Rounding your characters: the hero(ine)

One important thing to remember when creating your main character–which in most cases (though not all) turns out to be the hero–is that they need to be real. What I mean is creating a character that is believable, despite all of the amazing–if not fictional–acts and accomplishments they achieve over the course of the novel.

What does it take to make a character believable? Read on.

Strengths and Weaknesses

When creating your characters strengths, its ok to make the character stronger, faster, smarter, or heartier than a real person in real life. That’s one of the reasons people like to read, right? They want a break from the mundane, the ordinary, the reality of real life. So go ahead and make your hero be able to lift a truck to save a helpless child, or to have him wrestle bare-handed against a tiger…just don’t over do it.

Keep it “realistic” without being real: Have your mage be the strongest in his town – but not in the land. Let your alien species be immune to every bio-weapon known to man, but not in the universe. It’s ok to let the fight go on a little longer as simple punches don’t hurt your “superman,” but one person can not take on a room of eight bikers and walk away unscathed.

There needs to be checks and balances in everything, including your characters strengths and weaknesses. All of the great heros of the past had them: Achilles and his damn heel, Heracles and poison, Oedipus and hubris, Superman and kryptonite, Thor without his hammer, Othello’s overactive trust issues. The point is, each of these characters had something (a weakness) that would bring them to the ground; thus, they are NOT unstoppable, unsinkable, or immortal.

A talented author (I’ll input his name once I remember, as my mind is just not here at the moment) once made an excellent point when discussing the laws of magic: basically, that there must be consequences for the magic user, or the world in which the magic is used. For example, a wizard cannot be all-powerful, otherwise no one would be able to stop him and then what’s the point of any kind of plot? There wouldn’t be, as there’s nothing at stake for him. So, to keep the plot interesting, there needs to be a side-effect of each use of magic; such as having the magic-wielder age each time he casts a spell–so that in the end when he needs to cast a massive spell to save the town, it’s a much more difficult choice (and possible sacrifice) that the character is up against. Make sense so far?

Minor Flaws

Besides the obvious strength/weakness issue, there are other little details that can be added to your character that makes him/her draw the reader in, so that readers can understand and relate to them, bringing your hero “down to earth” and keeping them from becoming an iconic ass.

How do you accomplish this? Easy. One of our upcoming books, Damewood, has a female lead character who enjoys hunting and slaying demons–and is actually so comfortable around them that she’s seeing one. So what did the author do to round her character? Fear. Nadia, the main character, can slay demons and stand her ground at the sight of gallons of blood, but cannot stand to be in the same room as a spider. Doesn’t matter what kind or what size of spider, even if it’s dead, she flips out, lifts her imaginary skirt and cries for help from her guy-pals. It might sound funny in this short description, but it really makes the character believable in that–despite the demon slayings and boyish attitude–she is, after all, a girl, with real girl fears. (And no, not all girls are afraid of spiders, so before anyone gets all huffy and bitchy just follow me here.)

Another great example would be to have a character be an acclaimed space pilot–only to come out later that he’s afraid of the dark and can only navigate the ships because of interior lighting. Or, a heroine that will cross miles of open deserts and wastelands to save her sister’s kidnapped child, but will give up an hour of much-needed sleep at night in order to comb out her hair and meticulously clean her travel dust-covered gear because she can’t stand dirt.

It doesn’t really matter what you do, just give them personality quirks or characteristics that would make them stand out, and keeps them from being the “iconic,” or “perfect” character. Again, don’t overdo the flaws and make them unrealistically stupid, slow, afraid, or whatnot, just something to offset the “hero” image, and again, bring them “down to earth.”


Is the Hero Really a Hero?

You mean is your character a hero with all (or some) of the above-mentioned flaws? Of course. If anything, it REALLY makes them a hero because of the obstacles you’ve created that they must go up against. I mean, what would be so heroic about your character if there was nothing to stop him from walking in to a building and carrying out a crying infant? Nothing. On the other hand, wouldn’t it be more dramatic and climatic if the building was on fire, the infant trapped upstairs, and the man had asthma? See what I’m talking about now?

