Creating Characters

I’ve been invited to create a new character for the Western Fictioneers – something for the shared world of Wolf Creek. This is an 1872 town on the Kansas prairie, with characters created by a variety of authors. We’ve just published Book 16 and my new character will make his appearance in the next anthology.

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I thought I’d share a few tips on creating a new character, as I go through the process:

  • Start with the basics – first, you need to decide what gender, race and age your character is going to be. This may change later, but start with the basic information in mind so you have that general image.
  • Add details – decide how your character looks (at least the bare minimum of hair & eye color, approximate size, and anything unusual) and how they dress. Imagine the outer package for your character.
  • Pick a setting – where does your character come from? Where do they live and work? What do they do and how well do they do it? See your character in their natural habitat before you begin your story.
  • Fill out a chart (or two) – find one (or more) of those character charts … and you can’t go wrong with mine – just use the drop-down menu above, under Writer’s Toolkit! Fill out the chart(s) to learn about your character’s personality so you’ll know how they will act in your story.
  • Christen your child – once you can see the character clearly in your mind, it’s time to pick a name. By this time, you’ll know the sort of name that fits the character best, whether it’s a traditional name to match their ethnicity, a nickname, or something that describes their personality. My character chart also has a few links at the bottom to help you name characters.

And that’s how I came up with my new character, who’s going to be a sort of Junior Chance – young teens, mixed race, very intelligent, and a budding criminal mastermind. He’s going to serve as a connection between the different parts of Wolf Creek, running messages and selling information, performing tasks that may not be quite legal, and generally being a go-between when a citizen doesn’t want to (or can’t afford to) be seen in a certain part of town.

Use the Right Word

I’ve been skimming through some books lately, just browsing the genre. Most of what I’m looking at is obviously self-published because there are glaring errors that a professional editor would have caught and corrected. This is something that you can work on so that your books don’t come across as unprofessional.

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I found this helpful site from the Oxford dictionary, listing commonly confused words.

Another area where writers err is in commonly-heard sayings. One writer had me gritting my teeth every time she had her characters tell someone they “had another thing coming.” The correct phrase, of course, is “another think coming,” as in “If you think that, you’ve got another think coming.”

Here are some more commonly mis-heard phrases:

  • I could care less” – this means that you do care, and have more caring you could do. If you want to show your total lack of caring, it’s “I couldn’t care less.”
  • Nip it in the butt” – this would mean something’s backside is getting bitten. If you want to cut something out before it starts, you’d be “nipping it in the bud,” just the way you’d nip or pinch off a plant’s bud before the branch or flower forms.
  • For all intensive purposes” – this means your purposes are intense, which probably isn’t what you mean. “For all intents and purposes,” on the other hand, means in every practical sense.
  • “One in the same” – this would mean that something was inside another thing that was the same. If you want to say two things are no different, you say “one and the same.”
  • “Giving you leadway” – there’s no such word, though it sounds like the correct term. Leeway means room on the lee – or sheltered – side of something; in other words, enough room to pass or do what you need to do.

For You: Snippets

Here are a few scenes from the new book for your amusement!

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Our heroes have reached New York City and are taking an afternoon walk:

There is nothing quite so certain to attract the attention as a promenade in the proper section of town. Music filled the air as street musicians plied their trade along the sidewalks. Sidewalk vendors hawked their wares: hot chestnuts, neckties, jewelry, newspapers and magazines, and, of course, toys. Many of the department stores were already decorating for Christmas, and we stopped to admire their windows in the gaslight. We were forced to skip and dodge around the masses of children, all struggling for a glimpse of a mannequin dressed as Santa Claus, his trusty spyglass in hand, with which he keeps a sharp lookout for good little boys and girls.

“We shall have to purchase some token gifts for our friends back home,” Emily mused as a trio of women hustled past us, their servants close behind, laden with boxes and bags. 

“Let’s make a day of it once we’ve solved this case of ours,” I said, leading the way into a nearby restaurant. Snow, in my opinion, is far better viewed from behind a thick glass window. “We can buy up the town if you want.”

