Category Archives: Characters

Uncross Those Arms: How Body Language Plays a role in Life & Fiction

massagenerd → in Clip Art

Human beings are a language-centered species, yet we communicate far more often with our bodies. Each day, we send signals to others via postures, facial expressions, and other seemingly benign gestures. In fact, that body language is often a more accurate indicator of our true feelings than our verbal cues.

Learning to decode the body language of our family members, friends, significant others, and co-workers can often shed great insight into “what is really going on in there.”

A few weeks ago I downloaded a free app on my iPhone called “Body Language Cues.” It came from Matt Sencenbaugh Education. The more I read on the topic, the more fascinated I became. I immediately set to work trying to “analyze” my fellow people. It’s not always easy, after all, nothing is that cut and dry. But I do believe that all day long, we send unconscious clues to others and vice-versa.

This got me thinking. What a great tool for character development! Understanding body language not only plays a major role in our real lives, but for the average fiction writer out there…this could be a wonderful way to enhance our characters’ struggles, conflicts, and emotions.

massagenerd → in Clip Art

*Here’s a general breakdown:

Common Cues

• Balled fists, elbows pressed firmly at the sides and spastic movements indicate fear.
• An arched, inclined, downward facing posture indicates sadness.
• Relaxed, loose muscles and the absence of a rigid form indicate a general sense of happiness.
• Hands that are jammed into pockets often suggest a lack of confidence or feelings of uneasiness.
• Arms that stay resting at the sides with open palms, and feet planted parallel on the floor can be a sign of humility.
• An obvious “up and down motion” of the Adam’s apple suggests anxiety.
• When someone’s upper body is directed towards you, it means he is in agreement with you or he likes you. If someone casts her upper body away from you, it means she disagrees or finds you repelling.
• A deadpanned, impassive facial expression may be interpreted as “Go away!”
• Arms crossed tightly at the chest is a self-soothing gesture. It may be a form of relieving anxiety.
• A shrug shows indifference, surrender, or a relinquishment of accountability
• Tilting the head backwards, or “lifting the chin and looking down the nose” indicates authority, dominance and haughtiness.

Sexual Signals

• Dilated pupils almost always suggest a keen interest in another person.
• If a woman studies her hands during conversation, it often indicates she is attracted to the person she’s speaking with. It may also convey nervousness.
• Women who intermittently cross and uncross their legs may be showing interest in their conversation partner.
• If someone “mirrors” or mimics your actions he or she may be telling you that they find you intriguing or engaging.
• When a woman unconsciously spreads her legs during conversation, it is often a sexual come on.

massagenerd → in Clip Art

Let me out of here!

• Someone who clinks their nails against a drinking glass or rapidly shaking or bobbing his foot likely is expressing that he wishes he were someplace else. This is often a gesture that signals impatience with the situation.
• If a person’s eyes are glossy, “dull or unfocused” they are likely bored to tears
• Fast, rapid nodding of the head can imply annoyance or agitation, while easy nodding shows comprehension and interest.

Liar, Liar

• The tone of voice of a liar will often be flat, unvaried.
• Liars will try to shift the course of conversation by using ironic humor or sarcasm.
• Liars won’t always crack under pressure. If their conversation partners stopping questioning and simply stare at the supposed liars, they will become uneasy. The ones telling the truth will often get indignant.
• Liars will often cough or clear their throats throughout their bogus explanations.
• Liars’ voices will sometimes change in speed and pitch. They might start speaking at a faster or slower rate. Also, they might use some words in a “higher-pitched” tone.
• Liars might display some typical nervous gestures such as nail biting or rubbing their palms down their thighs.
• A lowered gaze might be an indicator that someone is hiding the truth

*Most information came from “Body Language Cues” Matt Sencenbaugh Education.

In conclusion, it’s incredible how often we communicate in nonverbal ways. The culprit may not even be aware of his own actions! With these ideas in mind, it can be a great additional to the characterization in your story. Characters who display subtle signs through body movement and facial expressions will come across more rounded and humanistic.

Recommended: Video from TedTalks. This is a fabulous lecture on “power” body language and how it reflects our success. If you have the time, it’s really riveting

Amy Cuddy: Your body language shapes who you are 

Do you know of any other body language cues that I may have left off the list?

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Filed under Characters, Writing Process

Points for the Protagonist: Our Unyielding Devotion to Character # 1

Ed Davad → in Toys “Gotta love Harry”

A devout fan of the television series Breaking Bad, I became disgusted with myself one evening while viewing an episode with my husband. At a commercial break I began ranting about ‘what a bitch’ Skyler White, main character Walter White’s wife, was for wishing her husband dead. How dare she deliberately smoke cigarettes in his presence in hopes of his cancer returning? How could cause her lifelong partner such intense bodily harm?

Then it hit me: Why wouldn’t she want him dead?

He became a crystal meth proprietor behind her back. He murdered people. He poisoned a child. Truth be told, Skyler’s husband inadvertently dragged her into serious and potential legal problems. He endangered the lives of their children…and yet, I’m calling her the bitch?

More like Walt himself is the son of one.

It’s an interesting notion to ponder, because I’m definitely not the first, nor will I be the last viewer to deem Skylar the enemy. The thing is though, the story is not centered on Skyler’s point-of-view, if it was, then we’d certainly be ragging on old “Heisenberg” a bit more. But since this tale belongs to Walter, and we as an audience are following his journey from lowly high school teacher to number one drug lord of the American Southwest, we’re simply always going to be on his side. End of story.