You need to build your character up (or down, whichever way you see it) in order to make the situation tense and intriguing. On the flip side, you need to write your character in a way that readers sympathize with them so that they actually give a damn whether or not he/she lives or dies, or saves the world, etc. Make readers care. Make them understand. Make your character “real.”

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Character description worksheet

Okay, so we’ve been slacking this last week. A lot’s been going on over here, and the blog…well, the blog was not exactly in the top three of last week’s to-do list. So, while I’m putting together the article about writing character descriptions, here’s an outline/worksheet that lists many (but not all) of the characteristics you should have developed for your characters in order to make them believable, well-rounded, and memorable. Again, this is a starter list, and should be no means be the end to the depths in which you can describe your character.

P.S.
To expedite things, I’m writing as if all the characters are males. Sorry girls – it’s just a pain in the ass to have to jump back and forth from him/her, he/she, etc. Get over it.

    Character Description Worksheet

PHYSICAL/BASIC TRAITS

Full name (including middle if he has one)

Date of birth

Age

Address/or at least location where he lives (ie, California, Nebraska, Mars…)

Race/ethnicity/nationality

Height

If short, does he have a height complex?

Weight/build

Skin color (also natural, or tanned)

Hair (color, texture, cut)

Eyes (size, color, placement)

Nose

Ears

Size/shape of hands and feet

Wear nails long or short (cut or chewed)

Glasses/contacts?

Teeth (shape, color, size)

Distinguishing marks (birthmarks, scars, tatoos)

Health

Smell (yes yes, ALL of us have our own smell)

Voice (pitch, tone)

Posture

Walking style

Mannerisms

Nervous ticks/twitches

Favorite type of clothes/shoes/accessories

What he actually wears (ie, what he can afford compared to what he likes)

Favorite foods

Favorite drink

Eating habits

Smoke

Drugs

PERSONALITY

Occupation

Does he like his occupation?

Social class

Is he happy where he stands?

Views on money

Actual spending habits

Education/intelligence

Family

Political views

Religious y/n, how does religion play in life

Outlook on life/disposition

Favorite possession

Car/bike

Hobbies

Talents

Describe in three (3) sentences his average daily routine.

Fears/phobias

Major goals

What kind of self-image does he have?

Eating disorders

Physical disorders

Length of time on an average day it takes him to wake up and clean up

Showers daily?

RELATIONSHIPS

Married/single

Sexual orientation

Sexual preferences

In a relationship? Serious?

List people/characters he spends most his time with

Relationships with:
–Father
–Mother
–Siblings
–Grandparents
–extended family
**write a 2-5 sentence description of each family member he’s in contact with

If no father/mother, does he strive to fill that hole?

Have kids?

Their ages.

Best friend

How does he view his friends?

How do his friends view him?

How does he view family?

How does family view him?

Name his hero

OTHER ODD PERSONALITY TRAITS
(These apply only to fantasy/horror/sci fi novels)

Race (as in alien or humanoid…)

Magical abilities

Fighting skills

Survival skills

Types of training received

Work preferences

Is he comfortable around humans

Comfortable around large groups of people

Dead or undead

Weaknesses

Is he similar to others like him, or does he stand out?

Can he use a gun/weapon

Any familiars? (if so, describe)

Views towards his people/fellow creatures/race

Has he traveled much from his town/city before current plot journey?

Is he aware of “the bigger picture” or what “doom” is befalling his tiny village?

Is he comfortable dealing with alien species?

Has he killed before?

Has he killed another human (or another of his race) before?

Was it in cold blood or self defense

Will he break down, or will he do it again (and will he enjoy it)

List immunities

Contest winner

While I was a little disappointed that there were so few entries, I wasn’t with the outcome. So, to make this quick and sweet, the contest goes to:

*drumroll*

NearlyMello. (And, by the way NM, though we’ve chatted on several occasions, I don’t have your email. You’ll need to contact me to claim your prize)

Why? Well, because NM’s character description – though written in an almost bulleted outline compared to the other’s snippets from stories – gave the best overall picture of the character. Not only were we able to see the character, but we could just imagine his personality quirks, his daily habits, as well as a clear image of the friends and surroundings he places himself in.

What really stood out about NM’s character sketch were the specific – if sometimes unexpected – details that were added behind basic listed traits. For example:

He has worn the same pair of black tennis shoes every day for the past three years. They reek.

