Kristen Lamb

Author, Blogger, Social Media Jedi

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Posts Tagged: creating dimensional characters

What really makes a great story? I read an insane amount and always have, but it really wasn’t until I decided to go pro that I began looking at books very differently. Why were some books so utterly forgettable and others? I couldn’t get out of my head. What made the difference?

Why do I still revisit The Hours, The English Patient, Big, Little Lies, A Girl on the Trail, Gone Girl, The Luckiest Girl Alive? And others? I can’t recall if I even read them. I look at my Kindle menu and it claims I read it but…

This said, I’ve been putting a lot of thought lately into character. Reverse engineering it so that I can better understand what makes it tick. I’ve mentioned the raging debate about character-driven stories versus plot-driven stories and really all great stories are both.

Story is a machine. An engine. And if story is a machine, then plot and character are cogs. If one is flawed or weak or breaks? It cannot help but impact the overall machine.

But today, we are going to focus on the character cog. How do we create characters with resonance?

Who Are You?

Now, I know a lot of writing books recommend doing character sheets. There is nothing wrong with that. Get it out. Free write on the page. Think about who the character is, where she came from. Social class, religion, economic status, childhood, etc. Tell his or her life story and get it down.

But now I want you to dig a little deeper—ok, a LOT deeper—and ask…

What is my character’s paradigm?

This is to say, what is her reality? Her framework? What defines her? And, most importantly, what is its center? How does the character define his or her worth? Because a background sheet is nothing more than facts without context. To create a dimensional character, context is king.

Paradigms offer that context.

Though sociologists and self-help experts have used the notion of paradigms to assist personal growth, as a writer I felt the need to use this idea for a far darker purpose. Instead of using the paradigm to fix messed up people, I use it to create them.

So I bring you…

The Seven Habits of Seriously Messed Up People

Great fiction is about problems. It is about people with problems. And the more messed up they are? The better.

This means that to write any great story, we are going to need to create some seriously jacked up people.

So to do this, we need to know the character’s paradigm. But before we go further, I want to explain a bit how a paradigm works. Stephen Covey explains the paradigm as a set of lenses through which we see ourselves and our world. Rolling with that metaphor, a quick story to help you relate this to creating memorable fiction.

When I was pregnant with Spawn I suddenly needed glasses after having perfect vision my whole life. So I get glasses and can see! Yay! I just assumed I was getting older and accepted I now wore glasses.

But then something strange happened.

When Spawn was about three I kept getting headaches. My eyes hurt. I couldn’t see detail. Naturally I assumed I needed a stronger prescription so I went to the eye doctor. Turned out? I no longer needed the glasses. My vision had returned to 20/20.

So why did I feel the need to share?

When creating the character, take all of that background information then go deeper and reflect on what lenses the character is using. Our protagonist in the beginning wears a set of lenses that he or she is unaware no longer work. Maybe they did in the beginning, but life has changed. Maybe they never worked at all but the character has no basis for comparison so is unaware.

Regardless, they (our characters) believe their vision is correct, but we as Author God know that it isn’t. Our characters are suffering the headaches, strain and fatigue but are not necessarily aware what is causing such discomfort.

Plot is what will reveal that the old lenses are flawed and trade them for newer, corrected lenses that finally offer the clear picture and alleviate the strain.

Let Me Demonstrate

For instance, in Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies the character Madeline has a family-centered paradigm. Her worth is determined by her effectiveness as a mother and being needed by her children.

In Jessica Knoll’s Luckiest Girl Alive, Tif-Ani has a status-centered paradigm and believes social position and wealth are the most important things in life, that they are what will make her happy. Her dream job and marrying old money define who she is.

In Michael Connelly’s The Lincoln Lawyer, Mickey Haller has an achievement-centered paradigm. Winning is paramount because winners get paid. He does not see himself as a justice-seeker, which is why he only defends those he is sure are guilty.

When we pan back and look at these great stories with the idea of paradigms in mind, then the genius of plot becomes far more obvious. We have the characters, we know them and now we have the perfect way to make them scream. We are going to show them that what they believe to be true really isn’t, that what they see is inherently flawed. That is what all three of these authors did in these three remarkable stories.

