Tag Archives: character development

All I want for Christmas…

…is an internet connection. It seems that the rain causes our phone lines to act up, which in turn prevent me from connecting to the internet long enough or well enough to load even a single site. Dial-up internet is my only real complaint about living in a semi-remote location. I would give anything for a nice, fast, stable connection. Anything. Possibly my soul. Or my first-born.

I am considering moving the working reviews to a monthly schedule. I like doing them and I think they are useful, for me at the very least, but it’s hard to come up with things to do every other week. It seems I don’t have nearly as many writing books with usable prompts as I imagined. Then again, I could always mine a book I’ve used for more material. It might just be that the holidays are sapping my will to work. There are so many distractions, many of them actually pleasant, that make it easy to say I’ll think about it tomorrow.

I am going through my preferred character development routine right now and I am running into an issue that plagues me on a regular basis: villains. I have this problem with them. I don’t believe in them. Oh, I believe people, real people, are capable of amazing quantities of shit. And I can believe in properly despicable villains, black hat and horns included, in fiction I read. But in my own, they turn to mush. I cannot comprehend their motivation. I say they are evil, I might make them do evil things, but they are not frightening. They could not convince a puppy to drop a toy, let alone strike fear in the hearts of brave men. I can believe in people who do things that are greedy and selfish in an everyday sort of way. People who are merely unpleasant.

But what I need for Portable Homeland is a murderer. Someone who is willing to take lives to satisfy his own whims. And I have no idea how to make that work on the page. I don’t know how to make a reader feel like they need to bar the doors and close the curtains. I want to create creeping terror. I want the heroes to know that if they are not very clever and more than a little lucky, they will absolutely end up dead or worse. At the same time, I want to create a person, a deeply human villain, not a cheap Hollywood rubber suit monster. I want him to be so reasonable, so normal, so hello, Sir who lives down the street, that the reader will look at her neighbors and random strangers funny for days after reading about him.

I have to tap into the things I hate most in myself, the things that make me feel like a monster, and give them to him. Then I need to tap into the things I like most about myself and wrap him up in a shell of charm and intelligence. Poison with a candy coating. I have abandoned three major projects in the past over just this problem, because I could not make a villain that I cared to show on the page, that could stand up to scrutiny, that seemed to stare back from the page with malice aforethought. And I’m afraid that I’m going to do it again and Portable Homeland will be doomed before it starts because it needed to be a murder mystery.

Working Review: Letters from Abroad

(ETA: Title changed to save me from unintended search hits.)

First off, this was not the column I planned to write. That column was all about scenes. It was very informative, or so I like to think. But it ended up being a lecture with no demonstration and I just did not want to go in that direction. So I went back to my books, I read some articles on writing, and I tried something new. This was a subject I had wanted to cover in a column, so I’m happy enough to torment myself with it.

I’m still struggling with voice in my writing, so I’m going to focus on that in two ways this week. There is no exercise, but there are two very nice articles I read in Lawrence Block’s Telling Lies for Fun and Profit. This is a collection of his Writer’s Digest articles about writing. The first is “Documentary Evidence,” which is about telling stories through letters, diaries, etc. The second is “The I’s Have It,” which is about the stigma against the first person in fiction and its unrecognized strengths. (This stigma seems to have faded, if my reading experience is any indication.)

My experiments with first person have always been disasters, with each narrator turning into a shallow copy of myself. So, I’ll see if I can get it right this time and actually like the results. And I am enchanted by the idea of storytelling through other messages because I’m reading Hitori Nakano’s Densha Otoko (Train Man) right now. It is told through forum posts. It has its slow moments — how much ASCII art can one novel sustain? —  but overall I find it weirdly delightful, in large part because the main character is a loveable disaster. I like the idea of letters because they show multiple layers of a character depending on who the intended audience is.

Oh, and since I am attempting with very little success to plan my novel for NaNoWriMo, I might as well use this as a dry run of some sort. From what little I know about the main character, he is shaping up to be another Nice Guy, a sort of washed out version of my public self. Gag. So I am going to write a few letters from inside his skin. My goal will be to layer more and more detail into his personality while neither eradicating my voice NOR turning it into a fake biography of me. This may or may not resemble fiction. Bear with me. Let’s see what happens.

