Keeping It Real: Developing Characters, Part II

by Miko Johnston

Frequent readers of this blog may recall me referring over time to the fourth novel in my A Petal In The Wind series, which I’ve been writing for more than a year. I got stuck. My plot points kept stalling out, but I had a breakthrough after my last post. Whew! Until then I worked on revising earlier chapters. In one I found something I not only rarely do, but scold other writers for doing – I repeated myself in consecutive scenes. The actual scene played out first, and on the next page my protagonist Lala told another character what happened.

Then it occurred to me – maybe I didn’t repeat myself; maybe instead, I wrote the scene in two different perspectives. I didn’t need both, but I could compare them and keep the better of the two. Out went the full scene; the gist from her dialog worked better. Lala had to have her say about the incident, and that clarified why I got stuck finishing the novel. Lala found my direction for her ‘wanting’. I realized I kept forcing the plot in a way that wasn’t true to the character, so I ‘asked’ Lala to explain, in a few sentences, what she sought for herself. That solved the mystery. I feel confident she – and my readers – will agree this new direction sounds like the Lala we’ve watched grow up.

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Our characters must be real to us, for if we can’t envision them, body and soul, no one else will. It’s why I always write: characters ‘who’, rather than ‘that’, and say they’re created, not invented. KEEPING IT REAL: PART I focused on writing series, where you have more time and pages for character development. When creating and developing characters for a short story or stand-alone novel, how do we keep them ‘real’?

  1. Give them a background

Begin with a basic police description of gender, age, and physical size: Asian male, mid- thirties, five foot ten, 170 pounds. Ask them what you’d ask any person you’ve just met – what’s your name, where are you from, what do you do? Delve further and observe. How are they groomed and dressed? What do they sound like? Are they eloquent, plain-spoken or inarticulate? Adventurous or timid, gregarious or shy? Many writers, including our own GB Pool, recommend writing biographies for your primary and secondary characters. It’s helpful in writing a short story but vital in a novel.

  1. Find inspiration in real life

Often we base characters on actual people we know. We observe strangers in public places, listen in to their conversations. We play-act, or fantasize about what a celebrity might be like.  That may make them real to us, but it doesn’t always translate onto paper. If you write fiction, you don’t have to recreate an exact duplicate. Instead, borrow traits from the person, like appearance, personality, or history. Use those elements as a foundation to write a unique character who reminds you of what you love, or hate, about their real counterpart.  I based one character on a dear departed friend who suffered more than she deserved, and gave her a better life. I’ve also created some who resemble people I know and have one trait in common – their taste in clothes, or their bluntness. The rest I fictionalize, but with qualities I’ve found in real people.

  1. Get to know them

We must become familiar enough with a character to understand what they will say and do. Talking to your characters, questioning or interrogating them will flesh out little details. Are they outgoing or shy, active or couch potatoes? Do they like to travel, or are they homebodies? Do they eat to live or live to eat? If they could change any aspect of their life, what would it be? What flaws does your hero possess, and in contrast, what are your villain’s fine points? The more you know the better you’ll know them. To grow interrelationships, try free-form dialog, where you write a conversation between two of your characters. Sit down and begin to write without pausing, without dialog tags or punctuation. Just write, and after a few minutes your logical left brain will switch over to your more creative right brain. Try this for at least ten minutes and see what your characters have to say about each other, and by insinuation, themselves.

  1. Go beyond words and actions to thoughts and motivations

To really understand someone, we need to know more than what they say or do, but why they say or do it. Your biography will help with this, but like the exception proves the rule, contradictions in characters prove their ‘realness’. Look for contradictory traits, for everyone has a touch of hypocrisy within them. Even if your characters don’t know why they say or do something, as often happens in real life, you – their creator – must know and present it in a way the reader can deduce it without being told.

  1. Set them apart

To create characters who are not cardboard cutouts, begin by avoiding clichés and stereotypes. Not everyone from Mexico is named José (or Maria) Gomez, and you can’t always tell by appearance or mannerisms if someone is gay. Real folks are a mixture of commonality and individuality. What we share in common makes us recognizable, but our uniqueness sets us apart. Think of anyone you know and list five traits that they share with many people. Then list two or three that are different. My five shared traits would include compassionate, sensible, impatient, analytical, and curious. What sets me apart? Despite being a mature adult, put me in an environment with animals and I turn into a giddy three-year-old, as I recently demonstrated in the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

  1. Let them be

Once you’ve created your characters, allow them their voice. Let them tell you what they want and don’t want, and listen to them. It could save you hours, weeks, even months of writers block. You don’t always have to obey, but trust and respect them enough to hear them out. Also allow them some privacy. Instead of writing in every detail, give enough to flesh out the character and let readers have the pleasure of filling in the rest.

All this may seem like a lot to compact into a story or book, but the sum of big picture and little details about characters humanizes them. It also makes them vivid in our minds, which enriches the story, for even above plots, great stories revolve around the people who occupy them.

To find more writing on the subject throughout this blog – just put CHARACTERS in the search line. For an in-depth look at how to create villains, see my earlier post:  https://thewritersinresidence.com/2015/07/15/building-a-better-villian-by-miko-johnston/ If you have any advice you’d like to share, we’d love to hear from you.

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Miko Johnston is the author of the A Petal In The Wind Series, available through Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Miko lives on Whidbey Island in Washington. Contact her at mikojohnstonauthor@gmail.com

 

 

 

This article was posted for Miko Johnston by Jackie Houchin (Photojaq)

 

Keeping It Real: Developing Characters Throughout a Series

by Miko Johnston

I became an author when I finished the first in my series of fiction novels – my first book, period. Interestingly, Lala, the character I inaugurated thirty years ago, recently turned thirty herself. Is that a coincidence?