Madeline gets tossed through the parenting wringer, Tif-Ani is forced to confront the demons of her past that are driving her future, and Mickey Haller is confronted with the client he always feared. And to me, THIS  is what elevates stories like these from mundane to magnificent.

All great characters have their paradigm challenged then shattered then reformed. Paradigm melds character and plot into one. Plot problems are more than just “bad stuff happening” and instead, are direct challenges to the ego. Without paradigm, characters are one-dimensional puppets passively reacting to ill fortune.

Paradigm=Character

Paradigm is what adds depth to that backstory because backstory alone is not enough. We need to get to the interpretation of the backstory.

Game of Thrones. Every single one of the Lannister children is remarkably different even though they are from the same family…because of paradigms.

But even if we simply wrote ONE character background, we could have the same background and create countless variations off of it. How? Paradigm.

One woman grows up in a big domineering over-involved family and can’t wait to run away and do her own thing. She has no interest in marriage or children and wants a career.

Another? Has no idea why you wouldn’t want to live across the street from all ten of your relatives. She can’t imagine a world where family wasn’t meddling in everything. She can’t wait to get married and have lots of babies.

Same back story. Different interpretation. You, Author God, get to choose 😉 .

The Shattered Paradigm

There are all kinds of paradigms. There is family-centered, money-centered, relationship-centered, status-centered, enemy-centered, friend-centered, etc. Most people have an amalgamation of more than one paradigm, and so do good characters. Think of The Godfather. That is a delicious combination of family-centered, money-centered, power-centered, and status-centered.

Game of Thrones?

*head explodes*

So study it. Go to your favorite movies and series and think about the characters using this notion or paradigms and I believe you will see and be able to then add an entirely new level of genius to your own work.

That and now you can use “paradigm” in a conversation to impress your family and friends 😀 .

What are your thoughts? Does this shed new light on character for you? Maybe you can see what I am talking about in your favorite stories?

I LOVE hearing from you!

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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).

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Image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Craig Sunter
Image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Craig Sunter

Today we are going to shift gears back to craft. Last week we talked about the single largest problem with most first-time novels. There must be a singular core story problem that is resolved in Act Three.

All good stories must have an overall goal.

Now, this of course doesn’t mean there are not a lot of subgoals along the way, but all tributaries eventually deposit into the same river (core plot problem). If they are not related to this problem? Likely you have a plot bunny (or ten) in need of caging.

Yet often emerging writers will toss around this word “character-driven story” when they really don’t understand what this term means. All too often they mistakenly believe it is a pass to skip plotting. Nope. Sorry. So today we are going to discuss what a “character-driven story” really is and what it isn’t.

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Now we all know there are all kinds of fiction and some genres naturally lean toward being “plot-driven”. We don’t want to read a mystery where we are never told whodunit and are instead exploring the detective’s fatal character flaw.

We want the killer uncovered and brought to justice. Thrillers? Same deal. Stop the SUPER BAD THING from happening (I.e. Militant vegans launching the super weapon that turns all bacon into tofu).

Now, this doesn’t mean these stories cannot also be character-driven. They just don’t necessarily have to be. Yet, often what will separate the forgettable detective book from, say a Harry Bosch book, is this added layer of character depth that just gives the story this delicious je ne sais quoi that leaves us wanting more.

We walk away from the story feeling as if we have bonded with living person, not just some writer’s imaginary friend. But the character-driven story must work in tandem with PLOT. Plot is the fire that heats the crucible. No fire? No test.

The World View

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Whenever we begin with our protagonist, this character (like real living people) has a distinctive world view that is born of his/her backstory. This world view is created by millions of variables colliding to make one special distinct personality.

Who were the character’s parents? Was the character adopted? Abandoned? Abused? What did his parents do? What was their world view? Does the character share this view or is he opposed to it? What traumatic events forged this adult (or teen) personality?

Y’all get the gist.

A character who was born into a military family that moved every two years is likely going to hold a vastly different world view than a character born on a family farm in Iowa. Both will be different than a character raised by a grandmother in a Kentucky trailer park because dad died when his meth lab blew and mom is in prison.

Story Challenges then Smashes the World View

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As Author God, we get to choose the protagonist’s world view, but THEN it is our job to then smash it. How do we smash it? We create the perfect problem (story) that is going to shatter what the character believes to be true.

