Tag Archives: character development

Real character or mannequin?

What’s the secret?

You know what I mean. Not the secret to your success (although I am interested to hear that, too) or the secret to your grilling technique (again … I am interested). I’m asking, “What’s your secret?”

Answering that is one of the beauties of writing fiction. You need to create a character, name the character, maybe even toss in a clever nickname. You’ve got hair color, hair length, hair type (wavy, straight, maybe no hair), height, body type, blah blah blah. Sure, that’s all important, but I’ve just described a mannequin, an empty form with a name. Add a favorite color. A quirk that you wouldn’t expect. (I sometimes symmetrically arrange the food on my plate; don’t even notice most of the time). Tell me your character’s best time of day: night owl, early bird, mid-day masher? Give me some background: middle child, only child, lost a finger in shop class, maybe a sixth toe? (Super cool!) Adopted? (Adoption and foster kids are a common link in most of what I write).

Now give your character a secret. Something she’s done that no one else (or only your wife/BFF) knows about. Give every character a secret, and suddenly you’ve got depth. Not that you’ll tell-all in your story or novel, but that character will be more real to YOU. And until that happens, the character is nothing but a mannequin on paper.
And who wants to read about a mannequin?

Not every secret needs to be dark or terrible, but there can be plenty of those, too. I once worked with a woman who told me that when she was a kid, she’d climb over the neighbor’s fence and pick an apple or two. The neighbor finally told her parents and she was punished.

So she burned the neighbor’s house down.

Crazy? Made up? There’s never been a moment that I doubted it. Her demeanor, body language, almost nonchalant recounting of the event all testified of a cold heart that probably suffered a great wound as a child – but a cold, dark heart that had no hint of remorse in telling the story the same way someone might say, “I got in trouble because the neighbor told my parents, so I snuck over to his house one night and stomped his marigolds.” Seriously. I remember it like this: “So I burned the SOB’s house down. Are you going out for lunch or eating in the office?”

The story came alive as a defining moment in the childhood of Hannah Abigail Lincoln, the main protagonist in my unfinished work, “Chasing the Devil.”

HERE’S THE EXCERPT

The moment the neighbors drive away, Hannah hopped the fence, emptied a can of lighter fluid on the refinished chest and wardrobe on the patio, and struck a match. The flash caught one of her sleeves on fire. She quickly dropped the can and plunged her arm into a nearby birdbath.

Hannah raced to her bedroom, changed her shirt and soothed the burn with aloe salve, something she knew to do to treat burns. She had experience.

The sirens were faint at first and then louder.

“Hannah, we need to talk,” her mother shouted as she came upstairs. Elizabeth Lincoln stepped into her daughter’s room. Hannah dropped the burned shirt.

“Um, sweety? Did you know the Bentley’s house is on fire?”

Hannah had no response.

“I saw you climbing over that fence.” Her mother paused. “Hannah, did you pick another apple?”

The little girl heard her mother’s admonitions echoing in her mind: Bravery, Hannah. Courage, Hannah. Don’t slouch like a whore, Hannah. Hannah clenched her teeth and stepped toward her mother.

“The Bentleys are just weak,” Hannah said. “Rednecks.”

Elizabeth Lincoln reached out and drew her daughter close.

“Yes, baby doll,” her mother said, giving her a firm hug. “I love you.”

(Ed. note: It’s the only memory Hannah has of her mother’s hug).

PRAYING FOR THE PLANE TO CRASH

Maybe the secret is less sinister. A stand-up sort of guy who, for some reason, once stole his neighbor’s mail. (I’m brainstorming here). A school teacher who, despite cheating in college to earn her bachelor’s degree, has turned out to be quite a teacher and is about to be promoted to principal – or superintendent. A hilarious secret? A shy man eats an entire pie that is about to be presented to the retiring superintendent – or the Queen of England. (“Who ate Her Majesty’s custard pie?”) Maybe not something all that BAD or illegal, but not something you’d want to admit. No matter how many years go by, YOU still remember.

When I was a kid, I had an uncle who flew radio-control, model airplanes. Cool, huh? Not really. I resented that we drove 700 miles to visit my grandparents only to see the neighboring cousins called right away to join us, where they continued to be the center of attention. I visited maybe once a year; they lived right … over … there. (Extend your arm, point your finger … yeah, right over there). Once we were whisked across the pasture to the cousin’s house – a huge home with a lake – where we had a cook-out and obligatory viewing of my uncle flying his radio-control airplane. I actually bowed my head and prayed that the plane would crash.

And it did.

Whew. I feel better. Up to now, only four or five people have heard this confession. Now, if I count Twitter, Facebook, email subscribers and anyone else who stumbles across Jackson’s Journal, that’s another 1,100 people.

Maybe you don’t want to share YOUR secret. But give me some ideas for future and existing characters. C’mon …

What’s the secret?

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Filed under Family, Living Write, MIP: Memoir-in-progress, WIPs

NaNoWriMo Day #28: Inner editor’s ready to explode

My 2012 National Novel Writing Month project, “Dixieland,” passed the 50,000-word mark on Thanksgiving night. Tonight I uploaded the 52,000-plus words for verification that, for the third straight year, I am a “winner.” Just hold the applause. Fifty-thousand words does not a novel make; it’s just an exceptionally good start. Another 30,000 to 50,000 words should make it novel-length, and the editing/revising process, which will begin sometime in December, will add back story, complete fragmented or suggested scenes, and add the bulk that is needed to make this story truly complete.

