Archive for the ‘Characterization’ Category:

That Character You Love to Hate

Sometimes it’s the little things…

Writing antagonists can be almost too much fun. Of course, we don’t want to make the ALL bad. We need to show them as balanced human beings. But when you first introduce an unpleasant character, how do you show he’s unpleasant?

I thought we’d take a little stroll through The Summer of No Regrets, so you could meet a favorite nasty character of mine, Webster Lampson, the college advisor of Brigitta’s sister, Mallory.


A red Porsche was parked outside. Out of it climbed a tall, thin man with a brown beard. He wore a Greek fisherman’s cap and a tidy raincoat. Mom extended her hand. “I’m Clare,” she said. “I was expecting Alana. Are you here to see the dorms?”

The guy took her hand. “No, actually, I don’t know an Alana. I’m Webster Lampson. I’m here to collect Mallory.” He winced as a raindrop hit his face.

Mom’s smile wavered. “Ah!” she said. “Mallory is not here. She’s running some errands for me. Won’t you come in?”

Webster Lampson studied us, the driveway, the entrance of The Center. He was getting wet. “Yes,” he said, “I think I will.”

I’m not good at guessing ages, but this guy was old. Almost as old as my parents. He must have been like forty or something.

Dad was in his office tapping numbers into a ten-key when we came into the foyer. “Paul,” Mom stuck her head in. “We have a visitor.”

Dad came out wearing his wolf sweatshirt. His ponytail was held with this bone and feather thing that dangled from the nape of his neck. “Paul Schopenhauer,” he shook Webster Lampson’s hand.

“Schopenhauer,” Webster Lampson grinned. “Mallory tells me that great German mind was a relative of yours.”

“Distant cousin,” said Dad. “You aren’t here about the Indigo Children?”

Webster chuckled. “I should say not,” he said, “though I have heard of their movement. An article on pseudoscience in one of the journals.”

I disliked him more moment by moment.


  1. List the small actions that give you a feel for Webster’s character (e.g. wincing when a raindrop hits him.)
  2. How would you describe the way Webster speaks? List some of his distinctive word choices.
  3. List some descriptive details about Webster.  (clothing, belongings, physical characteristics)
  4. From what you’ve read above, how would you describe Webster to a friend?
  5. Now, choose two of your own characters. For each, list
    1. two small actions (e.g. nervous tapping)
    2. two descriptive details. (e.g. neon green sneakers, tattoo of a sailing ship.)
    3. two ways of speaking/word choices (e.g. polysyllabic words/ “multitude of reprehensible behaviors”)
  6. Write a short dialogue between your protagonist and another character, using these details to show the distinctive personality of each.
  7. Post it in the comments!
  8. Come join us at Bellevue College for Cultivating Complex Characters!

I have never told you

“I have never told you.” Five words that can deepen your characters, add page-turning plot elements, and shed light on motivation.

When I talk to my characters (and yes, I do this frequently–it’s a relationship that must be maintained), I’m gratified when they talk back. And they will, if you know what to ask them.

 

Try this:

  1. Go to a quiet place where you can concentrate.
  2. Open your story journal. Don’t have one? Use a notebook, or a Word file, or a Scrivener page.
  3. Summon up the character from whom you need answers.
  4. Begin the journal entry “I have never told you, but…” and allow the character to speak. Don’t write about the character–“Marigold is angry with her aunt”–write as the character–I am angry with Aunt Joy. So angry. When she talked about Mike in her nasty way, calling him a “slick, know-it-all peacock,” I nearly walked out. All right, I DID walk out. And I took her dog with me.
  5. Don’t worry that you must include what you learn in the story. You may, or you may not. And what your character says may shift and change as they talk–as did Marigold’s decision to walk out.

You’ll be amazed by what this technique brings forth. In our upcoming Cultivating Complex Characters class, you’ll learn how to make your characters nuanced, believable, and fascinating to the reader.

Here’s what students are saying:

“Katherine is fun and encouraging—she made the class a pleasure.”

