Bringing the monsters to life

I don’t normally think of myself as Dr. Frankenstein. Occasionally when my kids are running around the house buck-naked and screaming about poop, I do wonder what sort of monsters I’ve given life to. But usually I can blame my husband for those kinds of behaviors.

Being an author, you don’t always create monsters (depends on the genre) but you do create characters. And characters have to come to life on the page as clearly as the characters who live in your everyday life. They have to have quirks, likes, dislikes, and histories. They have to be fully realized in your mind or they won’t be fully realized on the page and in the reader’s mind.

So how do you do this?

One way is to plan. Create a chart, color-coded spreadsheet, list, rambling page of thoughts, or intricate and detailed mind map, whatever suits your style. Start brainstorming who your character is and what makes them unique. Interview your characters, and try to respond in their voice. Beth Barany at Writers Fun Zone has a useful list of essential elements to think about when creating characters.

If you’re not into planning, try imagining a character, then start writing. Put the character in a situation and go for it. Don’t over think, but let the character reveal themselves through your writing. You might end up with a hot mess, or you might discover a gem of a character you never knew was hiding inside your mind. Letting the story come through naturally can be a good alternative to overplanning, especially if you’re feeling stuck. And of course, you’ll always need to go back and revise once your characters have revealed themselves to make sure the story hangs together.

Whichever way you develop characters, make sure to give them a dark side. An Achille’s heel. What are they terrible at? What are their deepest, most intense fears? Then make your characters confront them. I know, it sounds so cruel. But a character without flaws is a Mary Sue–an idealized version of humanity, AKA uninteresting. Unless your readers are under the age of 5, they don’t want to read about Jane Doe’s fabulous, predictable life where everything always happens as it should. Great for her. Boring for us. There’s no story there.

Characters need to be tested by facing up to the bad/scary/hard things that happen to them. Readers need the excitement of living vicariously through someone else’s disaster while reclining comfortably on their couch eating chocolate bon bons. Unfair, but that’s how it goes.

Do you have any tips for developing character? Please share!

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Tips For Writing a First Page that Rocks

In my last post, I described the Sisters in Crime meeting I went to where a panel of authors read and critiqued members’ first pages. Here’s some of their advice about how to make sure your first page hooks a reader or agent.

1. Less description, more emotion

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This tidbit came up more than once as the first page submissions were read out. That detailed description of the wallpaper in the heroine’s guest bedroom? No one cares. Readers are looking to connect with a character and a story. Descriptions should be sprinkled in at appropriate times.

2. Start in the middle of the action.

A recurring comment from the panel was some variation of, “If you cut out the first three paragraphs, you’ve got a great page.” Which the writer may hear as, “Just cut off your right ear, you don’t really need that.” Painful but true. Readers don’t need a lot of build-up to become engaged. In fact, with too much exposition, they get bored. Start in the action and save the explanations for later.

3. Readers should know early on what’s at stake.

If the main character finds herself on a speeding bus with a bomb on it, would she use the time to reminisce about moving to LA to pursue an acting career? This confuses readers because they don’t know what the story is about. Is it the bus or her quest to be an actress? On the first page, and the first chapter, stay focused on the conflict that drives the story.

4. Write for your audience.

People who don’t like epic fantasies may not choose to read your epic fantasy, even if your first page puts Tolkien to shame. That’s okay. Don’t try to write a book that will please everyone. Know your audience and write the best book you can for them.

1419618-unicorn2 Fantasy

romance-jan2 Romance

live-free-or-die-hard Live Free or Die Hard

Some other fun tidbits about the market:

  • Vampires have been done (no, really) so if you’re writing a vamp novel, you need a twist that makes your story unique.
  • Thrillers set in the Middle East are still selling.
  • The Holy Grail is the YA novel with a male protagonist. Everyone wants to find it but it’s notoriously hard to hook teen boys into reading, so the standards are quite high.
  • YA novels rarely involve the protagonist’s family. They’re mostly about the character forging her own identity.

Other tips for hooking a reader/agent? Please share!