Not only did this give an image of what the shoes look like, it also gives hints to the characters personality. From the fact that he’s worn them for three years and they reek, show either he doesn’t care about the smell, doesn’t give a damn what others think, or has a mild case of Asperger Syndrome and refuses change.

Another example is his proffession. In an earlier bullet, NM describes his character as:

He is annoyed by people who make extremely particular requests, bad traffic, road signs, and most things having to do with weddings.

Yet, despite his dislike for “anything wedding,”

His most recent job is working as a delivery guy for an upscale local bakery. He’s absolutely thrilled to be delivering wedding cakes on a regular basis… Yeah, right.

The fact that the character is short with others around himself when he’s upset or annoyed really plays up on the fact that he’s unhappy with himself and what’s going on with his life (ie, Cystic Fibrosis) and though for the most part lives a fairly normal life despite the oddities of his personality, the descriptions of his habits and lifestyle show there is a deeper fear of what lies ahead (a possible untimely and “unhealthy” death) and is very aware of it and projects his fear and spite onto others in order to deflect from himself.

Several of the few things that should have been expanded on were his relationship and actions towards friends – other than what he does when he’s annoyed, what kinds of activities he did outside of work and medical checkups (besides visiting friends at their workplaces), and any other little “tidbits” that simply show personality quirks that set that particular character apart from every other character, and would therefore make that character memorable and unique.

Overall, it was a wonderful character description, which left almost nothing to be wanted at the end of reading it, by giving a clear impression of the character and his life. Congratulations, and well done.

P.S.
There will be a follow up article in the next day or so, detailing the how’s, what’s and why’s of writing character descriptions and creating usable character profiles for novels, as well as how to condense that information when writing a short story.

A Contest of Character

Hi everyone, today is the first day in a little contest I’ve decided to run, and yes, there is a point to all of this. So please, read on –

The Contest

I am looking for the most well-written and best overall character description out there. I am not going to go into details of what I’m looking for or how I want you to write it, I’m leaving it up to you. Nor will I list the required format or style in which you need to write your description, whether it be a few paragraphs or simply a list. Whatever works for you. It’s not the look of it – it’s the content I’m interested in.

The Rules

1. Character descriptions must be posted on this blog as a comment to this post. No emails – I’ll just delete them.

2. Descriptions can be no more than 750 words. And yes, I’ll check.

3. You may only enter once. If I catch you cheating all your entries will be disqualified.

4. You must enter your real email address in the form when adding your comment to the blog. I’ll need a way to get in touch with you should you win.

5. If you win, I’ll need your real name, address, and phone number so that I can send you your prize. And no, you don’t need to post that. We’ll do all of that privately via email.

6. You may not post questions regarding the contest on this post. If you have questions you may post them on the Editor Chat page. Whether I answer them is another thing…

And finally, the contest is open from now until this Friday (3/21) Midnight Pacific Standard Time. PST. And yes *sigh* your posts are time stamped, so no late entries will be accepted. Leucrota Press editors will go through all of the descriptions over the weekend, and we’ll announce the winner as well as the why’s early the next week.

The prize

I have a brand-spankin’ new (and shrink wrapped, too) copy of the Writer’s Character Traits Companion that’s up for grabs. It’s a nifty little notebook that you can carry around with you to keep notes on your observations to help you create more believable and well-rounded characters. The book is divided up into multiple little tabs that include things like physical characteristics, personality traits, interesting notes, etc. It’s to help manage your thoughts and raise questions about your characters you might not have thought of before. Oh yeah, and in case you’re wondering it’s black and silver and spiral bound….

The Why

Well, I’m doing this as an exercise for you (and everyone else that doesn’t want to enter but is interested in what the hell I’m doing) to really try to deepen your characters and learn how to write thorough descriptions of them.

So please remember that we are NOT judging this contest on how cool or how unique your alien concept is – we are judging on the writing of the profile itself; what is included, what kind of information was given, and what was left out. We are NOT basing our judgement on the character itself, but rather the description of the character. Make sense?

Why don’t I just post instructions on the “how’s” and “what’s” to writing a character profile?