Dear Mr. and Mrs. Patterson,

Thank you for your inquiry. My name is Ellison and I have been assigned to your case. Enclosed is our brochure. Please note our price information, as changes have been made since last year.

The first step will be to assess your case and determine the nature of the phenomenon you are experiencing. With your permission, I will conduct a house check and interview you both. Please indicate in your reply the earliest possible dates on which I may begin this process.

Assuming the house check and interviews confirm ghostly activities, I will require two to five days to remove the ghost. During this time, it will be necessary to relocate your family; please keep this in mind when choosing the time period during which I will be in your employ.

Ghost removal is a difficult process for all parties. We at the Center for Paranormal Rehabilitation thank you for your understanding and for your interest in our services. I look forward to hearing from you. If you would like additional information before making your decision, including references, please let me know. I can be reached by mail or by telephone at (xxx) xxx-xxxx.

Best wishes,

Ellison Marshall

On the back of a picture postcard:

Carson Castle, Nevada Bay, East California

Hi Mom and Dad–

It’s been windy here. It blows across the channel all the time. Our esteemed clients put me up in a nice hotel though. I splurged and had room service breakfast this morning: steak and eggs, yum!

There’s definitely a ghost at their place. I’ll start extraction tomorrow. They have this whole poltergeist fantasy, so they’ve done some damage since moving in. It’s all in the report; you should get it soon.

Say hi to everyone at home for me. I’ll be back before you know it. So try not to do anything too embarrassing — there won’t be time for people to forget before I get there and have to hear about it. :)

Love, Ellison


I saw a news report about another uprising in Europe. I thought I saw your face in the background. You’re not involved, are you? I know you would say, “danger lets you know you’re alive,” but you’re going to get yourself killed. Is treasure really worth that?

I never told you about my family. Maybe if I had, we would still be together. Maybe you would not be running around disaster areas and rebel camps and ruins. Maybe you would have been content out in the country if you knew something interesting was happening.

I heard from Lucinda that you have a place you stay on the mainland. I was in East California last month. I was on a case. That’s the irony: staying at home in the family business takes me all over the world. I wonder if I will run into you one day, on a street in Harlem or in a bombed plaza in Prague. I hope so. I’ll know you’re alive that way.

If you’re ever in trouble or if you just happen to make it out to the island, you’re always welcome here.

— Elli

This column ate my soul. This was really hard for me. The results are not so great from a fiction perspective. But I think I actually learned something. About myself. About my writing. So I am going to let it stand. If this is a terrible article, well, there’s always next time, right?

I went into this with certain expectations about the character. I anticipated that he would be a somewhat whiny malcontent, which seems to be my default MC, whether I like it or not. That was why I started with a business letter; it was the most neutral territory I could think of. Each subsequent letter would be more personal. Then I took Crispin Freeman’s voice acting workshop and had some of my assumptions about myself and my inner voice questioned.

After that, I read over what I had written for this column already. My goal was to give myself permission to write without editing ideas before I even put them down. And I found that, when I eased off my chokehold on the character, he was not a malcontent at all. He had parts of his life that did not satisfy him, regrets and embarrassments. But these had not reduced him to a quivering mass of resentment. He was basically okay. He had come to terms with the difficult parts and moved on.

My inner editor said, no one wants to read about someone who is okay. Torture him until he is battered and miserable and desperate to change his whole life. Otherwise, when you present him with the real conflict in the story, he might — gasp — try to go back to the way things were. He will be motivated to restore, rather than change. And that is BORING. That is the status quo.

Now, hold up. Why? Most important question ever. Why wouldn’t anyone want to read about someone who is basically functional? There’s plenty of fiction out there about people who are doing okay, have something terrible happen, struggle, and win the right to go back to their good life. Why does he need to be miserable? Does his misery serve a purpose beyond giving him snarky dialogue opportunities and a penchant for awful whining jags? Why would it be bad to try to get his old life back? Isn’t that the whole hero’s journey model anyway? The return is what makes the journey meaningful. He comes back a changed man with a new perspective on his life and the problems he had before. The status quo would be no journey at all.

I think I have tried to make motivation and approach the same thing. And what I am starting to realize is that a character can decide to make his life better and have a bounce in his step while he does it. Or face down terrible odds with optimism. I don’t have to cripple a character’s day-to-day attitude, even if I choose to give him a crippling background or a terrible foe to defeat.

