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Posts Tagged ‘believable characters’

Captive SlavesI’ve never given much credence to results of “studies” on human social patterns. We’re just too complicated to fit into neat little boxes. However, the other day I learned of one such study which so accurately described me, I had to give it a closer look.

I mention this here because this is the sort of thing that can be used to add depth to the histories of families and characters in my writing.

The study was about birth order and the “middle child syndrome.” Now, “birth order” is not new to me; I heard about it a long time ago but never paid it any attention because, frankly, my family situation doesn’t really fit any common form.

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Lucky Penny

I don’t really believe in luck.

At least, I don’t believe in luck as something we can affect. Things happen; sometimes they’re good, sometimes they’re not. People who we think have “good luck” are just folks who make better decisions than others. People who have repeated “bad luck” are usually not paying close enough attention to what’s going on around them. Beyond that, it’s just the randomness of life. Stuff happens.

So, why do I have a “lucky penny?”

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Echoes from another time.

“You’re too sensitive.”
“I was just teasing!”
“You need to come out of your shell.”
“You spend too much time in your head.”

When I was young, adults labeled me with words like “shy” and “bookish” which didn’t sound bad but I was pretty sure they weren’t compliments. I had no such confusion with the schoolyard taunts of “pussy” and “faggot.”

These were the judgments pronounced upon me. They were the phrases that defined me. They were spoken so often, I believed them. I believed that I was defective, inferior. I believed that I was somehow less. Even with all my gifts–of concentration, of perseverance, in music, as an autodidact–I still felt that there was something wrong with me because I didn’t fit in, because I rarely spoke up, because I enjoyed solitary activities, because I preferred walking in the hills to traveling with the pack.

So, when a friend recommended Susan Cain’s sociological study, Quiet, I was intrigued.

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Stack of BooksWhen I went to sleep, I was thinking about the story I’m working on.

When I woke up, I was thinking about the story I’m working on.

This is exactly what I hoped would happen, when I decided to put off working on my new novel and pick up a short story instead. The novel was too big a project, what with all the other drama in our lives. The short story was more manageable, more…realistic…given my current state of mind.

So, what have I done on this old story? (more…)

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Stack of BooksMy recent reading has hammered it in: Backstory–a word my spellchecker hates (though it doesn’t have a problem with “spellchecker”)…I swear; it’s like being edited by a 6th grader with OCD–is absolutely crucial. I’ve known this for a long time, but I’m sort of obsessing about it, now, as I prepare for this new book. I see backstory everywhere in great writing, and it makes all the difference.

You’ve probably heard it: “Your characters aren’t born on Page One.” Meaning, our characters need a history, a reason to be the way they are, where they are, and with whom they are. Lately, I’ve also realized that this rule isn’t just for characters. Places and sometimes even objects need a backstory. The town they live in, that rocking chair in the corner, that leather-bound book there on the shelf, that old pitcher with the crack in it, the dog asleep in the corner…anything can benefit from a backstory. Problem is, I can’t put all that backstory in a book.

New writers often seem to think that, if something is not in the book, it’s not important. This may well be true, but with backstory, this attitude can lead to two major mistakes: putting backstory in the book, and not putting backstory in the book.

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20120729-075810.jpgFor me, the most powerful tool in a writer’s toolbox is the power of observation. It not only helps me create believable characters, it also gives me the ability to fill my worlds with believable detail. Some examples…

I was in the office when the wind-up clock stopped. It didn’t go tick-tock—tick—-tock, slowing as it reached the end of its wind, but just went tick-tock-tick-tock—-, ending suddenly and abruptly like some metronomic cardiac arrest. Odd.

My stomach growled at me this morning, and it sounded for all the world like it said, “Hello, Chuckles.” My guts have never spoken to me so explicitly before, but I’m glad we’re on such friendly terms; that hasn’t always been the case.

For her 60th birthday, I gave my sister a vintage electric clock from the ’40s. It didn’t tick like a mechanical clock but hummed as it worked the sweep second hand around the dial. My sister liked this especially, as it matched her feeling of time as a continuum. I prefer the mechanical heartbeat of a tick-tock clock, as I like to think of time having a constant, measured passage.

These details of life and character are just the sort of things that inform my writing, providing snippets of description or personality. Observation is such a critical skill that it has actually become a pasttime for us.

We can play this game anywhere–at a restaurant, waiting at a stop light, anywhere–just by looking around at the people around us. (Coffee shops are perfect for this game.) I’ll pick someone or she might pick a couple, and we’ll start building backstories for them, weaving a tale of why they are there, what they’re doing, and what they are feeling. These aren’t just wild imaginings, though; we base our story on the subject’s dress, movement, and behavior. Couple on their third date? Construction worker doing the shopping for a sick wife? Woman contemplating divorce?

The key to the game is that the stories must be believable, and must tie into the person we observe. While my wife enjoys the game simply for the mental exercise, I find that it hones my skills and heightens my awareness. If you aren’t aware, you cannot observe, and if you aren’t observant, then you’re creating characters and descriptions in a vacuum.

Characters have to be believable, consistent, and comprehensible to the reader, even if the setting is as alien as a moon or the 9th century. In all the historical research and reading of memoirs I have done in preparation for my novels, the one thing I have learned is that we, as people, have not changed much. The world surrounding us has transformed, technologies have changed, but human behavior remains remarkably consistent.

So keep your eyes and ears open. Stay frosty. Inspiration may be standing ahead of you in the checkout line.

k

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