*Some other examples from the networks:

1. Nucky Thompson from Boardwalk Empire

2. Don Draper from Mad Men

3. Tony Soprano from The Sopranos

*Notice all these protagonists are of the male variety?

Ed Davad → in Toys

Why We Always Root for the Main Character

Outside of television and inside of literature, this is nothing new. We can argue to the death that Odysseus of Homer’s The Odyssey fits the ancient Greek profile of a hero, but in reality, he was a cocky, philandering, manipulative, and war mongering individual. Yet, we love him. For centuries now, we’ve been giving him importance. We discuss his adventures at length. We analyze his motives. Why? Because The Odyssey is a great story. And whose story is it? That’s right. It’s Odysseus’s story.

Have you ever truly hated a protagonist’s guts? I don’t think it’s possible. Yes, I have encountered some disappointing protagonists (see examples below), but otherwise it seems most character-loathing is saved for villains, antagonists, or other secondary characters.

The protagonist though, despite her many shortcomings is basically the person we’re hanging with as we read the story. She may do some wicked and selfish things, but as readers we’re so appreciative of the story she’s telling us that we’re willing to forgive and forget. Besides, if someone (whether it’s told from first or third person) is essentially spilling her guts, we’re likely to find at least some redeeming qualities.

Examples of characters we hate to love:

Rachel: Protagonist in Emily Giffin’s novel Something Borrowed. Rachel has slept with her best friend’s fiancé. Yet as readers we find ourselves rooting for Rachel to get the guy. She does a great job telling us how she’s always been second-rate next to her alluring friend, Darcy. Plus, we come to discover that Darcy’s done some evil deeds on her own. Rachel basically becomes your buddy. Wouldn’t you take your buddy’s side?

Edna Pontellier: Protagonist in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening. She simply up and left her family behind (anyone can be forgiven for leaving an unsatisfying marriage, but to nix your parenting responsibilities?) simply because she was having inner-yearnings of something better out there. Yet she was bold, honest, and fearless. And since we’re hearing about her grief on such a deep level, we’re supportive of her decisions.

Ed Davad → in Toys

Examples of disappointing, but not hated protagonists:

Amir: Protagonist in Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner. Amir watches Hassan, the son of his father’s longtime servant, go through a horrendous experience. Amir, however, does nothing to intervene and then proceeds to feel guilty about it the rest of his life. An underlying motive may be jealously as Amir’s powerful father, Baba, takes an unusual liking to Hassan. Amir is not to be despised, but he proves himself to be a weak character throughout most of the story. It is arguable at the end whether or not the amends he makes does proper justice.

Gene Forrester: Protagonist in John Knowles’s A Separate Peace. Gene is studious and introverted—which is fine in and of itself, but he’s also insecure. Very, very, insecure. So insecure in fact, that he sabotages the athletic abilities of his sprightly friend, Finny by basically pushing him off a tree limb. Gene spends the remainder of the novel contemplating in an obsessive, incessant way whether or not he intended to do his friend harm.

Both Amir and Gene act on jealous instincts, which are essentially, human. They aren’t evil-minded guys, just vulnerable to life’s natural hierarchy. Despite their actions or lack thereof, they are both phenomenal storytellers, and without their keen perspectives, the books would not be nearly as enjoyable to read.

The truth is we let our protagonists get away with quite a bit, but if we want to hear the story, if want to be entertained, enlightened, mystified and moved, well then, we’re just going to have to put up them.

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It’s the Time of the Season: How Weather Affects Our Stories

I can remember a lazy afternoon a few years back in my old apartment; I had just finished watching The Sex and the City movie (part I) when I did something I don’t normally do—clicked on the DVD’s bonus features. For whatever reason, I decided to watch the entire movie again while listening to the director’s, Michael Patrick King, commentary. What really struck me was his use of the changing seasons to move the plot along. I’ll paraphrase here, and you don’t have to be a regular SATC viewer to understand the point.

In the beginning, when Mr. Big leaves Carrie on the proverbial altar it is autumn. I remember the characters discussing a September wedding. Simultaneously, we discover that Steve committed adultery, and while it’s obvious that he is deeply sorry, Miranda stubbornly refuses to make amends and begins to plan her new life as a single woman.

Throughout the cold, blistery winter that follows it is clear that Carrie has fallen into a deep depression. The director even shows how she dyes her black—as if to reflect her emotional state. Miranda too, seems to be barely pulling by, and the tensions lead to a big blow out between the two women on Valentine’s Day.

Then spring comes. Carrie has pulled herself up from her own fiery depths and changes her hair back to its normal, lighter color. Miranda and Steve make plans to meet on the Brooklyn Bridge to attempt reconciliation. I can remember the scene where Carrie and Miranda are walking through Central Park—spring has exploded. The trees are full of plump blossoms, petals float through air, and the grass is green with the vitality. Carrie and Miranda have a new way about them—the fog has lifted. The hard times are over.

When I look back at my life, I see that my wildest, craziest memories were during summer. My darkest periods were during winter. My sense of hope was strongest during spring, and my most prevalent transitioning periods were during autumn.

So I got to thinking…how does the use of the four seasons enhance or reflect plot, setting, and characterization in fiction? As a literature major in college I learned that the seasons often stand as metaphors for the following concepts:

The Four Seasons. From questgarden.com

Spring: Conception

Summer: Life

Autumn: Old Age

Winter: Death

That being said, how can we utilize this in our writing?