The motivation, goal-setting really helped me produce and move forward in my work. It really helps to be in an environment that is conducive to the writing process.”

Do come join us at Bellevue College!

 

 

 

The Violin Diet

Katherine violinWith the Full-Bodied Novelist Retreat coming up this weekend, I’ve been playing the violin again. There is a connection, so stay with me here.

I usually let months go by without my music. I play only to prepare for performance, thinking I need an “excuse” to play. But lately I have played for the sheer joy of playing with no audience but the Universe. I work on a piece that is hard for me, but attainable, or I just make something up. I let the music come up from my feet; I close my eyes and listen to the strings, letting my fingers find their way. It makes my neck hurt, using these muscles I haven’t used in a long time—but the muscles remember how to cradle the instrument, how to make it sing.

After I play, I sit down to write, and I’m open enough for the wind of word and emotion to blow through me. I’ve needed that. I’ve also found that I don’t eat as much on days when I play. I’ve satisfied some deeper hunger.

What do you do that is physical? That takes your entire concentration? It might be running or gardening or painting. Do it. A little every day. Even if you’ve let it go for a long time, find that thing you used to do that you are longing for and give yourself to it until you are back in your body. Then write.

It’s not too late to register for the retreat! Use the discount code FBNRETREAT75 to save $75. The retreat cost includes lodging, meals, classes, a massage, and a one-on-one consultation on your manuscript.

Meet our massage therapist, Rene Pinkham on the retreat page, just below the event description.

When It’s Hard to Relate

DSCF1569As a writer you know you must allow your characters to live through you as they unfold on the page. But what if the character feels unlike you? A character you can’t relate to is hard to, well, relate. But you WANT characters who are different from you–whether they are sympathetic, antagonistic, or simply “other” because they are outside of your community or life experience.

When you find the connection point with such a character you expand your empathy, a characteristic sorely lacking in our culture, but one that is essential for a writer.

I call the following exercise “Dressing Like the Enemy,” though the character may not be a villain in your story:

    1. List some of your political/cultural/religious values. “I believe…”
    2. List some activities you do not, will not, or cannot do. If you just want to get your feet wet, it could be something like mountain climbing. To take the plunge, choose something that you have a visceral reaction to. Don’t automatically jump to something extreme like murder, but try for something that makes you uncomfortable.
    3. Write a scene in the first person that includes the following:
      • The viewpoint character is one who would ordinarily feel “other” to you: different race, nationality, sexual orientation, gender, economic situation, political party, religion.
      • The character is doing an activity you can’t see yourself ever doing, or making choices you would never make.
    4. Before you begin, imagine yourself sitting in your chair as that character, relating your story. Watch out for authorial moralizing, and let the character express themself in a way that is authentic and allows room for the reader to relate to at least some of it.
    5. If you have difficulty “getting in,” see if you can think of or imagine an equivalent situation in your own life. “What if my own child had died and my closest friend had just said something like that?” Spend some time inside that situation until the feeling “clicks,” then continue with your scene.

If you’d like to post a link to your scene in the comments, it might be fun to see what unfolds for different people.

We’ll continue with more of these in Cultivating Complex Characters, Wednesday evenings at Bellevue College. Feel free to enroll, even if you miss the first session. You won’t be “behind.” Check here for other classes this quarter.

 

Character Mashup–“Maybe Dats Your Pwoblem, Too”

This poem, by Jim Hall, is one of my favorite mashups, and I often read it in Talking to Your Characters and in Teen Poets at Bellevue College.

 

To see Jim Hall’s take on his poem, as well as the entire poem printed out, go here.

Another game to try! Do one OR MORE of the following:

1. Create a mashup poem of your own, mixing a fairy tale character with a celebrity, or a superhero with a politician, or anything else you can think of. Post the poem in the comments.

2. Write a poem from the perspective of a particular celebrity, fairy tale character, superhero, politician, historical figure, etc. Post it in the comments.