Well, because I thought this would be more fun than just a single post. I do plan on writing a nice article on the who, what, and why of character descriptions, but I’m going to hold off until this little contest closes before I give my opinion on how to write the “ultimate” character description. This way, it’s a little more of an… interactive way of learning by letting you answer the questions first, and will hopefully spark some later conversations after I respond with my own versions.

Good luck.

What’s in a name? – Titles for your novel.

So you’re finally finished writing it – the thing that has taken up all of your free time for the past two years (or more), the monkey on your back that wouldn’t let you sleep, that had you pulling out your pen and paper while on vacation with your family because The Idea came to you…

Well, you’re finished. You want to print it out, slap on a title, and send it off.

Hold up, there partner! Pause, breathe, put the the manuscript down. Easy! There you go….

What’s the big deal with a title?

Everything! It’s the first thing that a potential reader will see, the line that will either catch an editor’s attention or send it straight to the trash can. Just as your name represents you, the title of your book must be representative and catchy for your novel.

The good, the bad, and the ugly…

There are three distinct groups of titles.

The first is the good: the ones that catch attention, make a reader pick the book up, scan the front, turn it over and read the back, and then on to the checkout stand. Examples: Empress, Boiling Point, Crown of Thorns, Slaughterhouse-Five, A Feast for Crows.

The bad: have a hit and miss chance of grabbing a reader, with good enough cover art and some fantastic quotes from the New York Times or Publisher’s Weekly, they may be read. They probably won’t be the first book a reader picks up, but it’s possible. Examples: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, War of the Gods, Secrets of Droon: The Hidden Stairs and the Magic Carpet, Maximum Ride: the Angel Experiment.

Then the ugly: get the response “how did this ever get onto this shelf?” “What was the editor/author thinking?” Examples: World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, The Adventures of Shark Boy and Lava Girl…

So how do you name it?

Unfortunately, while there is a plethora of baby-name books flooding the market and internet, there is no “novel-name book” for authors. So, you must be creative. Which really shouldn’t be that hard – hell, you wrote a book, didn’t you?

Coming up with the name of your novel should be a process started at the same time you write the firs paragraph, and honestly, will and should go on until you’re done with your final edit. It’s not an easy task – parents may argue and pine over it for nine months – why should your naming process be any different?

Following are several tips to help you come up witht the ideal name for your “baby.” These are merely brainstorming techniques to hopefully help something click in that creative cavity you have sitting between your shoulders:

Make a list

1. the names of your main characters
2. the major places in your book
3. any special talismans/objects that play a specific/important role (ie. The Sword of Shanara)
4. creatures, animals, aliens, names

Your plot

1. what is the point of your book?
2. is there a journey? To where? For why?
3. are you writing about a deeper meaning?
4. can you tie in your book with current events or popular topics? (ie the Davinci Code)
5. what are your characters trying to do?

Google is your best friend

1. search for pictures of a theme, character, creature, place, etc. that you feel represents your book. You’ll come across some cool (and weird) things, and may give you direction.
2. see what others writing about similar topics are using for titles. Make sure your title isn’t too close to another’s.
3. get some more backstory on an item, relic, place, or animal in your story. Again, think muse…

Have fun

1. play up on words and items in your book (ie One of our newest books due out next summer is “Of Quills and Kings,” in which the villan is a demonic and sadistic hedgehog that overthrows the crown…)
2. be witty. You are trying to grab science fiction/fantasy/horror/etc fans, not collegiate professors that enjoy spending all of their waking hours with their pet rock. Uh…
3. be original. You want to stand out, but don’t be too off-beat that you scare people away.

A tip for short stories

I received several emails about my previous post regarding the Abaculus 2007 story list. Questions as to why those stories were chosen, and not theirs, what made those stories stand out, and what they can do to their story to make it better.

Tip #1

First off, the most simple and straightforward tip I can give is proofread. We received many submissions that looked like the writer whipped it out and emailed it to us without rereading it. Incomplete sentences, lots of misspellings, bad or no punctuation…it’s all very distracting, and when there’s a pile of manuscripts as high as you are tall to get through in the next week, it makes the editor toss it aside.

