Tag: character building

Before and After

 

The beauty industry is rife with before and after pictures. Their aim is to show potential customers the benefit of some product or treatment, hence the “after” picture is far more appealing than the “before” picture.

Lately, I’ve noticed conversations containing the before/after phrase,  not in regards to a beauty treatment, but in relation to COVID-19. The pandemic created a great slash through the normal progression of our lives. We have “before,” when families and friends gathered for celebration and sorrow. When the only consideration in creating a guest list was the size of the table. Babies were born and grandparents, aunts and uncles flocked to the nursery to greet the new arrival. In times of loss, the bereaved drew strength from the mourners who assembled to comfort them. We didn’t think twice about being present in a group.

COVID changed all that. Some grandparents didn’t cuddle a newborn until the babe had become a toddler. Families grieved in isolation, unable to hold the hand of a loved one as they passed from this life. Our new guest lists may exclude the unvaccinated. Remember when banks had signs outside requiring customers to remove sunglasses and caps before entering the building? Now we see a masked man in a bank and shrug.

Most pandemic related restrictions have been removed now, but our behaviour has not returned to the “before” times. I doubt it ever will. 

From a personal and social point of view the effects of the pandemic are significant, leaving us more cautious, suspicious of our fellowmen. We must navigate a new “normal” and the journey  is uncomfortable and awkward.

From a writer’s point of view, the experience of the pandemic gives us a whole range of new responses for character-building. If a good story starts at a turning point, we have loads of examples from our daily lives to show what happens when a character hits a crossroads. Does she defy the risks and go out and party with strangers? Does she withdraw into her cocoon and miss out on the rest of life? Does she feel her way back into the life she had before, or does she close the door on those times and start over?

In my wip, the heroine is a widow. She behaves like a new widow, even though she lost her husband five years before the story began. That is because she has decided to withdraw — from friends and neighbours, from community, from organizations — from everything that gave her life meaning before her sudden change in circumstances.

Since the pandemic, I can look around me and see that response in real life. I know people who have stopped coming to church, have stopped going to the grocery story, have given up on movies or concerts, have cut themselves off from personal contact with anyone outside their household. I can use my observation of these people to give more depth to my protagonist

In my story the heroine is jolted out of her half-life by events — it would be a boring story if she wasn’t — and I can witness the same thing around me as people venture into society once more.  Some are cautious, wearing masks in every indoor setting. Some are being social, but only with a few close friends. Some are racing full-throttle into crowds of strangers.  More grist for the story-teller’s mill.

Regardless of how people respond to the post-COVID world (actually, the virus is still around, it’s just the restrictions that have changed) no one has been untouched by it. We all have this wide chasm, an empty place in our lives, from when the pandemic was at it’s worst. We date our memories as pre-pandemic or after. It’s as though we have had two lives.

One ended in March of 2020. 

As writers, this is familiar ground. Our stories are about change.  Page one is “before,” and the end is “after.” We can give our characters successes and defeats. We can make them victims of circumstances, or we can make them masters of their own lives. In fiction, we can make it up as we go along. That’s the joy of writing, The question is, how will we manage in real life?

In March of 2023 we begin the second part of our own story.

Visits: 76

Quirks and Traits

I’m rereading a book where one of the main characters is an editor who mentally parses interesting words in her thoughts. E.g. while struggling with the onerous task of clearing her basement she thinks “Latin: onerosus, meaning ‘burden”.” This mental editing is a character quirk that has nothing do to with moving the plot forward, but it makes the character interesting and unusual, and keeps this reader turning pages.

Many authors use quirks in character building —

  • Colin Dexter’s Morse solves the Times crossword in record quick time.
  • Miss Marple knits and eavesdrops
  • Abby on NCIS covered in tattoos and piercings, looks scary but is kind and loving.

In science, trait refers to a characteristic that is caused by genetics, e.g. blue eyes. A quirk is defined as a peculiarity of behaviour, a mannerism. In the old TV show “Monk” the main character suffered from OCD. I’m sure living with that condition is very hard, but in the show Monk’s obsessive straightening and tidying and germaphobia is entertaining. In the British show, “Professor T,” the main character has a similar quirk. 

Habit, mannerism, trait, quirk, foible, idiosyncrasy . . . all mean more or less the same thing, but the consistent definition for “quirk” in different dictionaries is that the characteristic is strange, weird, peculiar or unexpected.  Whatever you call that odd thing your character does, the weirder you make it, the better when it comes to keeping your readers engaged. 

I think the trick to writing quirky characters is to keep the behaviours off-beat. A quick search of the internet turned up a list of 500 character quirks. Among the things listed are computer nerd, pacing when thinking, chewing fingernails, chewing gum . . . In my opinion, these habits aren’t weird enough to qualify as quirks.  

The quirk must be unique and unexpected. The first time I saw a movie where a daring-do hero was afraid of clowns I was delighted. Since then, I’ve seen that meme overused and it has lost its power. Now, whenever a clown comes on screen, I expect the cop/fireman/soldier to fear it. 

So, what would be some fun quirks to incorporate into a romance? Perhaps the heroine never meets a man without visualizing him as her groom. If he’s “the one,” we go directly to HEA. If he’s not “the one” the way in which the vision dissolves could be fun. e.g. he melts, or he grows a monkey tail and swings through the trees, or he explodes and destroys the wedding chapel.