Spring: This is classically a season of new beginnings, of hope. Perhaps, for one of your characters it is the end of a depressing period (like old Carrie Bradshaw’s). It is a good time for decision making—a good time to fall in love. The mood of spring is renewed energy. What kinds of situations might your characters go through in the springtime? Spring may also be the perfect season for a happy ending—sort of like a restored sense of faith that all is well.

Then again, it might be fun to try and contrast the growing beauty of a spring setting with a struggling character, or an overblown conflict.

Summer: The season of heated romances, vacations, and an overall sense of freedom. While we’re all adults now and often work through summers, but the notion of June through August being a carefree period will never completely fade—it’s morphed into our psyches and it will certainly come across in literature. This is a great season to use if your main characters are teenagers or college students. Summer is an archetypal time for experimenting, doing crazy things, falling in love, and finding ourselves.

On the other hand, summer can come with a good dose of dread. I always think of The Secret Life of Bees where Lily Owens fears what will come with summer’s end, as she may be forced to leave the home of the Boatwright sisters. The truth is, we all wonder how things will change when summer is over Hey, even Don Henley wonders. “Boys of Summer” anyone?

Autumn: This is a beautiful, but often melancholy season. It’s a time where we cling to the past, (again, shut up Don Henley!) or a more favorable time. Vacation is over; reality has returned. In that way, it is a very practical season. Perhaps in a work of a fiction autumn is where certain events unfold that will lead to a period of mourning. A character grows ill, and his deteriorating body juxtaposes the changing, falling leaves.

On brighter, happier note, autumn is a great time to “turn over a new leaf,” and in some cases, it takes on characteristics of spring in the sense that something new is beginning such as, school, college, etc. Plus, you could always milk that whole concept of the harvest.

Winter: For anyone suffering from SAD, this one is obvious. Winter is a phase of harder times. It’s more difficult for the weak, weary, hungry, and war torn. It is fitting to portray a character going through a depressive state in winter (after all, he can always rise up come spring). Perhaps a character who has been jilted, become unemployed, lost a family member, or finalized a divorce could suffer a tormenting winter. He could be on a post-holiday crisis, a period of uncertainly, stagnancy, and hopelessness. Having a winter season in the background for something like this will always be fitting.

Winter is also a hibernation period. Maybe  a mad-scientist type character works on his experiment like crazy during the winter, all holed up in his study only to reveal his masterpiece when the weather begins to turn. Which by the way I believe was the exact scenario in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. I do remember a lot of vivid winter imagery in that novel.

This is not to say that a writer MUST make use of the seasons to accurately reflect plot, setting, and characterization. Sometimes it will happen naturally—I’ve noticed that a lot of what I described above indirectly occurs in my own novel. However, I do think seasonal consideration should be applied. As writers we can certainly mindful of this technique. What’s happening in the background at any given time is important. And hey, so is weather. Otherwise we wouldn’t talk about it so much!

Do the four seasons play a role in your writing?

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Filed under Books and Literature, Characters, Description, Plot & Structure, Prompts & Writing Ideas, The Setting, The Writing Life, Writing Process, Writing Tips

From the Psyche: How Archetypal Roles Shape Both Us and Our Characters

Something I find interesting (other than writing of course) is the notion of self-discovery.  Anyone who follows my blog knows that I analyze dreams in great detail. My iPhone is littered with apps for personality tests, color quizzes, handwriting analysis, and mood trackers (my husband once lovingly described my phone as a ‘cry for help’).  But the way I see it, if I want to make the most of my life then I need to know who I am, what I want, and what I was born to do (OK, maybe I have been reading too many Oprah.com articles).

I’m also very interested in the inner-worlds of my characters. Even those without their own narrative voices are important. I want to get to know them as much as I know myself—their creator.

During the week between Christmas and New Year’s I read a book—recommended by Oprah—entitled Archetypes. It was written by Caroline Myss, and let me say, this book greatly enhanced my perspective on inner-exploration. It also opened my eyes to new and exciting ways to better characterization in my fiction projects.

Great Question!

Great Question!

According to Dictionary.com an archetype is as follows:

*2. (in Jungian psychology) a collectively inherited unconscious idea, pattern of though, image, etc., universally present in individual psyches.

*I used this definition (there was another) because it strongly relates to Myss’s theory on archetypes.

In one of my dream anthologies, there is a section on archetypes (i.e. The Hero, The Evil Mother, The Loving Mother, The Warrior, etc.) appearing in an individual’s dream; analysis can then be based on the qualities each archetype displays.

In her book, Myss surveys ten different archetypal roles that she believes (and I agree) all human beings (and fictional characters) portray. Of course we’re  all mixtures of particular types, but clearly some take precedence over others.

I will list Myss’s archetypes and paraphrase an explanation of each. To get the full effect, you have to read the book!

There it is amidst all my other "self-searching" titles!

There it is amidst all my other “self-searching” titles!

The Advocate: Those who devote their lives to fighting a cause; Myss gives many examples such as human rights activists, animal rights activists, environmentalists, etc. And you don’t have to be Cesar Chavez to fit into this role. You can simply be the neighborhood watch looking to improve safety after a home on your block was robbed.

