Tag Archives: Characters

Everyone in the room is a human being

Except for Gleebmork. But even s/he has feelings.

I wrote about 5000 words of the sequel to Surreality a couple of months ago, then put it down to focus on getting the first book out. Coming back to it, I’ve been kicking myself because of where I left the story. Specifically, I’m in the middle of a tough conversation between two characters that’s the setup for many conversations throughout the book. I have a pretty good idea of what the conversation is supposed to accomplish structurally, but have been having a tough time translating that into believable dialogue and body language.

I’m an only child, and we tend to think of the world in relation to ourselves. In the most extreme form, we believe that every conversation has something to do with us, and that everything that is happening is happening to us most of all. Most only children have this notion shaken up by something, be it a good friend, or getting married.

But the attitude can seep into a book without you even realizing it. Surreality and its sequel have a central character, and while it’s a third person narrative, we’re mostly sitting behind one head and one perspective.

It was kind of a simple thing, but part of what got the dialogue flowing better was to think about what the other character was thinking and feeling at the same time. What motivated them to initiate the talk with my character, and what do they hope to get out of it?

Detective novel dialogue can be very objective based, “I am grilling this character for information”, or “I am sorting through my thoughts out loud before having a brilliant insight.” Even in these situations motivations of the other characters are important, particularly if they intend to lie or hold something back.

Some characters will still be flat. We don’t need Willy the drug-dealer’s life story (especially since he isn’t a character in either book). Willy’s just there to tell us what he saw in exchange for us looking the other way on some weed that’ll be legal in the state in a year or two.

But for non-flat characters (i.e. characters not derived from Edwin Abbot’s Flatland), we need to be able to see the scene from their perspective as well as the main character’s. Maybe an exercise in getting that perspective is to write both versions of the scene, one sitting behind your main character’s head, and the other sitting behind the other person in the room. Then blend these two together into a single working scene.

I’ve never tried it, but it sounds like it would work, right?

What I do know that works is to just keep at it. Even if you only add a net 100 words to the scene on evening, you’ve made progress. Because this is a formative scene, I’m probably going to write and revise it several times before moving on, because it will be the basis for a lot of what is to come. I just have to take my own advice and not put it down for another couple of months.

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Changing a character’s name

Have you ever gotten to the end of a novel and realized that three of your characters have names that start with a K, or that most of your names rhyme? Maybe you’ve come up with a name for a criminal organization that is universally hated by your beta readers. What do you do?


The theory would be that you could just Find/Replace all of one name with another name and then you’re set. But this can introduce new problems. What if your new name introduces sentence rhymes that weren’t there before? What if a character who had a two syllable name, suddenly has a four syllable name? Sentences have an unconscious flow, and it can be difficult to just pull a switch without introducing hundreds of little tweaks.

I’ve used all kinds of schemes for naming characters. Sometimes I stare at my bookshelves and look for last names I like. Other times I use a name I’ve heard somewhere out in the world. Or sometimes I go through baby name lists online for the most popular names of people of a certain age.

I’ve pulled a couple of name switches and spelling changes in Surreality between drafts. I used to have a three-C’s problem that I solved by changing one C to an S and one C to a K. One name with an “ay” sound was switched for another. Spelling changes are easy, as it doesn’t fundamentally change how a word sounds, only how it looks. Full name switches are tricky, particularly if you’re used to a certain name. Your mind can get fixed on what you’ve already picked, making it hard to find something better.

So what do you do?

  • Have patience – The original name may have been part of a long brainstorming process, or come into your mind fully formed. But chances are there was some unconscious thought behind it either way. Give your mind time to come up with something new.
  • Try to find something that sounds or looks similar – You’ll have less flow tweaks if your replacement name has similar properties to the original. Of course this might make it harder to find something your brain thinks is better.
  • Remember you’re the author – If other people don’t like your name, that may not be a problem. Beta readers are a very small sample size. If you like something, that may have to be good enough.

MacBook_option_keyThis is all by way of saying that after looking at over 1500 different hacker slang words, I still haven’t found something I like better than what’s in the draft. Kyrkas was a contender (it’s Swedish for church, and is a reference to the Mac feature key, see left) until I realized that would give me a four K’s problem. I’m gonna keep looking, but I may also just have to trust my instincts.

