5 Ways to Round Out Your Characters

It’s not enough just to invent a character. You have to breathe life into that imaginary person. Here are five ways you can do this – and how to show your readers you’ve done your homework.

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  • Physical Appearance – what does your character actually look like?
  • Mannerisms – how does your character act and behave? What gestures does he use habitually? How does she walk?
  • Speech – Does your character use long or short words? Simple or complex sentences? What quirks of speech do they use?
  • Belongings – What do your character’s possessions say about them? What things does she treasure? What things can’t he live without?
  • Spaces – what is your character’s house like? Their bedroom? Workspace? How do these spaces show your character’s personality?

Now, how do you impart this information to your readers without boring paragraphs of description? Remember to show, not tell.

Here’s an example – let’s say we’ve got our heroine, Sandy Shores, who’s a quirky¬†lifeguard with a secret dislike of children.

We could tell about her:

Sandy Shores was a tall green-eyed redhead who strode the beach with a possessive eye. It was her stretch of sand, after all: hers to guard and keep safe for the tourists and their rugrats. She twirled her battered whistle – a keepsake from her father’s days as a high school football coach – as she patrolled. She spotted a stray bit of litter and pounced. Blasted kids and their candy bars. Why didn’t their parents teach them to throw their garbage away properly?

However, it’s much more effective to show – and drop in your background tidbits as you go:

“Patrolling your beach again, Sandy?”

Sandy Shores turned eyes green as the sea on Officer Law. “Laugh if you want, Doug, but these people are on my sand. They’re mine to guard.”

“Even the dreaded house apes, eh?”

Sandy shuddered, watching a particularly sticky urchin toddle across the beach, holding a dripping ice cream cone. “Somebody has to keep the brats safe, yes.”

Officer Law laughed, his eyes on the battered whistle in her fist. “Why don’t you get yourself a new one, anyhow? That one looks like it’s on its last legs.”

Sandy closed her fist protectively. “It was my father’s.”

See the difference? Now, you try it – you don’t have to put everything about your character into the first scene, but drop bits and pieces of their life into your story to make them more believable.

What is a Scene?

Many writers, especially new writers, have trouble with scenes. They can picture the beginning of their story and the end, but what comes between gets a little hazy.

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The key to keeping your story moving is to be able to write a good scene, and to keep those scenes coming. And the key to a good scene is conflict.

Pages of prose do not a scene make, nor does dialogue between characters. Unless there is some sort of conflict and movement from one value state to another, you don’t have a scene. You should have movement from negative to positive, or vice versa. Hate turns to love, or guilt to innocence. Each scene should have some sort of “turn” or movement.

Make sure your scenes go somewhere. They must follow the story pyramid: inciting incidents, progressive complications and tension, climax and resolution. If you get stuck, think about your character arc: is your character getting closer to his goals or further away? It has to move in one direction or the other along the arc for it to be a successful scene.

Unfortunately, the easy to understand scenes are often the most difficult to craft. The scenes that stick in a reader’s mind are the ones you’ve had to edit and re-edit to perfection. And when you’re writing scenes, remember: the first thing that comes into your mind is something that’s already been done. Go deeper and seek out the real tension and conflict that will drive a truly memorable scene.

Plot or Character Driven?

Are you a plot-driven or character-driven writer? By this I mean what sorts of stories do you typically write?

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It all depends on what sorts of questions you ask. Do you find yourself asking “What if” questions, such as “What if a tornado hit my town?” or “What if that man suddenly started running down the street toward me?” These are plot questions, questions about the story itself. Stories that answer this sort of question are plot-driven stories.

If you find yourself asking “Why” questions, such as “Why did that woman just laugh?” or “Why does that man feel the need to step in and help that person?” then you’re asking character questions. Stories that deal with internal struggles are character-driven stories.

Good stories have a mix of both plot and character – they have an external plot driving the story, but they also have internal character struggles going on at the same time. The trick is to pay attention to what you’re doing so you can have an even mix of character-driven scenes and plot-driven scenes.

Action: The Fight Scene

Writing an action scene isn’t as easy as it sounds sometimes. Take the fight scene, for example.

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It’s not enough to write “He punched the man in the face.” Your readers need to know specifics if they’re going to imagine the scene properly.

Here are some things you might want to keep in mind when writing those scenes:

  • What type of punches are thrown?
  • What types of holds are used?
  • What types of throws are used?
  • What type of weapons are used?
  • What type of ammunition is used in the weapons?
  • What does it feel like to throw a punch?
  • What does it feel like to take one?
  • What does it feel like to wrestle?
  • What does it feel like to fire a weapon?
  • What are the emotions your characters would feel during the fight?
  • What are the sounds they might hear?
  • What scents might be present during a fight?