Myss’s Examples: Rosa Parks, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Mothers Against Drunk Driving

My Examples:Blogger & Writing Group Companion, Sylver Blaque

The Artist/Creative: Anyone who is compelled to create art falls into this archetypal role. It may be in the form of visual art, written art, or performance art. But Myss says we aren’t complete unless we can create.

Myss’s Examples: Vincent Van Gogh, Mozart, Edgar Allan Poe

My Examples: Thomas Kinkade, The Intrinsic Writer, aka me; all of you reading this!

The Athlete: This could be the marathon runner or the avid sports fan. It’s those who need to be in constant motion. The fitness hounds, the yogis, the skydiver, and the water-skier; the athlete’s focus is on health and nutrition. He or she uses the body as a form of expression.

Myss’s Examples: Michael Jordan, Maria Sharpanova, The Ancient Greeks

My Examples: My Aunt Eileen, star of the YMCA.

The Caregiver: Those who give their lives to serving and protecting others. Myss mentions that often these are the types that need to be told to stop and relax! Do something for yourself! Parents, teachers, doctors, nurses, healers, coaches, and more—these are the ones, according to Myss, who can tolerate to see pain in another human being. They are self-sacrificing, and at time, martyrs.

Myss’s Examples: The Mother, The Teacher, The Sister

My Examples: My mother, father, & grandparents; my Uncle Bob, who cares for my elderly grandfather; myself, as a teacher; many, many of my friends, colleagues, etc.

The Fashionista: If the athlete expresses herself through movement, then the fashionista expresses herself through…you got it…fashion! But this is more than just a professional shopper. This is someone who exudes confidence, prioritizes looking good, and perhaps most importantly, is exploring a sense of identity.

Myss’s Examples: Carrie Bradshaw, Coco Chanel

My Examples: My sister, Victoria.

The Intellectual: These folks tend to go by that old notion of using their heads over their hearts. Intellectuals love learning. They are well-read, researching types. As Myss explains it, the requirement of knowledge is their main life purpose. I imagine they can be rather argumentative as well. Intellectuals take a deep interest in unlocking all the mysteries of the world.

Myss’s Examples: The Sage, The Wise Elders, The Buddha

My Example: Just about every professor I had in college

The Queen/Executive: For all you Oprah fans out there, this one’s for you! The Queen is on top of her game (by the way, for each archetype, Myss has a whole section on the “male counterpart”), and doesn’t take any you-know-what from anyone. She is often in a high-powered position, but a Queen could also simply rule her own household—it has more to do with identity personal ruling style. I think you know the type—Myss says Queens create their own “empires,” and that often comes with a band of followers.

Myss’s Examples: Oprah Winfrey, Queen Elizabeth I, Barbara Walters, and Meryl Streep’s character in The Devil Wears Prada.

My Examples: Laura, a former employer

The Rebel: I can’t help but think of a Punk Rocker (Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols), but anyway, the Rebel is a reactor, a revolutionary—different from the advocate in the sense that he or she responds (often drastically) to all that is wrong with the world. The truth is, the rebel doesn’t have to be someone who elicits political upsurge—it could just be that kid in high school that skipped the last-day-before-vacation holiday concert—brought to you by the school’s jazz band and choral choir—to go smoke pot. OK, maybe I just went to Starbucks. But it was badass.

Myss’s Examples: Henry David Thoreau, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr., The Feminist

My Examples: Elvis Presley. My friend Sara, who back in high school, managed to cut study for entire three-quarters of a year before getting caught.

The Spiritual Seeker: Oh, I love this one. Here we have people who want to know things by the end of their lives. They strive to find that sense of Nirvana inside and out. Myss explains that the true spiritual seeker isn’t someone who vows to buy a ten million dollar home; instead, he or she looks inward to find that true sense of knowing. He is a master of forgiveness, and is willing to turn his life into an odyssey of gratitude in the pursuit of helping others.

Myss’s Examples: The Mystic, The Buddha

My Examples: Deepak Chopra

The Visionary:  Myss says the visionary is the person who can stand back, look at the world, and see clearly, what it needs. Then, he or she sets about putting those changes in motion. Visionaries are idea-makers. They are creators. They have a deep understanding of the human race.

Myss’s Examples: Rachel Carson, Gloria Steinem, Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs

My Examples: John Lennon

By the way, you can find out your archetype by taking the quiz @ www.ArchetypeMe.com

Such a great book!

Such a great book!

My results were a mixed percentage of the following four archetypes: 1) Artist/Creative 2) Caregiver 3) Intellectual 4) Spiritual Seeker.

Also, while Myss goes into A LOT of detail about the types mentioned above, she also includes a glossary with other common archetypes such as: The Victim, The Warrior, The Storyteller, The Slave, and more.

By reading this book, I have a better sense of my life’s purpose; furthermore, through the process, I was able to discover my characters’ archetypes as well. It has turned into a great characterization tool. I even went in and took the above mentioned quiz as some of characters. Trust me, it will give both you and the tiny people who live inside your head much needed clarity.

What Archetype are you? What Archetypes are your characters?

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Straight from the Gene Pool: How Sibling Relationships Mold Your Characters.

tom vogt → in People “Lollipops”

I want you all to take a minute and imagine life without your siblings. Would you be the same person? For better or worse, I’m guessing that no, you wouldn’t. What if your birth order were reversed?

