Tuesday, March 9, 2010

"Isn't she a character!"

I was glad that Audra decided to post about story characters last week, because today I’d like to continue that discussion. Audra focused on digging into your character’s motivation and background. Today I’d like to talk about making your characters stand out as individuals.

Some of the best instruction on characterization I’ve ever received came in the form of a rejection letter. The editor was Nick Harrison of Harvest House, and the year was 2001, so I’ve had a lot of time to mull over his comments--and lots of practice attempting to put his advice into practice!

Basically, Nick told me my story heroine was too “generic.” She could have been any middle-class Christian housewife. Nothing about her stood out as unique or intriguing. Well, the truth hurt, but I eventually had to agree with his assessment.

Nick’s rejection letter also included a copy of an article entitled “Creating a Character the Reader Has Never Met,” by Shelby Hearon. (As best I can determine, the article originally appeared in a 1994 issue of The Writer.) Ms. Hearon states that her first rule for writers is:

“Write about someone who is not like everyone else in the group.”

After considering what made certain characters stand out in her mind among the many stories from classes she’d taught or contests she’d judged, she determined that the successful writers had chosen a specific characteristic, habit, or behavior and “exaggerated it. Emphasized it. Enlarged it.”

But she goes on to say that “memorable” doesn’t necessarily mean freaky or strange, but rather a character whose life somehow tells us a truth we hadn’t thought about in that way before.

Let’s talk about some examples. To make Julie happy, we’ll kick off with Scarlett O’Hara, a memorable character if there ever was one! She’s the typical Southern belle of her era, pampered and prissy. But she also has a backbone of pure steel and a love for the land that will drive her to any lengths to preserve her home.

Now one of my favorites, Frodo from The Lord of the Rings. Hobbits are known to be peace-loving homebodies, and yet Frodo has a longing for adventure, just like his uncle Bilbo. Even more, in order to save Middle Earth, he must draw upon an inner strength he didn’t know he had.

In Ruthy’s debut novel Winter’s End, she gives her tenderhearted hospice nurse heroine a sharp wit and a love for stylish clothes and cute shoes.

Mary’s heroine in The Husband Tree thinks all men are worthless, and yet she can’t seem to stop marrying them. And in contrast with most women of her day, she’s also a skilled rancher and a crack shot.

Who are the characters that stand out in your mind, the ones who seem almost as real as your next-door neighbor?

And while you’re thinking about it, here’s another Seeker quiz to twist your brain. Each of the snippets below portrays a real trait of a real Seeker. The traits are real enough, but the names, events, and dialogue are all fictionalized. See if you can guess who’s who.

* * *

“You’ve got to be kidding!” Abby rolled her eyes. “No way I’d be caught dead in that outfit.”

Betsy glared at the auto mechanic. “I’m telling you, it just needs a new battery. Don’t try to sell me the entire engine.” At his scowl, she nodded toward her bumper sticker: I’M NOT BOSSY . . . YOU JUST NEED TO BE TOLD WHAT TO DO.

Catching her reflection in the shop window, Claire noticed her lipstick was fading. She ducked into the nearest ladies’ room and quickly applied another coat of Passion Flame Red.

“The class needs how many cupcakes?” Denise grabbed her Betty Crocker apron. “Oh, mylanta! I’ll get started right away!”

Edith tucked a loose strand back into her ponytail and heaved an annoyed sigh. “That’s the third time this year you’ve overdrawn our checking account. What is so hard about entering payments in the register and subtracting them from the available balance?”

Two in the morning and the kids were just now getting home. The later it had grown, the faster Frannie’s knitting needles clicked. Just a few more rows to take the edge off, and maybe she’d be calm enough to give her children the lecture they deserved.

Georgia’s leg seemed to have a will of its own. No matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t seem to keep it still. How many times already had she accidentally kicked her date’s shin under the table?

Haley had given up counting how many times she’d been teased about her trademark laugh. It was always short and sweet, starting low and ending high. At least her boyfriend thought it was cute.

Hoping no one would notice, Ingrid picked a couple of blond dog hairs off her black slacks. Could she not manage just once to leave the house without wearing her pets?

