Writing Stuff

How Well Do You Know Your Characters?

What makes a man cheat on his wife?

What makes a loving wife and mother leave her family?

What drives a successful businessman to murder?

What makes a reader believe these characters are capable of carrying out actions that are , well, out of character?

The answer? Creating characters that readers both care about and believe in.

Is this easy? Sometimes, it depends on how strong of an image a writer has of his/her characters to begin with, but creating an in-depth character profile is essential to creating personalities that readers can, and want, to care about.

Characters work best when you create a virtual identity for them. The character can then inhabit an imaginative space in the reader’s mind, a space that you have created. Readers go along with characters as long as the characters remain coherent (and believable). From Linda N. Edelstein, Ph.D.’s book The Writer’s Guide to Character Traits.

Creating a full-fledged, well-rounded character is the second hardest thing for me when I begin a new story (plot being the first, but that’s another post). The physical features are easy enough, hair color, eyes, body type, race, but when it comes to gestures, family background, political beliefs I tend to lean toward my own views and preferences and before I know it, I’ve put myself into the story.

To avoid this, and to spare my readers from having to put up with a two-dimensional ME, I tend to go overboard and stretch my characters all out of shape, writing stories from the viewpoint of a child, or a man, or an old person (though that’s not all that far fetched anymore *cringe*) just so I WON’T be tempted to insert myself into my characters.

My stories tend to be chewier, like a piece of tough meat, when I’ve taken the time to flesh out my characters, though I confess, I HATE making character profiles for the simple fact that it takes time, a lot of time, not to mention forethought, which is not something I have an abundance of, preferring instead to write by the seat of my pants. But I’m always glad I made the effort later on.

For instance, I was going through some old floppy disks last night and stumbled across a couple of character profiles that were actually close to being completed (now there’s a shocker, I almost completed something??). Though I have no recollection of ever making these profiles, I felt like I knew these people, that I knew exactly who these characters were, just from reading their profiles.

I know what you’re thinking. “How droll! How boring! Who has time to devote to a character spreadsheet!”

Indeed, they can be boring and certainly time consuming, but the payoff is worth the effort. If you, the writer, have a clearer idea of who your character is, then your reader certainly will. And if you have a clear-cut, sympathetic character, then that will make your story that much better. And if your story is good, your reader will remember it, and you.

(I used the word character 22 (23 if you count this time) times in a piece 538 words long. My technical writing teacher would be very disappointed in me. )

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This was originally published on Write Anything, April 7, 2006.

Fiction Fix

Fiction: The Trouble with Troy

If the dream is big enough, the facts don’t count.

My dad always had big dreams. He wanted to invent something that would not only be useful to others, but help mankind and of course, reap big rewards.

As in millions of dollars in rewards.

He was an inventor, of sorts. I remember he would spend entire weekends, for months on end, making plans, finding materials and then experimenting with various contraptions. All of them failed, but he never gave up.

I never understood that drive, that passion. To me, it seemed like so much work. Why not take the easy road and leave time for more fun things?

Like dating, or hanging with friends, or baseball.

I pretty much live for baseball.

I was never a good student. In fact, if it hadn’t been for Holly Lawson, I wouldn’t even have graduated from high school

I used her. I’ll admit it. I’m not proud of this fact, but there you have it. I knew she had a crush on me and I shamefully used that fact to manipulate her into doing what I wanted her to do.

That’s my gift, manipulating people. I’m quite good at it. I have a knack for honing in on people’s weaknesses and twisting them into something that I can use to benefit me.

At first, this bothered me. I wasn’t particularly proud of using people but it came so easy and people never had a problem trusting everything that I told them that I just sort of fell into the pattern – it was harder not to.

For the most part, I got over the guilt of using people. I mean, people come and go in our lives, in our relationships, they’re just blips on our life’s radar – meaningless really. Why waste time on them when there was so much fun to be had.

I’m not quite sure why I’m like this, maybe it has something to do with my mom, who worked two jobs to give my dad the freedom to do his experiments (that never paid off, by the way, I mentioned that part, right?) and worked herself to death.

Literally.

Her heart simply gave out when she reached 48.

I was a Sophomore in high school when my mom passed away and it was from that point on that I knew what I wanted, which was to be nothing like my mom. I didn’t want to work my entire life away; life was simply too short.

And yet, I wasn’t willing to do what my dad did either. I can’t tell you the number of times I witnessed his disappointment, his dejection, his rejection all because he had the balls to stick his neck out there and try something different.

No. I was all about taking the easy road.

And of course, taking the easy route can not only be hard, but dangerous, too.

After I graduated from high school, I wasn’t sure what to do with my life. I mean, I could work, but I kept picturing my mother, worn down and bone tired from her two jobs and I didn’t want that for my life. So I decided to put my life on hold for a bit and go to college.

College wasn’t really work, it was more of a structured party with virtually no rules.

Save for the rules I made up along the way.

I quickly discovered that I simply wasn’t smart enough to be a college student. I had relied on Holly’s help, and I use that term loosely, throughout high school so much that in essence, I didn’t learn a freaking thing.

I had cheated my way through high school, so it seemed only natural that I’d cheat my way through college.

The challenge was finding the person who would make that happen.

It started out innocently enough. About halfway through my first semester I knew I needed help. I had failed nearly everything I had tried at that point and that wasn’t much, quite frankly. I was taking a full load, about 15 hours, and every single class was kicking my butt.