Tip #2

Follow directions. If we say we only take science fiction, fantasy, and horror submissions, we don’t want to receive a story about a romantic getaway, or about their baseball camp experiences…

Also, for future reference, all of the editors at Leucrota Press hate the movies Saw, Saw II, Saw III, The Hitcher, Hostel, and anything remotely similar. So do not send us a story simply full of torture, rape, making grated skin-cheese as a hobby, or a hack-job version of Dragon without any plot, characterization or meaning. If you’re into sadistic machoist crap, keep a diary or play with dolls. Don’t bring it here.

Tip #3

Our favorite aspect of a story is characterization. Bring the characters to life, round them out, give them unique personalities and voices, and you’ve already piqued our interest.

Tip #4

A suggestion for a rewriting your story or for future stories – what you need is an angle, or a twist that is new and off the beaten path. You’ve read or at least heard of several different versions of Little Red Riding Hood, or Cinderella. It’s the same basic storyline, yet certain versions stick out in your mind, as well as the public’s. You need to do that – take a story and pull out certain facets that would be unique and completely different from what the next guy would do. Then, you will have your edge.

Overall

Most of the stories we chose were not necessarily the most epic fantasy, the fastest or most high-paced space chase, or the gruesome murder…no, they were ones that were different. They stuck out in our heads, because they hadn’t been done before, or the author had tried something new with an old story. And they worked, and that’s why we chose them.

That’s what you need to do to catch our attention.

Demonizing minorities in literature – a rant

I swear, if receive one more submission with an “evil Native American demon” as the hateful antagonist, I am going to flip. Go postal. Whatever the hell you want to call it. I am going to do it.

Why? Besides the fact that it isn’t creative, overdone, poorly done, and completely unentertaining? Because it’s annoying as hell when a writer can’t think up their own God-forsaken demonic deity, one that readers will fear and hate and can be ultimately destroyed, and so then eventually turns to Native Americans (NA from now on).

**** that.

These submissions would be helpful if I was putting together a “Worlds Worst Collection of Native American Stories” anthology. Since I’m not, they’re just more pieces of paper to wipe the smeared sociopolitical placations off of my Cherokee-Hawaiian ass.

Now don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against having a NA as an antagonist, or as an evil deity, as long as it is well researched, plays an integral role in the plot, and can be justified as to why that deity must be used. Hell, we have one excellently written short story coming up in Abaculus 2007 by author Willis Couvillier, and a novel coming out next spring by two southern California writers that has both “good” and “bad” NA’s and NA deities.

So what’s the difference? The simplest one, is knowledge. Both of the above mentioned works have been carefully researched, the authors knew what they were talking about, and were careful on how they executed the story. In the first, there is a soul-stealing deity that wants the “collective” persona of the NA’ to live on, the second has a mixed-breed NA who is a grave robber to his own people, and is eventually overcome by a group of modern day archaeologists and rangers with the help of a time-shifting shaman.

Both stories work, both are justified. Both were accepted by Leucrota Press.

What is not acceptable, is when there is no justification, and there is no plausible reason at all for the demon to be NA other than the fact the writer was lazy. It’s an easy set up – story in the Midwest or the plains, someone gets lost, sheep are stolen, and all of a sudden it’s a NA demon come to destroy the town out of retribution for past grievances. Or, in another submission I received this week (yes, I received nine similar submissions so far this week) that didn’t have any revenge or restitution involved – the demon was just an evil demon for the hell of it, and needed to be destroyed.

It’s a cop out. It’s easy – it’s easy to put the blame or cast an evil eye on something that is already done, or already has bad stigmas. And in this I’m not just talking about NA’s, either; Mexio’s Dia de los Muertos, Hawaiian Ku, the Aztec sacrifices, Egyptian rulers and deities, bigfoot…

…this is not a rant because of my race, nor of the ethnicities of my editors or readers. It is a rant because I am tired of writers who are unable to step back and look at the bigger picture, or able to actually be a writer and come up with something creative and unique. Using another ethnicity’s past, practices, culture, or deities just because “it’s already made” is nothing but a writer being lackadaisical, ignorant, and thoughtless – not only to that particular ethnicity, but to the editors forced to read their crap.

Use a NA, or any other deity, as your antagonist. Go ahead, but do it with class, and ****ing try to come up with your own shit.