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  1. Jordan Dane's Avatar
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    revision How to Create Characters Editors Are Looking For (Tues, Day 2 Post)

    How to Create Characters Editors Are Looking For

    By Jordan Dane



    Characters can come at you from any direction. You can spot them in a grocery store, or (heaven forbid) at a family reunion, or they can whisper to you in your dreams in the middle of the night. Only YOU will recognize them, to know if they’ll stick in your head and make the cut for a book. Below are some thoughts on creating characters, things that I’ve learned from my own writing.

    Conflict is Key
    What does your character want and why can't they have it? Conflict is vital to creating memorable characters. No conflict(s), no story. Your external conflict might be the villain or the insurmountable situation, but the most unforgettable characters will also contend with their own flaws or biases (internal conflicts) or demons, so they have a journey toward self-discovery.

    Find your characters' greatest weaknesses or fears—their internal conflicts—then demand they deal with it. Torture them. It’s legal. Rubbing their nose in it generally comes from the influences of the external conflict—the plot. The one-two punch of the external and internal conflicts adds depth to your character. Make him/her suffer, then ramp up the stakes and the tension.



    How Much Romance is Enough?


    If you can take the romance out of your book—completely delete the intimate scenes between your hero and heroine—and your book no longer makes sense, that’s when you know you have the right blend. Karen Rose said that in one of her RWA workshops and it’s stuck with me ever since. She meant that if you have a completely separate story arc for just the lovemaking or relationship development and it’s not an integral part of the plot, then you haven’t blended it well enough. You have to punish your characters for wanting to be together. Put them in more danger or make them more vulnerable because they have feelings for one another. Ramp up the stakes. As an author, it's your job to torture them, you nasty vixen you.



    How to Create Memorable Characters?

    As a fun exercise, watch a memorable movie or TV show and observe the traits of the main characters, the ones you can’t take your eyes off of when they’re on the big or little screen. What makes them so unforgettable? For most of us, it’s not the high-octane action that sticks in our heads. It’s usually what makes that character human and relatable.


    In Million Dollar Baby, it’s Clint Eastwood’s Frankie Dunn character as the hardened boxing trainer who’s struggling connection with his own estranged daughter compels him to take on a novice young woman boxer and give her a chance at her dream. His number one rule to his novice boxers is to “protect yourself”, a rule that has dominated Frank’s life ever since his strained relationship with his daughter. He doesn’t let anyone get too close, until Hilary Swank’s character, Maggie Fitzgerald, comes into his life and gives them both a shot at redemption.



    1. Add Depth to Each Character – Give them a journey
    · With any journey comes baggage. Be generous. Load on the baggage. Give them a weakness that they’ll have to face head-on by the climax of the book.


    · Make them vulnerable by giving them an Achilles Heel. Even the darkest mercenary or a fearless woman assassin should have a weakness that may get them killed and certainly makes them more human and relatable.


    · And whether you are writing one book or a series, have a story arc for your character’s journey. Will they find peace or some version of it? Will they let themselves be loved or are they content to live alone? Do what makes sense for your character, but realize that their emotional issues will cloud their judgment and effect how they deal with confrontations. And by the end of a book, they should learn something.



    In my book EVIL WITHOUT A FACE (Book #1, Sweet Justice series), my woman bounty hunter, Jessica Beckett, is obsessed with pedophiles because of her past. She was abducted as a small child, taken from a family she’s haunted by (yet never reconnected with), and tortured by a serial pedophile. She’s got scars on her body and face that make her self-conscious, yet she refuses to get them fixed. She wants people to see her as she is, wounded. Her emotional scars on the inside are far worse. They affect everything she does, especially her love life. And even as strong and brave as she is, when it comes time to face criminals who abuse kids, she’s catapulted back to being a victim and must overcome her worst fears revisited. And with each new Sweet Justice book, Jessie faces her past, deals with the dark corners of her tortured mind, and surrounds herself with a growing number of trusted friends who have become her version of a family. Will she finally decide she deserves to be happy and stop sabotaging her life?



    2. Use Character Flaws as Handicaps
    · Challenge yourself as an author by picking flaws that will make your character stand out and aren’t easy to write about. Sometimes that means you have to dig deep in your own head to imagine things you don’t want to think about, but tap into your empathy for another human being. You might surprise yourself.


    · Stay true to the flaws and biases you give your characters. Don’t present them to the reader then have the actions of the character contradict those handicaps. Be consistent. And if they have strong enough issues, these won’t be fixed by the end of the book. Find a way to deal with them.



