni talked about change as the different levels a character starts at and finishes at.  I pictured it like this:


The important thing is that the level your character is on changes over the course of the book.  If your character starts out only caring about themselves, they’d better open up a bit more by the end of the book.  Characters that don’t change levels probably aren’t changing much elsewhere either, and that’s boring and unrealistic.

Of course, characters can change in both directions.  Just as a character can start out only caring about their mom and their cat, and eventually become the hometown hero, a person can also move in a more selfish direction.  But Mr. Dugoni warns that that’s a hard sell.  Most people don’t want to read a story about a caring, generous person who becomes a self-absorbed miser.

Whoever your character may be- a priest, a mobster, the baker from Belle’s hometown- create them in a way that makes them leap off the page (or pounce, or trip, or however they move).  Make them interesting, make them realistic, and make them powerful and flawed and changing.  Your story (and your readers) will thank you.

Happy writing!

Growing Up

We are deep in the bowels of winter, with the weather dropping fast to  -30°F/ -34°C.  At times like this, I pretty much become a hermit; I mean, I’m already a hermit, but now I don’t even go in my yard.  And one of my favorite things to do in my hermitage is start planning for spring.  (Kind of pathetic, I know.)  I plot out my garden.  I contemplate plans for the property.  And I think about livestock.

One of the best things about spring is going down to the feed shop and bringing home a madly peeping cardboard box of pine shavings and baby birds.  Gosh, I love chicks.  They’re terribly fragile things, all hunger and hollow bones and soft down, but they’re unbelievably cute little buggers.chick

Last year, since we knew we’d be gone for the summer, we only got two little pullets instead of our usual haul of two pullets (read: egg birds) and a dozen or so Cornish cross (read: meat birds).  I get a visibly different breed of pullets each year so that I know at a glance how old a bird is, and this year we went with the red sex-links.  They came home as freaking adorable little ginger powder puffs.

But hardly more than a week later, I started to notice pin feathers coming in, rimming their wings, their nubby little tails.  By the time we left on our trip, they were well into gawky adolescence, and then three months later, I came home to this:


Bwah?  What happened to my powder puffs???

But my shock quickly turned into delight when just a few weeks later, they started pooping out eggs.  I cannot eat cuteness.  Eggs are much better.

I’m not saying that pets like cats, which provide me no eatenings, aren’t wonderful.  But these birds are not pets.  As much as I enjoy them, they are stupid, smelly, evil-eyed neo-dinos and the whole point of my keeping them is for meat and eggs.  Chicks provide me with neither.  Growth and change, as in so many aspects in life, are good.

The early life of a manuscript is much like the early life of a chicken.  Just as I wouldn’t really want my chicks to stay chicks forever, I don’t really want my early drafts to stay immature forever.  Assuming your literary goals are anything beyond the personal catharsis of writing (which is a totally legit goal), a story must change and evolve for it to reach its full potential and achieve those goals.  A story that stays in first draft mode forever, adorable and joyful as it may be, will never make it off your desk.

I used to make only the most superficial of edits to my beloved manuscript.  (Yes, there was only one at the time.)  I might alter the dialog a little, or clean up the prose a bit.  But I would never have considered anything deeper than that.  If I found there was a plot hole, I’d patch it over with even more bad writing, seaming it up with poor motivations, unrealistic character actions, and nonsensical ‘traditions’ designed expressly to prop up the rest of the stagnant mess.  If I found one of my characters was only there because I thought they were cool, or a scene didn’t need to happen but I really liked the setting in which it took place, or any of a thousand other instances of self-gratifying excuses for hack work- then I’d find some reason, any reason at all, to double down and dig that grave a little deeper.  I spun wheels in that rut for ten years, actively stunting my own story’s growth in a stilted homage to fear and nostalgia.

It shouldn’t be that way.  The first draft is an opportunity to get all thoughts down on the page, no matter how stupid.  The second draft should be the opportunity to start hammering the stupidity, and all the glittery bits in between, into something lovely and coherent.  Growing pains are to be expected.  Sometimes you won’t feel sure if you’re making the poor thing better or worse.  But the change is good.  The change is necessary.  Editing is what makes takes a bad (or mediocre or even good) piece and makes it better.

Growth in a chicken takes time and energy, and the careful instructions coded over four billion years of trying new things.  Plan the changes; cull; experiment; be brave.  And then give your beautiful manuscript the time and the work needed to be its very best.

Do you find yourself stuck in an editing rut?  Picking endlessly at the same sentences without really changing anything?  Next week, I’ll talk about my editing process- how I plan it, what I look for, how I decide I’m done- and I’d love to hear about yours as well.  Join me next Monday, and until then, happy writing (and editing)!