This all seems rather far-flung from my initial complaint that all my characters turn out like me. But this is the connection I see: I create characters who seem like me, the everyman and reluctant hero types, then decide that I am not an interesting enough narrator. So even though I have built back story and world and plot to entertain, all of which have to do with motivation and the challenges I put before a character, I panic over my narrator’s voice, which is the character’s approach to life, the universe and everything.

I then use one of two solutions. Sometimes, I eradicate myself from the story by creating a character who is radically different from myself. I can sustain this for a short story and it can be fun. But after a while, I get bored of being the stage hand while someone else performs and I walk away from the project. Other times, I let the character keep my voice, but I twist it into the darkest, most unhappy version of myself because I think that only at my bitchiest will I be able to entertain. Then I get a character who just whines all the time and hates everyone and keeps them all an arm’s length away. They don’t want to take any action because it might improve things and then they would be out of material for their piss and moan fest.

My original intentions for this column ended up going off course by quite a lot. (This was especially obvious when I looked at the opening, written before I attempted the fiction portion, and tried to edit it into line with the rest of the column.) But I followed the string of happy accidents and ended up somewhere useful. I really will try to implement this during NaNoWriMo this year. I want to see if this change in attitude on my part and my characters’ lets me create something I can be happy with.

On that note, I leave you, as I will be taking a month-long vacation from this column. Working Reviews will resume December 2, when I have had a chance to catch up on my sleep and staunch the bleeding of my fingers after a hopefully productive November. See you on the other side.

Working Review: Archetypal Acrobatics, Pt. 3

First, let me talk about what I got in the demonstration then I will say a few words about Breathing Life. My hope was to see how different archetypes could color Heather and maybe figure out which one felt closest to the “real” Heather. She was by no means a blank slate when I started the exercise. I had background and motivation, family and friends, hopes and dreams (or was that Katamari Damacy?). But she had no voice. She took no actions except in the past. Her present day self was a cut-out.

I actually got the best results out of the archetype that I saw as being least like her. Femme fatale!Heather was nuanced: for all her bravado and her manipulation of others and her confident sensuality, she has a deep well of self-hatred. She had a slinky cattiness that is as far from my personality as it is possible to be. This definitely got the closest to what I wanted from Heather. She’s resourceful without being cold, calculating yet vulnerable. I think I would ultimately tone down her sensuality because I see her wanting to draw a little less attention to herself.

Vulnerable child was interesting and gave me some material to use as subtext for Heather. She would not make it out in the world if this was her dominant personality. I need her to be more driven and more confident than this version of her. But I liked the high-strung jumpiness and the nervous obsession with her cat’s bane. I think Heather would fear that this is her true self, that she really will never be more than a helpless kid trying to keep up with adults. But it’s something that she’ll keep buried very deep.

The Amazon was closest to what I thought Heather would be like but proved the least interesting. It felt like the persona she would try to project, but there was no depth to her. She’s too resourceful, too confident, and too controlled to hold my interest. The Amazon traits actually came up in the femme fatale with better results. I did like the heart problem idea. It’s a good cover for her real problem and shows that she is capable of lying and manipulating others to protect her own interests. The Amazon version of this was less obviously self-serving than the femme fatale. I want Heather to be out for herself, but not actively detrimental to others. A bit dark, but not black-hearted.

I think I have a sense of who she is now. I’ve got layers of personality to bring out at different times. I have vulnerability and drive at war with one another. I like it.

What I don’t like is the book, so let me say something on that. I see Breathing Life’s basic problem as this: if you are a beginning writer, you won’t know how to make the most of the rather vague exercises; if you are an experienced writer, you will have found better resources that cover the same topics.

Much of the material is Psychology 101 and I have seen other books that adapt that material to writers with greater skill. She tends to spend each chapter grinding away at the same small premise in slightly altered terms. And the exercises, I realized upon rereading, are truly unhelpful as written.