This is also the time you want to do your research. Trust me, while some of your readers won’t know that a Glock pistol doesn’t have a safety catch, there are plenty of gun enthusiasts who will – and they’ll be turned off by your lack of research if you give your character a Glock with a safety catch. Find out all about boxing or whatever martial arts your character may know. Learn the names of some of the wrestling moves your character might use. Look up that firearm and learn its capabilities. If you’ve never been in a fight, consider going to a boxing match or martial arts tournament so you can see the nitty-gritty of what’s going on.

Writing Good Action Scenes

Good actions scenes can be tricky. You want to show enough of the action to give a vivid image, but not get bogged down in description.

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To start with, you want to have the whole scene mapped out, as if you were doing a story board for a movie. Write the action out onto index cards — or use Scrivener — and arrange them in order so that you can see how it’s going to play out. If you have any artistic talent (or even if you don’t), you might also try drawing the action on one side of the cards, just like a story board. The idea is to be able to visualize the scene completely.

Once you have the entire sequence of action plotted out, and can see everything inside your head, you can start writing. Start right at the beginning of the action sequence. Keep your sentences short and tense. Give just enough description to set the stage, but then go straight into the action.

Another thing to include is emotion. You want the readers to see how the characters are feeling during the action scene. Add in the character’s emotional reaction to whatever just happened. Show their¬†feelings in response to what’s going on around them. This not only makes the characters more real, but it also adds tension to the action.

Following these guidelines will result in tighter, more tense action scenes. Give it a shot yourself.

Book Give-Away

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10,000 Likes already! Wow, what a great bunch of fans you guys are.

The lads are giving away some swag again – Chance is donating a deck of cards (a Down the Owlhoot Trail style deck, of course) and Kye has tinkered something together for you from his workshop.

Along with this, I’m donating a copy of the anthology and some author swag to go with it.

Five lucky winners will be chosen at random.

TO ENTER: comment below and answer this question: What mischief should a couple of outlaws get up to while they’re trying to go straight? Remember to include a name and email address so that I can contact you if you win.

Who knows, I may even use your ideas in a future novel – credited, of course!

Contest ends February 14, 2015

Story/Character Arc

The arc of a story is the overall plot of the whole thing – from exposition to denouement. The character arc is how the character changes within that story.

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Your story should have a captivating arc to it. Everything should change during the course of the story. By the time you reach the end, there should be a distinct difference between the baseline there and the one at the beginning.

The same holds true for your characters. They should change during the story. This doesn’t have to be a huge personality shift, but they ought to learn and grow during your tale.

Here’s an example of how this would work in a story:

  • Act 1: at the beginning of your story, the character is resistant to change – things are fine the way they are, so why should he or she change?
  • Plot Point 1: a surprise happens that throws the character’s life into a whole new direction
  • Act 2: the character’s emotional journey. This is perhaps the hardest part of your story to write. The key is conflict – have a list of several obstacles (both internal and external) that will raise the stakes of the game for your character as time passes. This should end at a low point, where it seems that the character is never going to be able to succeed.
  • Plot Point 2: a second surprise twist that makes the character’s goal reachable after all.
  • Act 3: the dramatic enactment of the character’s success (followed by resolution or denouement).

The Point of No Return

Conflict is a necessary part of any story. Without conflict and tension, you’ve got a boring description and no story.

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Along with conflict, though, you must have character reaction. If your characters don’t grow and change in response to the conflict, you’ve got another boring story. In order to really hook your readers and keep them rooting for the characters, those characters must react like real people. They must change – even if it is in small ways.

During your story, the characters must reach a point at which they must decide to make that change. This is the Point of No Return. Beyond this point, they can stay the same, go back to their lives as if nothing happened, and “keep on keeping on.”

The Point of No Return is that place in the conflict where the characters cannot react any further without making some sort of change – emotional, spiritual, physical, or mental. And with that change, they cannot “undo” their reaction. They can’t just pretend it never happened and go back to the way they were before.

This is a key part of a good story. Build your conflict to the point where the characters have to make a change, and your readers will follow right along, cheering for the characters. One good way to figure out if your story is progressing properly is to create a number system for your conflict, with 10 being a Point of No Return moment and 1 being no tension at all.

Number your scenes according to the tension and conflict in each one. You should see the numbers increasing until they reach 10. You can certainly have little dips where you slack off on the tension to give your characters a brief rest, but the overall curve should be uphill.

Once the Point of No Return is reached, you should be at or near the action climax of the tale as well – and it’s all downhill from there.