“This is delicious.” Jenny smiled at her date across the table and spooned up more of the creamy tomato bisque. Then she glanced down to see the dribbles she’d just deposited on her new white linen blouse. “Great. Now all I need is some blueberry pie and they can run me up a flagpole!”

Kimberly’s own heart broke as her best friend poured out her latest boyfriend troubles. “Oh, honey, put the popcorn on and I’ll be right over. I’ve got a spooky movie we can watch that will get your mind off that creep in no time flat.”

Sometimes it was hard to be the big sister, but Linda couldn’t turn away a sibling in trouble. If her family thought she was bossy, well, she’d just remind them they did ask for her advice.

Monica tiptoed into the dining room to double-check the table settings. Caterers could be so careless. A fork too close to the plate, the teaspoons and soup spoons reversed. She spied a sloppily placed napkin and carefully squared it up with the edge of the table.

Organ music swelled, jarring Nancy out of the scene she’d just been plotting. Oh, no, she’d missed half the church announcements again. But she had some really cool ideas for stirring up trouble for her story hero.

Another ten inches of snow had fallen overnight, and now Ophelia couldn’t get her car out of her own driveway. Her stomach plummeted at the thought of facing twice the work at the office tomorrow. But for one day at least, she could curl up in front of a roaring fire and enjoy a whole day to catch up on all those novels she usually had no time for.

* * *

By the way, later this week I'll select one lucky Seekerville visitor to receive a copy of my latest release, Romance by the Book. Tina will announce the winner in the Weekend Edition.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. . . . Will true love help a shy young woman find the beauty in herself?

Sailor Kern led a sheltered childhood and never learned to appreciate her own worth and beauty. When she isn’t teaching swimming and water aerobics classes at the YMCA, she finds romance vicariously in the pages of novels. Now she has a chance to meet her favorite romance writer in person and needs to improve her image fast!

Hairstylist Parker Travis makes his living helping women feel beautiful, inside and out, but his business and volunteer work keeps him too busy to pursue romance for himself . . . until shoulder pain lands him in a water aerobics class and he falls hopelessly in love with his instructor! But can he compete with the dashing romance writer of her dreams?


Critty said...

Thanks for more information on characters. I learn so much from all of you Seeker's and your guests!

Cindy W. said...

Very insightful. Thank you for taking the time to post. I love this blog!

Please enter me into your drawing.

God Bless You,
Cindy Woolard


Ruth Logan Herne said...

Oh my stars, Myra!!!!

No one will guess ME in those one-liners, LOL!!!!

I had trouble with a few, mostly because we're all a SMIDGE bossy...

Just a smidge...

But some stood out like a house on fire mid-winter.

And I love the advice you got about characterization and thanks for the shout out for Winter's End because I LOVE KAYLA!!!!

A girl ought to be able to wear kickin' shoes and not be labeled, right???? Shoes are important. Heels rock. And anyone who tells you differnt just wants to do that whole 8th-grade girl thing and look BETTER THAN YOU...

DO NOT BE DECEIVED!!!! There is a majorly big difference between having some really good talkin' shoes and being equated with Imelda Marcos! I'm just sayin'...

Ahhhh..... breakfast....

Food. Hungry!!!! YES!!!!!

I had Perkins do up their morning platters for us. Eggs, your choice. Ham, bacon or sausage. Hash browns or home fries, cheesed if you so desire.

And I do!!! :)

A never-ending muffin basket, all varieties. Toast... Texas or straight.

French toast with real NY maple syrup. Don't you just love maple syrup time???? (It's considered unAmerican to say no to that question.)

Juice. Coffee. Lots of coffee.

Eat hardy and see if you can guess who's who...


Audra Harders said...

LOL, Myra! Just as soon as I nail one personality per Seeker, I read further and think *Wait! That fits them, too!*

Way too much fun!

I loved the characterization quote. Our heros and heroines might be the friend next door, but really, what makes them special?

Why are they worthy?

Thanks for continuing the thoughts on characterization, Myra. I love bonding with the quirks of heros and heroines -- even down to style-splitting shoes, LOL!

Pass the French toast and real NY maple syrup! And coffee. Lots of coffee!

Sandra Leesmith said...

Myra, How funny were your characterizations. When are you going to post the answers? I think I nailed most of them, but there are a couple that foxed me.

