Saturday, June 24, 2017

Developing Characters for Your Fiction: Always a challenge

Thinking about my characters with co-thinker!
How Do I Develop Characters? 

A great question. A tricky question.

How I develop a character is to steal what I know, research what I don’t, and if anything is left (and there’s always something crucial one can’t find out), make it up. 

Sometimes characters arrive in my imagination well developed.  Other times, if I am riffing off a “real” character, like my mother, I struggle to differentiate the character from the person, to create a true character and not a clone.  A character can arrive with a few characteristics: for example I know that she is a forty-year-old Mennonite widow living in a tiny town in south central Kansas in 1953.  And that’s all I know about her. I give her a name.  Lizzie Ledoux.  Lizzie is my current WIP.

 As a young girl, I spent a summer in this town in the fifties living with my grandmother and working in my uncle’s café.  The July heat, the café patrons, small town life, trips to the city of Newton, trips to the big city of Wichita, even the denim swimsuit I bought came streaming back into memory.  But my character would never wear a swimsuit, would she?  She wouldn’t hang out at the café, either.  She would go to church, dress modestly, tend a garden, and visit family.  But who was she? 

I remembered a statement my grandmother once made.  “Doc Brenneman and his family are back from Africa.”  Africa?  What were they doing there?  Ah, missionaries.  Mennonite missionaries.  Interesting.  With that in my head, I was off to research Mennonite missionaries in Africa.  I found out where the missions were, and that they ran clinics and schools.  In this part of Africa, the official language was French.  So my character spoke French.  I concocted her education, and part of her time in Africa, her backstory as we say in fiction.  She learned to like spicy food and brought home hot pepper seeds.  The children taught her to run distances, because transportation was rare.  She is still a runner.  She learned self-sufficiency and leadership.  Female missionaries who went to Africa were (or became) strong women.  My character liked art, and she brought back a few African masks.  Slowly, in increments, I began to know Lizzie, how she was widowed, how she coped, and her actions when she discovered a dead body in her little town, right in the restaurant parking lot. 

In one book, Chased By Death (now with my agent), a character, Maxine, arrived with a full-blown story.  It was like she was at my shoulder talking to me, as I transcribed her tale. And then?  She said, “well, you can take it from here,” and left my shoulder, with me shouting, “Hey, wait, you can’t just leave! I don’t know what happens to you.”  She told me I would figure it out, and of course with much gnashing of teeth and hard work, I did. Maxine was tough because she had to be.

 We have to put our characters through the wringer.  Because they aren’t real, are they? Listen: after you have written a book and lived with your characters day by day, I guarantee they are real to you.

 Life is strange.  Writing is even stranger.   

Here are other bloggers who are tackling the subject.  Take a gander at what they have to say. 

Friday, March 17, 2017

Real characters: you love them and want to protect them, but you can't keep them safe!

Are you ever emotionally drained by writing certain scenes, and how real are your characters to you?           

Wow!  As usual we have a topic with a lot of meat on it.  
When I first began to write I heard crazy stories about a character “taking over a novel.”  Preposterous?  Maybe not.  My initial experience with this was in my first (unpublished) novel my character didn’t do what I wanted her to do; she did something else.  How is this even possible?  I’m the one sitting here keying away.
The thing is, I’m in the character’s head, not my head, and she’s doing this crazy stuff.  Can’t I stop her?  Not really.  Not if the crazy stuff is right for that character. 
How real are my characters?  Very real to me.  I get to know them from writing, that is, they don’t spring full blown into the head. But I did have novel where a character just perched on my should and started to tell me her story.  About a quarter of the way through the book, she (more or less) said, “Okay, that’s it.  Now you figure out the rest.”  Hey, wait a minute!  I had to figure out the rest.  That was dirty pool.
The thing is, we love our characters, even the bad ones, and we don’t want terrible things to happen to them. We want to keep them safe. This is not possible and not good for the story.  Stuff has to happen, frequently bad stuff.  Which gets us to being emotionally drained by writing certain scenes.
It can be hard.
In World of Mirrors, the main male character is T.K. Drummond. He is an interesting guy, mostly a decent fellow, but at one point he became a colleague and even a friend of a sadist.  Now the sadist wants T.K. to ditch his girlfriend (my main female character) and throw her to the wolves, figuratively.  T.K. is reluctant to do this. The sadist drives them to an isolated spot and starts beating the hell out of him. 
T.K. tossed the keys at Putnam, who caught them in his right hand. Putnam’s left hand still touched my neck, making me crazy with fear.

T.K. opened the car door, then he took off his glasses and handed them to me, but he looked at Putnam. "Leave her alone."

Putnam took his hand away and opened the door on his side.

I just didn't understand what was happening. "What's going on? Where are you guys going?"
T.K.’s answer was full of careless bravado. "Oh, Billy Boy is going to administer his brand of tough love."
"Can't we be civilized?" I asked as they got out of the car. "Bill, please, can't we talk? Let's talk it over. O.K.?"
The car doors slammed shut.
"No! Wait! Please!"
They disappeared into the blackness, Putnam behind T.K. Then I could only see the white pillars rising out of the greenery, and in the foreground, the gray statue of the woman pulling her dress over her head. Some insects were buzzing in the thick silent night. Then I heard the smacking sound of a fist battering flesh followed by a muffled groan.
This was hard to write, because, hey,T.K. was my guy and I didn’t like this one bit.  Seeing his bloody and bruised head was actually traumatic.  Fortunately, the girlfriend sneaked up and bashed the sadist on the head with a rock.  He didn’t die, but lived to cause trouble another day.  I was kind of sad when he did die (doing more bad stuff).    
Another scene that was hard to write is when the bad character (a woman) tried to drown my main character.  This went on for a few pages, and I felt that I was on that raft being conked on the head with a paddle during a ride through dangerous rapids.     

Up ahead the river looked quieter. I tried to shift my weight, preparing to flip over the side into the water. In the soft bottom of the raft, it took longer than I had estimated to get onto my knees.

Phyllis screamed, “Shit!” Instinct took over and I ducked. Her paddle missed my head and slapped me hard across the back, knocking the wind out of me and sending me sprawling across the bow of the raft.

“You bitch!”

 Prostrate, I clutched the lifeline rope. I felt us spinning out of control through the churning river. Phyllis grunted and swore as the raft failed to do her bidding. We were drenched by the cold spray and catapulted against a rock and held there by the river which defied its own force.
Phyllis slapped at me with her paddle again, catching the back of my head. I felt a sickening sharp pain. Saw a rainbow of colors. I clutched the lifeline in a death grip.  Cursing and grunting, she fought the water.  
When I glanced back at her, she had raised the paddle again. The river caught us in the force of its turbulence, agitating the raft in the chaotic waters. I didn’t see how I could survive much longer. 
Another emotionally draining scene.  We love our characters but we have to set them free to get into trouble. To us they are real. Pretty weird, huh?

Here are some  excellent bloggers who are discussing this topic,  Take a look!  
Victoria Chatham
Marci Baun
Margaret Fieland
A.J. Maguire
Connie Vines
Rachael Kosinski
Dr. Bob Rich htt 
Heather Haven
Beverley Bateman
Kay Sisk
Diane Bator
Helena Fairfax
Skye Taylor
Rhobin Courtright