For instance, let’s look at a mystery-suspense that is also a very character-driven story. In Connelly’s book The Lincoln Lawyer Mickey Haller is a rock star defense attorney. He is a product of his background with a famous lawyer father, a man so great in his field, Mickey is a mere shadow. As we can tell from this quote, Mickey is a product of his rearing…

“You know what my father said about innocent clients? … He said the scariest client a lawyer will ever have is an innocent client. Because if you fu*& up and he goes to prison, it’ll scar you for life … He said there is no in-between with an innocent client. No negotiation, no plea bargain, no middle ground. There’s only one verdict. You have to put an NG up on the scoreboard. There’s no other verdict but not guilty.”

Haller screwed up once. He defended an innocent man but the evidence to free the guy just wasn’t there and he lives with the guilt that he talked an innocent man into taking a plea bargain for life in prison because it was the only way to save him from the needle.

When the story begins? Mickey has no interest in guilt or innocence. He doesn’t want to know. And, better yet, to avoid innocent men? He actively courts the worst of the worst as clients—pimps, drug dealers, outlaw bikers, etc.

But then he takes the case for Louis Roulet and everything changes.

Roulet is not just any case. In the beginning, Mickey takes him on because he is rich. He really doesn’t care if the guy did the crime or not. That is not his purview. But then, as the plot unfolds, Mickey realizes that Roulet might be responsible for the crime his innocent client is now serving time for.

The PLOT PROBLEM challenges Mickey’s worldview. It forces him to change, to question who he is, what he stands for and what he really believes. Now, this book might have been fine as a straight up mystery suspense if we just cast a very different character and focused more on solving who really was beating and raping the victims.

But, what makes this book stand head and shoulders above other mysteries is we are there to witness the evolution of Mickey Haller. He begins as a man who claims justice doesn’t matter and evolves into a man willing to die to do what is right.

Connelly didn’t write a book where Haller spends 100,000 words questioning why his father never loved him, why he has a hole in his soul and feels nothing for his fellow man, why he isn’t a better man *queue violin* Why? Because that is not a story, that is self-indulgent tripe.

How a Character Can “Find Herself”

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All right, but some of you might be yelling, But Kristen, this is still a mystery suspense and it partially plot-driven. What about my story? My protagonist wants to “FIND herself”.

Hold on. We are getting there.

Hate to tell you this, but this story will also have a core plot problem. There must be a challenge to the worldview that is eventually resolved. Seriously, no one wants to spend 15 hours reading navel-gazing. Even in these types of stories there is a core plot problem complete with stakes and a ticking clock.

A good example? The 1999 romantic comedy Runaway Bride.

Maggie Carpenter is a feisty, spirited woman who just cannot seem to have success in relationships. She has left three men at the altar already and had it not been for the plot problem? She very well could have left far more.

But what happens?

Columnist Homer Eisenhower Graham or “Ike” gets a scoop from a drunk at the bar about this woman who leaves all these men at the altar. Ike then writes a flaming tabloid about Maggie, but he screws up. He gets a lot of the facts wrong and is fired for not doing his research. He is given the opportunity to redeem his reputation by doing a follow-up story on Maggie.

Now, Maggie is lost, but she doesn’t realize she how lost she is until Ike, believing he yet again is missing the real story does some digging and talks to those who know her. He challenges her that she is running because she is mimicking the men she loves (as evidenced by the way she eats her eggs). She is morphing herself to be each fiancés dream girl and losing herself in the process.

Why hasn’t she pursued her dreams? Does she even know what they are? Does she even know who she is?

The story problem forces Maggie to confront the ugly truth about herself. Instead of risking failure reaching for her own dreams, she is hiding behind the men she dates. She is driven by fear.

The stakes are love. Will Maggie ever find love? When she uncovers who she really is, can she marry Ike (or anyone) as a distinctive and whole person?

But the core story question is, Will the Runaway Bride ever tie the knot? And since this is a romance, the question is (more specifically) Will the Runaway Bride tie the knot with Ike?