Thanks for giving us a reminder for our characters. How nice of Nick to make a suggestion like that. He must have liked your writing to go to that trouble.l

And look how great you're writing is doing? congrats. Love your characters.

Janet Dean said...

Myra, excellent post to chew on this morning, along with Ruthy's delicious breakfast! I've got some of the Seekers pegged, but I'm clueless about the rest. Looking forward to seeing who's who. :-)

You're excellent at making your characters unique, Myra, and very real by the traits you give them.

Larger than life characters don't give up and knuckle under. The article's point that a memorable character's life somehow tells us a truth we hadn’t thought about in that way before is terrific advice. A book can entertain but when the characters teach us something the story carries impact and remains with us.

How do we get our characters to show us these truths? I think characters with strong goals and motivations show truths when they're faced with opposition. So for me, it's not only who they are but how they react when the heat's on that makes them unique and memorable.


Julie Lessman said...

Oh, Myra, this was WAY too much fun today -- LOVE it!! Of course, I LOVE characters.

One of my mom's favorite expressions when I was growing up was, "oh, you're such a character," and I never knew what that meant. The way my mom said it sounded like it wasn't necessarily a good thing, but I disagree and am in total agreement with you and Shelby Hearon -- "characters" are FUN and INTERESTING to know, read about and create. I have more writing about Charity in the Daughters of Boston series than any of the characters because she is "such a character," a hoot, somebody who what you see is pretty much what you get ... uh, to the extreme, of course. But you gotta love those types ... or at least my husband does ... :)

Let's face it, we are ALL characters in some ways, it's just that in polite society, we all try to fit in to a degree (except Ruthy, that is, which is another blog altogether), but it's those bottom-liners and odd ducks and quirky types that most often get immortalized in books/movies/TV because they help us to break out of our safe, little shells and cut loose ... and, of course, they make us feel a whole lot more normal. :)

Great blog today, Myra, and great advice ... it gives me some cool ideas for my current WIP, so thanks!


KC Frantzen said...

"Safe women rarely make history."

Isn't that a quote somewhere??

This was a super post. Thanks so much for all the effort.

I think there's 3-4 I know but we'll have to get the "key" to find out for sure.

Too fun. And yes, pass the real maple syrup please!

Have a great day!

Mary Connealy said...

Wow Myra. I've got nuthin'

Ruthy I got instantly.

Two are Julia. Two are Pam. One is Camy, maybe and the rest are all Missy.

It seems like you should have included the rest of us, darlin'

Melanie Dickerson said...

Definitely, Denise is Ruthy.
Edith is Pam.
Just guessing now:
Frannie is Camy.
Georgia is Julie?
Is Kimberly Debby?
Ophelia is Tina. (Or Audra?)
Is Jenny or Haley Missy?
Nancy could easily be me.

Great character traits! :-)

Té la mà Maria - Reus said...

excelent blog, congratulations
regard from Reus Catalonia
thank you

Casey said...

Ok, for the record, the only one I got (I think) was number three- is that Janet Dean?? And the only reason I know that is because she said she loves makeup in yesterday's post. :) Great post-thanks!!


Lindsey Parker said...

I Loved your post today Mrs. Myra it was really fun and gave me a lot of help in the process!
I think Jenny is Ruthy and Monica is Julie Lessman Beyond that I'm Not sure:)

Myra Johnson said...

Finally checking in this morning. We had to take our doggy to the vet for a checkup.

Melanie, you did pretty good! Close guesses on the ones you missed. Keep trying!

And Mary, believe me, we are ALL in here somewhere. Can't you even figure out yourself? Okay, so maybe some traits are HIGHLY exaggerated. Mine, however, is not.

Myra Johnson said...

Lindsey, keep guessing. Sorry, you missed on both tries! Now really, who among the Seekers is the most food-obsessed????

Missy Tippens said...

Oh, how fun!! I love when we do these things and send them directly to the blog poster. That way I can guess who's who as well! And I think I know a few of them. :)

Great post, Myra!! I love the idea of making a character really stand out.

Missy Tippens said...

LOL, Mary! You know, there really are several that would fit me! Maybe we Seekers are way too much alike! :)


Mary Connealy said...