Chance decides to infiltrate a gentleman’s club:

At the door of what looked like a fairly typical mansion, I was examined minutely for evidence of substandard dress, and eventually allowed to set foot in the foyer. The man didn’t even take my coat and hat, but asked my business in a voice that would have made the stuffiest English butler proud.

“I’ll be in town for a few weeks,” I replied, putting on my best Old Money Face and ignoring the marble staircase and velvet curtains. I was fairly certain that the hat stand had cost more than our parlor sofa. I proffered my own gentleman’s club card, printed on the finest ivory paper and gilt-edged. “I’ve been told the Knickerbocker Club is a fine establishment.”

“May I ask which of our members was so indiscreet as to mention this fact?”

and Chance’s opinions on his home city:

San Francisco never ceases to enthrall me. We passed through her streets, busy even in the middle of the afternoon, and between her grand buildings. The horses strained at the steep hills, and I could hear them blowing as they hauled us upward at a steady walk. The tang of smoke filled the air, and fine ash drifted down from the chimneys of the houses and offices. I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else.

Stone was still sulking when we alit at the Old Poodle Dog. We’d be lunching in the restaurant, not in the second-floor banquet halls, so we strolled in via the front door. The waiters knew us, of course, and whisked us quickly to a table near one of the windows. I pretended not to know that this was more to show off who was dining with them than to provide me an uninterrupted view of the never-ending parade on the city streets.

Kye and I ate at the Old Poodle Dog fairly often, and had even made use of the private suites upstairs, along with Emily. Somehow, the owners avoided scandal, though the suites included a bed and bathroom along with the dining area. Stone admitted that this was his first visit, so Kye proceeded to educate the man on the intricacies of the menu, recommending this fish and that meat. I left them to their culinary discussion and resumed my favorite activity: people-watching. At this hour of the day, most of the folks bustling along were deliverymen or servants, sprinkled with the odd businessman on a late lunch hour. I amused myself by figuring out which was which without looking at their hands, which would provide a dead giveaway.

Conflict 101

Conflict and tension can be difficult to create and maintain. You don’t need an all-powerful super villain to oppose your character, but you do need some sort of believable conflict if the reader is going to enjoy your stories.

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Laurie Johnson says, “The best way to create internal conflict is to really dig deep into the character. Think about what’s driving them, what their motivations are, what their background is, what has happened in the past to make them who they are. From this, think about the emotions they would experience when placed in situations that tap into their conflict and bring these out on the page

The most believable conflicts are the ones that grow naturally out of your characters and their situation. Drop your people into the middle of the action and see how they react. Their feelings, their hopes and dreams, their fears — all these will create the conflicts and tension you need to keep your readers hooked.

You don’t need world-shattering conflicts to have a good story. You just need characters who want things.

Cut to the Chase

Ever pick up what looks like a good read, only to drop it after the first couple of pages?

You’ve probably encountered a weak opening – something even an experienced writer can fall prey to. Sometimes it’s hard to decide just where the action really starts, or just how much backstory the reader is going to need.

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Just how do you tell when you’ve been trapped by a weak opening anyway? It’s not as easy as spotting a typo. Here are a few questions you can ask yourself to figure it out:

  • When does the tension start? Most of the time, you can skip everything you think you need to add in order to “build up” to the tension. Just start when the main action starts and fill things in later.
  • Does this advance the plot? No matter how much you like a passage, if it’s not absolutely necessary to move the story forward, cut it. If it’s really needed, you’ll find a way to work it in later.
  • Does the reader need this now? Always keep this in mind. Anything the reader doesn’t totally need to know should be saved for later in the story.

The important thing is to hook your audience into the tale. You can amaze them with your eloquence and backstory after you’ve gotten them involved in your characters’ lives.

Beta-Reading 101

I belong to a writing critique group, and I recommend that any serious writer do the same. A good critique group will give you honest feedback that will help you hone your craft.

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One of the things you must learn, however, is how to actually give a critique. It’s not enough simply to correct a couple of typos and give a vague “It’s good.” Here are some hints to make you an ace at beta-reading for your peers.

