Kristen Lamb

Author, Blogger, Social Media Jedi

Kristen Lamb — Photo

Posts Tagged: creating characters with depth

Image courtesy of Rune E.’s generosity via Flickr Creative Commons

Ah personal vows. I’m big on those and one core vow I made several years ago was to seek out the best of the best. Locate talent, nurture it, then share it with you guys. I’m passionate about mastery. Mastery however requires sacrifice, and that sacrifice is we cannot do all things. We need to let go. Knowing that, I made it my personal mission (and my company W.A.N.A. International’s mission) to recruit those who were masters of THEIR realms.

My motto? If I am the smartest person in the room, I’ve done something horribly wrong.

Many of you have already had the pleasure of taking a class with USA Today Best-Selling Author Cait Reynolds. If not? She has a whole list of classes coming up (listed below). Today, however, another master is here to share her gifts with us today.

Lisa Hall-Wilson is one of the best teachers I’ve ever had the honor to work with. She taught me Facebook 😀 . But she’s also an unbelievable craft teacher so I’m handing today’s post over to her for an amazing lesson about the power of vows….

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The beautiful image courtesy of the generous Candida.Performa via Flickr Creative Commons

Want to raise the stakes for your character through internal conflict? Deep POV is a great technique to bring out this tension because it allows the reader deep into the character’s psyche and allows for an intense examination of their motivations and morals.

Drawing a line in the sand, giving your character a personal vow, can create the kind of inner turmoil that drives a character to outrageous page-turning decisions and mistakes. Vows also give insight into backstory and help define character voice.

I love that scene from the Fellowship Of The Ring where Gandalf screams at the Balrog: “You shall not pass!” Awesome. That was a game changer scene, it ratcheted up the conflict several notches. Gandalf went to the ultimate extreme to make sure that Balrog did not pursue the rest of the Fellowship.

Does your main character have a line in the sand, a personal boundary past which they will not cross? Great!

Now go shove them off the cliff.

*Note: Not every character does or should have a personal vow. It adds a layer of complexity that requires skill with characterization to pull off well because a vow should influence a character’s motivations and morals, but it’s rarely their main story goal.*

Ever whispered a vow in the dark of the night, tears streaming down your cheeks? Maybe you were caught in the middle of a messy divorce. Maybe you experienced a trauma of some sort, the kind that haunts you – and down deep inside you made yourself a promise so that hurt never happens again:

I will never…

Image via Ryan Vaarsi’s generosity courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons

Everyone has a line in the sand, a secret vow. No matter what else happens, this is one inviolable line they will not cross. Most people, at some point, make several of these vows, some innocuous, some more serious.

Some people make these vows consciously and others are completely unaware of these personal vows. We are more committed to some vows than others. Some vows are made to prevent a past hurt or harm from being repeated (I’ll never date a drug lord again), and some vows are harmful and need to go (I will never weigh over 100 pounds).

Pushed Beyond All Limits

Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake Vampire Hunter novel Blue Moon uses a really great personal vow as a story element. Anita Blake has several rules or lines in the sand which have been firmly established in previous books in the series, but she is forced to violate one rule after another. It started off innocently enough, Blake is uncomfortable, she’s not happy, but she can shake it off.

As the novel continues, Blake faces escalating circumstances. Some of her compromises haunt her, change her (and not always for the better) and she has to figure out how to live with that. Blake ends up back-tracking and…well, go read it. I couldn’t put it down.

But the reverse can also work.

I loved the movie Law Abiding Citizen with Gerard Butler and Jamie Foxx. At the beginning of the movie, Foxx’s lawyer character comes across as a good guy, but someone willing to cut corners to achieve what he saw as the greater good. Butler’s character creatively, and rather gruesomely, pushes Foxx to the point where he has to dig in and say here and no farther.

By the end of the movie, Foxx sees the problem with cutting certain corners and draws a line in the sand: I will never make a deal with a murderer ever again.