Whether we want to admit it or not, our relationships with our siblings shape our personalities, goals, desires, and motivations. Don’t believe me? Read this article from Psychology Today

Still don’t believe me? Watch this video from TED Talks. It’s fascinating: Jeffrey Kluger: The Sibling Bond

I apologize to all my “only children” readers out there, because I’m about to get real about sisterly (and brotherly) love—that is, in both life and in literature.

I’ve written posts in the past that detail rather unconventional methods of characterization. Sibling relationships are my latest illustration.

I can think of many examples where these kinds of dynamics are the basis of the story. Other times they are simply part of the backdrop. As a writer there some methods you can use to establish the sibling bond. The following, I think, are among the most typical. Of course being the talented scribes you are, you can fill in all the unique details later on.

1. Sister Spiteful: The classic case of the jealous sibling. I believe it works better when the protagonist him or herself is the spiteful one. That way, as readers, we see the larger-than-life genealogical specimen from the underdog’s eyes. Often in these cases we find that the protagonist is struggling with her own identity. Her perceived perception of her perfect sibling only worsens this. Generally these relationships work out, as the envious sibling discovers her sister or brother has insecurities of his/her own.

My favorite literary examples: The Opposite of Me by Sarah Pekkenan & True Colors by Kristin Hannah
My favorite non-literary examples: A League of Their Own & Ferris Bueller’s Day Off

2. Brother Burden: This is a sibling bond that often carries sad undertones. In these cases we see a brother or sister who must care for his/her sibling. Perhaps the sibling is sick, mentally ill, addicted to drugs, etc. The caretaker is burdened by his brother or sister. His own life is greatly affected. He deals with such debilitating emotions as guilt, blame, remorse, and responsibility. But despite the drain, he can’t leave his sibling behind. If the writer is merciful, he relieves this character at the end.

My favorite literary examples: I Know This Much is True by Wally Lamb
My favorite non-literary examples: Love Actually

3. Pals of Progeny: Maybe they bit each other’s heads off when they were kids. Fought to the death over who got more ice cream, or who was next in line to take a shower. But now they’re grown up and they appreciate each other. In fact, they’re pals, friends, buddies. Brothers who take fishing trips together. Sisters who borrow each other’s clothes. Brothers who protect their sisters, and vice versa. It’s a bond that’s tough to break. In literature these types of sibling dynamics can go both ways—horribly right or horribly wrong depending on the nature of the story.

My favorite literary example: Little Women by Louisa May Alcott & Ramona and Beezus by Beverly Cleary
My favorite non-literary example: Friends (Monica and Ross) & The Parent Trap

4. Opposing Offspring: These are competitive types. Or perhaps distant types. In these relationships there was always something that wasn’t quite right. It could be based on jealously, but often in the ‘opposing offspring’ dynamo the culprits consider themselves equals. Maybe they’re simply too different from one another. Perhaps at one time, one backstabbed the other. Either way, the conflict is deep and rich; the path to finding solace in one another is an arduous journey.

My favorite literary example: In Her Shoes by Jennifer Weiner & Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
My favorite non-literary example: Practical Magic

A word on birth order:

To take this further, I’ve compiled a list of commonly accepted characteristics based on birth order. This knowledge may further aid your characterization:

Oldest child-people pleasing, bossy, organized, punctual, natural leader, controlling, ambitious, expected to uphold family values, caretakers, financially intelligent, responsible

Middle child-flexible, easy going, independent, sometimes feels like life is unfair, sometimes will engage in attention-seeking behavior, competitive.

Youngest child-silly or funny, risk-taking, creative, sometimes feels inferior, easily bores, friendly, outgoing, idealistic

Only child-close to parents, demanding, leaders, spoiled, self-absorbed, private in nature, may relate better to adults to kids their own age, independent, responsible

Where do you fit in with your siblings? How about your characters? Who is your favorite sibling pair in either literature or pop culture? As usual—looking forward to your responses!

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Forever Young: How Age Influences Character Development

I turned thirty this past October, and realized, with some degree of pride, how differently I view the world now than I did ten years ago. It’s a fact of life: as we age, our view of the world shifts, broadens, and at times, flat out changes—hopefully for the better.

In life—and in writing—age does matter. Not in terms of intelligence, metabolism, or crow’s feet, but in our perceptions and natural cycles of the human lifespan.

Old woman sitting on bench
Merelize → in People

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure how this notion applies to fiction and characterization; in fact, all it actually takes is a conscientious writer. A fifteen year-old protagonist will have different priorities than forty year-old protagonist, and vice-versa.

And it goes beyond levels of maturity. It’s about experience and life stages. What would be a realistic goal for a twenty-five year old woman? A sixty year old man? I believe the human experience is more collective than we realize, but age does play a major factor.

A character’s mindset, desires, concerns, and agendas should be “age-appropriate.”

Maybe this will help…

I came across a psychology book entitled Introduction to the Lifespan by Spencer A. Rathus. It is a Cengage Learning textbook that is used in the school where I teach.