3. Record yourself or a friend performing the poem and post the link in the comments!

Don’t miss our upcoming Teen Writing classes at Bellevue College, beginning July 14. There’s enough to keep you laughing, creating, hanging out with other writing teens and sitting in the sun (yes, I like to go outside) for a whole month! (And if that sounds like bliss to you, the way it does to me, we want to meet you!)

Some writers like to sign up for back-to-back classes, so they can immerse themselves in their creative process all day. This isn’t supposed to be like school and it won’t be. (Ask one of the writers who comes back year after year after year.)

 Week 1, July 14-18

Teenage Novelist: The Novel in a Nutshell

Teen Poets: Dancing on the Razor’s Edge

Teenage Novelist: Talking To Your Characters

 Week 2, July 21-25

Creating Graphic Novels (Dana Sullivan. Waitlisted)

Young Writers’ Workshop (Waitlisted)

Teenage Novelist: Writing Short Stories (Lois Brandt)

Teenage Novelist: Scenes and Dreams

Geek Fiction Writing

Week 3, July 28-August 1

Teenage Novelist: Plotting and Scheming

Teenage Novelist: Revisioning the Novel

Teenage Novelist: Publishing

 Week 4, August 4-8

Teenage Novelist: Novel Intensive

Teenage Novelist: Writing Short Stories (Lois Brandt)

Teenage Novelist: Live-Action Writing

 

And don’t forget August 10-13

Summer EpicWrite Camp!!!     (not affiliated with BC)

Talking to Your Characters–Give Them a “Dear Character” Column

Dear Character (300x169)

Dear Character,
Twelve and a half weeks ago I loaned my best friend a set of “Cooking with Salt” DVDs, which were a gift from my former best friend. I have asked her every week if she is done with them. Seven weeks ago, my boyfriend began cooking everything with salt.  He said he was experimenting. Five weeks ago, while searching my best friend’s apartment for my DVD set, I discovered, IN HER FILING CABINET, a pamphlet on breath care, which I had given to my boyfriend. I confronted her, but she was evasive. It has now been four weeks and six days since I have spoken to either of them. What am I to think? What kind of “experimenting” is my boyfriend doing? And how can I get my DVDs back?

Sincerely,

Inconvenienced and Heartbroken

——————————

Let’s try this:

Choose a character from one of your works-in-progress and ask them to answer the letter above. With your character’s permission, post the response in the comments below. If you feel like it, have one of your characters write a “Dear Character” letter of their own and see if someone else’s character will answer it.

How do you develop multi-dimensional characters? What do you DO with them once they’ve sprung to life in your imagination?

Teenage Novelist: Talking to Your Characters

Marvin Whickpucket refuses to behave. When you want him to defeat the evil Onchnu, he won’t. Instead, he sits on the couch, surfs cable and eats potato skins. “This is boring!” you tell him. “Why are you acting this way?” “I miss Ilandra,” he says. “We had a fight. She said we were through.” “Why didn’t you TELL me?” you say, incredulous. Marvin shrugs. “You never asked.” Learn how to deepen your story by listening to your characters. Each class allows for hands-on exercises based on your work-in-progress and time for group critique.

Here are ALL the Writing classes at Bellevue College’s Summer Teen Program

I teach all but two of these classes. “Creating Graphic Novels” is taught by talented illustrator Dana Sullivan, and “Teenage Novelist: Writing Short Stories” is taught by amazing author Lois Brandt. Classes are held daily for one week, beginning July 14. Note that some classes are full or nearly full.

Select a course to view:

Creating Graphic Novels

Geek Fiction Writing

Teen Poets: Dancing on the Razor’s Edge

Teenage Novelist: Scenes and Dreams

Teenage Novelist: Live-Action Writing

Teenage Novelist: Novel Intensive

Teenage Novelist: Plotting and Scheming

Teenage Novelist: Publishing

Teenage Novelist: Revisioning the Novel

Teenage Novelist: Talking To Your Characters

Teenage Novelist: The Novel in a Nutshell

Teenage Novelist: What’s the Big Idea?

Teenage Novelist: Writing Short Stories

Young Writers’ Workshop