Complexity

Image courtesy of Joana Coccarelli’s generosity via Flickr Creative Commons

Vows are hard to pull off in simple plots. These lines in the sand are often in addition to a character’s main goal in the story. For instance, Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With The Wind vows: “As God is my witness, I’m going to live through this and when it’s all over I’ll never be hungry again…” Scarlett’s conscious goal for the story though is to be with Ashley Wilkes. *shakes head – never understood that* That’s what she schemes for, dreams about, etc.

Her unconscious goal is to have the love of a man who can make her feel secure (ahh – see the built-in tension there when what she’s pursuing won’t get her what she really wants). She isn’t even aware of this internal conflict until the end of the book when Ashley finally becomes available and she realizes it’s actually Rhett she wants. Rhett Butler is the one who makes her feel secure (she talks about how he comforts her in the night after a bad dream, etc), but now Rhett’s gone.

However, Scarlett never went hungry again. Her preoccupation with money caused a lot of problems for her, because she confused money with security. It’s easy to see how that vow added tension and conflict for her character.

The Writer’s Dilemma

Image courtesy of the generosity of Benbenben11 via Flckr Creative Commons

The problem with this story element is that a reader might lose respect if a character breaks ALL of their personal vows. For a character to remain worth cheering for, if a line in the sand has been defined, at some point the character has to stand their ground no matter what it costs them.

There may be gray areas of their vow they compromise on, there may be some backtracking. They may make a vow part way through the story as Scarlett does. Maybe the character needs to give up a harmful or unrealistic vow. Regardless, these vows strongly influence the character’s motivations and desires heading into the big main conflict. If they don’t, I’d question whether they need to be there.

Personal vows are one way to add compelling conflict, but it requires an intensely personal POV.

I’m teaching a two-week intensive on Method Acting For Writers: Learn How To Write Deep POV starting August 1st. This is just one appendix lesson from that class. I’m offering a WANA-only price for this course.

What are some of your favorite literary vows or lines in the sand?

I’m also teaching a class on Facebook, so you can learn what to post so readers respond on July 22 and a new class on September 9 on creating strong female characters. Check out those classes!


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THANK YOU LISA!

Talk to us! We love hearing from you. Well, I do, namely because I am lonely and y’all are seriously interesting. What vows have you made? Good or bad or dumb?

I’ve done all of the above, and have particularly excelled in bad and dumb vows (but I’m much better now 🙂 ). Seriously, I think one of my greatest strengths is I am loyal, but sometimes being loyal is just being epically stupid when you’re loyal to the wrong people, ideas, goals etc.

For instance, I vowed I wouldn’t give up on my first novel. Took 5 years to see I actually didn’t even HAVE a novel so that was a seriously stupid vow. Remember what I always tell you guys, Persistence looks a lot like stupid. Sometimes it IS hard to tell.

And MAKE SURE to check out the classes below and sign up! Summer school! YAY!

For the month of JULY, for everyone who leaves a comment, I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.

I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

NEW CLASSES WITH USA Today Best Selling Author CAIT REYNOLDS!

Obviously, I have my areas of expertise, but I’ve wanted for a long time to fill in some gaps on classes I could offer.

Cait Reynolds was my answer.

She is an unbelievable editor, mentor and teacher and a serious expert in these areas. She consults numerous very successful USA Today and NYTBS authors and I highly, highly recommend her classes.

 

  

Gaskets and Gaiters: How to Create a Compelling Steampunk World July 21st $35 w/ Cait Reynolds 

Lasers & Dragons & Swords, Oh MY! World Building for Fantasy & Science Fiction July 28th w/ Cait Reynolds $35/ GOLD $75/ PLATINUM $125

Classes with MOI!

Blogging for Authors July 20th $50 ($150 for GOLD)

Branding for Authors  July 27th $35

Classes with Lisa Hall-Wilson

Growing An Organic Platform On Facebook July 22nd $40

Characters

As some of you know I am still recovering from the flu. Also, the holiday season gets more than a little insane so it is always a joy to run across fresh talent to share with all of you. The bad news is that Alex Limberg lives in Vienna so taking him as a hostage? Can you tweet #logisticalnightmare? Good news is, apparently Austrians work for compliments and candy cigarettes #littleknownfact.

So, with my Amazon Prime Account, I was able to secure SWEET blog content and all of us could avoid any sticky international incidents with the Austrians.