They are vague. They too often ask you to just “think” about something, rather than ask you to write fiction. They often generate lists and free writing. I don’t have a problem with this, except they never take the next step. They don’t tell you to put it into a scene. They might tell you to put it into a character, but I’m not sure what that is supposed to mean. Do I paste my list of archetypes into my character bio file? Is that helpful? Don’t tell me to “put [my archetypes] in some of [my] fiction characters […] and use these archetypes to make him or her come alive” (Ballon 59). Tell me to write. Tell me to give a character a trait and tell me how to show it acting on the page. Teach me the steps between idea and finished fiction; that’s why I bought the book.

If you are just starting out as a writer and are concerned about motivation and emotion and biography for your characters, check out The Writer’s Guide to Character Traits by Linda N. Edelstein, Ph. D. (That link is to the edition I have; here is the newer and more widely available edition.) It is something of a morass of information but it’s a good treatment of everything from brain development in children and their personality types to the traits associated with various professions to the psychology behind family structures.

If you’re really keen to archetypes, try 45 Master Characters by Victoria Lynn Schmidt. I have mixed feelings on the usefulness of archetypes in character development. I spent a lot of time beating my head against a wall when I tried to use archetypes to create characters from scratch. But, as I’ve just found out, they can be useful in fleshing out existing characters. And Master Characters gives a solid overview of archetypes: what they represent, where they’ve appeared before, and how they can be used in fiction. Neither of these books contains any writing exercises. They are strictly reference works.

And if you’re a more experienced writer, all I can say is, don’t expect Breathing Life to give you a lot of words on the page. If you want to use the exercises as a starting point and modify them, as I did, have fun. But I feel like it’s more hassle than it’s worth. I’m sorry to say that I seem to have outgrown Breathing Life in the years of writing since my days as a freshman bookworm.

End Part 3 :: Back to Part 1 :: Back to Part 2

Working Review: Archetypal Acrobatics, Pt. 2

I pared my list of archetypes down to just three, which I saw as being the most wildly divergent while still being plausible. Heather might have elements of Pygmalion in her personality, but they’re not exactly central to her character and I can’t think of a single scene that would let me demonstrate such an aspect.

The first archetype will be the femme fatale. This is the wildcard: it is the archetype that I cannot find within myself anywhere and the archetype that I see as least like the Heather I imagine. Vulnerable child is the archetype that exemplifies the past I’ve given her. She’s basically a scared kid with a big world that is often times actively hostile toward her. Amazon is the archetype of where I think she is currently. She might not be living her dreams, but she’s making ends meet and she knows how to take care of herself.

I created a basic conflict for Heather to cope with each time:

Heather forgot to refill the bottle of cat’s bane she keeps in her purse. She needs a coworker to cover for her while she goes home to get more. It will take at least 30 minutes to go home and get back by foot. Heather cannot drive. The longer she goes without the cat’s bane, the less able she is to resist changing back to her cat form.

Femme fatale:

“Excuse me for a moment,” Heather said. “Just need to powder my nose.” She said it like it was a euphemism for something incredibly sexy.

Marty, one of the busboys, gave her a goofy grin. “Sure thing. I’ll get the drinks for table seven.”

“What a doll,” she said over her shoulder as she left for the restroom with her clutch. The door swung shut behind her and she let her smile drop. She leaned close to the mirror and massaged her cheeks with her fingertips. The skin turned white under the pressure, but as soon as she stopped, they became ruddy again, almost brown. They formed a perfect mask and muzzle over her features.

“Disgusting,” she said. She ran water into her cupped hand and filled her mouth. She opened her clutch and took out a little pill bottle, white and unlabeled. She unscrewed the cap and shook out a pill.


She looked inside. Not a single pill. Not even a little powder from a poorly stuffed gel cap. She swallowed the mouthful of water. She closed her eyes. She took a deep breath. She would not panic. She took everything out of her purse and lined it up on the counter. Lipstick. Tampon. Cell phone. Face powder. Breath mints. Condoms. House keys. Pen. No more pills.

The door opened and Carol looked in. “We need you out here. What are you doing?”

“Just a second,” she hissed back. “Mind your own business.”

“It is my business. Me, manager. You, employee. Remember? Table nine is ready to order.”

Carol left again and Heather hastily used the face powder to cover up her markings. She snapped the compact shut and saw her fingertips were going dark as well. “Shit,” she mouthed to herself. Then she put her smile back on and let her hips swing and went to take table nine’s order.

“Do you have a car?” she asked Marty as she put the new order in.