In one section of the text, it lists the results of a survey taken that asked participants to match certain attributes or personality traits to particular age groups. The results were as follows (I have left out the percentages):

Ages 0+ innocent, unruly, adorable, naïve, endearing, cute

Ages 10+ impolite, manner less, disruptive, insolent, complex, young, aggressive

Ages 20+ in love, ambitious, sexy, young, romantic, daring, attractive

Ages 30+ competitive, hard-working, enterprising, impressive, capable, efficient, strong

Ages 40+ hard-working, slogger, organized, capable, efficient, punctual, tempered

Ages 50+ respectful, cultured, hard-working, organized, provident, methodical, rational

Ages 60+ respectful, cultured, beneficent, humane, benevolent, conciliatory, honorable

Ages 70+ nostalgic, tired, cultured, humane, peace-loving, nice, honorable

Ages 80+ isolated, nostalgic, tired, mourning, sick, unwell, solitary

Ages 90+ dying, isolated, old, alone, sick, solitary

*Source: Gruhn, D., Gilet, A-L., Studer, J., & Labouvie-Vief, G. (2010, December 13). Age-Relevance of Person Characteristics: Persons’ Beliefs About Developmental Change Across the Lifespan. Developmental Psychology, doi: 10.1037/a00213151-12

Obviously there is room for argument here, but much of it makes sense. I’ve found that my characters do fit the characteristics of their age groups. It doesn’t have to be an exact science, but it may help to structure your characters’ conflicts around the stages of their lifespans.

Another interesting note: I’ve found that most major characters in literature tend to fall between the ages of ten and sixty. It’s rare to come across protagonists who are mere children (middle grade excluded) or elderly persons.

Two exceptions:

Room by Emma Donoghue. The story is told from the perspective of a five-year old boy.

The Senator’s Wife by Sue Miller. This is a two-protagonist story, where one of which is a woman in her seventies.

Both stories are magnificently portrayed.

How about you? How old are your characters? Do they fit the descriptions from up above?

How important is age in fiction? Does it aid the characterization process?

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Filed under Characters, Inspiration, The Writing Life, Writing Process, Writing Tips

Birds of a Feather: Your Characters & Their Friends

It’s worth noting who your characters “hang out” with. One of my favorite sayings, and I’ll paraphrase, goes something like this: You are who you attract.

Your protagonist’s choice of buddies can—surprise!—aid in the characterization process.

Friends
Merelize → in People

Some questions to consider when creating your character’s “Bestie”:

  1. Is the friend a secondary character? If so, how should he or she be developed throughout the story?
  2. Does the story have more than one main character, and are the characters friends? In other words, is the friendship the focus of the story?
  3. Is the friendship already established at the beginning, or do the characters meet sometime during the course of the story?
  4. What purpose does the friend serve? A helpful hand? Comic relief? Is he/she a drinking buddy? Partner in crime?
  5. Here’s the big one: What’s the dynamic like? Do the two (or more) personalities mesh well? Is a realistic pairing? Do they connect on some level? A hardened biker and a self-involved metrosexual can be friends…so long as there is some common ground. It’s the writer’s job to make it work.

Here are some common story friendship dynamics that you can bend, blend, and harmonize:

1. The Colorful Sidekick:  The goof off. The king’s fool. Think Kimmy Gibbler from Full House. This is a friend who adds some ‘flavor.’ He is audacious, brazen, comical, and flamboyant.

Important: Never underestimate the colorful sidekick. I’ve found in my own writing as well as the writing of others, that despite the personal flaws, these types often prove to be extraordinary friends in the end.

Favorite literary example: Dominick Birdsey’s cheeky, foolhardy friend Leo Blood from Wally Lamb’s I know this Much is True.

 2. The Charismatic Crony: Your character both loves and hates her. Best friends, yes, but in most cases, the charismatic crony comes out on top. This is the prettier friend, the skinnier friend, the smarter friend, the more popular friend, etc. We all know the type. And we’re all jealous.

Important: It is possible for this friend to be innocent—she may not be fully aware of her prowess. In other cases, however, she is simply one backbiting buddy.

Favorite literary example: I have two. Gene Forrester’s larger-than-life friend Phineas from John Knowles’s A Separate Peace; Rachel’s alluring childhood chum Darcy from Emily Giffin’s Something Borrowed.

3. The Caring Cohort: Quite simply, this is the friend who picks up your character when he or she falls. In fact, in some cases, this is the friend who sacrifices. Donates a kidney. Kills another. Gives up his own pleasure…all in the name of his friend.

Important: Any “friend” type that I’ve described here can lend a helping hand. The caring cohort goes a bit further.

Favorite literary example: George, who cares for mentally-handicapped Lennie Small during the Great Depression in John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. (See my most recent “Old School Sunday” post). Also, although this isn’t literature, in West Side Story Tony kills the love of his life’s brother for stabbing his friend, Riff, to death. Now that’s the kind of friend I’m talking about here. Not to mention good old Romeo, who slain Juliet’s cousin, Tybalt for slaughtering his own friend, Mercutio.

4. The Best Friend: They say if you fall down, a good friend will help you up; your best friend will laugh at you. It’s true in life and it’s true in fiction. These are two characters who are practically one. Often, they will go through various life changes, and may struggle with their relationship; but in the end, they usually find their way back to each other.

Important: Generally speaking, this kind of friendship will require two main characters. They will have separate lives, but be forever tied to one another. Often the foundation of the story is the friendship itself.

Favorite literary example: Kate and Tully, whose lives (both separately and together) go through many transitions, and face many obstacles in Kristin Hannah’s Firefly Lane. Actually, the book reminded me a lot of the movie Beaches, starring Bette Midler and Barbara Hershey.

I’d like to leave you with some links from Writer’s Digest, particularly if your protagonist’s friend falls within the ‘minor character’ category:

What is a Minor Character: Understanding the Minor Characters’ Role

Questions to Ask (& Strengthen) Your Minor Characters

What are you favorite friendship dynamics in literature? Film?Television? How do your characters relate to each other? Can’t wait for the comments!

