I originally crafted this post on Sunday, January 8, 2017 – just getting around to hitting “Publish.” Hope you’re having a good week!
Currently listening to: Blue by The Jayhawks (Seriously … I think this is one of the most perfect songs in existence.)
Saturday/yesterday was spent with my kiddos – trying to burn off energy in January without incurring frostbite. I think we had a successfully exhausting day.
Since hubby got a day to himself yesterday, I am at my local Caribou Coffee and I’ve been noodling over some character issues. Not my own (although – Lord knows there are a few), but the fact that the love interest in my novel “Dragonfly” is rather … erm, vanilla. And while I like vanilla (give me vanilla ice cream over chocolate any day of the week. [unless it’s chocolate peanut butter and then eff vanilla]), in the context of my character – that means he’s bland. Or as my fellow writer friend Jessica astutely observed “he’s a character who’s surrounded and overshadowed by other much more interesting characters.” Uff da. Not good for the love interest.
There are books devoted to the issue of character development, so this post is by no means a “quintessential” overview of writing engaging characters. (If you’re looking for someone who knows a lot about craft and character development, check out K.M. Weiland’s site “Helping Writers Become Authors.”) Here’s a look on how I’m “fixing” Mike Emerson.
- Developing backstory. Backstory is like salt – a little bit can enhance the flavor quality of a dish; too much can make it unpalatable. One of the challenges of writing is giving your character enough backstory to make that person feel real and dimensional, but to subtly weave these nuggets in the story (see: “show, don’t tell” or more succinctly – don’t beat your reader over the head with a dead fish [I don’t know if that analogy even makes sense, but I digress …].)
Here’s the other random thing about backstory. There are things that I know about the character that will likely never see the light of day in my story. And that’s OK. My job as the writer is to know my character front ways and back. Then to distill those images and that knowledge into something that the reader can get enjoyably lost in.
- Physical description. I’ve always had an idea of what Mike Emerson looks like. And I think that I do a decent job of describing him in my draft. In fact, I have a subfolder in my “Dragonfly” project folder for “Character Bibles.” (Character bibles – I specifically have one-page sheets that I have sketched out for each of my main characters. This includes details like height, weight, eye/hair color. This can also include mini details of the character’s greatest strengths or greatest fears. They aren’t necessary and I need to do a better job of referring to mine, but it’s a good way to ensure character details are consistent throughout your story.) Along with the “biographical” details of my characters, I sometimes include pictures of people that “inspire” various characters. For Mike Emerson, I’m going the “rugged / masculine” route and I have a couple pictures pinned on my Pinterest inspiration board for Dragonfly. (And no – that’s not an excuse for me to troll the web for hot pictures of Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Anson Mount.)
So – why am I revisiting this issue to “fix” my character? Well, sometimes when you’re in the thick of writing it’s easy to get lost in the midst of the forest’s trees. I took a look at my Character Bible and pictures of “Mike Emerson” to revisit how I originally viewed Mike and to make sure I’m not straying too far from my character path.
The “final” thing I’ve thought about today are the quirks and attributes of my main love interest. That delves into how Mike Erickson walks and talks. How he interacts with everyone from his landlord to his boss. This is what boosts a character from something that’s one-dimensional to a character who will remind you of someone you’ve encountered in real life.
Mike Erickson’s quirks and attributes are informed by his background as a big city cop who has moved to a sheriff’s department located in a one-stoplight town. (One challenge with this background is elevating this character sketch from a cliché.) I’ve spent this morning building Mike Erickson’s inner world by mining my own mental catalog of various people that I’ve known and what makes them tick.
I feel like the time I spent this morning meandering about Mike Erickson was time well spent. (Even writing this blog post – it helped to solidify some of the thoughts swirling around my head.) So the next part is heading back to my SFD and imbuing all of these traits into Mike Erickson. To take him from vanilla to something that’s been touched by a little bit of salt, pepper, chai, honey – whatever. From bland to a bit more human.
And that’s what I’ve been working on today. 🙂
An update from Tuesday, just because I literally came across this. This is what I’m listening to right now. What’s sweet about this is at the very end of Sam Beam’s song, the extraordinarily competent and amazing interviewer is brushing away a tear. Love the power of music.