Maybe not.

Petal InTheWindMy writing has matured over those thirty years, as has my heroine. Granted, when introduced in my first book, she was “almost eight”, so her voice and thoughts had to reflect her age. However, the book was meant for adults, therefore it had to present the story at a more mature level. Much of the storyline and the tension springs from a child who’s unable to fully understand her situation and an adult audience who clearly can.

As the story develops, and Lala ages, she had grown up in the eyes of my readers as well as my own. I sometimes feel like thirty years ago I gave birth to this young girl, though I’m thrilled not to have actually given birth to an eight-year-old! Still, having lived with these characters for almost half my life and four books, they’ve become very familiar, and I’ve grown close to them. I sense a greater intimacy between the characters with each novel, in part because of my growing familiarity with them.

I feel the same way about characters in the series I still read. I’ve become invested in their lives, curious to see how they play out. It’s become an even more important aspect of pleasure in reading than the storyline. I’ve stuck with a few series with formulaic plots because of my attachment to the people who populate the stories.  I’ve also dropped a few series from my must-read list and always for the same reason – stagnant characters.

I asked several writers of serialized fiction about how their relationship with their characters – and their characters’ relationships with each other – has changed with each book, and each passing year.

51pZwz0PBbL GOTUMike McNeff introduced his hero Robin Marlette in GOTU (pronounced Got-U, it’s short for Guardians of the Universe). His action/adventure series features a covert ops team that has to balance work with home life. Mike’s currently writing the fourth book in the series. When I asked him how his characters have evolved over time, he decided to let Robin speak for himself:

“We were once cops who tried not to hurt anyone, including suspects. Now we kill just to survive and it has reached the point where killing has become a mere afterthought. I’ve killed sleeping men, men who didn’t know I was near them and men who were simply doing an assigned task at a particular moment. They were all involved in acts threatening innocent people, but I gave them no warning…no chance to surrender. I just killed them.” Robin’s eyes met the admiral’s. “My men and I have become dark and dangerous shadows moving through the night grappling with a squirming underworld. I’ve become unsure of just what and who the enemy really is…I just react to threats to the innocent people on this earth.”

I’ll add that the series has grown darker, but as Mike’s characters have developed into a close-knit team, they’re more comfortable teasing each other, and their humorous banter provides comic relief that lightens up the action.

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41SMl8rQs0L IndelibleWhat began for Heather Ames as a stand-alone novel turned into a deftly blended mystery, suspense and romance series featuring Detective Brian Swift and socialite/club owner Kaylen Roberts (due in part to encouragement from some members of this blog). Ames says, “My characters have evolved from two people who didn’t even trust each other enough to share confidences into two people who have been trying to work through various challenges. They weren’t sure they could work things out by the end of Book one, but they both wanted to try.”

In each subsequent novel she balances the suspense between solving the mystery and navigating their evolving romance. Readers root for the couple, but Ames keeps us wondering as we follow their emotional roller coaster ride. “Being mismatched soulmates isn’t an easy gig. Brian’s profession is a huge stumbling block for Kaylen (while) Brian feels like a fish out of water in Kaylen’s world, and isn’t so sure he wants to try fitting in.”

The couple has progressed with each book. “Kaylen has evolved into a much stronger character than she was at the beginning of the series, while Brian has developed chinks in his armor that make him more vulnerable.”

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41SMgxyg59L Last ConfessionPat Kelley Brunjes traveled a similar route with her characters as I, opening her series with a story loosely based on her family history. In her first novel, The Last Confession,  her protagonist serves as a stand-in for Brunjes. “Maggie was me seeking to find the truth about my grandmother’s relationship to the Catholic Church.” Although based on her research, she fictionalized the story, which allowed her to take Maggie in a non-biographical – and more dangerous – direction. In the sequel she’s writing, her heroine gets entangled in a cold-case murder and human trafficking. “In the second novel, Maggie has evolved into her own person dealing with what fate has thrown her, and how her personal beliefs guide her decision to help others.” Having given herself the freedom to step away from semi-autobiography, Brunjes will have much flexibility in plotting future entries in the series.

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51sKIWU-ULL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_ PaulineAvis Rector faces a unique challenge in writing her historical fiction series, based on the early life of her family on Whidbey Island. In her first book, Pauline, the heroine and her husband settle on the island during the Depression. “So much of the first Pauline was based on my memories of the stories I heard as a child from my father who loved to tell stories—usually real happenings, but many embellished.” However, in her sequel, the story moves into the 1940’s, a time Rector lived through. She’s having to reinterpret her childhood memories through an adult’s perspective. “Actually, I’m having a hard time writing how the adults felt about the time. Pauline has changed.”

Part of that involves Pauline’s maturing. Rector admits she struggles to find the right balance between the irrepressible gal readers meet in the first novel and the responsible parent she becomes after adopting two children. “It was difficult for her to become a mother. She’s no longer the fun-loving young wife (as in the first book), but a serious, not so much fun, mother. I’m sorry about this, and feel I should…try to soften her personality, to enjoy the experience of being a mother like she always wanted to be.”

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Most of us in WInRs have written, or are writing, series – I’m interested in hearing their take on this. I also know some of you reading this post write serialized fiction. What challenges have you faced moving your characters through the years, either in ‘book-time’ or real time? Have they evolved over the course of your series, and if so, how?

 

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Miko Johnston is the author of the A Petal In The Wind Series, available through Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Miko lives on Whidbey Island in Washington. Contact her at mikojohnstonauthor@gmail.com

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This article was posted for Miko Johnston by Jackie Houchin (Photojaq)