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Zen of Character

Storytelling and Characters


People have many ways to approach writing novels or short stories. Some people create an outline. Others engineer unique solutions to a strange problem. Still others create elaborate settings to drive the plot. What helped me the most in writing fiction was Ray Bradbury’s book, Zen in the Art of Writing. He mentions that you should have developed such sturdy characters that they can rip the pen out of your hand and write their own lines. Having experienced that many times is what keeps me dipping my pen and quill into the ink. It’s magic to have a character ignore me and start writing dialogue or even telling me what a more logical progression of the plot will be at this point. Some people may say that I’m just trying to get the voices in my head to pay rent and they would be correct, but its still a fun process. But how do we do this from a blank page? Even this blog was difficult to start because I wasn’t sure how to get started. Short stories and novels have quite a few moving parts and just like a master mechanic needs to make the parts move together, and good writer needs to keep all of it matching up to stay plausible in the reader’s mind. So again, how do we start? Here are a couple of ideas.


Play Dress-Up

Even though we have five senses, most writers and readers rely on the sense of sight to give a first impression. I would even argue that part of the reason Agatha Christie stays the most popular mystery writer has as much or more to do with her characterizations as they do the plot. Unlike modern mystery writers, she doesn’t leave clues for the reader to jump to the end. She only offers a reveal. She keeps our attention with compelling characters. The kind of people we would want to chat with even without a mystery present. One such character is her counterpoint to Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot. He is a frustrating neat freak to the narrator. In our modern context he would seem a touch OCD in his methods. We get a feel for him from physical dress to habits around drinking tea and even at crime scenes where he becomes curious about the victim’s dinner order. His questions seem inane and his pompous replies appear exasperating.


So, you can start simply by giving a quick glimpse of the character. Cozy mystery writer Jana DeLeon makes the protagonist give a list of physical qualities for a risk assessment to a CIA assassin. Here’s my paraphrase of something she might write. Six Four, 240 pounds. Plenty of muscle and even with that limp posts an honest threat. Risk level low for me, but high for your normal citizen.


Achilles Heels

Flaws. In the simplest of heroes for a story we have the ancient story of Achilles and that his only flaw, the only chink in his armor was his heel. More on why that is crucial in a moment. Make sure that as you start to dress up your characters and bring them to life on the page, they have some kind of flaw that might toss the entire apple cart if not kept under control. For many writers this flaw ends up exploited again and again for comedic relief. In other stories, this flaw can even remain one of the internal conflicts of a character. In the end the flaws of a character become the place readers connect to the character. In my opinion, we read fiction so that we can escape into a world that is perfect and someone can solve the problem. More than that, I think we read fiction to hope it can spill into our own world to find solutions. We most believe that when the character reaches across reality by having weaknesses the same as we do in our world.


Achilles meets Jim

To prove my point, I’ll pass along a family story that has been told for years. My father-in-law, Jim was a hero. I’m not sure he always saw it within himself, but I did. He was a general contractor, and even though he struggled in school he could build a 3,000 square foot house from foundation to rooftop with everything in between.


He also loved motorcycles. So, the story goes he was trying to get his new bride, interested and they were taking a test drive one afternoon. She sat on the back, and he was trying to get her used to the bike in a parking lot. If you have ever seen a motorcycle learning way over in a turn and wondered why its because that is how you are supposed to turn. The bike acts like a gyroscope and rights itself in the straight away. My mother-in-law didn’t quite know that and leaned the other way. Result? Small crash. She was picking herself up off the ground and wondered why he wasn’t walking back to see if she was okay. Sounds pretty insensitive. Jim? He tried. He loved his bride. He had just torn his Achilles tendon. They had to go to ER because he couldn’t walk. OK. So not quite the Trojan War as far as an epic tale, but it’s still a story that has survived a couple of generations with a character, some details and a flaw.


He has passed on now, but the story lives on among his children and I can say that his chief impact on reality was that he loved his family. Write your story. Warts and all.


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