The Fiction of Reality

By Matthew Lowes

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Photograph by Matthew Lowes

As writers of fiction we are always trying to project some sense of reality into our stories. We praise the vivid setting when it feels as if we’ve been there. We thrill at events when we can see them happening. And we love the character who seems to walk off the page, fully fleshed, and yes, real. But how does it happen?

The irony is that actual people experience their lives through a variety of thoughts that start to look a lot like fiction. We are, along with everyone around us, constantly telling ourselves who we are, what we’re like, what type of person we are, what we believe, where we come from, the kind of world we live in, and on and on and on. And very little of it has anything to do with what’s really happening right now. We are creating these self-fictions out of the perceptions, sensations, thoughts, and memories that arise in consciousness moment to moment.

Since this is happening in the minds of people all the time, seeing the operation of these self-fictions and understanding how they create conflict could be a great insight into creating fiction that seems real. In short, good fiction must contain the self-fictions of the characters within it. In other words, it must contain characters who have fictional views on the fictional world they inhabit. These views lie at the heart of all internal conflict, and one might say all possible conflicts.

Let’s look closer at what self-fictions are, how they form, and how they come into conflict with each other, with the self-fictions of other people, and with reality itself. A self-fiction is a story you tell yourself about yourself and/or the world. “I am a writer,” is a self-fiction. “I am a good writer”; “I am a bad writer”; “I am a lazy writer”; “I spent 20 years honing the craft of writing only to find out it’s not enough.” These are all self-fictions, and I think you can see, especially if you are a writer, that they are all self-fictions a single person could have. You can probably also see how these thoughts, if believed, will conflict with each other and with various happenings in that person’s life.

I am an American, a Mexican, a Muslim, or a Buddhist; I am a faithful husband, a loving wife, an angry person, a damaged person. Birth is a blessing; life is suffering; death is a bummer. The world is a beautiful place full of good people; the world is a nasty place full of selfish people; the world is made of stuff guided by physical laws; the world is an illusion; the world is God’s creation. And on and on and on. There are enough examples to fill an entire universe. Even something as ordinary as a tree can be a self-fiction. And in most cases, what people experience as reality may simply be a projection of these self-fictions in consciousness.

Such a situation is created through a repetition of thoughts. Every time a thought arises it may become a self-fiction if the mind grasps hold and believes it. The more it repeats the more grasping occurs, and the more real and binding its contents will seem. At this point the self-fiction takes root in the person, and it will continue to seem real and binding even if present experience or new thoughts come into conflict with it. Because all things change, and new experiences and thoughts always arise, conflict with these self-fictions is inevitable. Even the most seemingly accurate and objective self-fiction cannot be right at all times, in all places, and in all situations.

This is all pretty abstract though, so let’s create a more elaborate example. A man and a woman fall madly in love. The man thinks, he could never love anyone more than he loves her. They are made for each other, two people sharing the same love, the same life, the same being. Eventually he asks her to marry him. She says “yes!” and a whole new level of love opens up to them based on the depth, the sincerity, and the promise of this commitment. Of course, he has moments of doubt. Can he really be satisfied with this one person for the rest of his life? Why did she get so angry about the wedding cake? What if she turns out to be like her domineering her mother? They are just little thoughts in conflict with the established self-fiction of their relationship. But, he says to himself, they are in love and love perseveres. Marriage is for life and he is the kind of guy that can stick with someone through thick and thin. So the wedding happens and they start their life together.

Maybe you can see how this goes already, even without the details. While so far they have been sharing a wonderfully pleasant self-fiction, each has other self-fictions. She envisions a house in the suburbs, three children, and traveling the world. He envisions life in the city, no children, and a romance without end. Or whatever. The point being, things change. They argue about moving. She get pregnant but miscarries. His father dies. The stock market crashes. She gets a job that keeps her traveling all the time. A thousand other stories interact with their lives and every one starts to seem in conflict with the others and especially with the one in which they are in love. He starts to think about other women, but he could never have an affair. He’s not that type of person. Only he keeps thinking about it. Maybe if the situation came up … hell, maybe he is that type of person. Maybe everybody is! Maybe that’s just the kind of world it is. And one day, he find himself in a hotel bar with a woman he works with, and in that moment ….