 

 

 

 

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Filed under Characters, Plot & Structure, Prompts & Writing Ideas, The Writing Life, Writing Process, Writing Tips

Into the Depths: Characters and Their Dreams

“Sleeping Cat”
2happy → in Cats and dogs

Each night before I fall asleep I will myself to dream. If I’m lucky the next morning, I’ll remember them and record the details in a journal. Then, I’ll dissect what I wrote and analyze each symbol separately. Dreammoods.com is my savior. It’s more complex than that of course; dream interpretation remains a mystery, even today.  Nonetheless, I love dreaming. I love talking about my dreams. And I’m probably alone in this, but I love hearing about other people’s dreams.

That being said, in literature, when characters dream, it’s a sublime reading experience.

Not surprisingly my main character dreams throughout my novel-in-progress.  I don’t overdo it; he only has maybe two or three noteworthy dreams in the story. These nightly visions aren’t longwinded three page descriptions of unconscious rigmarole. A good dream sequence should probably last five to seven sentences at the most. And, let me say, the weirder the better.

After examining both my own writing and that of others, I can relate three simple rules-of-thumb when it comes to a character’s REM cycle:

1. Like I mentioned before, keep it short. The general public tends to get bored while listening to a friend, relative, or co-worker’s nighttime adventures (I’m the exception), so assume that they’ll get “sleepy” while reading about a protagonist’s overactive subconscious.

2. It should reflect what real dreams are like: ethereal, nonsensical, and at times, jarring. Taking this a step further, it works best when the underlying meaning of the dream is more obvious to the reader than the character him or herself.

3. It can’t be random. It must, in some ways, reflect the bigger picture of the story.

Expanding on number three, I’ve broken the concept down into the three categories:

1. Distorted Foreshadowing:A character dreams of walking through an unfamiliar rose garden. All flowers are flourishing, except for one brownish, wilting bush at the perimeter’s edge. Two weeks later a phone call comes: the character’s estranged mother has passed. At the wake, the funeral home is decked out in roses—the once vibrant mother’s favorite flower.

2. Jumbled Reflection of a Character’s True Feelings: A female protagonist has a recurring dream where she is stuck inside an old haunted hotel. There are ghosts in each room, and she fears they will come out and get her. There seems to be no exit to the terrifying building, each door she tries is jammed, the phones don’t work, and even if they did, it wouldn’t matter because when she tries to speak, no words come out.

In this character’s real life situation, she is invested in an abusive marriage, and despite the warnings she receives from her friends and family members, she feels too weak to break free. There are many, many truths she has not acknowledged about her life and situation. However, at least in the early parts of the story, she is utterly confused as to the meaning of the ominous dream.

3. Mish-mashed Symbolism:A wronged male character dreams he is on the beach when a giant wave crashed over him. Later, when he finds shelter in an abandoned house, he can barely step inside because the entire place is flooded. In dreams, water is reflective of emotions, particularly emotions which have gotten out of control; hence, the man’s anger over his past is actually “leaking out” and “overwhelming” him. The water symbolizes his torrid emotional state.

Each story will lend itself to a different kind of dreamer.  As the sole creators of our stories, we understand our characters better than they understand themselves. Their dreams are simply attempting to clue them in.

Some tips? Check out dreammoods.com here. It has a comprehensive dream dictionary, as well as simplified theories from renowned theorists like Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. Understanding the basic nature of dreams will aid you in your writing.

How about you? Do your characters dream? Excited to hear your comments!

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Filed under Characters, Inspiration, Prompts & Writing Ideas, The Writing Life, Writing Tips

Tell me about your mother: A character’s psychological make up

I believe all writers should have a solid understanding of psychology. Nothing too detailed, just your standard knowledge from any given Psych 101 text. This planet sustains over six billion people, yet it’s impossible to find any two who are exactly the same in genetic structure, upbringing, and individual experiences (and yes, this includes identical twins). Humans are complex; your characters should be too.

Character motives run deep. They have to come from somewhere. A general, even rudimentary comprehension of psychology can do wonders for character development. For example, a spoiled, pampered-upon princess type will not likely have confidence issues. However, she may struggle with superficiality. An unyielding, turned-criminal heroin addict may have suffered through child abuse, or been raised by a broken family. It doesn’t have to be this simple; in fact, it probably shouldn’t be. But like us, our characters are products of their environment. If done correctly, every choice they make will have its roots.

“We all have our layers”
Shi Yali → in Food & Drink

 

Character Psychology 101: My own personal breakdown:

1. So, tell me about your mother: Mommy/Daddy issues. Classic. It all starts and ends here. I’ve read so many stories where characters have unresolved conflicts with their parents. My own novel (unconsciously, of course) portrays one of these very predicaments. If applicable, think about your characters’ relationships with their parents. Are they solid? Irreparable? And more importantly, do the characters reflect these dilemmas? Are there manifestations of insecurity? Hopelessness? Do they choose partners on account of who their mothers and fathers were? Perhaps a man who was raised by his overbearing mother has issues sustaining relationships. After all, no one’s as good as mommy. This can be expanded into issues with the family—siblings, other relatives, etc. A broad understanding of how it all works will help put your character intentions into perspective.

