Monthly Archives: April 2009

Character Development – When a new character shows up

I was working on an early chapter in Bishop’s Move when a new character showed up.  I told my wife, “A new character showed up today.  I wasn’t expecting her.  But I’m glad she came along.  I like her.  It will be interesting to see what impact she has on the story.”  Well, what I learned was that she would be the catalyst for a whole new subplot.  That was good because I needed another thread to weave into the fabric of the story and it actually related to and provided contrast with the first subplot in some ways.  And, more importantly, she provided new insight into Harry’s personality.

When I write I try to plan ahead three or four chapters.  This gives me direction on what I need to be writing on a given day.  But my chapter outlines are not detailed enough to be restrictive or to dampen the creativity.  I’ll talk more about this in my articles on plot development.  But the point I want to make today is that sometimes when I actually start writing the chapter goes in a different direction than I had planned.  If it’s early in the story new characters are often the reason for the change.

The hard part is figuring out whether a new character adds to the story or is merely a distraction.  Most of the time you won’t know right away.  You have to give it time to incubate a little.  You have to take time to get to know the character before you can see the impact he (or she) will have.  If the new character adds to the story, then write him in.  But if he’s just a distraction then you must have the discipline to not let him get in the way.  This can be hard sometimes.  In Consequences I had a really fun character who was prominent at the beginning and the ending of the novel.  He was someone I got to know very well and I really liked him.  But as the story progressed I realized that he really didn’t add anything to the story.  As a result his part got trimmed down significantly and, eventually, cut out completely.  He’s still a great character and I’m sure he will show up in another novel.  He just wasn’t right for this one.

When you are in the creative process of writing, new characters will often show up.  Sometimes when you least expect them.  You don’t want to push them away without first getting to know them a little.  You need to see how they fit into your story.  If they do…great…go with it.  But if they don’t…you can’t let them be a distraction.  You have to be disciplined enough to cut them if they aren’t needed.

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Character Development – Don’t let your characters get “out of character”

Few things are more disruptive to your story than when one of your characters, especially the main character, slips “out of character.”  By that I mean when they do something or say something or react in a way that they wouldn’t based on what we know about them.  Your reader should never stop and say, “Wait a minute.  He wouldn’t do that.”  It not only breaks up the flow of the story but it makes your character less credible.  Readers like consistency and dependability and, to a degree, even predictability.  It’s disruptive when your characters don’t act as they’re supposed to.

This seems really basic, the kind of thing everyone should know, but it happens all the time.  You see this in best-selling novels by experienced authors as well as in first novels by novice writers.  Typically this occurs when the writer has an idea for a great scene or some really catchy dialogue that they just have to put in their novel.  Occasionally it happens when authors get on their soapbox about something that is important to them personally.  Sometimes it’s simply a result of undisciplined writing.  And sometimes it happens because the writer doesn’t know his character as well as he should (as I mentioned in my previous article).  But regardless of the reason, and no matter how good the scene may be, if your character wouldn’t do it or say it, then don’t make them.  Let another character do it, find another way to get the point across, or perhaps even leave it out entirely.

In the first draft of Consequences there were a couple of times where the main character, Trevor Washington, said things he wouldn’t say.  Trevor was an FBI agent investigating a couple of complex murders.  I wanted to make sure the reader understood that he hadn’t missed something important.  So in a couple of situations he told the people he was interviewing that he knew they were lying.  But, in reality, he wouldn’t do it.  He wouldn’t show his hand like that, especially not to a suspect.  As much as I wanted to see Trevor put the suspect in his place it was out of character.  So I took it out – and one of the scenes was really good, too.  I hated to cut it but I had to.  Then I had to come up with a different way to get the original point across to the reader.  What I came up with worked just fine and it didn’t allow my main character to get out of character.

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Character Development – Get to know your characters…intimately

How well do you know your characters?  Do you know what type of music they like?  What kind of foods they prefer?  Do they like sports?  Do they play sports?  Do they have a great sense of humor?  Do they have any unusual habits or routines they follow?  What is a typical day like?  These are the kinds of things you need to know about your characters – not necessarily in that detail for minor characters, but definitely for your primary characters.

Do you write out a detailed description of your characters?  If not, you should.  There’s something about writing it down that helps bring it into focus.  Write down everything you know about them.  Even though you won’t put most of this in your novel it’s important to know your characters that well.