If our story merely ended with Maggie leaving for a yoga retreat in India on a journey of self-discovery? That is a crappy story. And again, there was a problem that forced this journey of self-discovery in the first place and this is a problem in need of a satisfying resolution.

So when you are looking at your protagonist, ask the hard questions. Who IS this character and what is his/her worldview. Then, craft a problem that will challenge and smash that view and replace it with a superior lens.

What are your thoughts? Does this help clear up the idea of “character-driven” stories?

I love hearing from you!

And to prove it and show my love, for the month of JANUARY, 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).

SIGN UP NOW FOR MY UPCOMING CLASSES!!! 

Remember that ALL CLASSES come with a FREE RECORDING so you can listen over and over. So even if you can’t make it in person? No excuses! 

All you need is an internet connection!

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Image courtesy of Nebraska Oddfish via Flickr Creative Commons
Image courtesy of Nebraska Oddfish via Flickr Creative Commons

It’s tempting for us to create “perfect” protagonists and “pure evil” antagonists, but that’s the stuff of cartoons, not great fiction. Every strength has an array of corresponding weaknesses, and when we understand these soft spots, generating conflict becomes easier. Understanding character arc becomes simpler. Plotting will fall into place with far less effort.

All stories are character-driven. Plot merely serves to change characters from a lowly protagonist into a hero….kicking and screaming along the way. Plot provides the crucible.

One element that is critical to understand is this:

Everyone Has Secrets

To quote Dr. Gregory House, “Everybody lies.”

All good stories hinge on secrets.

I have bodies under my porch.

Okay, not all secrets in our fiction need to be THIS huge.

Secret #1—“Real” Self Versus “Authentic” Self

We all have a face we show to the world, what we want others to see. If this weren’t true then my author picture would have me wearing a Call of Duty t-shirt, yoga pants and a scrunchee, not a beautifully lighted photograph taken by a pro.

We all have faces we show to certain people, roles we play. We are one person in the workplace, another with family, another with friends and another with strangers. This isn’t us being deceptive in a bad way, it’s self-protection and it’s us upholding societal norms. This is why when Grandma starts discussing her bathroom routine, we cringe and yell, “Grandma! TMI! STOP!”

No one wants to be trapped in a long line at a grocery store with the total stranger telling us about her nasty divorce. Yet, if we had a sibling who was suffering, we’d be wounded if she didn’t tell us her marriage was falling apart.

Yet, people keep secrets. Some more than others.

In fact, if we look at The Joy Luck Club the entire book hinges on the fact that the mothers are trying to break the curses of the past by merely changing geography. Yet, as their daughters grow into women, they see the faces of the same demons wreaking havoc in their daughters’ lives…even though they are thousands of miles away from the past (China).

The mothers have to reveal their sins, but this will cost them the “perfect version of themselves” they’ve sold the world and their daughters (and frankly, themselves).

The daughters look at their mothers as being different from them. Their mothers are perfect, put-together, and guiltless. It’s this misperception that keeps a wall between them. This wall can only come down if the external facades (the secrets) are exposed.

Secret #2—False Face

Characters who seem strong, can, in fact, be scared half to death. Characters who seem to be so caring, can in fact be acting out of guilt or control, not genuine concern for others. We all have those fatal weaknesses, and most of us don’t volunteer these blemishes to the world.

In fact, we might not even be aware of them. It’s why shrinks are plentiful and paid well.

The woman whose house looks perfect can be hiding a month’s worth of laundry behind the Martha Stewart shower curtains. Go to her house and watch her squirm if you want to hang your coat in her front closet. She wants others to believe she has her act together, but if anyone opens that coat closet door, the pile of junk will fall out…and her skeletons will be on public display.

Anyone walking toward her closets or asking to take a shower makes her uncomfortable because this threatens her false face.

Watch any episode of House and most of the team’s investigations are hindered because patients don’t want to reveal they are not ill and really want attention, or use drugs, are bulimic, had an affair, are growing marijuana in their attics, etc.

Secret #3—False Guilt

Characters can be driven to right a wrong they aren’t even responsible for. In Winter’s Bone Ree Dolly is driven to find her father before the bail bondsman takes the family land and renders all of them homeless.