  • Don’t just dish it outalways offer to critique in reply. It’s just not fair to expect another writer to take the time to help you out if you’re not willing to return the favor.
  • Take small steps – instead of sending your entire manuscript, just swap a chapter, or a specific number of words (my critique group tries to keep our submissions under 5,000). This saves everybody from an overwhelming task if they dislike the writing – and you can always ask for more if you end up loving it.
  • Set a limit – pick a deadline for critiques and stick to it. It’s also not fair to dawdle over a critique for weeks and weeks. Decide ahead of time when the critiques are due and be sure you honor the deadline.
  • Read with a red pen – as you skim over the work, make note of anything that leaps out at you (typos, misplaced commas, run-on sentences, etc.). This sort of thing will eventually be caught by a professional editor, but why not help the author create the best manuscript they possibly can?
  • One more time – once you’ve gotten past the obvious errors, read the sample again with an eye for more subjective problems. Check continuity and flow. See if the dialogue comes across as realistic and character-specific. Look for spots where the story drags or heads off on a tangent. Read with an editor’s eye.
  • Be specific – avoid the totally un-helpful “I love it” just as much as you refrain from saying “This sucks.” List the exact spots where you love their writing – or hate it – and then explain why you feel so. Give them something to compare the rest of the work to, or something to correct and a helpful hint on how to do so.
  • Make a sandwich – the best way to deliver criticism is to say something positive before you point out a problem, then end on another positive note.

If you try to be a fantastic beta-reader, you’ll not only create a grateful author (or authors), but you’ll show others how it’s done so that your future critiques will be more helpful as well.

Writing Advice: The Top 10

When you’re a writer, everybody you know seems to have some bit of wisdom for you – most of it wrong. Here are 10 of the best tips I’ve ever gotten:

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  1. Give yourself permission to write a piece of crap. The number one reason for “writer’s block” is fear – fear of writing poorly or fear of having “nothing to say.” Just allow yourself to write something – anything! – and tell yourself it’s OK if the thing stinks. You can always cut it out later. Just keep writing. Many an author has gotten to the end of their first draft and said “Crap, now I see how to tell this story!” Don’t waste time getting to that point. Just get it written.
  2. Write what you know. It’s overused, yes, and many people misinterpret this, but it’s great advice nonetheless. “What you know” means several things: what you’ve directly experienced, what you’ve learned from watching another’s experiences, and what you’ve researched and learned. Trust me – if you’ve done enough research, you definitely know that subject.
  3. Write like you speak. Don’t try to make your words sound like “real writing.” Your readers will be turned off by your stilted and stuffy sentences! Instead, allow your unique voice to come through. Imagine that your biggest fan is sitting next to you, and just type what you’d say to them as you tell your story.
  4. Keep it short. It’s tempting to go on and on about a subject, or to try too hard to give the reader the perfect mental image of a scene. Get to your point quickly, and use short words, short sentences and short paragraphs.
  5. Cut the cliches. A cliche is something that has been said or written so often that your brain skims right past it without noticing it. That’s not what you want from your readers. Try to consciously discover new ways to describe familiar things or events. If anything you’ve written sounds familiar, change it.
  6. Write less, not more. As you grow as a writer, you’ll learn that your biggest chore is not writing that draft – it’s editing the damn thing! One of the points to keep in mind as you write, and as you edit, is “less is more.” You want to pare your writing down to the bare minimum needed to tell your story. Cut the elaborate descriptions and unnecessary scenes. If it’s not absolutely essential, it doesn’t need to be there.
  7. Keep reading. Not only will you see what’s working in your genre, but you’ll learn almost without your realizing it from the professionals – how a good sentence sounds, how to capture an audience, and how to keep a good story going.
  8. Keep something on the back burner. Always have something you can work on cooking away in the background. If you get stuck on a plot point in your novel, switch to a short story, an article, a blog, or even another novel. Don’t stop working.
  9. Remember the trick. Writing is a magic show – you’re showing the reader only what you want to show, trying to trick them into thinking you’re going one way, then surprise them by heading in the opposite direction. Keep this in mind as you write, and it’ll be easier. This isn’t lying – the reader expects a good show! – it’s a necessary part of storytelling. In order to accomplish this trick, you’ll need your bag of tools: grammar, spelling, storytelling technique, and everything that makes you a writer instead of someone who just sits down in front of a keyboard every now and then. Get up on that stage and wow ’em!
  10. How do you get to Carnagie Hall? As with everything else, the answer is practice, practice, practice! If you don’t write every day, you’re not going to grow as a writer. Unplug the internet, switch off the cellphone, shut your office door – whatever you need to do in order to get the job done. Set a daily word count and keep it, even if it’s only a few pages or a thousand words. So long as you’re writing, you’re improving.