Of course, this may take some time.  You have to be patient and let it develop.  For example, I got the idea for Bishop’s Move several years ago.  It stemmed from an experience my dad had which I found fascinating.  Starting with that event, I came up with an intriguing idea for a novel.  But the main character, Harry Bishop, remained a little fuzzy.  So I had to put off starting the manuscript until I got to know him better.

I began by writing a two page description about the various stages of his life as he grew up, taking note of everything that happened that made him who he is today.  Then I went back and added details about his personal likes and dislikes – his preferences for music, his interests in sports and literature, his hobbies, etc.  Eventually I learned why he’s so guarded in his relationships and came to understand why he tends to keep people at a distance.  Oddly enough, I didn’t know his age or write down details about his appearance until I was well into the process of “getting to know” him.  But when I finished I had a very detailed, intimate knowledge of the main character of my novel.  As a result, now I don’t have to think too much about what he will do or say or how he will react to a situation because I know him so well.

It’s always tempting when you get a great idea to jump right in and start writing.  What I do instead is make lots of notes on plot ideas and scenes and start sketching out the characters.  But I don’t write anything that will be part of the actual manuscript until I know my main character very, very well.  Then a funny thing happens…he sort of takes over and tells me the story.  I’ll get into this aspect of writing in the articles on plot development.  But for now my advice is simple.  Take the time to get to know your characters and write down everything you know about them.  I think you will find this very useful in your character development.

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Character Development – It’s all about the characters

Not long ago my cousin, Ellen, and I were talking (emailing, actually) about writing and she asked me why I write mysteries rather than “southern literature” since several of my favorite authors wrote in that genre – Walker Percy, William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, to name a few.  I said that, first of all, I didn’t think I could write literature.  I’m better at writing books with lots of dialogue, a fast pace, and not a lot of fluff.  Or maybe I’m just not that perceptive.  Secondly, I said that “Southern literature” is grounded in complex character development and is about deep emotional or behavioral aspects of their personalities.  In this genre the emphasis is on how the characters react to what happens to them and how that reaction affects their families and, occasionally, the entire community in which they live.  The novels I write are more about what the characters do than how they feel about what they do.  Action, not emotion, drives the plot and controls the pace.  The interest in the story comes from what the characters do, not what revelations they experience.

Of course, in reality, that’s not entirely true.  Well, the part about me not being that perceptive may be true.  But not the part about what holds the reader’s interest in the story.  Regardless of the genre – mystery, horror, science fiction, fantasy, romance, etc. — it’s all about the characters.  This is obviously the case with romance novels.  But even a mystery with lots of surprises and twists and great sleuthing doesn’t keep you turning pages if the characters aren’t interesting.  Horror simply isn’t compelling if you don’t care what happens to the characters.  What makes a suspense thriller suspenseful is not the great scenes and fast-paced action.  It’s the characters.  As with horror, if you don’t care what happens to the characters then there is no suspense.  There’s nothing thrilling about anything if you aren’t worried about the health and welfare of the characters.

So, how do you develop compelling characters that capture the reader’s interest?  How much time do you spend on character development?  How complex, how deep, do your characters need to be to carry the story?  How do you ensure your characters “stay in character?”  These are some of the topics I’ll cover in the upcoming articles.

Don’t overlook the importance of character development.  That is the foundation, the key to writing a novel that captures and holds your reader’s interest.

We’ll build on that foundation in the next article on character development — “Get to know your characters…intimately.”

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Welcome

Welcome to my blog “On Writing.”  This is something I plan to use to provide tips, techniques, suggestions, comments, etc., on the craft of writing.  While the focus is on writing fiction some of the information is applicable to non-fiction, as well.

I’ll begin by posting articles on the following 12 topics:

  1. Character Development
  2. Plot Development
  3. Effective Dialogue
  4. Don’t Be Overly Descriptive
  5. Get to the Point
  6. Control the Pace
  7. Do Your Homework
  8. Point of View
  9. Practice Makes Perfect
  10. You Must Write Before You Can Edit
  11. Overcoming Writer’s Block
  12. When the Story Ends…Quit Writing

This is basically my “12 Step Program for Better Writing.”  Hope you find this helpful.

For information on my novels, visit “Novels by Merrill Heath”

Copyright 2009 Merrill Heath. All material on this site, the associated pages, and excerpts are copyrighted by the author and may not be used or reproduced in any manner without written permission.

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