Friday, October 10, 2008
Guest Blogger Carla Stewart on Characterization
Seekerville. What a lovely place to visit and greet old friends. Hang out with new ones. You girls thrill me with your cyber banquets and encouragement to one another. Congratulations on an excellent first year! I counted and think I met at least nine of you last month in Minneapolis, and you are just as much fun in person as you are here. Thanks for inviting me to share my thoughts.
This year I was fortunate enough to place first in the Young Adult category of the Genesis contest. You probably noticed a faint glow in the sky over the center of the U.S. following the conference. That was me, polishing the faux gold wreath on my plaque, sitting on a cloud, reveling in my accomplishment. Trust me. It didn’t last long. Before I got my suitcase unpacked from the conference, I received my scores from the finals’ judges. Whoops! Falling off the cloud is not nearly as much fun as getting up there. And that, my friends, is what entering contests is all about.
Fame is fragile . . . fleeting. But the judges’ scores are the gold mine . . . the nuggets that show me where my weaknesses lie and what I need to improve on. So now, I am heavily into revisions, taking my scores and seeing what I can do to improve my writing.
It had been awhile since I’d studied Donald Maass and his Writing the Breakout Novel. I had even purchased the workbook, but not cracked the spine, so I blew the dust off the cover and dug in. The first section is on character development, and the questions and exercises are worth noting. My apologies to the great Maass for summarizing here. You can learn much more from reading his theory and examples, but for today, I’ll just hit the high spots.
From the second chapter of the workbook, Multidimensional Characters:
1) What is your protagonist’s defining quality? What trait is most prominent in his personality?
This struck a chord with me because I had developed a character whose most prominent trait was self-centeredness. Not good if you want people to like your character.
2) What is the opposite of that quality?
After making some adjustments, I made my character one who takes responsibility seriously (more likeable). Now, the opposite of that is being irresponsible.
3) Write a paragraph in which your protagonist actively demonstrates the opposite quality.
Oh good. I could show my character being self-centered and irresponsible, but as an opposite trait that I want her to be loved for.
Note from the workbook: Often, after completing this exercise, writers will incorporate this paragraph into their novels. It shows that a character is multi-dimensional, more realistic, and more human.
1) What does your protagonist most want?
2) What is the opposite of that?
3) How can your protagonist want BOTH of things simultaneously? What steps would she take to pursue these conflicting desires?
This was much more difficult for me to grasp, yet when I started working with it, I saw that in gaining what a character wants, she must concede other desires. For example, my character wants to find a hidden letter, but as she pursues this, she gets negative attention which reflects back on her as a responsible person. If she gives up her goal, she will no longer be in trouble, but must admit she failed. Showing both sides of her wants makes her a character that is memorable and lingers in the reader’s mind.
Creating larger-than-life qualities:
1) What is the one thing your protagonist would never, ever say?
2) What would she never, ever do?
3) What would she never, ever think?
4) Find places in your story in which your protagonist MUST say, do, and think those things? What are the circumstances? The consequences?
I had a lot of fun with this, but it also made me quite uncomfortable. I found, though, that this is the golden opportunity we have as writers to write those zingers we would never say in real life, but wish we could. Put your protagonist in the hot seat and see what happens (remember there are consequences).
Other chapters on character development take you through raising the stakes, handling character exposition, and developing antagonists that are worthy of their own story. For the essence of time, though, I want to share the last exercise that really helped me in honing my cast of characters. Since I write about small-town America, where people know everyone in town and all their family members as well as pets, I end up with too many characters. Here is a way to reduce your cast and enrich your story.
1) Make two columns. In the first, list the names of all major, secondary, and minor characters. In the second, write down the purpose for each character in the story (ex: support the protagonist, support the antagonist, provide special knowledge, etc.)
2) If you have ten or fewer characters, cross out the name of one. If more than ten, cross out the names of two. You get to decide which ones go.
3) You now have fewer characters, but their functions remain. Assign those functions to one or more of the remaining characters.
This makes the characters you are left with more interesting (multi-dimensional). I eliminated three from my current WIP and immediately saw a difference. I haven’t worked out all the details, but I’m having fun with it.
This should get you started on making memorable characters. To bring the point closer to home, my goal (want) in entering a contest is, of course, to win. I’ve put myself out there to be judged by others, and I cannot say enough in the way of thanks to other authors, agents, and editors who give of their time to judge contests. Their experience and opinions are invaluable. But if all I ever do is file the critique and not use it, I have missed the most critical part of entering a contest—using the information to point out the weaknesses in my writing and correcting them . . . even when the critique stings and the rewriting is hard work.
A study of Donald Maass’s book is the avenue I’ve chosen this time to examine and improve my writing. What about you? Do you have a favorite way to distill the information you receive from writing contests? What are your favorite ways to improve your writing?
Thanks again, Seekers, for having me here. You have a lovely island and I see some of the natives are preparing to launch to the mainland. God’s speed to all of you!
Carla Stewart writes women’s and young adult fiction. She lives in Tulsa, OK, where she can be found plotting writing strategies with her critique partner, Myra Johnson. You can learn more about Carla at www.carlastewart.com. She’d love for you all to visit her blog, Carla’s Writing Café.