Friday, May 29, 2015

Fiction Readers Care About by Jacqueline Seewald

Readers need both an emotional and intellectual connection to fiction or they won’t continue reading. If this connection isn’t created, readers will simply say: So what? Then they’ll toss what they’re reading aside and look for something else. Since writers put their blood, sweat and emotional existence into giving birth to their babies, it’s natural to want their work read. How do writers create fiction that readers will care about? It’s not a secret. The answer lies with the characters.

Writers must first know their characters.

It is not enough to have a general idea of a character in your head when you start writing. You have to live and breathe the character, know him/her the way you know yourself. In essence, realistic characters are extensions or facets of yourself. My suggestion: Create a detailed written character study of each main character before you begin to write your story or novel.
Here are a few items to consider:
Shakespeare asks: What’s in a name? Clearly, a whole lot. A sweet young thing might have a soft-sounding name while a villain might have a hard-sounding one. What about ethnic names? Are they appropriate or inappropriate for your work?
Another thing you need to keep in mind is not to give characters names that might confuse readers. Names that are too similar in nature--for instance, Jane and Jana--should belong in different stories.
The name of your character will likely cause an assumption of gender, unless you are trying to keep it ambiguous. When I introduced African-American detective “Bert St. Croix” early in the novel THE DROWNING POOL, it comes as something as a surprise that she is a woman. She is tall, strong and fierce. A more masculine name fits her character. Readers don’t learn her back story right away, only the contrast that she has great sympathy and compassion for those who are in need of help but is tough with criminals.
Nicknames are also something to consider. Does your character have a nickname like “Bert" short for “Roberta”? What might that suggest about the character?
Age, Voice, Viewpoint
Age at the time of the story is significant. Is your story about an adult, a teenager, a child?  Point of view and voice differ with each. Also consider how the time period the character lives in effects personality and beliefs. This is especially important in historical fiction.

 In THE THIRD EYE: A PINE BARRENS MYSTERY, the novel is told from two distinct viewpoints--that of a teenage boy and his troubled mother. Point of view is very important. The chapters alternate between Jim and his mother. Jim tells his story in the first person present tense while his mother’s chapters are in third person past tense. Vocabulary and use of language are unique to each character.

Also, the reader understands things the characters do not comprehend particularly when the main character is telling the story from a first person viewpoint. The unreliable first person narrator is very common to mystery fiction. Sometimes the reader knows just what the narrator knows while other times the reader knows more. Dramatic irony can build tension and suspense.
Back Story/Personal History
Although you know your character’s back story or personal history, the reader should learn it slowly, piece-meal, bit by bit. This makes your character interesting and adds an aura of mystery. It makes readers want to turn the pages to find out more details about the character.
Making Your Character Sympathetic
Characters need to be relatable as  well as real. This means they need to have good qualities that readers like but also character flaws just like an ordinary person. They also need to have goals and ambitions that they’re striving toward. I prefer to make my main characters sympathetic but complex.
Danna the main character in THE DEVIL AND DANNA WEBSTER wants to leave her life of poverty behind. Her ambition is to be an artist. But Danna is confused in her values and family perceptions.

It’s important to know how your characters look. Not only should you have a picture in your mind but you need to describe in words how the characters appear: short, tall, handsome, beautiful, ugly, fat, thin, eye color, hair color.
Mannerisms are important as well. Does your heroine bite her nails, twist locks of her long hair? Does your hero flex his muscles? Does your villain speak in a soft, menacing voice? In THE DEVIL AND DANNA WEBSTER, teenage Danna is a pretty girl but doesn’t think she is.
Start first with the family members, especially if they are an important part of the story. Who are the parents, siblings and extended family of your character? It’s not enough to just come up with names for them when developing your main subject. What are they like? Provide descriptions, personalities, etc. Are there any problems your character has with them? Kim Reynolds, the academic librarian sleuth first introduced in THE INFERNO COLLECTION, has a complex family dynamic that includes dark secrets.
What about friends? If they play a part in the story, we need to know your main character’s interactions with and feelings about them. In the Kim Reynolds mystery series, Kim comes to love police detective Mike Gardner. Their relationship is complicated in THE TRUTH SLEUTH by the return of Mike’s wife, Evelyn, who becomes THE BAD WIFE in the 4th novel in this series. Kim and Bert St. Croix also become close friends, and in THE BAD WIFE, they work together and quite literally save Mike’s life.
 Get to know your character’s strengths and weaknesses, attitudes, fears, obsessions, special talents and hobbies. How does your character think, speak, act? What do other characters say about him/her?
Weave body language in with dialogue. This often creates subtle emotional signals. What is said may be in contrast to what the character actually thinks and feels.
When you write a scene where there is interaction between characters, try to visualize it as you would see it in a film. There’s nothing wrong with having the image in your mind of real people. It’s also okay to eavesdrop on conversations and be an objective observer which will provide you with material for your writing.
In DEATH LEGACY, Michelle Hallam is a mysterious English woman who has been trained in intelligence work. She is wary and guarded while Daniel Reiner appears to be open and more balanced in his approach to life. They are very different people who come together as lovers and detectives to solve a murder espionage mystery as their lives are placed in jeopardy putting them increasingly in danger.