2. It’s understandable; you were a victim of trauma: War, rape, assault, accident, or abuse. These characters will likely have matters to sort out. It’s likely their lives will not follow a straight line. They will encounter difficulty with day-to-day matters, and their willpower will constantly be tested. What types of activity will they fall into? Drug or alcohol abuse? Sex addiction? Homelessness? Theft, murder, or other illegal pursuits? Maybe it won’t even be that drastic, and of course they can overcome their burdens, but the characters must be shaped by the traumas. It’s simple psychology after all.

3. See, you’re using what we call a defense mechanism: Is your sarcastic character trying to cover up his insecurities? Is your anger-ridden protagonist hiding pain? Is the macho-monster truck-driving alpha male perhaps…compensating for something? Do any of your characters repress feelings? Act out? In other words, certain outer behaviors should likely reflect a tortured inner world.

4. Well, to me, that sounds like a self-fulfilling prophecy: Say you have a character who’s certain that no matter what he does, he will fail. Then, not surprisingly, he does fail. Over and over again. It’s a state of mind, almost like a prediction. In some ways, this character is controlling the outcome of his life with his negative thoughts. We do it in real life all the time. Characters instantly become identifiable when they do it too.

5. No, it’s not just in your head; it’s an illness, an actual illness: One my favorite books of all time, Wally Lamb’s I know This Much is True, is about a man who has a schizophrenic twin brother. These characters with mental illnesses cannot be blamed for their actions, and often, extensive research must be done to realistically capture the causes, symptoms, characteristics, and treatments of the disease.

There are spider webs in our unconscious minds. Every person alive today has his/her share of unrealized desires, fears, and latent projections. Since we all strive to create characters that make our readers tick, it doesn’t hurt to understand what makes us tick first.

How about you? Does fundamental psychology influence your characters, whether it’s deliberate or not? As always, excited to hear what you have to say!

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Filed under Characters, Writing Process, Writing Tips

In Memoriam: When a character dies

Merelize → in Church & Cemetery

In fiction, a character’s death is the ultimate spoiler. When I taught high school English one of my favorite books to read with students was A Separate Peace by John Knowles. It proved to be a popular one in my class, as we spent weeks on end discussing Gene Forrester’s motives for “jouncing” the infamous limb, and gravely injuring his spirited friend, Finny. The funny part was each time I covered the story, there’d be at least one student who’d read ahead (or perhaps log onto Sparknotes) and do the unthinkable: spread the ugly truth around the classroom in venomous whispers, Finny dies!

As writers, why do we kill our characters? Is death a good plot twist? Does it make a story better? More dramatic? Emotional? Symbolic? Does death effectively touch on the greater human experience?

I’ll admit it. I’m a convicted character killer. Lock me up. I’m not vicious about it though, I simply understand their fates. As sad as it can make a reader or writer, some characters just seem destined to die, and as far as I know there is no set of criteria to follow, except for this: it must reflect the larger web of the story.Otherwise, as my characters’ divine creator, I think it would be too difficult to do.

Some surface elements to consider:

Who: Which characters will be plucked from the page? This needs to be carefully considered. Usually it’s not the main character, particularly if he or she is also the narrator (unless you’re going for a Lovely Bones angle, which I just find unsettling). If you know who will perish in advance, you can characterize accordingly. If not, there’s always revision.

When: At what point will the unfortunate character(s) pass on? Those who die in the middle of the story might have a dynamite personality to make up for lost time. If a character goes early on, perhaps it’s to set a precedent, or to establish an important plot point.

How: Tragic death? Violent death?Peaceful death?Inevitable death? It all depends on the individual character(s).

Why: This is a big one. Does the death serve a purpose? It most likely should.

I’ll take this last point—the “why”—a bit further. Based on everything I’ve ever read, written, watched in films, or seen on television, I’ve come to find that characters almost always die for one of the five reasons below.

1. The Extraordinary Person Syndrome: This character has a spirit that’s too big for life (not unlike poor Mr. Finny). Think of rock stars—Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin—all robbed of life at a tender age. It’s as if their brilliance was meant to be solidified.

2. The Stigma of the Very Important Person: At least to the main character. In fact, maybe too important to the main character. It could be a friend, lover, relative, etc. of the protagonist. This person’s passing is often a lesson in love or guilt.

3. The Evil-Doer’s Demise: A nasty villain. A murderous creep. An abusive spouse, parent, or significant other. This is someone who has done no good throughout the story, and flat out deserves to die. Perhaps at the main character’s hands.

4. The Magnitude of the Martyr: This character’s death will quite literally shift ‘the sands of time.’ A mother of two estranged sisters dies of natural causes, and thus forces her daughters to reconnect. The passing of a woman’s controlling husband will influence her to take a spiritual journey. A former high school quarterback overdoses and brings countless alienated peers back home to pay respects. Get the picture?

5. The Reprieved: This one is for the disease-stricken, the ill-treated, and the less fortunate. They die because the suffering has become unbearable. In death they are in peace.

I believe there is room for some blending. Maybe one character’s end will fit into two of these categories, or three. Even those who die for political reasons, or while at war will likely touch on one or more of these elements. Our characters are our babies, and with time, we share them with the world. Losing one can no doubt be super sad. But sometimes, for the sake of the story, it must be done.

Have your characters gone on to a better place? For what reasons? I’d love to hear your comments, morbid as they may be.

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Filed under Characters, Why We Write, Writing Process, Writing Tips