This can go on and on, but it’s just playing various self-fictions against each other. It’s all self-fictions, all the way down. And the more the self-fictions conflict with each other and the situation itself, the more real and interesting the characters and situations seem. That’s because anybody with a modicum of experience knows intuitively that’s exactly what it’s like. That’s exactly what happens. And if the conflict increases enough, some kind of crisis will occur, and things will change. Some self-fictions will crumble, and others take over. And perhaps, if in an instant one sees through it all, the whole thing will collapse like a house of cards. Then what?

If you look at things this way, maybe you can consciously manipulate the self-fictions underlying your writing. That may mean both the self-fictions of your characters, as well as your own. In fiction, as in real life, these self-fictions can be obvious or incredibly subtle and deceptive. Every protagonist is a conglomeration of self-fictions that will come into conflict with each other and the world. Every villain has a conflict generating mass of self-fictions guiding their actions. Every POV character presents the setting and events of a story through the lenses of their own self-fictions.

In fact, if one gets right down to it, there may be little difference between real life self-fictions and fictional self-fictions in the mind of a reader, since real life self-fictions are themselves imaginary in some sense. Which means fictional places, characters, and events may seem real by being, in actuality, just as real as the self-fictions through which the human mind usually perceives reality. Indeed, every aspect of fiction can be examined and manipulated as a projection of self-fictions in conflict, precisely because this real life function of the mind may be what fundamentally makes fiction possible, present, interesting, and hopefully entertaining.

How Do I Pitch MY Genre? by Eric Witchey

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How Do I Pitch My Genre? by Eric Witchey

After teaching a class, volunteering to help Timberline Review sell subscriptions, and signing my newly launched novel at this year’s Willamette Writer’s Conference, I was walking along a hallway minding my own business and wondering if I could get back to my room to take a nap before I had to face another room full of 100 people. A personable guy said hi and caught my attention. He was a volunteer gate keeper outside the pitch and critique room where aspirants bring their hearts and souls for fine tuning before presenting them in ten minute chunks to agents and editors looking for commodities from which to make a living. Making eye contact, I became aware of my surroundings and realized that the room was understaffed and several people were waiting for a chance to get what might be critical advice. So, I volunteered to take a few pitches and help hone them.

Mind you, there’s actually plenty of help for this kind of thing. The conference ran pitch practice sessions before the conference. They ran pitch practice sessions at the conference. Most of the people pitching had practiced with friends, family, and crit groups. And, as a last chance for final revision and preparation, the conference had a pitch practice room, into which I walked.

I sat down, and the kind people at the conference showed four nervous writers my way—one at a time. I had fifteen minutes to help each.

The four writers had been coached to provide half-page synoptic summaries of their books, and each showed up with pages that did that. The idea, as I understood it, was to give a sense of genre, of character, of content, and of market potential.

Well, that list seems pretty obvious to most people. After all, a science fiction adventure isn’t the same as a historical romance, right?

Wrong.

What was not so obvious is that these people were terrified and clinging to every bit of advice they had ever been given in the hope that it would touch the hearts of jaded professionals and give up a result that would change the writers’ lives and let them connect their hearts through their words to the world.

Can you say, “TERRIFIED?”

One had a fantasy romance. One had a historical novel. One had a non-fiction book on how to talk to kids about sex. One had a cryptobiography. All had decent concepts that could fly in the market. Mind you, I hadn’t read the stories themselves. I only had access to a few pages of pitches and the problems the writers had encountered in trying to sell their stories.

So, we got to work.

In three of the four cases, I realized I didn’t have much to add to the long-form pitches the writers had honed. However, I did have the communication consultant skills and personal experience of 25 years of freelance work. So, I gave all three exactly the same thing.

Emotion.

Twenty years ago, in 1996, I pitched my first novel—a novel that later sold in Poland, but that’s another story. While practicing with my good friend Gail McNally (no, not the actress), I was proud of what I had done and of the fact that I had memorized my pitches cold. Gail listened kindly—eyes closed, nodding, pinching her nose. When I was done, she said, “That might work if you put the emotion in.”

Huh? Obviously, she had missed something because I knew it was a brilliant pitch. After all, I had read about pitching. I had talked to other people. I had carefully crafted my pitch. I had a 30 second pitch, a three-minute pitch, a full page pitch, a five-page synoptic outline, and a full synoptic outline. I was freaking loaded for literary bear.