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Characters: Public vs. Private

Everyone has a public side that they show to everyone, and a private side that is only shown to their most intimate friends (and sometimes, not even to them!). So what about your characters?

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There is a difference between a character trait and a character persona. Your characters, just like real people, will have certain traits that they wish to keep hidden. They have certain facets of their personality that they will strive to disguise. And that can give you a great source of conflict and tension.

Think about people you know: the beefy muscle-man who’s petrified of needles, the soccer mom who runs marathons, and the bespectacled professor-type who’s a secret underwear model. Don’t we all have our hidden sides? Shouldn’t your characters have one as well?

Give your characters some secrets, preferably ones that they either don’t want known, or that aren’t immediately obvious. Perhaps they’re battling their own dislikes when they serve at that soup kitchen line, or perhaps that jock would really rather be reading a good book instead of making that basket.

The fun of a good story is finding characters who seem to leap off the page, and they can’t do that if they’re just cardboard cut-outs.

For You: 1800’s Parties

This is another interesting tidbit from Light and Shadows of New York Life, 1875 – all about how to throw a good party.

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New York has long been celebrated for its magnificent social entertainments.  Its balls, dinner parties, receptions, private theatricals, picnics, croquet parties, and similar gatherings are unsurpassed in respect to show in any city in the world.  Every year some new species of entertainment is devised by some leader in society, and repeated throughout the season by every one who can raise the money to pay for it.  The variety, however, is chiefly in the name, for all parties, breakfasts, dinners, suppers, or receptions are alike.

Of late years it is becoming common not to give entertainments at one’s residence, but to hire public rooms set apart for that purpose.  There is a large house in the upper part of Fifth avenue, which is fitted up exclusively for the use of persons giving balls, suppers, or receptions. It is so large that several entertainments can be held at the same time on its different floors, without either annoying or inconveniencing the others.  The proprietor of the establishment provides everything down to the minutest detail, the wishes and tastes of the giver of the entertainment being scrupulously respected in everything.  The host and hostess, in consequence, have no trouble, but have simply to be on hand at the proper time to receive their guests.  This is a very expensive mode of entertaining, and costs from 5000 to 15,000 dollars, for the caterer expects a liberal profit on everything he provides; but to those who can afford it, it is a very sensible plan.  It saves an immense amount of trouble at home, and preserves one’s carpets and furniture from the damage invariably done to them on such occasions, and averts all possibility of robbery by the strange servants one is forced to employ. Still, many who possess large and elegant mansions of their own prefer to entertain at their own homes.

Upon the evening appointed a carpet is spread from the curbstone to the front door, and over this is placed a temporary awning.  A policeman is engaged to keep off the crowd and regulate the movements of the carriages.  About nine o’clock magnificent equipages, with drivers and footmen in livery, commence to arrive, and from these gorgeous vehicles richly dressed ladies and gentlemen alight, and pass up the carpeted steps to the entrance door.  On such occasions gentlemen are excluded from the carriage if possible, as all the space within the vehicle is needed for the lady’s skirts.  The lady is accompanied by a maid whose business it is to adjust her toilette in the dressing room, and see that everything is in its proper place.

At the door stands some one to receive the cards of invitation.  Once admitted, the ladies and gentlemen pass into the dressing rooms set apart for them.  Here they put the last touches to their dress and hair, and, the ladies having joined their escorts, enter the drawing room and pay their respects to the host and hostess.  When from one to two thousand guests are to be received, the reader may imagine that the labors of the host and hostess are not slight.

