Friday, December 4, 2009

How to Bring Characters to Life

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As any fiction writer will tell you, vivid characters are necessary to any successful novel. It may surprise you to know the method you use to bring your character to life can be as important as the character himself. With that in mind, let’s consider some of the different ways you might develop the characters in your novel.

One way you can add depth to a character is to summarize. This technique has the distinct advantage of simplicity. You basically give your reader a list of characteristics in narrative form. If you wish to advance your character in this fashion, don’t just give the reader a physical description. You should also use this time to bring his conflict to the fore. Those who use this technique typically do so early in their story. The problem with this methodology? The author tends to tell about the character, rather than show. (How many times have we heard the maxim writers are to show and not tell?)

Another popular method writers use to portray a character is to show an unusual action or habit. You might mention a young girl’s habit of tucking her hair behind her ear whenever she feels nervous around men. When your reader sees her tucking her hair later in the book, they understand what this character is feeling.

You can always have your character give a self-portrait. Fyodor Dostoyevski used this technique in “Notes From Underground.”
“I am a sick man… I am a spiteful man. I am an ugly man. I believe my liver is diseased.”

The advantage of this methodology is the reader can also even envision the character’s personality by the words he uses and the way he uses them. The disadvantages can be significant as it might not carry enough dramatic weight to propel the story.

You can always use a person’s appearance to show their personality. We’ve all heard the old saw that says, “Image is everything.” Your reader can deduce your character’s traits by the way their groom themselves and their physical traits. The reader can also surmise the core conflict from a description if you use this technique with care.  For example, is his mustache shabby or cropped? It is wide and waxed or does it sit low on the upper lip? What if one female character glopped on make-up while another wore none? What type of person do these various personality traits demonstrate? Can you see different personalities exhibited by these descriptions?

What I like about this type of characterization is their appearance may be deceiving. (Ah, love those Shapeshifters!)

You can bring your character to life with the scenes in which you place him. This manner of expressing character traits is quite common and is the most true to life. In our lives, we judge people by the way they act, do we not? We all know that “Actions speak louder than words,” and, consciously or not, we often determine our outlook toward people in this manner. So, too, will your readers when watching your character act and react. This technique easily brings your reader into the scene.

Perhaps the most useful method is to use a blend of the various methods. You may, for example, give a bit of description and write about a character’s personal ticks to show his true colors. This technique is often the best way to introduce your major characters.

Whatever method or combination of methods you use, insure the people you create feel true to life or all you work is for naught.

Until we meet again, I wish you best-sellers.

C. Patrick Schulze

Thursday, December 3, 2009

8 Tips for Writing Compelling Imagery

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In novel writing, the descriptions you create relative to setting can have a major impact on the power of your writing.

Many new authors write descriptions but often miss the concept of imagery altogether. Think of a description as a photograph, if you will. The average writer looks over the photo and writes the various things he sees. This is not necessarily the best way to convey what you wish your readers to envision. Here’s a typical description.

The construction of the building was of stone. It squatted on the wide field, surrounded by landscaping that suffered from neglect. The thin windows looked more like slits one might see in castles of old.

Instead, you might try to write in a way that incorporates the images you see into the action. For example the above description might be reworded as such:

He strode into the stone building and noted the poor quality of the landscape. Once inside, he wondered as to the purpose for the narrow windows which allowed little light to enter the rooms.

Paint your verbal pictures in nibbles more than great gulps of information. This means you should avoid writing descriptions of setting in long narratives. A rule, and we all know rules are created for us to break, says to put no more than two sentences together when describing your scene. Try not to fall into the trap where long descriptions will draw your reader’s attention from the main story.

Use your characters’ senses. The following example will demonstrate this concept.

Once inside, he noticed a soft clanging that drifted through the building. It sounded somewhat like someone hammered on bronze. He tiptoed farther in and noticed an odor waft up from beneath the floorboards. Old food, perhaps?

Pepper dialogue with imagery. That is to say you might consider allowing your characters to impart images of things happening when they speak.

“I can’t seem to stop these goose bumps from rising, no matter what I do.”

Use verbs that convey action. Words such as twirled, jumped, scurried or plotted show action by their very nature.

Use adverbs that convey action. An example might be a character’s shredded credit card. “Shredded” shows an action but is used to describe the noun. Another example is a groaning piece of equipment.

Use ordinary things in other than ordinary ways. For example, what about using an automobile to pull a tow truck or having a car chase a dog?

Think small. Have your characters take note of some of the smallest of details in your setting. Could you make use of the tiny nubs on the treads of a new tire? When might you point out the indentation at the bottom of a wine bottle? Can you imagine ever employing the scratches on a cell phone screen in your novel?

Do any of you have other examples as to how a novel writer might employ more compelling imagery? I’d appreciate your suggestions.

As always, I wish you best-sellers.

