Writer Basics: “F” Words

20 Feb

By Marilyn Campbell

As mentioned in my first Writer Basics blog, not all stories start with the same spark. Whether the initial idea is a plot, question, character, conflict or setting, the spark needs all the other elements to become a bonfire.

I believe that a great story consists of intriguing characters striving for something of value against overwhelming odds. Today I’d like to share a few things I’ve learned about creating memorable characters.

The best way to make a reader care about the problem in your story is to make him care about the characters affected by the conflict. I tend to rely on a few “F” words to do that.

1. Familiar. Design a character after someone familiar to you and most other people. You want the reader to identify with and/or be sympathetic to at least one of the main characters. Give her a common nervous habit or weakness. Give her everyday problems, hopes and dreams, insecurities and fears. Make her seem ordinary then throw her into an extraordinary situation.

2. Funny. A touch of humor, even in the darkest novel, can help make a character be likable and memorable. Just remember, no real person is one hundred percent serious or totally silly, any more than a real person is all good or all bad.

3. Frightening. You want the reader to feel all your main character’s emotions, including fear, and this can only happen if she is faced with a believably frightening person or situation. What are you afraid of? What fears do other people you know have? It’s often the little details that make a character frightening well before the reader learns the whole truth about the protagonist. Think of certain physical qualities that make people uneasy, such as colorless eyes or a jagged facial scar. Consider various behaviors which feel threatening like glaring, standing too close while speaking or uninvited, sensual stroking. A serial killer is scary in an abstract sense. To truly frighten a reader into remembering a villain, you have to make the threat personal to the character the reader identifies with.

4. Familiar. Yes, I purposely repeated that “F” word because it is imperative that your newly created fictional character be intimately familiar to you, the author. I strongly recommend you draw up character sketches for every character. I actually use a 3-page worksheet of questions that range from vital statistics and childhood experiences to personality quirks and sexual preferences. The more important the character is to your story, the more detailed the descriptions should be.

Set your story aside for a moment and pretend you are interviewing the character in order to write her biography. As you ask questions, information may come to light that had not occurred to you and yet could help explain why she reacts to an event in a particular way.

Not all the details will make it into the final book but this process will help make the character three-dimensional for you and, ultimately, the reader. The character’s favorite food, color or television program may not turn out to be relevant to the story but her allergy to gardenias or her love of old detective novels may fill in a blank or even trigger a key plot element.

Whatever method you use to flesh out the characters in your story, the biographical pieces that absolutely cannot be omitted or glossed over are those having to do with the character’s main goal and motivation. These must be clearly defined, believable, logical and worth caring about.

Most importantly, the main characters and the story’s plot are not separate elements but two parts of a whole and must be interwoven from beginning to end.

The following is a brief character excerpt from my time-travel novel, In and Out of Time.

“Marv, go see if there’s a problem down on the floor or if Mrs. Lawson’s doin’ her socializin’ on company time again. She’s been jawin’ with that customer in the baseball cap for five minutes now.”

Junior Ramey took his position as manager of the Buford store very seriously. He had to. Between having a criminal record and a face that made babies cry, his options were limited. If it hadn’t been for Reid O’Neill, he might have ended up in a gutter somewhere.

At five years old, he’d knocked a skillet of hot bacon grease off the stove, severely burning the right side of his face. After high school, the only one that would hire him was Mr. O’Neill. It didn’t matter that the work was menial and that he had to stay out of the public eye. It was a paying job that freed him from his father’s tyranny.

Mr. O’Neill even let him come back to work after serving time in the looney bin. He proved himself to Mr. O’Neill and, in return, was promoted from stock room to office as the business expanded. With the help of an assistant manager like Marv, Junior was now able to run a profitable store without frightening the customers away. Maybe the best part about working for Mr. O’Neill was that he was a firm believer in letting loyal employees work as long as they were capable. Even though Junior would be sixty-five in two years, he had no fear of being put out to pasture. The boss himself was still putting in at least forty hours a week at seventy-six.

Marv returned with a smile on his plump face. “It’s okay, Mr. Ramey. The customer is new in the area and was asking a lot of questions. She’s got about three hundred dollars worth of merchandise in her cart.”

Junior returned the smile as well as his distorted face allowed. “Well then, we must remember to commend Mrs. Lawson for her friendly, courteous service.”

“Will do. You might get a kick out of this. She said they were talking about how Mr. O’Neill’s life story is so interesting someone should write a book about it.”

The hairs on Junior’s neck twitched. “You said the woman was asking a lot of questions about the area. How did Mr. O’Neill’s life story come up?”

Marv shrugged. “Damn if I know. You know how Mrs. Lawson likes to talk.”

Junior stared at the gossip-loving woman through the one-way glass of his upstairs office. What had gotten her talking about Mr. O’Neill’s interesting life? The last thing he or Mr. O’Neill needed was people dredging up the past.

It was all long dead and deeply buried.

                                            * * * * *

It shouldn’t be too hard to tell whether Junior is the hero or villain despite the brevity of information.

 If you have a question about writing, please comment and I will address it in a future blog.

3 Responses to “Writer Basics: “F” Words”

  1. Crystal Kauffman February 20, 2011 at 2:08 pm #

    These are great points. I agree, knowing who our characters were and are before page one is vital. And I’ll admit it’s a plotting area I need to work on more. 🙂

  2. Kaily Hart February 20, 2011 at 9:47 pm #

    Good points, Marilyn. I use a spreadsheet I designed called a ‘character map’ to build my characters. Sounds similar to the process you go through. I find that unless I really know my characters well, the story doesn’t flow.

  3. Nara Malone February 21, 2011 at 11:12 am #

    Great article, Marilyn. Using “F” words is a great way to remember all the development aspects.

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