    In the TV show, HOUSE, Dr. Greg House is addicted to pain meds, a by-product of his damaged leg. He’s also obnoxious, abrasive, brutally honest, and definitely politically incorrect in how he deals with patients, but he’s damned good at what he does—saving lives. His public face appears to be a detached man who ridicules any real human emotion, yet he’s fascinated by true emotion too. It’s as if he’s an outsider looking in, an observer of the whole human experience. We never quite know if he really cares about his patients or is merely obsessed with being right as he puzzles out the reasons for the illnesses.



    3. Beware the Clichéd Character
    · Ask yourself - Have I read this character before? (The alcoholic cop, the loner P.I., the hooker with the heart of gold, etc.) If so, learn how to tweak your story to make it stand out in a slush pile.


    · But if you have a clichéd character, you may not need to rewrite your whole story. Try infusing a unique hobby or layer in a unique trait/quality that will set them apart.



    In the TV show NCIS, Gibbs’ oasis is building boats in his basement. It’s his retreat, of sorts. We never know what happens to these boats or how he gets them out of his house, but he’s always there with his demons hanging over his shoulder, crafting boats named after his murdered daughter. Heady, heartbreaking stuff. (I’m a sap for a tough guy with a busted heart.)



    4. Create A Divergent Cast of Characters
    · Portray your characters in varying degrees of redemption - from the innocent to the “total waste of skin” characters


    · And sometimes it’s great to show contrast between your characters by making them do comparable things—like how does your bad guy make love versus your good guy?



    In the TV show HUMAN TARGET, Christopher Chance has a dark history. He’s a do-it-all anti-hero, former assassin turned bodyguard, who is a security expert and a protector for hire. He works with an unusual and diverse team. His business partner, Winston, is a straight and narrow, good guy while his dark friend, Guerrero, is a man who isn’t burdened by ethics or morality. Each of these men has very different feelings about what it takes to get the job done, but they’ve found common ground to work together. And their differences make for a fun character study. (I love Guerrero!)



    5. Flesh Out your Villains
    · Villains are the heroes to their own stories – Spend time getting to know them


    · Give your villain goals


    · Give them a unique sense of humor or dare to endear them to your reader


    · The better and more diabolical the villain, the more the reader will fear for the safety of your protagonists



    In the TV show, DEXTER, the strange anti-hero, Dexter, is a serial killer with a goal. He hunts serial killers and satisfies his blood lust by killing them. He’s got peculiar values and loyalties with a dark sense of humor. And he’s absolutely fascinating to watch.



    Anti-Heroes/Heroines & Villains

    I love making a borderline human being into a hero. Writing that type of character can be really challenging. The guy could be dark and brooding, but give him a dog and readers will know instantly that he’s worth loving. Below are other tips to add depth to your villain or make your anti-hero/heroine more sympathetic.


    · Cut the reader some slack by clueing them in early. Your bad boy or naughty girl has a very good reason for being that way, even if their reasons aren’t really apparent to the other characters at first. A reader will lose interest fast if your character is a complete jerk for half the book, so pepper in the valid reasons for them being who they are.


    · Make them human. Give them a code to live by and/or loyalties the reader can understand and empathize with. Even a very nasty villain or dark anti-hero/heroine has a softer side. Hannibal Lecter was Clarice's protector with his peculiar brand of loyalty. It was his one endearing trait, that and his culinary skills with liver. Chianti and fava beans, anyone?


    · Make them sympathetic by giving them a pet or a soft spot for a child. Write the darkest character and match them up with something soft and you’ve got a winning combination that a reader may find endearing.


    · Show the admiration or respect others have for them. Everyone looks up to a good leader.


    · Give your villain and anti-hero similar motivations for doing what they do. Maybe both of them are trying to protect their family, even though they’re on opposing sides. Who would be more right? This is conflict at its best.


    · Give your villain or anti-hero a shot at redemption. What choice would they make?


    · Understand your villain’s backstory. It’s just as important as your protagonist’s. The reader must fully understand why they are motivated to do what they’re doing.


    · Pepper in a backstory that makes your anti-hero vulnerable – betrayed by love, lost the love of their life, or other tragic life experiences. Make them afraid, sometimes of themselves.


    · Give them a weakness – alcohol or drugs, adrenaline addict, insurmountable grief, or fear of the dark. Force them to battle with their deepest fears, making them worth someone’s struggle to win them over.