C. Patrick Schulze

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

How to Increase the Pace of Your Writing

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As you learn how to write a novel, you’ll find conflict is the key tool used to develop the readers’ interest. Today, I’ll talk about how to accelerate the pace of your words thus increasing the tension within your novel.

The first writing technique to consider is the amount of white space on the page. Imagine a sheet of paper filled with text, one line after the other without breaks.  You can visualize how this would overpower to the reader. Think instead of a page loaded with choppy sentences. This creates a great deal of white space to the right and makes the page read faster. Your reader will feel the faster rhythm if for no reason other than the speed they flip the pages.

I alluded to the next tip in the last paragraph. Write in short, choppy sentences. These should be meaningful, of course, but quick lines make for quick reading. Quick reading makes for a fast tempo. Don’t try to break up long paragraphs with short sentences as it’ll come off as just that, poor paragraph structure. Each line, short or otherwise, must stand on its own.

Fragmentary sentences also work well to increase the speed of reading. The judicious use of them can be quite effective. In those nail-biting situations you create, fragments will increase the excitement. Always. Every time. As here. I urge caution, however, for overuse of fragments can get out of control if you’re not careful. 

Use shorter words to increase the tempo of your story. Anything that slows your reader will slow the pace of your scene. For example, must you use the word, “unsympathetically?” These six syllables read slower than its synonym, “cruelly,” which has only two.

Be cautious of argot your middling might not twig. That is to say don’t use terminology your average reader might not understand. When you force them to take their mind off the story and focus on individual words, their reading slows in dramatic fashion.

Use strong, specific verbs and nouns. (How many times have we heard this one?) Consider someone who dreams in nightmares in contrast to someone who is haunted by nightmares. I think you can see the power in the word, “haunted” when compared to, “dreams.” As to verbs, consider the difference between someone who “falls” to someone who “collapses”. “Collapse” is a much stronger verb, assuming it fits the scene, as it implies a more precise action. This precision with your words is what you seek.

Don’t retell information. Just get to it. Your reader already knows what happened in prior chapters. To loop back to an earlier point in your story will simply slow things.

Use active voice. “He was going to fight it out,” reads slower and with less strength than, “He determined to fight it out.” You may wish to read my earlier post on the verb, “to be.”

Look to the pace of your novel and your audience will find it a more interesting read.

Might you have any tips to share?

As always, I wish you best-sellers.

C. Patrick Schulze

Monday, November 30, 2009

13 Tips to Improve Your Characterization

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I spent a couple of days at a writers’ conference not too long ago and wanted to pass along a few things I thought might be helpful. The discussion I most enjoyed centered on improving characterization. What follows are the highlights of what I thought interesting. I hope you find them worthy of note, too.

1.      The best writing era for character research was the 1880’s to the 1920’s. I understand this era produced the best novels to exemplify characterization.

2.      Bridge Characters within chapters when you write your novel. For example, if you have a character with a patch over his eye, mention his patch in other areas of your novel when he is present. That helps to cement this character in the reader’s mind.

3.      Tell your readers how a character walks, stutters, etc. This makes the character memorable to your readers. This made me think of Gene Wilder in Young Frankenstein, when Marty Feldman, stooped over with a hunchback, told Wilder to, “Walk this way.” Obviously, this is a useful tool for writers for I’ve kept that image for how long – 30 years?

4.      Pit contrasting characters against each other. Think Laurel and Hardy or Lucy and Ricky.

5.      Put your characters in situation foreign to them. Think fish-out-of-water scenarios. One example might be a goody-two-shoes in a gang fight.

6.       Never put your character in front of a mirror. Yes, there is an exception in Snow White, but then again, even James Bond learned “never” never means never. Right?

7.      The bad guy can always rationalize his actions. He’s not insane, he’s evil.

8.      Find contradiction in your novel’s characters. Imagine our goody-two-shoes who finally succumbs to the neighbor’s wife’s enchantments. You might write about the vegetarian who is forced to eat meat to stay alive.

9.      Every character needs something in every chapter. (Ah, the power of conflict!) Do they all get their wishes fulfilled? Not if you’re looking for readers.

10.  Having your characters arguing will bring out their personality. This is the fundamental turning point in my newest novel. So glad to hear it works!

11.  Your character should be visible from the silhouette. How interesting might this be? Be careful, though. This can get out of hand fast.

12.  “Write what bubbles up.”It’s an old line, but it still makes sense to follow your muse.

13.  Use popular names during the decades in which they live. Check census records, and the like for authenticity.

Btw, another tip I liked also surfaced. If a gun is seen in chapter one, it must be fired by chapter four.

The panelists were Dash Shaw, a cartoonist and author of Bottomless Bellybutton. (Boy, was this kid ever interesting.)  Frankie Bailey, author of Wicked Albany: Lawlessness and Liquor in the Prohibition Era and Scott Nelson, author of Ain’t Nothing but a Man.

I do hope these tidbits have proved useful.

Until my next post, I wish you best-sellers.

C. Patrick Schulze