Every arrangement is made for dancing.  A fine orchestra is provided, and is placed so that it may consume as little space as possible.  A row of chairs placed around the room, and tied in couples with pocket-handkerchiefs, denotes that “The German” is to be danced during the course of the evening.  There is very little dancing, however, of any kind, before midnight, the intervening time being taken up with the arrivals of guests and promenading.

About midnight the supper room is thrown open, and there is a rush for the tables, which are loaded with every delicacy that money can buy.  The New York physicians ought to be devoutly thankful for these suppers. They bring them many a fee.  The servants are all French, and are clad in black swallow-tail coats and pants, with immaculate white vests, cravats and gloves.  They are as active as a set of monkeys, and are capital hands at anticipating your wants.  Sometimes the refreshments are served in the parlors, and are handed to the guests by the servants.

The richest and costliest of wines flow freely.  At a certain entertainment given not long since, 500 bottles of champagne, worth over four dollars each, were drunk.  Some young men make a habit of abstaining carefully during the day, in order to be the better prepared to drink at night.  The ladies drink almost as heavily as the men, and some of them could easily drink their partners under the table.

After supper the dancing begins in earnest.  If The German is danced it generally consumes the greater part of the evening.  I shall not undertake to describe it here.  It is a great mystery, and those who understand it appear to have exhausted in mastering it their capacity for understanding anything else.  It is a dance in which the greatest freedom is permitted, and in which liberties are taken and encouraged, which would be resented under other circumstances.  The figures really depend upon the leader of the dance, who can set such as he chooses, or devise them, if he has wit enough.  All the rest are compelled to follow his example.  The dance is thoroughly suited to the society we are considering, and owes its popularity to the liberties, to use no stronger term, it permits.

The toilettes of the persons present are magnificent.  The ladies are very queens in their gorgeousness.  They make their trails so long that half the men are in mortal dread of breaking their necks over them; and having gone to such expense for dry goods in this quarter, they display the greatest economy about the neck and bust.  They may be in “full dress” as to the lower parts of their bodies, but they are fearfully undressed from the head to the waist.

Towards morning the ball breaks up.  The guests, worn out with fatigue, and not unfrequently confused with liquor, take leave of their hosts and go home.  Many of them repeat the same performance almost nightly during the season.  No wonder that when the summer comes they are so much in need of recuperation.

Make A Writer Happy

People are always happy to talk about their favorite books and authors, but did you know you can help them out?

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The best thing a reader can do for their favorite author is to take two minutes to write a review!

Most people would rather go to the dentist, though – there’s just something about that blank page on the website that intimidates people.

Here’s a painless way to write a review that will help increase your favorite author’s book sales and make them happier:

  • Stick to the big reading websites for your reviews: Amazon and Goodreads – and write a review on each one, not just one of them! Some people only look on one of the sites and never see the review you may have written on the other site
  • Just make a simple title like “I loved this book” or “You’ll want to read this” instead of wasting time trying to think up a catchy phrase
  • Start by giving a short summary of the main points of the book in 1-2 sentences. “A lonely girl is whisked away to a magical land and must try to return home.” “Three children travel to a magical land where nobody ever grows up.” “A simple hobbit must travel across the world to destroy an evil object that can enslave everyone in Middle Earth.” You don’t have to give a lot of information, just enough to get other readers interested.
  • Tell what you liked – this is the meat of your review so be honest. Let other people know what it is about this particular book that struck such a chord in your heart. Explain why it’s so good and why you keep reading it over and over. This is the part your author will most likely quote, so feel free to be as flowery as you want.
  • Tell why the other readers will like it – this is where you can say “if you like _____, you’ll like this book, too” and mention some of your other favorites!
  • End with a short endorsement like “I would definitely read any book this author writes” or “This author is one of my favorites.”

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Not so very hard, now, is it? Why not try it out – click on one of the links above and go praise your favorite writer!