My bound-and-gagged inner editor can only be held back so long, even with three rolls of Duck tape. I managed to get to this point without influence from inner editor’s mind-melding efforts. I will unleash his evil intentions in a few days. (I say “evil” because the very first thing he’s going to say — SCREAM — is, “Every single one of those 52,000-plus words SUCK!”)

For now, I give you a lengthy, two-part excerpt of a three-way dialogue featuring protagonist Edna Mae Ferguson, the accidental stenographer for Steven X. Kennedy, editor/publisher of the weekly Silverdale Sentinel in fictional Silverdale, Ky.; Mr. Kennedy, who is trying to sell his newspaper in order to move with his wife, Victoria, to Arizona, where the climate will be less cruel to her rheumatoid arthritis; and prospective buyer, Justin Richards, who aptly fits the title, “religious zealot.”

Unedited, not including attribution for all speakers (although it should be clear who’s speaking), and mostly just dialogue. I think it will be a quick read. If you see ALL CAPS, that’s where I’m expecting inner editor to go crazy. Let me know what you think, what more you want to know about Edna Mae, Steven Kennedy, or Justin Richards.

This was a fun rabbit trail to follow. I almost couldn’t keep up with their exchange. I’m expecting some lively comments.

===

“Jesus Christ the King of Kings is my boss.” Justin Richards, a round-faced chap about 40 years old, with a perpetual smile and pronounced southern accent, strolled into the Sentinel, greeting Steven and Edna Mae. “Do you know Jesus Christ as your personal savior?”

Edna Mae looked up from her steno pad. She glanced at Kennedy, then back toward Justin Richards. “Me?” she asked.

“Both of you good folks,” he replied. “I sense that we’re all on the same page here, the same frequency on the spiritual dial.”

Kennedy answered. “I am a Christian.” Edna Mae nodded. “Me, too.”

“Oh, but have you been truly baptized of the Holy Ghost!” He was nearly shouting, and with the fervor of an evangelist. (SHOW, DON’T TELL, RE: FERVOR OF AN EVANGELIST).

He gently waved a hand in front of him. “Oh, where are my manners.” He held out his right hand. “I’m Justin Richards, servant of the Lord.”

Kennedy shook his hand; Edna Mae stepped back and nodded low. (WHAT? SHE CURTSIED?)

Richards just smiled. “Well, bless your hearts. Bless your hearts.”

Kennedy asked, “Now, where were we?”

Richards smiled. Edna Mae answered, “I think we stopped at “Holy Ghost.’”

Richards laughed. “The Spirit of God does have a way of stopping us in our tracks, yes and praise God.”

Kennedy cleared his throat. “No, I mean, where were we in terms of showing you the Silverdale Sentinel. What are your questions?”

Richards stepped toward Kennedy, placing a hand on the publisher’s shoulder. He gently shook Kennedy’s shoulder.

“I have no questions that the Lord has not already answered.” He turned to see Edna Mae scribbling furiously. “I’m going to buy your newspaper, friend, for the Lord God on High has already established it so.”

Edna Mae added, “It’s ordained.”

“Exactly,” Richards agreed, pointing to Edna Mae. “Exactly. And I’m changing the name of this secular instrument of the press to The Sword of the Lord, by which the frightening and powerful Spirit of God will reach the heathen hill folk.”

Edna Mae: “Appalachia?”

“Exactly,” he agreed again, drawing out the pronunciation. “You know the heathen hill folk of whom I speak?”

Kennedy cleared his throat again. “Well, that’s probably an issue, because we don’t send any subscriptions to the … well, that area …”

“Friend, I knew you might be reluctant if the Lord had not revealed this to your heart, but your spiritual maturity is not to blame, otherwise you would have already executed the Lord’s work.”

“Which is?”

“The Sword of the Lord” will be delivered by the servants of the Lord, to each and every heathen and godless man, woman and child in the hills. Oh, that they might cease having relations with their domestic stock …”

Edna Mae glanced at Kennedy, and he motioned for her to stop taking notes. But she continued to write.

“That could be an expensive proposition, producing, printing and delivering a newspaper to everyone in Appalachia. That’s a pretty steep price.”

“The Lord Jesus said, in the gospel of Matthew, chapter 17, verse 20, “Because of your unbelief,” and he pointed to Edna Mae and Steven, “for verily I saw unto you. If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed,” and he pinched a thumb and forefinger, then squinted, repeated, “a grain of mustard seed,” … ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing,” he paused, and repeated, with great passion and added fervor, “nothing,” “and nothing shall be impossible unto you.”

Edna Mae: “So, in a way, you want to take the Word of the Lord to the mountain.”

His eyes seemed to light up. “Exactly!” “And you will be by my side as we carry out the Lord’s work.” (DO I REALLY WANT THIS GUY TO BE CREEPY, TOO?) Edna Mae resumed her note-taking.

“That’s going to take a large influx of cash,” Kennedy reminded him. “That’s just a reality.”

“My dear friend, I’m sure you know that Jesus spoke those words to his disciples because they were unable to cast out the devil from the lad who felleth into the fire and into the water, because the demon within his young body simply vexed him – VEXED him!, I tell you.”

Kennedy shook his head. “Miss Edna Mae, you getting all this?”

“Yes, Mr. Kennedy.” She paused. “Exactly.”

Richards continued. “The disciples were unable to cast out that demon, and Jesus, oh, it broke his precious heart, and he saith unto his followers, “O faithless and perverse generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I suffer you? Bring him hither to me.”

“And the child was cured,” Edna Mae said.

“Exactly!” “Cured. And the demon departed out of him and the child was cured – yes, you said it – cured from THAT VERY HOUR.”

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Filed under "Dixieland", Inspiration, National Novel Writing Month 2012, WIPs, World War II