Ree is old enough to join the Army and walk away from the nightmare, but she doesn’t. She feels a need to take care of the family and right a wrong she didn’t commit. She has to dig in and dismantle the family secrets (the crime ring entrenched in her bloodline) to uncover the real secret—What happened to her father?

She has to keep the family secret (otherwise she could just go to the cops) to uncover the greater, and more important secret. She keeps the secret partly out of self-preservation, but also out of guilt and shame.

Be a GOOD Secret-Keeper

This is one of the reasons I HATE superfluous flashbacks. Yes, we can use flashbacks. They are a literary device, but like the prologue, they get botched more often than not.

Oh, but people want to know WHY my character is this way or does thus-and-such.

Here’s the thing, The Spawn wants cookie sprinkles for breakfast. Just because he WANTS something, doesn’t mean it’s the best thing for him. Don’t tell us WHY. Reveal pieces slowly, but once secrets are out? Tension dissipates. Tension is key to maintaining story momentum. We WANT to know WHY, but it might not be good for us.

The Force was more interesting before it was EXPLAINED.

Secret #4–The Lies We Tell Ourselves

Character arc is very often birthed from the biggest lies of all—the lies we tell ourselves. Your protagonist in the beginning should be raw an unformed. She has not yet been through the crucible (plot) that will fire out her impurities. Many of these “impurities” are the lies she tells herself.

I don’t need anyone’e help.

I am fine on my own.

I don’t have a problem.

These self-delusions are the biggest reason that your protagonist would fail if pitted against the antagonist in the beginning.

One of my all-time favorite movies is Army of Darkness. Even a silly low-budget movie takes advantage of the self-delusion. Ash is transported into another world where a great evil has awoken and seeks the Necronomicon (which is his only way back home).

Ash is a selfish ass who cares only about himself. He tells himself that others don’t matter, that he doesn’t really care about them and that he’s fine on his own. And he believes his own BS.

The challenges he faces (and often creates because of his poor character) change him and reveal that he was really lying to himself. He does kinda dig being the hero and he really does care about those around him. The lone-wolf maverick rises to be a leader who unites a frightened and divided people against the forces of darkness.

Good? Bad?

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Everybody LIES

They can be small lies, “No, I wasn’t crying. Allergies.” They can be BIG lies, “I have no idea what happened to your father. I was playing poker with Jeb.” Fiction is one of the few places that LIES ARE GOOD. LIES ARE GOLD.

Fiction is like dating. If we tell our date our entire life story on Date #1? Mystery lost and good luck with Date #2.

When it comes to your characters, make them lie. Make them hide who they are. They need to slowly reveal the true self, and they will do everything to defend who they believe they are. Remember the inciting incident creates a personal extinction. The protagonist will want to return to the old way, even though it isn’t good for them.

Resist the urge to explain.

Feel free to write everything out in detail for your own use…but then HIDE that baby from the reader. BE A SECRET-KEEPER. Secrets rock. Secrets make FABULOUS fiction.

What are your thoughts? Questions? What are some great works of fiction that show a myriad of lies from small to catastrophic? Could you possibly be ruining your story tension by explaining too much?

Before we go, I want to give you a heads up especially if you are thinking on attending a conference.

I’m holding my ever-popular Your Story in a Sentence class. Can you tell what your book is about in ONE sentence? If you can’t? There might be a huge plot problem. This also helps if you are ever going to query or pitch an agent. The first ten signups get their log-line shredded by MOI for FREE.

Also speaking of FREE, I’d like to mention again the new class I am offering!

How and WHY are we using FREE!?

Making Money with FREE! As a bonus for this class, my friend Jack Patterson who’s so far sold over 150,000 books to come and teach us how to ROCK the newsletter. This is in excess of two hours of training and the recording (as always) comes with purchase.

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. 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.

For those who need help building a platform and keeping it SIMPLE, pick up a copy of my latest social media/branding book Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World on AMAZON, iBooks, or Nook

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So last time we talked about the basics in regards to dialogue and once we grasp the fundamentals—like proper punctuation—we then can focus more on elements of style. How we deliver the dialogue.

We can tell a lot about people by the way they speak. What people say or don’t say speaks volumes. As the writer, it is our job to understand our characters and to know who they are and how they think. We have to master the art of empathy. If we don’t, our dialogue will all sound like US talking. Writing, in many ways is a lot like method acting. We have to crawl inside the head and the psyche of our cast.