Abby—Debby always looks nice
Betsy—Audra, or could be Sandra, she ought to know motor vehicles
Claire—Janet, or could be Julie
Denise—Ruthy (You had me at Mylanta)
Edith—Let's go with Pam, she can keep a checkbook balanced.
Frannie—Camy (just because of the knitting, the worrying about kids is Missy, except we ALL worry about our kids…except Camy. And Glynna)
Georgia—Myra (how else would you know about kicking your date)
Haley—No idea with the laugh….let's say Tina, or Cheryl
Ingrid—Pets? Who's got pets? Ruthy? Audra? Julie?
Jenny—Mary (or it sure could be)
Kimberly—who is empathetic? Why is this so hard? Sandra, no wait, Missy.
Linda—Who is bossy? LOL great, who do I pick? Me again
Monica—Julie? She sets a great table. Or Pam, a very orderly woman.
Nancy—Could be me, brainstorming my book in church. I'm not proud of that, let's pin this one on Cara
Ophelia—Glynna (with the snow, has to be)

Mary Connealy said...

Well, oops. No idea why that posted twice.

Myra Johnson said...

Well, Mary, you got yourself right. That's about the extent of it.

Do we Seekers know each other or what???

For the record, I polled the Seekers last week and asked them to PRIVATELY send me what they thought were their most identifying traits. All but two of them responded. The other two, I just sort of invented from what I know of them.

So let's get talking, everyone! Who's the most memorable story character you can remember from books you've read?

Myra Johnson said...

Okay, Mary, you did also guess Claire, Edith, Denise, and Frannie. And Ophelia.

Mary Connealy said...

I was badly shaken there for a minute to think I got them ALL WRONG.

Phew, only 3/4 wrong, sort of like my grades in high school.

Rose said...

The character I always remember is Jo March from Little Women. She was a strong woman, when women weren't supposed to be.

Here's a few guesses that I'm sure are wrong!

Abby is Sandra (I based that on a denim comment made by someone)

Frannie is Camy

Claire is Janet

Denis is Ruthy

Nancy is Mary

Linda is Tina (because she's talked about her sister before)?

Ophelia is Glynna?

That's it for my guesses.


RRossZediker at yahoo dot com

Myra Johnson said...

Rose! I just reread Little Women. Such a timeless story, and of course I love Jo! Great example! Amy stands out as well--her preoccupation with her nose, her longing to fit in with the rich, popular crowd, the way she mispronounces words.

Okay, on your guesses. You're correct on Frannie, Claire, Denise, and Ophelia. ;>D

Lindsey said...

Really! Lol! o.k. lets see then for Julie Lessman Claire because of the color of the lipstick PASSION red! and I was so sure I had Ruthy well let me go back and look every body back over. Lol!

Leigh said...

Great post, Myra! I think creating interesting/memorable characters is always a challenge, especially when your story has a big cast. Those little quirks are the kinds of things I need to spend more time on.

I'm swamped with work this week so don't have time to play the game (read: snowed under with paper like Glynna is with the real stuff). :-( Looks like some others are giving it a try though, so I'll enjoy reading the answers when you give the rundown.


Lindsey Parker said...

And maybe.... Nancy for Mary Connealy?:)

Myra Johnson said...

Wrong again on both counts, Lindsey!!!

Whew! Just walked 1 1/4 miles on my treadmill while catching up with e-mail, some of my favorite blogs, and the Christian Fiction Online Magazine. I find I can keep up a pretty good pace while reading. Not so much for typing. So back at my desk now.

Janet Dean said...

Myra, I'll add these to the list of guesses we're not sure of yet. Trust me these are stabs in the dark!


Myra Johnson said...

Georgia is correct, Janet. The rest . . . um, not so much. (You didn't guess yourself, so you must have figured that one out. ;>D)

Mary Connealy said...

BY THE WAY!!!!!!!!!!

I just finished Myra's latest release, Romance By the Book. Such great characters, Myra. So charming and real and fun.

I was no where near ready to quit reading about them. Loved the book.

Buy it HERE

Myra Johnson said...

Mary!!!! You are too much!!!