“No. Just a bicycle. Why?”

“Do you think you could cover for me?”

“You got someplace to be?” he asked, thinking she was joking.

“I just need to step out for a few minutes. Will you be a doll and just take care of seven and nine? Tell Lacy to take any newcomers in her section.”

“I can’t–”

“Oh, but Marty, think of what an opportunity. You can show Carol that you’re ready for more responsibility.”

“Yeah, but–”

“She can’t keep you a busboy forever. Not if you prove you can do the job. She’s just afraid you’re going to make her look bad when you’re a manager too.”

Marty puffed up. It was just what he wanted to hear. “Okay. I’ll do it. But take my bike.”

Heather grimaced. She couldn’t ride one. “Thanks, but it’s not far. I’ll hurry, I promise.” She gave him a peck on the cheek. Carol could complain about sexual harassment in the workplace until crows migrate, but Marty went off with a bounce in his step. Heather went off at a considerably faster pace and would not notice, until she got home and got her cat’s bane, that the stub of her tail had burst the back seam of her uniform pants as she ran.

Vulnerable child:

“Can you take these drinks to table seven, please?” Heather asked as Marty went past her. “I just have to go to the break room for a minute.”

“Sure,” he said and took the tray. “But don’t be long. Carol’s on the warpath.”

Heather slipped into the break room and opened her locker. She reached into the front pocket of her backpack and took out the pill bottle. It did not rattle at all. She opened it and looked inside.

“Oh, no.” She shook it, hoping irrationally that there might be one stuck inside and she had not seen it. Nothing. “Maybe… maybe I just put a new bottle in. Yeah, I bet that’s what I did.” She took her backpack out and straddled the bench while she riffled through it.

The contents of all the pockets piled up in front of her. Hard candies. Face powder. House keys. Lip balm. Stray gumball from the machine in the grocery store. Gel pen. No pills. She scraped the bottom of the empty backpack in a last desperate search. She wiped tears from her eyes and jammed everything back into the backpack at random. She looked at herself in the mirror stuck inside the locker door. Dark markings stood out on her cheeks and nose. They were creeping up around her eyes.

“Heather, get back to work,” Carol shouted from the doorway.

Heather jumped back from her locker like she had been caught picking her nose in public. She felt her hair try to stand on end. “I have to go home,” she blurted out.

“Excuse me?” Carol put her hands on her hips, an unfortunate pose that drew attention to her middle age spread.

“I forgot something really important.” She clutched her backpack to her chest as a shield. She felt about six months old whenever she talked to Carol. “I need to run home. I’ll be right back,” she added hastily.

“You’ve been late four days out of the past week. You want to keep this job, you better start doing it.”

“I haven’t taken my break yet. I’ll use that. And, and I’ll come in early and open for you tomorrow. I know you like to have Sunday mornings off.”

Carol seemed to consider. “Open Sunday and Monday and you have a deal.”

“Okay. Sure. That’s fine,” Heather said and nodded frantically.

“And if you’re take so much as five seconds extra today, I’m docking your pay,” Carol said as she left the break room so that everyone in the kitchen could hear too.

Heather stood paralyzed for a moment. Wretched old hag, she thought. She stuffed her backpack into her locker then had to open it again when she realized she had forgotten her keys.

She would never make it home and back in time. But Carol would probably keep track and dock her pay for every second, so she still had to hurry. Marty gave her a sympathetic look as she bolted out the door and down the street. Two days of opening would be awful. But she could see her fingers turning dark as she ran, arms pumping, and turning into a cat at work was way worse.


Heather checked her watch as she left table seven and put their order in. Twelve-thirty, on the dot. No one said anything when she excused herself with a nod; she kept the same routine every day she worked. She stepped into the break room and opened her locker. The bottle of pills she kept at work waited on the shelf, neatly labeled with a fake prescription from a doctor she did not have.

When she found the bottle empty, she replaced it on the shelf and shouldered her handbag. She found Carol at the greeter’s desk at the front of the restaurant.

“Going somewhere?” Carol asked when she looked up from the game she was playing on her cell phone.

“I have to get something from my home. I’ll be back in half an hour.”

“Uh, let’s see, no? You’ve got tables to wait.”

