Writing Tip: Characters Are Crucial

Hello, again!  It’s been a busy few weeks for me at my other writing projects (many of which took a backseat during the home stretch for Change Of Season), so I apologize for my absence.  Rest assured, I am here and always available on Twitter at dillonac so please, say hi!

Last time I posted, I mentioned that there are two crucial things I look for in a work of fiction, two things that set the good apart from the great.  The first is fact-checking and the little details, which I consider a matter of respecting and engaging the intelligence of your readers.  The second is more of a matter of the heart, and is something I believe I specialize in with my own work.

Characters are crucial.  Without characters, there is no story.  Without people to care about, engage with, think about or crawl inside the heads of, what’s the point of fiction?  Reading is an escapist activity, a means of exploration or a seeking of empathy.  Characters are the keys to the doors of your world.  If the key is difficult to keep hold of, or simply doesn’t fit the lock, why bother trying to open the door?

Those little details I’ve previously spoken of come into play here as well.  If your character is a teacher, ensure that their actions and activities correlate with that profession.  If your character is a ten-year-old child, do not write him as having the vocabulary of a college graduate unless he is a super-genius for some specific reason.  Know the vernacular.  Know the nuances.  While writing what you know isn’t always necessary (for example, I’ve never gone to boarding school, nor met anyone who has, but wrote the experience anyway), it is best if you’re not able to research deeply enough to crawl into a character’s head.

What do I look for in a character?

  • Humanity.  Flaws.  Imperfections.  No one is perfect – no one.  Even the hero or heroine is apt to have made mistakes, say stupid things, carry false beliefs that need to be corrected.  Take Daryl from The Walking Dead:  he’s got serious biases, a general disdain for most people, and a chip on his shoulder the size of Atlanta.  But he also has a good heart and when push comes to shove, he makes the right choices.  Fans love him for a reason.
  • Growth.  Characters need to evolve if they are key players.  Have that character learn from mistakes, release misconceptions, heal from emotional scars or gain strength.  It speaks to our inner need to believe in change and life getting better.
  • Humour.  This is a personal preference, but I like my characters to have wit about them.  One of the reasons why I’ve fallen so hard for Mira Grant’s Newsflesh trilogy is the snarky, snappy barbs of Georgia and Shaun Mason.  Without that wry take on the world, the stories would be slightly above average at best.
  • Characters should not be unbelievably stupid simply to drag out your plot.  Don’t make the blonde run up the stairs from the killer.  It’s foolish and I’m not having it.  It’s okay for characters to not appreciate the full picture of a mystery, but if a child could pull it together, don’t leave them saying, “Huh?”
  • Depth and dimensions.  I don’t care to read many romance novels because they’re walking cliches.  Women obsessed with love and babies the moment the guy kisses them?  No thank you.  That’s not how the real world is for many, many women.  I also am not obsessed with clothes, shoes or fashion, so please stop writing women like that.  There’s a reason I run kicking and screaming from so-called “chick lit”…

The rest can be tweaked dependent on your genre of choice, but these are the core basics.  I am fortunate that my characters play out as movies in my mind when they come knocking. I can hear their speech, watch their mannerisms and observe how they play off each other.  When I write a protagonist, I want you to be able to embrace him or her as a friend in your inner circle, a relative, a coworker.  I want that character to be breathing beside you, full of life.  If I’ve managed that, the plot will follow along.


Writing Tip: It’s All In The Little Details

I could write an expansive list of things that distinguish an average writer from a great writer, but that would hardly be revelatory.  Countless others have taken a shot at such things in the past.  Instead, I’ll be looking at a few key elements individually over the next few weeks, sharing my opinions as a reader and an author.

One of the top two elements I look for in a narrative – and this goes for film, television and books – is something that ought to be common sense and sadly is not:  getting the details right.  From the mundane to the more complex, I look for accuracy, and as someone well-versed in many areas, I will notice problems and take you less seriously if you haven’t taken the time to get it right.

Example:  CSI.  I love the show to a degree, but also hate it.  I took Introductory Forensics in university.  I know that the show is sped up, details evidence that cannot be found in the way they’ve described, and manages to nail the evidence a little too easily and too accurately.  I notice this on any procedural show.  One of the reasons I enjoy Bones so much is that there is a level of detail and care given to the forensic work that demonstrates the research behind each episode.  Do they get things wrong?  Absolutely:  a character’s brain tumour was incorrectly named.  Overall, they do get a lot right.

Example:  Glee.  I stopped watching the show in season two, although I kept up with the plot loosely via friends who are still fans.  Why did I stop?  The misrepresentation (and demeaning portrayal) of Bipolar Disorder.  It pained me that a show that began by getting the little details right (Emma’s Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder) would slack off and blatantly confuse Bipolar Disorder with a Hollywood version of Schizophrenia.  Given the increasing rate of diagnosis in teens, it was hurtful and shameful.  It was bad research.

Writing, like an art form, requires an innate talent to elevate the work from good to great.  But good writing is also enjoyable, and it can be cultivated through skill development.  Conversely, all the talent in the world at creating great characters is wasted if you can’t bother to get the details right.  Flaws will jar readers from the narrative and bring them back into the “real world” – the complete opposite of what a book or film should do. With so much information readily available via Google and the library, there’s truly no excuse.

Do the research.  Get the details right.  Take the time.  It pays off.

One great resource?  The Livejournal community Little Details.  If your endless searches aren’t working out, you can post in the community and have people in the know help you out.

Writer Tools: SmartEdit

I came across a GalleyCat posting this week, promoting a fantastic new tool for writers.  It’s a free program called SmartEdit and it basically does what I do on my first pass at my work:  it looks for overused words and cliches in your work.

Let’s face it:  we all have certain words and phrases we are partial to.  I have a list of about fifteen I tend to recycle frequently when freely writing.  SmartEdit will call you on those patterns and help you bring variety to your prose.

For self-published indie authors, this is a particular boon!  Check out the details at GalleyCat.