Which is best for all because, well who doesn’t dig their pastries?

This is another guest post by copywriter Alex Limberg. To mix things up a bit, Alex is assisting me through the holiday season until he makes his New Year’s resolution to kick his candy cigarette habit *rolls eyes*.

…and then we’ll just have to catch him when he relapses.

His free ebook “44 Key Questions” to test your story helps you create intriguing novels and shorts. Have you ever written a character you thought you couldn’t portray well because he was too different from you? In this post, Alex lays out three secrets on how to make a character like that come to life. Please give him a hand once again!

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The situation feels so awkward for you: This guy, you just can’t understand what he is all about.

You have really given your best to make it work.

You wanted to discreetly overlook his annoying sense of entitlement (from his perspective, you won’t ever get anywhere, because you are way too modest).

You tried not to judge his ridiculous uptight correctness (he thinks you have no manners).

And you really made an effort to explain that you don’t enjoy small talk and you feel happiest when you are alone with a book (to him, you are too withdrawn; he seems to even get a kick out of chatting with the sales assistant).

But you absolutely don’t understand him. It’s just that the two of you are so different.

The worst part is, you have an important project together and you will have to work with him for months and see him almost on a daily basis.

You have no idea how you will be able to work with somebody like this. Seriously, this will be bad.

But there is also good news: The guy just exists in your head.

He is one of the main characters in your newest novel. If you want to make that novel work though, you better get to understand him on a level as intimate as your very best friend.

Here are three highly practical tips on how to connect with a character who is very different from you:

1. Find the Perfect Template Person in the Real World

You would never step on anybody’s toes, but in your novel you have to deal with a very bold character?

For sure you know somebody who doesn’t shy away from collecting ten free samples at once or “accidentally” taking the hotel towel with him when he checks out (my brother even tried to take the sheets with him once, true story). How would that real life person feel in your scene, how would she act, react and express herself?

Some writers have used their husbands, siblings or parents in a dozen different books, in a dozen different ways.

It’s a lot easier to imagine how a person you know very well would act. All the experiences you have had with that person will tell you. Your intuition will speak to you. Just transfer that gut feeling onto your character.

Most of your characters will not be exactly as their real life prototypes, because after all you are writing fiction and not a biography. Instead, your figures will rather be hybrids of people you know; for example, as brilliant as your sister and as restless as your best friend.

Take from everybody just what you need. The more life experience you have, the more characters you have met over the course of your life– great! Society around you is just a big, yummy, neverending buffet of character traits. Feel free to feast at your convenience.

Funny Tree

2. Don’t Act, Be!

In some way, writing is like acting– the difference is that you have to be all of the characters at once. Being able to switch between so many different shoes from one moment to the next is a major point that distinguishes great writers from not-so-great ones. Fiction writing is a bit like puppet theater.

Have you ever heard of “method acting”?

In method acting, you don’t try to pretend you are a different character. Instead, you just ask yourself: “If I was that cheerful/vain/sneaky/dumb, how would I act?”

The moment you are answering that question, you are already in a different headspace. You are doing what the best actors in the world have a gift for: They don’t act, they are for a brief moment. They are just for an instant as the character does his thing, but they are with all of their being.

It’s a step in between pretending and naturally being.

“Method acting” is actually an excellent way of auto-suggestion. Imagine you had a hypnotist make you believe that you are your protagonist. And that you are the antagonist. Plus that other really cool main character. And his wife. And a couple of supporting characters… you would be in the lunatic asylum for schizophrenics in no time, but you would write excellent prose.

That “self-hypnosis” is basically what you are doing when you suggest to your subconscious you are that character.

Ask yourself: “How would I act, if…?”

Cat 1

 

3. Remember a Situation That Brought Out the Opposite in You

We all have multiple sides to our personalities. The sad ones are sometimes joyful, the mature ones can be childish, and yes, even the dumb ones are smart sometimes, because there are very different types of intelligence.

So that trait your character embodies but you think you don’t, is hidden somewhere deep inside of you.

Here is how to bring it out: Think back to a situation in which you really, really felt that way. Maybe you usually don’t feel so confident, but that one time after you got your promotion or passed that exam in university, you felt on fire and were just invincible for the next couple of days.

