Hello, MB4 fans and friends!
Today we welcome Beverly Stowe McClure, a fellow Twilight Times Books author who writes for children and teens. Beverly had shared some great insights about building better characters today, including one concept about her "vision boards." I love that idea and might just have to start pasting photos of my characters up on my walls, too. ;o)
The Good, the Bad, and the In-Between
copyright 2014, Beverly Stowe McClureWhat do you remember about a novel you've read? Is it the setting? The plots? The characters? Or something else?
I remember the characters. To me, they make the story. A character, whether fantasy or real life, and how he or she solves a problem, or doesn’t, stays with me long after I’ve closed the book. As a reader, I want to care about the hero or heroine. I want to see the bad guy get what he/she deserves. For a time, their lives become part of me.
As a writer, I need to create characters that are so real readers will identify with them and perhaps even find a solution to a situation they are dealing with through the actions of the hero or heroine.
How do writers create unforgettable characters? I can only speak for myself, but here are some things I do.
When a young voice whispers in my ear that she’s ugly, or an article I read in the newspaper, or a conversation I overhear between two children or teens plants an idea in my head, I know a story is there somewhere. I just have to find it. As an image of the girl grows in my thoughts, I want to learn more about her. Why does she believe she’s ugly? Is it her physical appearance or her inner being that disturbs her? So, I search for a picture of who this girl is. When I find her, I make a vision board to learn more about the girl.
A vision board is simply a poster board where you paste pictures from magazines. On this particular board, I put pictures of the girl, her family members, her friends, and even a VW Bug. Why the car? The car helps show personalities of the characters. By each picture, I add personal information: eye color, hair, age, etc. After several days of getting acquainted with the girl in my mind, and people in her life, she turned out to be Breeze Brannigan, with her own book titled JUST BREEZE. I’ve also done vision boards for my other books. The walls in my writing room are a collage of faces, staring at me. It’s spooky at times. Are they analyzing me the way I am them? But back to creating real life characters.
The protagonist, or main character, is usually the good guy. Now this does not mean he/she has no faults. A perfect person is boring. Give the protagonist an attitude. Give her a bad habit. Sometimes, let her do things she shouldn’t, like cause trouble between friends by gossiping. Give her a temper. Make her human. She has to be believable, or the reader will not care about her. Take Myra, another of my characters, in her award winning novel, LIFE ON HOLD, for example. She’s usually the ideal daughter. She doesn’t cause trouble, until one day she makes a discovery that changes her life forever. She ends up disobeying her parents to learn the truth they’ve hidden from her for sixteen years. Given a motive, most characters will morph from the gentle person they normally are to one determined to achieve their goal, regardless of the consequences.
The antagonist is the bad guy, the character we love to hate. An antagonist makes life miserable for the protagonist and other characters in the story. An antagonist should have a good point or two, though. He’s not all evil (though it seems in real life some people are). I like to make the villain powerful. To make it look like he/she will win. I also believe the villain must justify his/her actions. Why does he do the things he does? What secret is he hiding from the world that makes him/her strike out at others? Is there hope for his/her redemption in the end? Think of Ebenezer Scrooge, in A CHRISTMAS CAROL, and how he discovers the true meaning of Christmas. One of the most villainous villains I’ve encountered is Dark Lord Voldemort from HARRY POTTER, who is so evil the other characters won’t even speak his name. I want to write a villain like Voldemort.
The villain isn’t always a person. In a novel about a hurricane, tornado, or other natural disasters that disrupt the lives of the characters, the weather can be the villain. Also, the protagonist’s inner self can be the troublemaker. The girls in THE SISTERHOOD OF THE TRAVELING PANTS each face decisions that only they can make. An illness can disrupt a character’s life, too, thus being the bad guy. In my award winning historical fiction, CAVES, CANNONS, AND CRINOLINES, the Civil War is the villain, bringing changes, even death to everyone’s life.
Last, but very important to a story are the in-betweens, the supporting characters. In books for children and teens, which I write if you haven’t already guessed, these are parents, friends, teachers, and other people the child/teen comes in contact with. Breeze has her best friend, Amy, who’s always there to support her. Unlike many teens, Breeze also has a caring mother, father, and siblings. Her problem is the image she has of herself, typical of many Jr. High girls. In Myra’s story, her friends, especially her boyfriend, help Myra discover the true meaning of being a father, even though at the end she must choose which way she goes for herself.
Fantasy novels contain witches, ghosts, dragons, fairies, and other supernatural beings. I really have fun with fantasy characters. An author’s imagination has no limits, as long as the characters are kept within the realm of possibility, which can be stretched a lot. In my latest ghost story for tweens, the ghosts, although they’re supporting characters, are vital to the novel. I wanted to make them believable, so I researched facts and fiction about ghosts to see how to portray the pirate, the blockade runner, and the cat. Why are they ghosts? Can the other characters talk to them, touch them, and even help them solve the problems that keep them in limbo, caught between worlds, so they can pass over to the other side? Complicating this novel even more, is the fact the ghosts are historical figures that really lived, except for the cat. Staying with the true facts was important because young readers would pick up on mistakes, and I would lose my credibility as a writer. More research yielded great information to add to the plot of the novel, and A PIRATE, A BLOCKADE RUNNER, AND A CAT was born, with a mixture of good, bad, and in-between personalities.
Another thing I try to avoid is stereotyping my characters, whether in fantasy or real-life. They are individuals, with their likes and dislikes. They are not from a special group of people that have certain reputations. In addition to the vision boards, writing a profile for my protagonist, antagonist, and other important characters helps me develop personalities for each person, so they don’t seem like carbon copies of each other. I jot down their physical features, but I don’t stop there. What does each character want? What are their flaws, beliefs, hobbies, motivations? Does each character grow in the story. I need to see the character’s arc. Interviewing each character is another way to become acquainted with my characters. What they keep to themselves when they refuse to answer a question (yes, they often stay silent), tells me more than the answers they give. My main goal is to bring my characters to life, to make the reader relate to their needs and wants and to cheer for them when they achieve their goals. When this happens, and I especially love it when a reviewer mentions how much they like a character, I’ve reached my goal. And don’t be surprised when the characters say, “Thank you.” That’s what it’s all about.
Beverly Stowe McClure
About the author:
She lives in the country, where deer sometimes drink from the pond, skunks prowl the yard for leftover dog food, armadillos dig for bugs, and a roadrunner peeks in the glass doors to see what’s happening. Beverly enjoys long walks, photographing birds, deer, clouds, and just about anything. She plays the piano, talks to her cats, and researches her ancestors. She teaches a woman’s Sunday school class. And she writes most every day.
She misses her husband of 56 years.