    · Have them see life through personal experiences that we can only imagine but they have lived through. Make trust an issue because they have been betrayed. They must be much more vulnerable than they are cynical to deserve the kind of significant other that it takes to open them up to love.


    · Make them real. To be real, they must have honest emotions. And that means you, as an author, must delve into the murky corners of your own mind to get into their heads. It’s not always an easy thing to do.


    Getting to Know the Character(s) You Create

    I've seen authors use a template of character facts and traits to set the facets of the main characters in their mind's eye. When I was first starting out, I found this practice helpful, although I did not find a good example of a template that worked for me in its entirety. So I'd say create one for yourself if you like this type of structure.

    How does this work? I'm a visual learner, so creating these types of notes on my cast of characters can be useful to immerse myself into the world I will be creating. The subconscious brain retains much more than the conscious mind can recall. This process can set the foundation, allow you to absorb the details so your brain will run on autopilot once you begin to write. You can still learn or discover your characters as you go, but I found certain aspects of my characters become ingrained in my mind beforehand by using this questionnaire method.







    The template might cover the facts of someone's life, such as:
    • Where do they live?
    • What work do they do? How much money do they make doing it?
    • Who are their friends?
    • Who are the people most influential in their lives?
    • What habits do they have?
    • What are their physical attributes?
    • How do they dress?
    • Where did they go to school—their educational level?
    • What's in their wallet or purse?
    • What type of car do they drive?

    Although the above questions are important, the most memorable characters come from the questions below.







    Other questions that add depth to the characterization:
    • What matters most to them?
    • What would they die for?
    • How do they deal with confrontation?
    • What makes them vulnerable? What are their flaws and biases?
    • What are their strengths?
    • What's the one thing they would never do? (Of course, you'd make them do it in your plot.)
    • What ethics do they have? Are they willing to bend them?

    Another fun thing I do to reinforce characters in my mind is to create a photo board of images or the lifestyle/setting for my characters. When I'm writing them, I have these images to look at. I may also be inspired by certain music. On the day I plan to write, I may listen to that music. Strange, but when you're channeling characters, anything goes.

    When you are contemplating who your character will be, ask yourself what would set them apart from other characters in the genre you're writing. A clichéd 2-dimensional character will never survive the crushing weight of an editor's slush pile. Become an observer in life and of people. Study what makes someone or something compelling then write the unforgettable story you've always wanted to tell.

    Recommended Reading:
    Goal, Motivation, & Conflict (GMC) - The Building Blocks of Good Fiction by author Debra Dixon (ISBN 0-9654371-0-8)


    Discussion:
    Please feel free to post questions on anything you’ve read in this session. I’ll respond during the week of Oct 11-17th. But for those who don’t have specific questions, please share your thoughts:

    1. What characters stick out in your mind as memorable from movies or TV and why did you find them so compelling? Are there any new TV shows with great characters?


    2. Do you have any tips, website links, or books to share about creating unforgettable characters?



    Copyright Material – Jordan Dane
    Jordan Dane
    www.JordanDane.com
    My Thriller Blog at The Kill Zone
    My YA Blog: Fringe Dweller
    The Echo of Violence (Avon, Sept 2010)
    Reckoning for the Dead (Avon, TBA 2011)
    In The Arms of Stone Angels (Harlequin Teen, APR 2011)
  2. mdbenoit's Avatar
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    Jordan,

    Thank you for this. It was very insightful and it gave me some great ideas. I feel as if I'm in a rut right now and your advice reminded me how a story isn't a story without characters that feel real.

    M. D.

    http://mdbenoit.com
  3. Jordan Dane's Avatar
    Reading: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Steig Larson
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    To Funny Thanks, MD!

    Quote Originally Posted by mdbenoit View Post
    Jordan,

    Thank you for this. It was very insightful and it gave me some great ideas. I feel as if I'm in a rut right now and your advice reminded me how a story isn't a story without characters that feel real. M. D. http://mdbenoit.com

    For me, it's all about the characters. They feel like friends or certainly someone I'd be privileged to know. My mercenary from THE ECHO OF VIOLENCE, Jackson Kinkaid, is still with me. He's a tough man to forget.

    If you feel like you're in a rut, try taking risks with your writing. With every book I try to learn something new about writing. After Publishers Weekly named my debut book (NO ONE HEARD HER SCREAM) as a Best Book of 2008 and called it a thriller, rather than romantic suspense, I was dumstruck. I had written it as romantic suspense with elements of a cold case mystery woven into the story. If anything, I figured it was a mystery/suspense book. So I set about writing a pure thriller with EVIL WITHOUT A FACE to show I could ramp up the pace & tension. in EVIL, I had 5 major story arcs going with 20+ secondary characters and lots of action amidst the heartbreaking story of my bounty hunter. When my editor got done with that book, she set up a conference call with me. She said she never wanted that book to end.

