Building Character(s)

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Handsome-Man-ReadingReaders tell me all the time how much they like many of my characters. They say that they feel like people they could know and have as friends. I’m a firm believer in Ray Bradbury’s sage advice to give readers someone to root for—I think that is what makes reading exciting. As Sol Stein always said about reading manuscripts submitted to him for possible publication, “I want to fall in love.” To me that is all you need to remember when setting out on a writing, and thus reading, adventure. I want to fall in love with my characters so much that I want to follow them to see where they are going and to cheer them on along the way.

Lately I’ve read, or started to read, an awful lot of books that feature characters I have a hard time getting interested in. Either they are one dimensional and boring or they are just not the sort of people I want to spend the hours it takes to read a book with. I’m trying to figure out why that is. Are there more authors writing about boring people? Or am I just getting pickier. Last night I started thinking about great characters from books I loved; characters that linger long after the book is over.

Probably the first was Jo March. I don’t remember how old I was when I first read Little Women and it is still one of my favorite books but, more than the actual story, it was Jo that I loved maybe because I identified with her in so many ways. Well, she wanted to be a writer. And sh came from a big family that she loved very much. But more than anything, it was her vulnerability and willingness to go that extra step. I still remember vividly the scene in which she cut off her hair and sold it rather than ask mean old Aunt March for the money so her mother could go take care of her father who had been wounded in the Civil War.

Shortly after that I read Jane Eyre for the first of many times and, again, I loved the story but I also loved Jane. Unlike Jo March she had no family except her horrid aunt and cousins. But Jane was persistent and she had a sense of self-worth that, young as I was, I recognized.

In high school I fell madly in love with Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird. He was everything I thought a man should be: mature, dignified, intelligent, good, plus he was also a crack shot with a rifle. I loved the scene where the town sheriff (Heck Tate, I swear, I didn’t know I remembered that until now) asked Atticus to take the shot needed to kill a rabid dog and the utter astonishment of Atticus’s children when he did it.

Some years back, when I read A.S. Byatt’s Possession, I became quite enthralled by Maud Bailey, the beautiful but quirky professor of feminist literature. Maude fascinated me because she was brilliant but also somewhat wounded by a relationship that she could not quite put behind her. In Kiana Davenport’s Shark Dialogues I loved both Pono, the magnificent matriarch of a large Polynesian family. I loved her fearlessness and her endless love for Duke Kaloha, who was quite memorable as well.

It’s hard to say what it is that makes one character more captivating than another. I have read all of Alice Hoffman’s books and loved them but, of all her characters (and they are wonderful characters) the one that lingers in memory is Julian Cash from Turtle Moon. Why? I’m not sure—he is an interesting mix of strength and emotion, a homely man with a scarred face, who loves his dogs but does not think himself lovable.

A few years back when Donna Tartt’s The Secret History was published it seemed like every woman I know was in love with Henry Winter, myself included. I found this quite fascinating because Henry was such an odd character. He was an intellectual snob, aloof and removed from most company and yet generous and kind with his friends. He saved Richard’s life yet had no compunctions about taking the life of someone else.

I think about these characters—and more—when I am writing because they have qualities that I want to develop in the characters I create. I think the most interesting thing about creating characters is understanding their motivation, they need a personal psychology. That is always at the core of great characters. From Jean-Benoit Aubéry to Harry Potter and from Lady Brett Ashley to Scout Finch, these are people I can think about, love and root for, and keep as friends for a lifetime.

Thanks for reading.

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Show. Don’t Tell by Rebecca Tsaros-Dickson

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Rebecca Tsaros-Dickson, bestselling author of Say My Name

Rebecca Tsaros-Dickson

 

 

The key to truly great writing is in flushing out details. Writers are told pretty regularly to support and elaborate. Our mantra: “Show. Don’t tell.”

But what does that mean?

How do we writers help readers see the action? Feel the characters’ emotions? How do we stop skim-the-surface storytelling and put our readers right down in it? For starters, we have to slow the freak down. Waaaaaaay down. We need to imagine a full, complete picture of every scene in our minds’ eye.

But it goes further than that.

Writers need to learn the kinds of details that effectively “show.” The stuff that helps readers see the wisp of blond hair curling toward her chin when her gaze falls to the ground. Feel the chill of a morbidly gray morning in November while hunting pheasant. Or suffer the metallic taste of irony when she first learns her lover is cheating with her sister.