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Making characters who aren’t you

Probably one of the hardest things for a writer to do is create characters. I don’t mean characters who largely function as set pieces, but real living breathing people who grow and change from the beginning of the narrative to the end. Beyond just assigning physical traits there’s a lot that goes into forming a character’s personality and a lot of that is bound to come from personal experience.

Now this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but if you have a lot of characters all of whom basically act like you and have your same set of values, than you don’t have as much to bump up against in the story. This is something I’ve been trying to figure out as I’m guiding four characters through a post apocalyptic upside-down world. All of them have a piece of me to start, something my wife picked up on right away. It was actually her that really challenged me to make one of them wildly divergent, to have some trait or attitude that runs counter to the way I think.

I tend to develop characters organically. They never spring fully formed into my mind, but rather coalesce as I construct the narrative. Hence the more time I spend writing characters the better I know them. At the early stages this means I can nudge trajectories even small degrees that will have big consequences by the end.

I’ll admit that certain kinds of character traits and conflicts don’t particularly interest me. In Surreality I have a character who is pretty dedicated to his job, and has decided that it’s probably best not to make any serious attachments as he isn’t able to split his time without hurting one or the other. I could have given him a girlfriend he largely ignores, or one that wants him to stop being a cop, but that isn’t the kind of story I want to tell.

Put another way, a lot of the character conflicts I tend to put into my stories are external, not internal. Something out in the real world pushes up against them, and they react from a place of set ideas. But what makes characters more interesting is both internal and external conflict, something I’ve definitely learned in revising Surreality and in crafting The Sky Below. The Sky Below in particular has some obvious external narrative choices I could make. But it also provides a place for a lot of internal strife and decision making about what’s best and what’s most important.

Some of my characters are going to make bad choices. And those choices may have consequences. They may be choices I would have made, or they may be something that springs from all kinds of other desires. The point is, not every choice made by a character should be the right one, and it shouldn’t always be the thing you’d do in that situation. Not unless you want to keep writing the same book over and over again with a main character who does the same thing over and over again. And don’t get me wrong, a lot of mystery writers have gotten by on this formula. But even those of us who write genre fiction, be it mystery, sci-fi or apocalypse don’t want to rely solely on tropes and one set of ideas and personality traits.

We can still draw from real life, stealing from those round us or even people we just observe in a coffee shop. There are many days when I’m writing that I have to keep myself working instead of listening to the conversation of the people in the table next to me. But in the long run it’s those different view points and experiences that make for diverse and interesting stories. I’m not advocating eavesdropping, at least in obvious and easy ways to get caught 🙂

Pro tip, ear buds with no music make people naturally assume you can’t hear them. Don’t tell me you haven’t done this at least once 🙂

This next tip might sound a little silly, but it’s one I’ve scarily found effective, play an RPG sometime. I’ve been playing a D&D RPG with the little red haired girl for a couple of months now. I started playing as a Paladin, Lawful Good, mixing overtime with a wizard and skewing a little more toward Neutral by the end. Now I’m playing as a Cleric Dwarf, which is inherently flawed in some ways but is also kind of funny and different. Games can help you with the exercise of creating characters, and rulesets like D&D let you determine a lot of personality by adjusting traits like lawful – chaotic or good – evil as well as your race, appearance and profession. People will react differently to a religious dwarf than a fighter dwarf. Sure these are set fantasy tropes, but the exercise is what matters, living in another skin and making different decisions from what you’d usually do can help you to do the same thing with your characters.

Incidentally the cleric spells are very cool and I like having fire elementals at my command. Makes me feel powerful.

Balthazar Mountain Crusher

Meet Balthazar Mountain Crusher

Don’t mess with the dwarf cleric writer.

So here’s a challenge, take a common day to day situation, like someone cutting in front of you in line, or a clerk giving you back too much change, and write 300 words of what a character would do or say that is the opposite or at least 15 degrees to the left of what you’d do. Post in the comments if you feel like sharing.

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