But I didn’t give up. I didn’t get discouraged. I got busy working out a four-year plan on how I was going to survive my college years with the least amount of effort on my part as possible.

I knew it could be done, I just wasn’t sure how it would shake out. I needed someone vulnerable, someone who craved attention and perhaps didn’t get it very often, who was sort of a social outcast. I needed someone smart and generous. I needed someone I could string along and manipulate into doing what I needed them to do without questioning my motives or seeing through my deception.

And that person came in the form of my college advisor, Lauren McCormick.

I knew, as soon as I walked into her office, she was the person I was looking for. She had the phone tucked under her chin and was scribbling on the top page of the first stack of papers littering her desk.

She was also chewing on a piece of licorice. The end stuck out from one corner of her mouth and I remember noticing how she was smearing deep red lipstick on the candy with each unconscious bite.

I stirred. I admit, it was sort of a turn on to watch her nibble on that piece of candy. I began fantasizing about what those soft lips felt like … and well, you get the drift, I’m sure.

She wasn’t really attractive, per se, but she exuded loads of intelligent confidence and I’ll be honest, that’s a turn on for me.

“Uh, Ms. McCormick?” I had rapped a few knocks on her office door, her receptionist said to go on in, and she had absently waved me to one of her chairs while she finished her conversation.

I plopped my backpack down on the floor next to me and I assumed a comfortable, and yes, a somewhat cocky pose. I couldn’t allow her to see how nervous I was, right? If I’ve learned anything from chicks, they don’t care for the wimpy, indecisive types.

I hid my smile when I noticed that she did indeed notice me. And it went beyond the advisor notices her student sort of awareness, she saw me as a man.

It was going to be like taking candy from a freaking baby.

She cut her conversation short. Again, a good sign. When she replaced the receiver she made a show out of organizing some papers, I’m assuming papers about me, but I knew she was really checking me out.

If there’s one thing I excel in, it’s women.

“Hi. Troy Wilson, right?” she asked and I watched her nervously lick her lips.

“That would be me,” I said and gave her my most charming smile. It never failed to melt a woman’s heart and it didn’t fail me this time, either.

“So, what can I do for you?” she asked.

I leaned forward, putting my arms on my legs and giving her my full, undivided attention. “I’m having a little trouble adjusting,” I said and nodded toward the paperwork. “I’m sure you can see, I haven’t exactly gotten off to the best start.”

“Well, sometimes it takes a few weeks for students to settle into a routine,” she began.
I interrupted. “True. But I’m afraid that’s not my problem,” I said with a feigned frown. “You see, my mom passed away recently and I’m having trouble concentrating. I just can’t seem to get my shit together.”

Her eyes had widened and I quickly made a mental note – doesn’t appreciate cursing. “I apologize for my crassness, Ms. McCormick, but I’m feeling desperate. This is a big opportunity for me and … well, it was my mother’s dream that I graduate from college.”

Which was true, she had wanted me to graduate from college, just probably not exactly this way.

“I see,” Lauren had said. “Well, I can probably set you up with some tutors …”

I sort of tuned out the rest of what she said as a soft rumbling caught my attention.

Lauren paused in the middle of her speech and clutched her stomach.

I smiled. The gods were certainly smiling down on me that day.

“You’re hungry.” I stated. “Which is understandable, considering it’s lunch time. Tell you what,” I offered, as if the thought had just occurred to me, “let’s talk about this over lunch.”

Her eyes had widened and she immediately began to shake her head no. But I could see it in her eyes, her head might have been saying no, but her heart? Very much wanted to say yes.

It took me a while to charm her, but after fifteen minutes, she caved in and we walked to the student center and had lunch. We talked about my scholastic troubles, but mainly, we talked and got to know one another.

Our relationship progressed very quickly from that point on. By the end of my first semester, we were friends.

By the end of my second semester, we were lovers.

She proved very useful over the course of my college years. Our relationship had to remain a secret of course, she would lose her job if anyone ever found out, which worked out perfectly for me because that allowed me to date other women and there really wasn’t much she could say about it. Lauren was putty in my hand. Whenever I wanted something from her, all I had to do was pour on the charm and smother her with attention.

Lauren intercepted quite a few professors for me and somehow convinced them to pass me. I also used other girls to help me get through classes, but mostly, I just cheated. I got to be quite good at cheating and my methods were legendary. In fact, I taught most of the guys in my fraternity the fine art of “passing” classes.

Did I feel guilty for treating people this way? I’d be lying if I said no. There were times, especially with women who I genuinely liked, that I felt like scum. But I always kept my eye on the ultimate prize – graduation.

My father was insanely proud of me. He often bragged to anyone who would listen about his “prodigal” son. That probably hurt the most, the fact that I was failing to live up to his basic expectations of me.

My life was going as planned. I was on top of the world. I was popular. I knew nearly everyone on campus and was friends with at least half of them. All the girls wanted me, all the guys wanted to be me, and Lauren was obsessed with me. So much so that at times, I felt suffocated, but what could I do? I needed her, at least for a few more semesters.

Everything was golden. I had gotten so used to burying my guilty conscience at the point that I rarely even saw it most days. I had become someone that I didn’t even recognize and my lies and deception soon consumed me.

I didn’t even recognize the person in the mirror anymore. I had become a stranger to myself.

Though I despised myself, I continued to live my charmed life. Everything was going according to plan, until the night of November 2, 2008.

Continue reading “Fiction: The Trouble with Troy”