Character – More than a great head of hair

I dream I’m walking through the grocery store. Look there’s a sale on Mean Girls! Jocks are buy one, get one free. Someone’s come out with a brand new product. It’s the Talent Show with a Sad Backstory and it comes in two flavours. I’m still trying to decide whether to risk it when I wake up.

It would certainly be easier if we could buy our characters ready made and needing just a bit of a warm up to be ready for our story. But if our characters are pre-cut and wrapped for us, what is left for us to do? There’s no room for them to grow. A Mean Girl #4 with the option to repent at the end of the story will only do what she is programmed to do.

There are sites on the web that help you get to know your characters. You can fill out questionnaires about them. What do they like? What’s their hair colour? What’s the size of their…oops better leave that one out it’s going to be a G rated story so it’s not like they’re going to get to use it. This is useful as a first introduction to your character. Kind of for characters and writers. But it only goes so far and then the age old question makes itself heard. Where do we go from here?

So we have a Biker who has blue eyes, red hair, listens to Paul Anka and cries during Little House on the Prairie reruns. But how is he going to react when you spill your latte grande on his leather pants? Even harder, what kind of dialogue can he have with the Emo girl who listens to Evanescence, has blue hair and red eyes and laughs all the way through Nightmare on Elm Street?

Let’s leave the quiz for a moment. Think about your best friend. What’s the first thing that comes to mind. I’ll bet you that it is not their hair colour/eye colour, what they wear, or how big their… oops still G rated. The first thing you thing of is probably a story. Maybe about the time you water ballooned your brother, or you got lost in the mall. When we think about people we know. We attach more importance to shared experience than we do to physical attributes. Sure we might be able to describe them to the police if they’re still lost in the mall, but when we’re talking about them with other friends, it is the stories that we tell.

So, back to the characters in the stories that we are writing. If we only think of them in terms of their physical characteristics and personality traits, they will come out flat and uninteresting. Creating a character is about more than following a recipe. We need to hear their stories. Why does Biker dude like Paul Anka? What the reason for the tears during reruns? Why is Emo girl hiding behind those red contacts? If we want them to talk we need to create a reason for them to have a conversation. We create a story that they will tell about each other. As their relationship develops the collection of common stories grows. We don’t have to put them all in our writing, but we need to know that they are there.

The funny thing is once we start listening to the stories behind our stories, characters become pretty easy. They become organic and rounded. They do odd things and go in strange directions. People who read our stories don’t feel that the characters are just pieces being moved on a board. They get interested in what is happening to these people. They root for them and they want them to succeed. Once you have your reader fully engaged with your characters, you have them hooked.

Character development is the next logical step. They learn from their experiences, just like we do. Ask yourself what you would learn if you went through what your characters had to. Then apply that insight to the way the character acts, talks and thinks. Now, not only are your characters three dimensional, but they grow.

So if the dream at the start was your character’s, why are they dreaming about cardboard people? What is going on that put them in that dream and not a different one? What are they going to learn from this dream.

And if this is a grocery store, where are the mangos?

Break Dancing, or Where to End your Chapter

Some people like long chapters that pull them deep into the world that the author is weaving around the the story. Others like short chapters. To say that all chapters must be long, or that all must be short would be similar to saying that you have write all long sentences or all short ones. Chapters, like paragraphs and sentences come in different lengths and evoke different feelings in the reader. Short chapters, as with paragraphs and sentences, move the story along briskly. Longer ones slow things down and allow time for the feel of the world you are creating to settle in the mind of the reader.

It is up to the author to decide where to break for a new chapter. That decision needs to be based on the needs of the story at that particular moment. It is a trap to simply start a new chapter whenever you start a new day of writing. It will make your story feel unbalanced and unfinished.

So where do you make the chapter break?

There are a few different reasons to end a chapter. The first and probably most over used is the cliff hanger. This is a hold over from the days when books were published a chapter a month in magazines. You needed something to get people to buy the magazine next month to see what happens. Comics still do this. A few cliff hangers are good, but too many just gets tiresome. The best place to put a cliff hanger chapter ending is just before a POV switch to another character involved in different action. A good cliff hanger doesn’t have an obvious or easy solution. It doesn’t have to involve physical danger, but there has to be something at risk.

Which brings me to the next reason for a chapter break. POV switch. I prefer writing entire chapters in the same POV. I don’t like reading stories where there is a lot of head hopping. So when you’re going to switch POV, start a new chapter. This is especially important if you are also changing the site of the action. An exception to the POV chapter break is if the characters are involved in the same action at the same location and you have a very good reason for switch POV. There is a discipline to staying with one POV for an extended time, but it will help you develop at a writer when you need to work out how to let your character learn what they need to learn to show the reader.

Natural breaks in the action are another good way to end a chapter. Everybody goes to bed. Instead of wasting time describing your characters sleeping. You end the chapter and start the next chapter with the characters awake and once more involved in meaningful action. Another form of this natural break is where you want to make a shift from quick action to more reflective thought. A major battle has been won (or lost) and your MC want to mourn the foolishness of war. A chapter break will signal and highlight the change in mood. That will allow you to follow the character into less ardous tasks and provide some contrast. This doesn’t mean that you can’t have a variety of moods in one chapter. Let your story decide.

The last chapter break is a minor conclusion. Plot lines don’t go up evenly to the climax. Rather they should look a little like the graph on a seismograph. When your story has reached a point where a smaller obstacle has been resolved it may be a place to break. Just make sure that it doesn’t feel like the action is done. The above example is also an example of a minor conclusion. The characters get to live another day, but there is still the unfinished task hanging over their heads.

Knowing where to put chapter breaks is similar to knowing whether to write long or short sentences. It is about emphasizing parts of your plot and staying in control of pacing in your story. It is a skill that will mark you as an accomplished author. It is like dancing with your story. You need to feel the rhythm, but still stay in control.