It’s our job to give readers a reason to care about our characters and what happens to them. Here’s a handful of the kinds of details that help a writer “show.”

  • Character details (moving, thinking, feeling, talking); moment by moment description of action; get inside your characters’ heads; inner thoughts, opposing perspectives.
  • Setting details (smell, touch, taste, hear, see); create a living, breathing picture.
  • Important object details (color, size, texture, temperature); compare objects to something everyone is familiar with.
  • Non-narrative details (quotes, statistics, facts, anecdotes, definitions)

Graphic showing how good fiction appeals to the heart of readers and their feelings as opposed to appealing to their rational thinking side, their brainBooks have an advantage over movies or television because they let readers inside characters’ heads. Beginning writers often forget this. But it’s critical to reveal characters’ inner thoughts and feelings; to show different perspectives by getting inside the minds of people from different times, places and backgrounds. Good writers will also reveal characters’ personalities, thoughts and feelings through dialogue.

When you’re adding these kinds of details, try not to get caught up in editing or critiquing. This part of the writing process – the flushing out of stories – is about using YOUR power and magic. But it can be a frustrating time, too, pausing frequently to compare the scene in your head with what is on the page. It’s hard work to adequately convey in writing what your mind has constructed so clearly for you.

How hard you push yourself during this step is the difference between mediocre writing and excellence. Put another way, slowing down and adding details is the difference between editorializing and writing rich.

A crude example: Walk into a class of third-graders and write on the board, “I have a dog.” Then tell the students to draw a picture of a dog. Each picture would be completely different. And likely vastly different from the dog you imagine in your head. The solution lies in the details.

Example number two: “Yesterday, my husband brought me home some cookies. They tasted good.” Forget that these sentences are boring and poorly constructed. Just think about what you would ask in order to learn more. Why did he bring me cookies? What kind were they? Did they have frosting? Did he make them? Did I share?

Once writers know how to ask the right questions – and that it is, in fact, okay to ask those questions – they become more adept at deleting the irrelevant to make way for what is more specific and concrete.

• • •

Details help to create a picture in the mind of a reader. But how you go about adding them can make a huge difference – the difference between smelling the chlorine by the pool and feeling your head submerge in the icy water.

Don’t: When I started out, I had a bad habit of cramming every detail of a character in the first paragraph. “The short, fat, pasty-faced woman with a wide-brim

graphic illustrating the need to show details instead of telling about them

* * *

straw hat, dressed in her best white Sunday skirt, had dirty, black fingernails and a grin that revealed yellow teeth.” It overwhelms the reader.

Do: Use descriptions of others to reveal something about the main character. “His thick black hair reminded me of my own, when I was pregnant with my oldest. Back before the cancer treatment left me with a threadbare scalp.”

Do: Bring description at unexpected moments. “The sky was metallic and grainy that night, as though sheaths of rain could come down any second. As she reached for the shutters, I could see where years of self-cutting scarred her forearms like some sort of bold tattoo.”

Do: Show details during conversation. “I left him,” she said, crossing her thin arms defiantly, wrinkling the fine lace and white satin of her wedding gown. “Don’t try to talk me into going back.”

Do: Add a bit of character detail when describing something important. “She had a nasty habit of biting her full, pink lips when she was uncertain, which happened frequently when he was around. He noticed – and he liked it.”

Do: Add detail while another character’s action is being described. “She watched him moving to the dance floor with envy. He was so graceful on his feet, while she tripped merely walking across the ballroom in her stilettos.”

How do you add detail to your work?

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Rebecca Tsaros Dickson is a published author, editor and writing coach. She works one-on-one with writers who want to learn how to dig deep in her 4-week intensive course, Write Raw – hailed as the course that will change your life as a writer. In addition, she hosts a weekly writing prompt, called Just Write, designed to remove obstacles and set your writing mind free. She also holds Tune-Up Tuesday, a weekly public revision session with writers from all walks of life. You can find all that and more at RebeccaTDickson.com.

Stop by tomorrow for “Moon,” a powerful story by author Caleb Pirtle III, author of the recently released Golgotha Connection. Subscribe to the BestsellingReads newsletter to receive fresh voices each morning in your mailbox automatically.

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