Not as easy as it might seem.

Dialogue done well is the stuff of legends though. Think of favorite movies. Why do we love them SO much? Very often…dialogue.

My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.

Social Roles—The Broad Strokes

I live in my apron only usually no makeup and hair in a scrunch-ee

Whether we like it or not, most of us will fall into some kind of social category with the way we speak. The way we speak will tell others a lot about who we are, our job, our background, level of education and even where we exist socially.

Don’t believe me?

How many of you were once young and wild and free and swore you would never be like your parents? Then one day you heard, “Because I said so, that’s why” fly out of your mouth?

“Why can’t you just do it the first time?”

“I didn’t ask you if you wanted to do it.”

I am bee-bopping along and suddenly hear my mother….

“Well, Spawn, when the mind is stupid, the body suffers.”

Shoot. Me. Now.

No matter how much we try, we are helpless in the face of mimesis. But, that isn’t such a bad thing. This actually makes it easier to do what we do. Since we’ve been around moms, we know how they talk. We can emulate the lingo. We know how teenagers, grandparents, grouchy neighbors, picky librarians, and con-artist family members all talk.

Through these “roles” we gain the broad strokes of what a character should “sound” like. This will help our characters ring true in the mental ear of the reader. There is nothing wrong with having characters who fit into a tidy box. They can still be interesting and unique even in that role.

Yes, I am a mother and I say all the stuff I swore I would never say.

No is just a part of life. 

I also play XBox with Spawn and say things like, “Burst-fire! Conserve your ammo!” “You can’t kill a zombie like that!” 

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Thus, even though a lot of what I say would be very prototypical “Mom Talk” there are elements of how I speak that make me unique within that subset. Not all moms shoot for sport, practice Jiu Jistu and randomly quote Monty Python. Spawn’s mom, however, DOES.

But this is is when we get into the…

Character—The Fine Strokes

Moms say things many other moms say, but each mom is unique. That is the case with most characters. If we don’t take time to really think about who each character IS, we can run the risk of a character sounding like a stock character.

Recently I read a YA and only finished it because I paid full-price. But the biggest reason I had a tough time getting into the story was that all the characters were blasé.

Each character talked like a stereotype. The broad strokes were there, but there was no nuance. Thus, I was left with a cast of characters who were utterly forgettable.

How do we get fine strokes?

Can we buy some on eBay?

This is a tough one to answer. The fine strokes can take years to master. We have to learn to be excellent listeners. We have to learn how to look beyond what people are saying. We have to become masters of empathy and we must study people. Beyond this, though, what is it that transforms a plot-puppet into a 3-D person?

I believe it is in our idiosyncrasies and our contradictions.

Idiosyncrasies 

An Idiosyncrasy is a peculiarity that is specific to one person. For instance, last time I mentioned the no-no about having every character speak in full sentences. Most of us don’t speak in full sentences so it rings untrue when everyone is using full sentences. BUT, some people DO speak in full sentences. That would be an idiosyncrasy and it’s one that is used regularly to convey highly intellectual characters—Ie. Dr. Sheldon Cooper.

A character who is foreign might not use contractions. A character who has OCD might always repeat verbs. A character who is advanced in years might never answer directly, but always answer in colorful parables.

I wrote a really funny character who constantly used malapropisms.

You just don’t cheat on your wife. When you get hitched, you promise to be faithful. You know. Monotonous.

We all have sayings and filler words that are unique to each of us. But adding these subtle details, now we have characters who are far more dimensional.

So we might have a mother who is saying all kinds of mom-like things…only she is unique because she is bad about smashing words together and speaks in hyperbole.

Eat your vegetables and don’t correct me. It’s very condensending.

Condescending.

I know what I said, Mr. Smarty Pants. Hurry up before I trade you to the Jones family for a puppy. At least the puppy would have some respect.

Add Some Layers

Remember that most humans are actually a unique blending of experience and roles. Yes, we might have a mom who is talking like a mom, but what else is she? A mom who is a Japanese violinist would probably talk differently than a mom who is a cop and grew up in Brooklyn.

