Friday, June 19, 2015

Dreams, Schemes, and Character Creation

I've been fascinated by how often dreams have been coming up in our posts of late. As I mentioned in my last post, I learned some important information about the villain in the book I'm working on as I was waking from a dream. I now also have the plot for my book. On Wednesday, after struggling for months with the question of how I could focus my research on 1939 and the years leading up to World War II, it finally came to me. I have the scheme. I can pull out the important details from the book and articles that I'm reading. J. Edgar Hoover may even make a cameo appearance. If he does, I will know enough about him to be able to handle that walk-on.

But that leaves my other characters. I know their names. I know some basic information about the major characters. However, this process of writing a stand-alone book is much different from writing a book in a series. I am five books and a couple of short stories into my Lizzie Stuart series. After all these years, I know Lizzie and John Quinn and my small cast of continuing characters well. I can step in and set everything in motion. Although I have written only two books in my Hannah McCabe series, I started by creating an ensemble cast and identifying the initial relationships among characters that I hope to develop and explore. But with the stand-alone, I am creating characters that will live and exist only in this book. Everything that is important about them needs to be there and drive the plot. I can't leave issues that I will deal with as a part of the series arc.

I feel obliged to spend more time than usual on character creation -- particularly the secondary characters. I have a complex plot that spans months in 1939. I don't want to end up with 10 or 15 characters that are playing supporting roles and that readers can't keep sorted. I need each character to do double duty and to work hard to justify his or her existence.

This weekend, I'm going to try to identify the characters that I need. I've done this once before, even giving the characters names. But now I need to go back and take a hard look. I need to look at how my two groups -- the good guys and the bad guys -- fit together internally. I want conflict and tension among the members of the two groups. I want each member to bring something to the table that will turn out to be an asset or a hindrance.

Once I've gone through the list, I'm going to spend some time working on individual characters. Bios are helpful, but I also have pulled my books on character creation off the shelf. Here are some of the books that I've collected over the years:

Debra Dixon -- Goal, Motivation & Conflict:  The Building Blocks of Good Fiction
Orson Scott Card -- Characters & Viewpoint
Brandilyn Collins -- Getting into Character: Seven Secrets a Novelist Can Learn from Actors
Tami D. Cowden, et al. -- The Complete Writer's Guide to Heroes & Heroines: Sixteen Master Archetypes
Linda N. Edelstein, Ph.D. -- The Writer's Guide to Character Traits
Nancy Kress -- Dynamic Characters:  How to Create Personalities that Keep Readers Captivated
Eric Maisel, Ph.D. and Ann Maisel -- What Would Your Character Do?
Robert Newton Peck -- Fiction is Folks: How to Create Unforgettable Characters
Victoria Lynn Schmidt -- 45 Master Characters: Mythic Models for Creating Original Characters
Lynn Seger -- Creating Unforgettable Characters

I am something of a compulsive buyer of books about writing. I always hope there will be one book that provides the magic solution to a writing problem. I find each of the books above interesting enough to keep. Now that I'm facing this stand-alone challenge, I'm going to read back through them and see what useful tidbits I can find.

I suspect that before this is over, I will also have resulted to assigning my characters astrological signs and reading their Tarot cards. I am not ashamed to admit that I've occasionally done that with continuing series characters. Usually, it's been a way to tap into my subconscious. This time, it could be desperation.

Will keep you posted about how this is going. Meanwhile, does anyone have favorite techniques for creating characters you'd like to share?


Sybil Johnson said...

I really like the Brandilyn Collins book. Will have to check out the others.

Frankie Y. Bailey said...

The writers in my local RWA chapter introduced me to the Debra Dixon book years ago. It's really popular with writers in that genre. They're now reading Writing the Breakout Novel (Donald Maass).

Rick Blechta said...

I am going to check out these books. Thanks for that information, Frankie!

Frankie Y. Bailey said...

Hope you find some of them useful, Rick. said...

The Nancy Kress book on 'dynamic characters' was one of those that got me started, and I still keep using a lot of her guidelines. And. like you, my main characters have zodiac signs; even check out their Chinese signs and interview them. Thanks for the post - good reminder as doing profiles and more for next book.

Frankie Y. Bailey said...


I'm glad the post was useful.

I hadn't thought of Chinese signs. I've done for myself, but never thought of it for my characters. Thanks! I'll give it a try.

I've also done interview with my series protagonist, but haven't tried it yet with the stand-alone. I think I will interview my villain.