    I've never had any classes in how to write. I go by my gut instincts and see the book play out like a movie in my head. I don't plot either. But to keep writing interesting for me, I take on risks with craft issues or characters that will challenge me.

    With my YA, I wanted to learn first person POV and told much of the love story in flashbacks & a Native boy's drug induced visions (from his vision quest) that gave clues about what really happened the night a girl got killed.

    More wierd things I've done with my writing - In my debut book NO ONE HEARD HER SCREAM, I had 5 suspects and I had written the book so that all five were guilty. I didn't even know who it would be until toward the end when I debated who did the murder. I built up a strong case against all of them. So I flipped a coin and finished the book. And in EVIL, I introduced a secondary character, Seth Harper. He's a borderline criminal (computer hacker) with an interesting back story, but at the time I wrote that book, I gave him more and more mystery to his story (and didn't provide any answers). By the end of the book, when something happens to him, I had no idea who or what he was. (Heaping on mystery to Seth was loads of fun and very liberating, but I had painted myself in a corner when it came to book #2.) Seth was a secondary character and he'd done his job & contributed to the plot in book #1, so I could afford to make him the cliffhanger for the next series book. ("OMG...What happened to Seth?" my agent's big question.) In THE WRONG SIDE OF DEAD, I had to figure out Seth. It surprised me how popular he was.

    What I'm saying is, each book should be FUN!!! Try new stuff. Surprise yourself.
    Jordan Dane
    www.JordanDane.com
    My Thriller Blog at The Kill Zone
    My YA Blog: Fringe Dweller
    The Echo of Violence (Avon, Sept 2010)
    Reckoning for the Dead (Avon, TBA 2011)
    In The Arms of Stone Angels (Harlequin Teen, APR 2011)
  4. Jordan Dane's Avatar
    Reading: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Steig Larson
    Just Finished Reading: The Immortal Instruments series by Cassandra Clare & The Book Thief by Markus Zuzak
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    New TV characters that I've gotten hooked on:

    Raylan Givens on the FX TV show JUSTIFIED. He's sexy and alpha. And the whole cast is interesting. It's a violent edgy show thats really character driven, a creation from author, Elmore Leonard.

    HUMAN TARGET is a fun campy show. Christopher Chance is a great lead, but I am in love with Guerrero, the dark sidekick with no morals.

    FRINGE keeps getting better. It's got thriller-esque styling with an X-file vibe with characters that draw you in. Paranormal and sci-fi collide.

    SUPERNATURAL - I'd quit watching this show because it was just plain scary, but I've been recording it and have gotten hooked on the writing and the great characters. Sam and Dean are amazing to watch, eye candy with really intriguing story arcs. The dark angels and Lucifer story line is a real winner.

    What are your favorite TV show characters or cast? Can you watch them without your writer hat on?
    Jordan Dane
    www.JordanDane.com
    My Thriller Blog at The Kill Zone
    My YA Blog: Fringe Dweller
    The Echo of Violence (Avon, Sept 2010)
    Reckoning for the Dead (Avon, TBA 2011)
    In The Arms of Stone Angels (Harlequin Teen, APR 2011)
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    Great segment!

    I'm a TRUE BLOOD fan (more so the TV show than the books, I'll admit) and one of the big reasons is because Sookie's love interests are such anti-heroes. You are never quite sure what side Bill, Sam, or Eric is on. Just when you decide they're heroes, they do something outrageously villainous. When you adjust to cast them as villains, they do something to make them likeable again. It may be a heroic act that helps another character, or just an odd, funny or vulnerable quirk. In any case, it's the layered characterization and their constant conflict--often behaving in ways that puzzle and intrigue--that keeps me watching.
    J. Rose Allister
    Fiction With a Passion
    http://jroseallister.com
  6. Jordan Dane's Avatar
    Reading: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Steig Larson
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    Quote Originally Posted by JRoseAllister View Post
    Great segment!

    I'm a TRUE BLOOD fan (more so the TV show than the books, I'll admit) and one of the big reasons is because Sookie's love interests are such anti-heroes. You are never quite sure what side Bill, Sam, or Eric is on. Just when you decide they're heroes, they do something outrageously villainous. When you adjust to cast them as villains, they do something to make them likeable again. It may be a heroic act that helps another character, or just an odd, funny or vulnerable quirk. In any case, it's the layered characterization and their constant conflict--often behaving in ways that puzzle and intrigue--that keeps me watching.