Culture

Culture impacts a lot more than we might realize. I was born in Texas, but reared by a Yankee mom who is very direct and no-nonsense. I have run into all kinds of trouble with Southern women who feel I am rude. Conversely, I get short with Southern women because I am aging and don’t have time for all the niceties.

My roommate in college was from Georgia and we went round and round and round. She’d say:

Roommate: Kristen, do you think the trash needs to go out?

Me: Nah, looks good to me *keeps going*

Because her culture dictated it was more polite to hint and suggest? I missed most of what she wanted because I was always direct. If I wanted someone to take out the trash, I simply asked.

But here is an extra lesson in dialogue. Just from this example, can you see how conflict can arise simply from expectations? She believed she was asking me to take out the trash and believed that I was ignoring her. Conversely, I couldn’t figure out why she wanted an opinion on the state of our garbage so often. Why didn’t she just ask me to take it out? I would have happily obliged.

Self-Image

How does your character feel about him/herself? A low self-image might make a person a people pleaser. Maybe she is always agreeing with everyone and terrified to have her own opinion. Maybe the character talks too much, tries too hard, never asks about others.

If a character is selfish, he might brag all the time, or have to outdo everyone else in the conversation.

That’s great you caught a fish, but you were on a lake. Now go deep sea fishing. That’s real fishing. I once struggled with a fifteen foot shark for three hours….

Maybe the character is always interrupting others. Maybe the character uses profanity or quotes bible verses all the time. Or both.

Contrast

Sometimes we can use dialogue to make contrasts. Contrasts are very interesting and say a lot about our character. A great example would be Elmore Leonard’s character Boyd Crowder (refer to television series Justified). Now, Boyd fits into a broad-stroke category of a hillbilly. He has a deep southern accent, works with his hands, drives a ratty truck, wears boots, and drinks like a fish.

But what makes Boyd a fascinating character study, especially for dialogue, is he is unexpected. He is a fascinating contrast. Though he is a redneck (and plays this up for his own ends) he uses a twenty-dollar word when a ten cent one would do. He speaks very colorfully. If you ask him the time, he will tell you how to build a watch.

Not only is his speech idiosyncratic, but it is a very unique contrast. One usually doesn’t expect a hillbilly to use words most of us would have to look up in a thesaurus.

Show Don’t Tell

Dialogue is HUGE, HUGE, HUGE for Show Don’t Tell.

Instead of telling us a character is a certain way, SHOW us by how she talks and what she says.

A gossip.

“Now, for the record, I’ve never seen her drink, but she always looks so tired. My brother-in-law always looked that way because he was throwing them back in secret.”

A self-involved jerk.

“Sure, Babe. After I meet with my client, how about I meet you for that cute little college thing you’re doing. What was it again? Art history?”

Y’all get the gist. Now go have fun with it!

All of this is to say that dialogue is one of the most powerful tools for showing who a character is, who they are hiding and maybe even who they could be with a little help from us (Writer-God). Next time, we will dig a bit deeper into dialogue. Who knew there was so much to this? What are your thoughts? What other suggestions do you have for authentic-sounding dialogue?

I LOVE hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of SEPTEMBER, 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.

August’s WINNER is lonestarjake88. Please send your 20 pages (2500 words) to kristen at wana intl dot com in a WORD document. Double-spaced and one-inch margins and CONGRATULATIONS!

For those who need help building a platform and keeping it SIMPLE, pick up a copy of my latest social media/branding book Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World on AMAZON, iBooks, or Nook

lonestarjake88

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Today, we’re going to explore an extension of the WOUND. The BLIND SPOT. There are no perfect personalities. All great character traits possess a blind spot. The loyal person is a wonderful friend, but can be naive and taken advantage of.

The take-charge Alpha leader can make a team successful, but also inadvertently tromp over feelings or even fail to realize that others have great ideas, too. Maybe even BETTER ideas.

A super caring, nurturing personality can be an enabler or maybe even ignore close relationships to take care of strangers. Someone who is great with money can end up a miser. A person with a fantastic work ethic can become a workaholic.

Y’all get the gist.

Often the antagonist (Big Boss Troublemaker) is a mirror of the protagonist, especially in the beginning of the story.