Okay, since we have a mutual admiration society going here, I will just mention that I LOVED The Husband Tree, and in fact my husband is reading it right now and really getting into it! Every day he has to tell me what part he's gotten to and what he thinks is going to happen next.

And not to be outdone . . .

To order Mary's book, go here.

Janet Dean said...

Only one of my guesses is right? This is embarrassing. Kind of like rejection, only public. But I did get Ruthy, Pam, Camy and me right. LOL


Janet Dean said...

I loved the characters in The Husband Tree, Mary! I'm hoping Romance By the Book arrives today!


Julie Lessman said...

Uh, take a guess who the TRUE "character" is in this bunch ... the one everyone got right with "Mylanta"!!! :)

Lindsey, even though you didn't guess me correctly in Myra's quiz, you still are dead-on with traits that nail me, the anal woman who piped guests' initials in her twice-baked potatoes AND applies lipstick/gloss EVERY HOUR on the hour, DAY AND NIGHT, INCLUDING before bed!! :) So, great tries!


Myra Johnson said...

Oh mylanta indeed! Ruthy needs to star in her own book one of these days! An Irish-Catholic romantic comedy about a caterer who raises puppies and runs an in-home daycare.

Vince said...

Hi Myra:

You wrote:

“An Irish-Catholic romantic comedy about a caterer who raises puppies and runs an in-home daycare.”

I think Diane Mott Davidson is already doing that except she also solves mysteries in her spare time.


Pepper Basham said...

Oh Myra, what a FUN post. I LOOOOVE characterization.
I don't think I know all the wonderful Seekers well enough to guess - right. Maybe a few of them I could get more closely than the others ;-)
I got stuck on the bossy one. Aren't there are few that might fit that descrip? ;-)

In celebration of a VERY productive writing day, I want to share some fresh-from-the-oven, chocolate chip cookies. (I said productive, that doesn't necessarily mean GOOD ;-) 5,000 words so far. That's HUGE for me

Janet Dean said...

Yay Pepper!!! 5,000 is huge. Wonderful chocolate chip cookies! Thanks, hope you do this often. LOL


Lindsey said...

Well I tried Lol!
And Mrs Lessman that's why I guessed those certain traits because you put so much passion into everything you do I figured those had to be you but they weren't, I tried though!:) and the baked potatoes that is just to cool I wish I would have thought of it:)

Myra Johnson said...

Wow, Pepper, 5000 words is almost 1/10th of a book! Way to go!!! And any excuse for chocolate chip cookies! Yum!

Vince, I'm pretty sure Ruthy could fit solving mysteries into her spare time if she really tried. I think she only requires about 2 hours of sleep a night.

Anonymous said...

i always learn something when visiting w/ you all...have a great day, everyone :)


Pepper Basham said...

By the way, Myra, I'd LOOOVE to win your book and I usually forget to put my email address up :-)


Debby Giusti said...

Myra, your blog is inspired!!! And so well done. Okay, I got the one that's me (good job!), and I think I have Missy and Janet. Oh, Mylanta! Wonder who that could be? And the gal who dreams up plot points during church...I've got that Seeker identified as well. The knitting needles were a clue for another Seeker. But I'm stuck on the rest. Can't wait for the answers!

Who's the checkbook gal? You perhaps?

Debby Giusti said...

Favorite character?

I just finished REDEEMING LOVE!!! Oh my gosh! Angel, of course! Such a powerful story. Can't wait until Francine Rivers comes to Seekerville!

Anonymous said...

Interesting post....please enter me for the book!!! Thanks!!!

Myra Johnson said...

Hi, Debby! Yep, I figured you'd pick yourself out of that "lineup."

Oh, yes, Redeeming Love. It's been years since I read it, but hard to forget those characters. What a treat that Francine will soon be visiting Seekerville !

Tina Russo Radcliffe said...

This is so great. I read it this morning but was running late and had to direct traffic on the way to work..ha. KIDDING.

So finally back home and get to tell you I loved this post. I guessed quite a few. Can't wait to see if I was right.

denise said...

Fun post.

Cheryl Wyatt said...

OH MY GOSH! I just read this. Myra, you are so creative!

Absolutely loved this. I knew I was Nancy...I think I'm Nancy. I'll have to go look. LOLOL!