Close your eyes, go back to that situation: What did the scenery feel like? What did you see, hear, smell? And how did you feel?

Try to tap into the feeling you had back then with your entire body. Yes, this might sound overly esoteric, but give it a try and see if it helps you. Breathe confidence when your character is very confident on paper– and take it from your emotional memory!

Adorn Yourself with the Most Beautiful Borrowed Plumes

So there you have basic advice on how to be somebody else. Don’t become schizophrenic, but keep on practicing your talent for wearing unfamiliar skin.

If you do this well, you have taken a huge step towards becoming a great writer. People love stories because they are fascinated by their characters. And if you can create intriguing characters, you readers will desperately have to know what happens to them next and will devour your stories.

Alex Limberg is blogging on ‘Ride the Pen’ to help you boost your fiction writing. His blog dissects famous authors (works, not bodies). Create intriguing stories with his free ebook “44 Key Questions” to test your story or check out his creative writing exercises. Shakespeare is jealous. Alex has worked as a copywriter and lived in Vienna, Los Angeles, Madrid and Hamburg.

Thanks, Alex!

Now it’s your turn: How do you handle a character whose nature seems very alien to yours? Did you ever run out of patience with one of your figures? Are all your characters like you and you can hardly distinguish them, so there is never any trouble? Do you sometimes have long discussions with yourself in front of the bathroom mirror? Who wins?

Roses are red, violets are blue. I’m schizophrenic and so am I….and THAT NEVER GETS OLD!

Remember that comments for guests get double love from me for my contest!

I love hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of NOVEMBER, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel.

Screen Shot 2013-03-18 at 8.56.14 AM
Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures.

One of the biggest mistakes most new writers make is they don’t understand the antagonist and how antagonists are used to drive plot momentum and ratchet up the stakes. Without true antagonists, there is no way to generate dramatic tension. One of the “outs” many writers try to use is “Well, my protagonist is his own worst enemy.”

Yeah, um no. That’s therapy, not fiction.

All stories need two types of antagonists:

The Big Boss Troublemaker

Since the term “antagonist” confuses a lot of new writers, I came up with the term, BBT. If the BBT is something existential (like alcoholism) then it needs to be represented by someone corporeal. In WWII, the Allies weren’t fighting fascism, they fought HITLER. Concepts need a FACE.

Scene Antagonists

Often allies and love interests will provide the scene conflict. Protagonist wants A, but then Ally wants B.

Today, we’ll use a “My protagonist is his own worst enemy” story to prove my point. We are going to talk about the movie Flight. I could write 20,000 words about this movie. It is some of the most brilliant writing I’ve ever seen and Denzel Washington definitely earned the Academy Award nomination for this (he should have won the award, but that’s my POV).

Denzel Washington plays an airline captain who’s somewhat successfully hidden a very dark secret. He’s an alcoholic and drug addict with an ego the size of Mt. Everest. Early in the movie we know alcohol has already cost him dearly. He’s divorced and estranged from his son. Yet, he’s in denial. He’s able to put on a sober, confident face for the world and hide his demons beneath smiles and bravado.

Whip might have continued flying his entire career half-drunk and hopped up on cocaine, except for one problem…he saves a plane full of people from dying and is hailed a hero. When storms, combined with a major mechanical malfunction send his plane hurdling toward certain death, Whip calmly executes maneuvers no other pilot could duplicate, saving all the passengers but four.

Image via Paramount Pictures
Image via Paramount Pictures

We are introduced to the BBT EARLY

This is critical. I read way too many new pieces of writing and, 50 pages later, have no idea what the story problem is. The BBT must appear early. We have to know what the protagonist is up against. In Flight, we see the BBT in the opening scene, the bottles of booze all over the hotel room, the lines of coke Whip snorts before getting ready to fly.

The BBT is clearly addiction. Whip is his own worst enemy.

The Inciting Incident Challenges the BBT. Conflict has a FACE.

Had Whip flown just another routine flight, he would have continued drinking and drugging. Had everyone died in the crash, he never would have had to face his demons. Ah, but he saves the day and is hailed a hero.