    Thanks for your great analytical take on TRUE BLOOD. Another wonderful cast of characters. It's amazing how much an actor brings to the party too. And what's key is consistency. It may seem like the switchbacks from bad to good are random, but each character probably has a code they live by, even though we may not understand it. I think another interesting point with Vampires is that they are immortal. What changes would YOU go through if you lived forever? And how would you feel about your own humanity over time?
    Jordan Dane
    www.JordanDane.com
    My Thriller Blog at The Kill Zone
    My YA Blog: Fringe Dweller
    The Echo of Violence (Avon, Sept 2010)
    Reckoning for the Dead (Avon, TBA 2011)
    In The Arms of Stone Angels (Harlequin Teen, APR 2011)
  7. SherryG's Avatar
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    Jordon, thanks for this. My brain is buzzing with different possibiliteis for some ongoing characters I'm working with right now. I love your suggestion of parrallelling the bad guy with your hero. I'm not sure I'd ever reach that particular skill, but it sure has fascinated me.
    I don't watch a lot of tv, and yet know I watched something recently that had the hairs lifting off the back of my neck the acting was so good, but I'm sorry the details escape me! How frustraiting.
    I have a question. If you want to keep the 'bad-guy' in the shaadows for most of the book, i.e. is he-isn't he? how would you do that effectively. So far I have mentioned his existance, his cruelty to his wife and that she escaped from him with their child. He is an 'essence' if you like, and that's how I want him to stay, but, how would you crank up the tension without showing his face too soon?
  8. Tristy's Avatar
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    Xwriter

    Hi Jordan, (First draft completed urban fantasy for YA)
    Was wondering how I develop the villain if I'm writing first person POV from the heroine. In my first draft we never really meet the Villian, there are just shadows and eyes, nameless vampires in the shadows, but I thought I'd write in a mastermind but not sure how to put it in if we never see things from his point of view.
    A also love True Blood and all the Sookie books!
    Cheers
    Tristy.
  9. Jordan Dane's Avatar
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    Default Bwaaaa HAA HAAAAA!!!

    Quote Originally Posted by Tristy View Post
    Hi Jordan, (First draft completed urban fantasy for YA)
    Was wondering how I develop the villain if I'm writing first person POV from the heroine. In my first draft we never really meet the Villian, there are just shadows and eyes, nameless vampires in the shadows, but I thought I'd write in a mastermind but not sure how to put it in if we never see things from his point of view.
    A also love True Blood and all the Sookie books!
    Cheers
    Tristy.
    I'm a real rule breaker. When I wrote my YA for HQ Teen, I had a first person POV, but I used third person for anyone else I needed. I wanted to be in the heads of my local bully and other menacing townspeople. I like one POV per scene, although I've been known to break that one too. But if you try to keep one POV per scene, it forces you to make decisions on whose scene it is and which character will give you the biggest impact. And if you switch from 1st person to 3rd person, the reader can keep up easier.So like you, I had my heroine tell her story in 1st POV but when I wanted to ramp up the stakes for the suspense, I needed the reader to fear for her safety. And being in the heads of others in town made that possible.

    I hope that helps. If not, keep asking questions.
    Jordan Dane
    www.JordanDane.com
    My Thriller Blog at The Kill Zone
    My YA Blog: Fringe Dweller
    The Echo of Violence (Avon, Sept 2010)
    Reckoning for the Dead (Avon, TBA 2011)
    In The Arms of Stone Angels (Harlequin Teen, APR 2011)
  10. Jordan Dane's Avatar
    Reading: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Steig Larson
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    Default Forgot to say this---CONGRATULATIONS!!!

    Quote Originally Posted by Tristy View Post
    Hi Jordan, (First draft completed urban fantasy for YA)
    Tristy.
    BTW, Tristy--Congratulations on completing your first draft. That's such a great feeling. And the world building on an urban fantasy is not an easy feat, my fine friend. You are cool.
    Jordan Dane
    www.JordanDane.com
    My Thriller Blog at The Kill Zone
    My YA Blog: Fringe Dweller
    The Echo of Violence (Avon, Sept 2010)
    Reckoning for the Dead (Avon, TBA 2011)
    In The Arms of Stone Angels (Harlequin Teen, APR 2011)
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