In the old television show, Remington Steele, the title character solved mysteries by relating them to old movies. I found that quirk memorable and it heightened the dissonance between him and his lady boss, who was a trained detective. In that case, the quirk served to make the character unique and added to the romantic tension of the story.

In my book, The Man for Her, Lottie’s hatred of the search for gold could be described as a quirk, but I’d be more inclined to call it a learned characteristic since it comes from experience and, therefore, not that unexpected. Still, for a story set in the gold rush, having a heroine who hates gold is a bit quirky.

Not every book will have a quirky character. If they did the quirks would quickly become stale and boring. Still, if you can incorporate a little oddity into one of your characters, readers will remember.

Please share your favourite quirky characters in the comments below.

 

 

Visits: 146

Character and More

Vancouver Island Romance Authors held its annual all-day workshop last weekend with presenter Eileen Cook. Eileen is a member of The Creative Academy and one terrific teacher. Before becoming a successful YA author, she studied psychology and worked as a counsellor. Using that training and experience she is able to provide unique insights into personalities — both real and fictional — that helps her to create complex, interesting and captivating characters. She shared some of her wisdom with us.

One of her hints in the first part of the workshop was to create a character timeline from birth to page one of your novel, from that character’s pov. If an event was positive, you wrote it above the line, if negative, below the line. This showed that, apart from the event itself, we learned the character’s belief about that event, and thus had insight into her motivations and goals.

                  I tried the exercise for my own real life and noticed that many of the events I would have put below the line in real time, in hindsight went above the line. An interesting outcome that matches my optimistic outlook. For a character in a book, having her hang on to the negative might make for a more interesting story.

                Eileen emphasized that “belief” about an event could be more powerful than the event itself. It is the character’s belief about her body, her parents, her job, her boyfriend . . . that creates the consequences that lead to story.  I’ve been watching for that concept in real life. I know a couple who has left their church because they “believe” they can’t make connections. When I look at their circumstances, as an observer, it seems to me they had plenty of friends. Yet, in terms of their action, it is their belief, not my observation that counts.

                Similarly, I look at my heroine, racked by guilt. In my gentle, authorly way, I want to remove her burden and show her she’s not to blame for an accident, but that would be the end of the story. Much better for her to suffer and struggle until, with the love of the hero, she forgives herself.

There were more wonderful lessons during the day, but Eileen ended with a talk about the life of a writer. It ain’t easy! We meet with rejection in the pre-publishing world and we meet with damning reviews in the post-published world. Family, friends and colleagues may ask why we “waste” our time writing “that stuff.”

Mark Twain said: Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that, but the really great make you feel that you, too, can become great.” 

Eileen echoed that advice and encouraged us to use positive self-talk as well as to cultivate supportive friends. VIRA is a lovely group of writers who encourage, engage and empathize with one another. Most writers need something like VIRA, whether it’s a formal organization or a few supportive friends. We want our characters to be kind to children and puppies. We should be kind to ourselves.

All in all, it was a wonderful way to spend a Saturday. Attendees have all been raving about how inspired they feel, how eager they are to get back into their work, and how many ideas are raging through their imaginations. A workshop that doesn’t end when the day is over is a gift. Thanks, Eileen.

To connect with Eileen about your own writing, go to https://ccscreativeacademy.com/ You’ll benefit from her wisdom along with others.

 

Visits: 118

Second Thoughts

I’m often troubled with insomnia.  Experts warn against lying awake for hours on end. They suggest insomniacs get up and “do” something useful. What the experts forget though, is that bed is cozy and comfortable. Getting up requires leaving those warm blankets and stumbling around in the dark and cold. I’d rather lie in bed, even if I’m not asleep. My compromise is to “think” something useful, while enjoying the comfort of my pillow. Sometimes I write letters in my head, or draw up a plan of action for the next day. Often, I think about my work in progress. That’s what prompted today’s blog.

While lying in the dark as the minutes ticked over I mulled the writing so far and came to the conclusion that my heroine was too bland. I’d tried to make her shy and nervous, but I’d given her a profession that required assertiveness and skill. The two aspects of her character were not working together. I came up with a solution. In her working life she is capable and cheerful. Only around one family member do her insecurities come to the fore. This solution pleases me no end, even though it means I must go back through the pages already written and incorporate the character changes. I’m sure I’ll like my heroine better.

One of the ways I’ll show the two opposing facets of her character is through letters to her sister. Here’s a sample.

You’ll have to laugh, Chastity when you read about my first day. I arrived travel-stained and smeared with mud. I found two mad men in the hospital entrance, one hopping about and shrieking like a banshee, the other brandishing a pistol. I didn’t know whether to interfere or run for my life. I chose to act. If Florence Nightingale can nurse soldiers in a war zone, I can dress wounds in a mining town.  As it turns out, the man with the pistol is the doctor.. . .

She paused in her writing to chuckle as she imagined Chastity’s shock upon reading this tale. Then she sobered. Chastity was a kindred spirit, sharing Verity’s sense of the ridiculous and view of the world. She could happily live with that sister. But Moira . . . Levity vanished as she considered her youngest sister, scarred, dour, and difficult and all Verity’s fault.

Does that excerpt give you a hint of Verity’s character and her conflict? I’d love to see you comments.

How do you spend sleepless nights?

Visits: 257

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