To sum up:
1. Be selective in choosing the names that convey what you want readers to visualize about your character.
2. Appearance is important. What does your character look like? Description can convey much about character. But don’t overdo it. As the old saying goes: show don’t tell.
3. What is special about your character’s speech? Are there unique phrases used? Dickens was a master of this. Also, dialogue should seem natural, they way real people talk.
4. Get into the mind set of your character. How does your character think?  James Joyce is a good writer to read for internal monologue technique.
5. How does your character act, react and interact with others?
6. What do other characters say about him/her?
7. Does the entire presentation have verisimilitude? Do your characters seem real and believable?
8. What values and goals are unique to your character? Why?

Your comments, observations and input are very welcome here!


Susan said...

Very good advice, Jacqueline, and a superb post. Our characters are people, albeit made of pixels instead of blood and bone, but still people. If the characters aren't real it doesn't matter how good the story is. I envy those who can create and name their characters. Mine simply walk into my mind fully formed, tell me their names and refuse to cooperate if I try to re-name them. Again, a great post.

Susan, sometimes known as Janis Patterson

Karen McCullough said...

An excellent overview of what makes characters appealing to readers. I'm kind of like Susan... My characters seem to be there in my head, fully formed. I just have to learn who they are, which seems to happen in the course of writing the story.

Madeline McEwen said...

In theory, I already know what I am supposed to be doing and how, and yet I'll complete a short story and share it with my critique group who point out that there are no descriptions of people or places.

And yes, I have a check list, but I ignore it.

Great overview.

Susan Oleksiw said...

This is an excellent guide to creating and developing characters. Even though I like to think I do all of this when I sit down to write, I know I miss things. One reader gently points out that she can always imagine how my characters look even though I never describe them, so I take the hint and put in what I forgot to do in the first draft. I wish i could get all those details in the first draft, but it never happens. Thanks for the succinct guidelines, Jacquie.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Susan Janis, Karen, Madeline, Susan O.,

Thank you for taking the time to leave such thoughtful comments.
Like you, I live in my mind for a long time with my characters before I write a word. But I do find that writing a character study for each main character is very important, more for novels but even for short stories. I literally print out these guides to the characters and refer to them as I write.

Susan Coryell said...

Such good advice, Jacquie! As a reader, I will toss aside any book that lacks at least ONE sympathetic character--one I can relate to. As a writer, I live with my characters to the point I dream about them and talk about them (never with them, however, as some writers claim to do). Thanks for a thought-provoking blog!

Allan J. Emerson said...

Good advice, Jacqueline. I tend to focus on what's going on in the minds of the characters and sometimes forget to establish where the characters are: in a boat, on a plane, in their living room.... In one scene, I had two characters talking while sitting on a blanket. It wasn't until a reader asked where the blanket was that I realized I'd forgotten to mention they were picnicking beside a river. Duhh..

D'Ann said...

Great post as always! Thank you!

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Susan, Allan, D'Ann,

Thank you for your valuable input and observations! Susan, I agree that I like to read a book where I feel sympathetic toward a main character--male or female. Allan, getting into the mind set, as you observe, is important, but we always must remember to set the scene. I once read the suggestion that novelists and short story writers should think in movie terms, integrating physical description with action and dialogue.

Betty Gordon said...

Great post, Jacquie. It's amazing to me that even though you sometimes live and eat with your characters - they oftentimes take over and change. Then, the story goes a different direction.

Maris said...

A good reminder of the preparation that's needed to bring a character to life. I'm in that process right now. In a way, it's like playing god. I get to name my character, decide her age, how she looks, what she does, and so on. It's work and it's fun.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Betty,

I think if we write our characters the way we should, they do take over the story line. Important to be flexible!

Jacqueline Seewald said...


I suppose it is like playing God, at least in writing. We do decide how to bring our characters alive.

Mary F. Schoenecker Writes said...

That was a very special guide for characterization.Knowing the appropriate name, personality and mind set of your characters is so important. My main character lived in my head for so long it was easier to write her lines. Thanks for a terrific blog.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Thank you, Mary for commenting. It is true--the longer you live with your characters, the easier it is to know what they will say and do when you sit down to write.

Carole Price said...

Great reminder, Jacqueline. I spend almost as much time on my secondary characters as on the central ones. I also spend a great deal of time with names. Royal Tanner is my Navy SEAL, different and strong, and Cait's love interest.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Carole,

I love the name "Royal Tanner." It does have a strong masculine sound. A reader can almost visualize the man from the name alone.

Cindy Sample said...

That was an excellent and succinct post, Jacquie. So much goes into forming our characters. I know exactly how they look and think, but I need to ensure that the reader does too. In my latest WIP, I was struggling with whodunit because my original villain wasn't working for me as I began developing their character. Or as they developed organically. So I spent a day in the life of each of my suspects - what a great way to understand your characters' motivations. And now I finally know who did it!

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Cindy,

For me the hardest part is getting into the mind-set of a villain.
Yet it is important for writers to make all of their characters come alive including the good, the bad etc.

Sharon Ervin said...

Hang onto this blog to use in a talk before a live audience of writers––at any conference. Shows a lot of insight and provides much good advice.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Thanks, Sharon, glad you feel this blog has value for other writers!

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