Uh oh.

Every crash, by law, is investigated.

When Whip is sent to the hospital, his blood is drawn and it shows that he was practically pickled while flying. Also, later in the investigation, three small empty bottles of vodka are discovered in the crash (bottles he drank right before the crash).

Now we have the core story problem, and the BBT has a face—THOSE RUNNING THE INVESTIGATION.

If there was no investigation into the crash, Whip would not have to change. He wouldn’t have to see the hard truth of what he is…an addict. The crash (and ensuing investigation) creates the story problem and tension mounts as the union, the owner of the airline, the NTSB, and the FAA exert outside pressure.

Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures
Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Make the flaw complicated.

I think what makes Flight a particularly brilliant example is that most everyone knows that, had Whip been sober, he likely would not have been able to successfully execute the daredevil maneuvers that saved the passengers.

Likely it was a mixture of the alcohol that relaxed him combined with the cocaine that heightened his senses that allowed him to save the plane. A sober pilot would have crashed everyone into a fireball of death.

Why is this important? It generates enablers. Whip is pulled between two extremes. One side wants the truth and wants accountability. The other side? They’re willing to turn a blind eye, fudge the truth, and pursue legal loopholes to save Whip from jail time. They are feeding his bloated ego (which is a HUGE source of his problem).

This creates scene antagonists on each side.

Friends are willing to lie for Whip to spare him from jail. Others are offering him a drink or some drugs. These “allies” offer Whip an opportunity to keep self-destructing. Since in these scenes, he’s trying to remain sober, the “friend” offering him a drink is the antagonist.

Harling. Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures.
Harling. Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures.

The other side? They want the truth. Where did the vodka bottles come from? Someone needs to answer the unanswered questions and justice needs to be served for the four people who did die. The more questions they ask, the more Whip needs to drink.

His lawyer can’t afford Whip to be seen drunk if he hopes to keep him from going to prison, so he’s working to keep him sober. In these scenes, Whip wants to get blitzed, but his allies won’t let him near the liquor cabinet. Thus, these allies are standing in the way of his goal to drink, which creates tension and makes them antagonists.

His lawyer, girlfriend, and close buddy are all working to keep Whip sober, but as the pressure mounts and the stakes get higher, Whip’s addiction only gets worse. The investigation (story problem) is exerting the pressure that is opening the boil of his flaws.

On the other side, the more Whip self-destructs, the more the enablers step in. His best-buddy Harling is always there with any drug he needs for the situation, any upper or downer Whip requires to maintain the facade that he doesn’t have a problem.

The Protagonist in Act Three MUST Make a Choice

Since the BBT is alcoholism, it MUST be defeated in Act Three by a choice. I won’t tell you that choice, because I wouldn’t want to ruin the movie for those who haven’t seen it yet (I haven’t revealed anything you wouldn’t see in the trailer).

Whip MUST defeat addiction. Question is, “Can he?”

Screen Shot 2013-03-18 at 9.03.32 AM
Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures.

His arc is from self-destructive addict in complete denial to someone who takes on his demons, no matter the cost. The ANTAGONIST is the NTSB. No investigation? Life continues as normal. The addict isn’t tossed in the crucible.

What this means is that a character being his or her own worst enemy alone is not enough. There MUST be a story problem that generates the tension and change. With no story problem, there is no way to have dramatic tension. It just becomes a character being TDTL (Too Dumb To Live). We don’t have a novel, we have self-indulgence that will bore readers or irritate them.

What are your thoughts? Can you think of other examples that did the whole “He is his own worst enemy” thing well? What are your questions? Below is the trailer if you haven’t seen the movie. Watch it. Study it. It is sheer brilliance.

I love hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of March, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. If you leave a comment, and link back to my blog, and mention my book We Are Not Alone in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.

I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novelor your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

And also, winners have a limited time to claim the prize, because what’s happening is there are actually quite a few people who never claim the critique, so I never know if the spam folder ate it or to look for it and then people miss out. I will also give my corporate e-mail to insure we connect and I will only have a week to return the 20 page edit.

At the end of March I will pick a winner for the monthly prize. Good luck!