How My Writing Has Changed Over Time

This week, we have a guest post from the ever-fantastic Melanie Francisco, known in the Twitterverse as @blacklily_f.  This gal is one mean beta reader, a drill sergeant of a sprint runner, and a fount of endless online hilarity.  A no-nonsense kick in the pants, Melanie is full of snark and sass, and if you aren’t already pals with her… what the heck is wrong with you?

metamorphosisJill and I were having this discussion the other day, about how our work has changed over time. I know yours will too. I gave it some deep thought, wrote a blog post, edited it and thought very seriously about sending it to Jill. It’s a self-indulgent piece about my emotional state. It seems most of my writing is like that these days. So….here’s something a little bit more serious.

I started writing very young, in the 5th grade. I had a mentor who wrote a play at my church. I was in puppets and I was supposed to perform the work with others. My parents, who were already well on their way to ruining me, had raised me to debate the merits of literary work. I opened my mouth, inserted foot and said something extremely rude. Thank God I had an awesome mentor. He just sat me down and said, “Well Melanie, if you don’t like it, why don’t you write something better?”

Why indeed? So I did. I had a certain set of rules. I had to cover a certain topic. I had to have a certain setting. I had to have parts for all of my comrades. I wrote it over the next week. Sure, it needed to be edited, cleaned up a bit, but I got it done. And my mentor said, “This is good, Melanie. We will do your play.”

We didn’t. We didn’t do the performance at all. It fell through, but my love of writing began. I started writing stories. I started writing science fiction novels. I was incredibly naive. It showed. I wrote mostly about external forces. I had no clue about characterization. I wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote. It was my outlet.

I needed one. Life in my house was…complicated. (I know what you’re thinking, aren’t all families complicated? Shush, I’m sharing here.) I didn’t have a voice at home. My little sister was really sick all of the time with Type 1 diabetes. Both of my parents are visually impaired. My grandmother, who lived in the house to be our driver/babysitter had early onset Alzheimer’s. Problems at home never, ever stopped. Compared to those problems, who was I?

But then something horrible happened. My dad read my work. He called it “wordy”. GASP! I quit. I was thirteen years old. I couldn’t handle it. I left it alone until I went to college. But I got lost in books. Books of all kinds. Literary works, romances, science fiction, fantasy, romance…I read them all. (Yeah, I know romance is in there twice. I read twice as much of it as other stuff. Go ahead, judge me.) To this day I love nothing more than getting lost in a really good book. Especially if it’s one of my own.

But what that complicated home life taught me was that sometimes life is really complicated. And it drew me, when I finally got serious about my writing to epic fantasy. I frequently weave at least five, if not eight story lines together. Getting a good story, good plot twists, in depth familiarity with the whole life-is-not-fair concept I know how to deliver a twist. My mom was an English major in college. She’d wanted to teach high school English so we sat at the dinner table and took stories apart. So I know how to spot a plot hole. I know about characterization. I was ready to begin writing.

My weaknesses are prose and daring. I really pushed myself last year to get over the daring issue. As I’ve gotten older, more mature, I’ve consciously worked on taking more risks. I mean seriously people, where in the world is it safer to take a risk than on the page of a work no one else can see? Be evil. Kill characters. Make your readers hate you. Make your characters hate you. Make your characters have sex with their worst enemy and enjoy it. Write it raunchy. Write it bloody. Write it shocking. Just write it, Mell. My mantra last year.

It worked. Suddenly I had a richer world, a more dynamic story. I had characters hurting, reacting, and going all crazy. It was glorious. (And still my CP hated it.) So this year is about prose. Considering the words I use to tell the story. And just when I thought I knew what that was about, I realized I was wrong. I went back to the drawing board. Scene selection. What’s going on in the story? Why this scene? What has changed? What’s interesting? Now, what are the most interesting words I can use to bring my reader to the edge of his seat? It’s hours and hours of work. I’ve spent a week getting a scene right before. I ask for help more readily these days. And I enjoy it.

Now go back and look at your work and ask yourself, what’s changed? Do you know why? Ask for help if you need it. Look your weaknesses in the eye. Face down your doubt monster. Let other people read it. Be humble. Get better. Love the process. Enjoy it. Life is meant to be enjoyed. Love your work. Treat it as you would a child. Do what is best for your story no matter how badly it hurts you. At the end of the day, you will be exhausted. I am. But you will put your head on your pillow each night knowing you gave it your best. That’s what we all want from life. Just do it.