Tips on writing stronger characters

Hi, all–

Usually on Sundays I provide some reading material or share with you a title of an article or book I’m reading. But since I am a writer, I also like to share tips for those of you who, for whatever reason, thought being a writer was a good idea. Welcome to my circus! I thought it was a good idea, too! LOL

Anyway, since we’re on this journey together, here are a couple of articles from Writer’s Digest that might help you create stronger, more nuanced characters. Plus, there’s another link to a blog that fellow writer Clifford Henderson did on it. And readers, if you ever read something and the writer makes it look easy, I hope you can appreciate the amount of work that went into that tract. Because it’s when everything’s working properly and smoothly that you know it’s the best kind of writing. Most writers work hard to achieve that — I don’t know if I have, yet, but dang it, I keep trying.

Want some more?

Cool. First, you can read Elizabeth Sims’ piece in the June/July issue of Writer’s Digest called “8 Ways to Write Better Characters.” It’s pretty straight-forward and well-organized, so have a look at it and keep those tips nearby.

The second piece — Okay, so the problem with this piece I’m going to cite is that it’s not available to non-subscribers of Writer’s Digest. However, Marsha Sigman has blogged about it, and nails the crux of it. I’ll do a run-down here, as well. The article is called “Raise Your Characters Above the Status Quo,” by Steven James. It’s in the June/July 2011 issue of Writer’s Digest, as well.

James’ point is this:

“…as you begin tweaking and revising your story, it’s the perfect time to take a closer look at the depth and dimensionality of your characters. One of the most effective ways of doing this is one most writers have never even heard of: managing status.

So what exactly is status? Simply put, in every social interaction, one person has (or attempts to have) more of a dominant role. Those in authority or those who want to exert authority use a collection of verbal and nonverbal cues to gain and maintain higher status.”
(pp. 25-26 of the article in WD)

James notes that the way a character moves determines status, which means that your word choice as an author can make one character dominant over another. He says that

“A person with high status might shout, holler, call or yell, but if she screams, screeches, bawls or squeals, her status is lowered. Similarly, a character who quivers, trembles, whines, or pleads has lower status than one who tries to control the pain.”
(p. 27, WD)

I recently read a thriller by a bestselling author, who’s known the world over for his books, which have been translated into a gajillion languages. A few have been made into movies. In one of the more recent books, one of his main characters is this bad-ass woman cop who rides a motorcycle, kicks ass, is smart, independent, and downright super cool. But in one scene, the author used the word “scurry” to apply to her. In the scene, she was following a lawyer (female) into the lawyer’s office and the word choice the author used was: “She [the cop] scurried after her.” Even though the cop had just made the lawyer sweat with some evidence that made the lawyer uncomfortable, she’s reduced to “scurrying” after her.

“Scurry” is a word that applies to rodents or vermin or quiet, shy, mousy types. Or people who are icky and skanky and kind of rat-faced. THOSE kinds of people “scurry.” That one word reduced the status of the cop in one sentence after the author had had her face down nasty gangsters, punch out a few tough hombres, and take on a prosecuting attorney. It was inconsistent for her character, and really demonstrates how something like word choice can create status between characters.

James also notes that your protagonists need to be heroic. They need to sacrifice for the good of others, and/or stand up for the oppressed. Readers like that in a protagonist. And characters also gain status in a reader’s eyes if she turns the other cheek. She could be perfectly capable of opening a can of whup-ass on somebody, but by showing that she refrains from doing it, she gains a lot of respect from a reader (and another character. Or at least fear). As your story builds, status “crystallizes”, as James points out. The hero becomes more coldhearted, the good guy needs to summon more courage than ever to defeat him. Ironically, you also lower the status of a villain by making her more cocky and arrogant, which seems to the reader that she’s trying to prove herself, and could probably be defeated.

The point is, status has more to do with actions than motives, and you can adjust that status in many ways depending on the characters’ interactions with each other. And finally, because James notes at the outset of his piece that he learned about status by doing improv from Keith Johnstone, I’m including this piece by fellow writer Clifford Henderson. She, too, cites Johnstone and she, too, does improv and discusses status with regard to characterization in this blog at Women and Words. Check it out.

All rightie. Happy writing and happy reading!

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