“Fine. Then you can call the ambulance when I pass out and need emergency care. Just let me know when my face and hands start going dark, so I can lie down first.” Heather had informed her employer of her “heart condition” when she got the job. No one ever wondered why she had to pop pills on a strict schedule. No one wondered why her face and finger tips sometimes when dark. No one even wondered why she was slightly furry, covered in a soft down of pale hairs. It was all about circulation problems and a weak heart.

“That’s not–”

“Or you can just tell Lacy to cover my tables until I get back. I’ll do the same for her the next time her boyfriend decides to drop in for a visit and a quickie in the back of his truck.”

“It’s pretty irresponsible of you to forget your medicine if it’s that important,” Carol said sullenly.

“There was a delay in refilling the prescription and I just received it yesterday. I forgot to refill the bottle I keep here.” She looked at her watch pointedly. She had made it clear that if she missed taking her medicine for as little as an hour, her life would be in peril.

“Whatever. Just hurry up,” Carol said and waved her away.

Heather made sure to walk sedately until she was out of sight of the restaurant. People with heart conditions were not supposed to run. But after she rounded the corner of Broadway, she jogged the rest of the way to her apartment. She tried to keep her feet flat, but kept rising up onto the balls of her toes. She ran faster that way and she finally gave in. The sooner she got home, the sooner she could get her problem under control again.

End Part 2 :: Continue to Part 3 :: Back to Part 1

Working Review: Archetypal Acrobatics, Pt. 1

I had every intention of doing a second exercise from Brian Kiteley’s The 3 A.M. Epiphany. But when I tried to start, I realized that I had planned to use one from the POV chapter again and I could not bear the redundancy of it. I will likely return to Kiteley at some point; there is a ton of material there. I would especially like to try his suggestion of combo exercises, preferably as far removed from one another as possible. But not this week.

And now for something completely different: Breathing Life into Your Characters, by Rachel Ballon, Ph.D. Ballon is a psychotherapist and a writing consultant, a workshop teacher, and author of several other books on writing. I have fond memories of this book. During my first year of college, I would walk between classes with this book in front of my face. I read it in the dining hall. I read it in the park. I read it in the lecture halls. Yes, I’m one of those types. Come to think of it, I might mean “vaguely awkward and embarrassing” instead of “fond.” And, in my typical fashion, I never did a single exercise.

Where 3 A.M. was largely concerned with fiction as it appears on the page, Breathing Life is more about deep background. The exercises will not usually generate fiction scenes. They give you lists and free writing and vignettes from inside your characters heads. This is the raw stuff of character and as such should never get dumped directly into a story.

But I struggle in character development. I don’t understand human motivation as well as I would like (or as well as I imagine). I fall into the habit of making characters do things because I need them to drive the story forward, even when the direction is all wrong for them. And I especially hate it when I create characters who feel too much like me, who seem to speak with my own voice and hold all my own beliefs.

So I gravitated to chapter four, Less of You: creating characters different from yourself. It’s not precisely about removing yourself from your fiction. It’s about honing in on the small, specific details of your experiences, rather than the broad sweeps, and putting them into your characters. It’s about feelings, rather than events.

This reminded me of what Holly Lisle has taught writers about creating compelling characters. It’s taking the feeling of failing on a history test and turning it into failing your initiation ritual and being cast out of your tribe. (Check out Holly’s “Create a Character” and “Using Your Life” articles for more on this.)

At the moment, I am working furiously on the character development for House of Cats. And I can see that once again, I’ve created a female lead who feels too much like myself. I thought of doing an exercise for the male lead; I find his character daunting in its strangeness. But that’s just it. He’s very different from me and so feels real, even if I’m a bit freaked out to write him. But Heather, as I am tentatively calling my fMC, despite the background I’ve been giving her, still seems to fade from view every time I look at her too hard.

So I’m going to run her through the archetype exercise, but I’m going to expand it. Ballon discusses Jungian archetypes and how they appear both in the author and in the author’s characters. The exercise consists of little more than thinking about the archetypes you can identify in yourself and then putting them into various characters in various combinations. I’m going to make a short list of archetypes that I can identify in myself, sticking just to the ones Ballon lists. Then I’m going to make archetypal!Heather go through a scene, again and again. And that’s all the rules I’m going to make for myself. We’ll see what we get.

End Part 1 :: Continue to Part 2