To use an example from a movie we have likely all seen. In Top Gun, what makes Maverick the best pilot is his complete lack of fear. He has the cajones to do what other pilots wouldn’t ever consider.

He’s driven by his wound, the lie about his father. This has made him one of the best pilots (trying to overcome his tainted history and impress a ghost) but he’s missed the lesson on how to be part of a team.

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Yes, maybe breaking all the rules makes you “the best”, but it can get others killed. It isn’t all about HIM.

This is why when I refer to “the antagonist” I prefer my made-up term Big Boss Troublemaker. The antagonist isn’t always “bad.” The antagonist is simply the person responsible for creating the core story problem.

Iceman isn’t a bad guy. He isn’t evil with a plan to take over the world or infiltrate the Top Gun school as a sleeper terrorist.

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He’s simply a by-the-book fighter pilot who believes Maverick shouldn’t be there. He loathes Maverick because he thinks he’s a danger to himself and others (and, frankly, he has a very valid point).

The plot provides the crucible. Maverick butts heads with Iceman over and over in a um, man-part-measuring contest. But what happens when Maverick loses Goose? Crisis.

A hard event (PLOT) has now forced Maverick to face the truth about himself. For the first time, he SEES the blind spot Iceman and others have been pointing out (which has been the core source of conflict). This loss forces him to go searching for answers deeper than buzzing the tower.

He finally recognizes others might actually have a point.

The beauty of this movie and why it’s remained so timeless (aside from hot guys in Navy dress) is it’s a movie exploring people. Real, broken, hurting people blind to who they really are. By story’s end? Everybody arcs.

Maverick learns there are other people in the sky besides HIM and that he is part of a TEAM. Iceman lightens up and recognizes that Maverick, too, has a point. Sometimes one just has to toss out the rulebook.

Thus, when creating characters in any story, to deepen them, we need to KNOW them. What DRIVES THEM? How would they react according to their past, their wounds and their blind spot?

As a writing exercise, take a scenario. Maybe an attempted mugging. How would different characters react?

For instance, when I was in college, I taught Jui-Jitsu during the day and sold papers in the evening. One dark winter night a drunk tried to mug me in a dark apartment complex and take my hard case briefcase.

Because of MY background, growing up powerless and determined to be in CONTROL, I’d taken years of martial arts. Also, when I was eight, I witnessed my 6’8″ male family member raise his hand to hit my mom while she was cooking….and she beat his a$$ out the front door wielding a mad hot cast iron skillet.

This left a mark (though likely more on said family member).

Thus, 12 years later when a MUCH larger drunk came up behind and tried to mug ME, he got beaten heartily with a briefcase and then chased until I lost him.

But why did I fight, not just hand over the briefcase?

I’d always been POOR. I was very poor in college and had worked long hours to buy a really nice briefcase in hopes of landing a better job than selling and delivering papers. There was no money in the case. I could have handed it over but because of MY wounds, the briefcase was more than a briefcase.

Clearly my BLIND SPOT is I have an alligator mouth and a pekinese @$$. I could have lost and ended up hurt or dead.

But what about a person with a different background? A different wound? A different blind spot?

What if the person mugged was a trust fund baby who could easily buy another briefcase? Or a person who’d been beaten badly in formative years and would do anything to avoid experiencing that pain? What if the person was elderly? There are a lot of variables that make a VERY rich palette to create characters with LIFE.

Think of your own life and personality? What is your greatest strength? How does it create your greatest weakness? What is YOUR blind spot. Play a little armchair psychiatrist and what you find might be really interesting 😉 . Feel free to share about you or even your favorite characters you’ve read or even written.

Remember! Due to popular demand I am running my Your Story in a Sentence class in a little over a week and participants have their log lines shredded and rebuilt and made agent-ready. Log-lines are crucial because if we don’t know what our book is about? How are we going to finish it? Revise it? Pitch it? Sell it?

I love hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of AUGUST, 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).

July’s Winner is Aurora Jean Alexander. Please send your 5000 word WORD document to kristen at wana intl dot com. CONGRATULATIONS!

For those who need help building a platform and keeping it SIMPLE, pick up a copy of my latest social media/branding book Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World on AMAZON, iBooks, or Nook