What the hell does emotion have to do with selling the product?

So, long story short, I lost the argument and rewrote it all with an emphasis on character emotional change.

My first time pitch nailed an editor and let me choose between several interested agents.

Why? I now know it was because stories are not about things or events. Stories are about how people change emotionally and psychologically. Things and events only facilitate the changes.

Yes…. The things and events have to be “interesting and unique,” but they are only truly interesting in that they are connected to emotional change.

So, I helped each one of my three fiction charges fashion a one- or two-line pitch that captured the three Cs:

Character, Conflict, and Change.

You could say it is really only two Cs because Character is really made up of an emotional/psychological state, and Change is really just the character as they appear after they change because of the conflict. So, really, it’s just Character, Conflict, and Character, but that’s a bit confusing and doesn’t really sound right in a culture that likes to think in threes.

Essentially, we put our heads together and came up with statements like:

Soul and psyche torn down to nothing by the murder of her family, outcast 1940’s gay homemaker Millicent Monroe faces insurgent Nazis in the Iowa farmlands and consequently discovers deep connection to the community, land, and country that persecuted her.

Okay, that’s not really one of them, but maybe I’ll write that book. We’ll see.

Anyway, three of the four walked away with a similar statement and some communication consulting advice about how to speak, how to make eye contact, when to pause, and how to manage the transition to their larger already prepared pitch.

One, however, didn’t. That one makes the other three all the more interesting. The fourth person had career as a sex education lecturer, consultant, and therapist. She had a values-neutral book about how to talk to kids about sex. Her problem was also emotion, but it wasn’t the emotion of the book and characters. Her problem was that every time she pitched the book, people’s “sex stuff” came up and interfered with their ability to see the product she offered. Her problem was that she needed to disarm her audience’s emotions in order to allow them to look at her work.

That was interesting, so we worked the same problem from the opposite direction and provided her with language that identified her platform and established a context in which the content created result for the readers who bought the book. We brainstormed keywords that would frame the conversation in terms of platform, product, and market. I also recommended that she add an additional agent I knew to her pitch list.

Results?

Over the following couple of days, one-by-one, each of the four sought me out to share their excitement and success. Each one hit—and not just once. They all got requests from every agent and editor they pitched. All of them.

Why?

Here’s the bit that isn’t as obvious. These writers had been prepared by professionals to walk in and deliver fairly lengthy pitches that made use of the time available—ten minutes. Those pitches might have done fine by themselves without my help. However, agents and editors don’t take pitches in order to hear the story that takes a book-length manuscript to tell. The take pitches to filter the masses through sieve in order to find the writers who control character and story. If a writer truly controls the craft of presenting character and story, then the writer can state character, core conflict, and change succinctly.

Conversely, if a writer can state character, core conflict, and change succinctly, it is likely that they control craft well enough to deliver story. When a writer succinctly states the emotional core of character, the conflict that changes them, and the new emotional makeup of the character, agents and editors hear much more than is stated. The result is that they sit up, quite literally, and start to ask questions that can only be answered by reading the manuscript. So, the pitch creates a conversation that leads to a request for pages.

In the unique case of the non-fiction writer, the emotionally charged material wasn’t the problem. The problem was to help people see the product rather than let their emotional response to product become the primary experience of their encounter. It is really a mirror image of the same problem.

But it’s different for different genres, right?

Nope. Genre doesn’t matter on the heart and story level. Never has. Never will. Genre is marketing category. Yes, you don’t pitch space opera to a commercial woman’s fiction editor. Don’t be entirely daft. However, genre isn’t story. Genre is only a taxonomic label for expectations concerning things and events. Sometimes, genre influences the mix of techniques used for telling a story, but genre has nothing to do with heart and soul and hopes and dreams. The story comes from the writer’s heart and seeks to touch the reader’s heart. Pitching is about letting a potential buyer know that the writer understands heart and controls story craft well enough to deliver emotion to the reader.

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What I Learned About Plot by Watching Orphan Black

by Christina Lay

This post is a direct rip-off of Liz Engstrom’s post about the characters in Downton Abbey. But it’s also true I’ve been having this conversation with myself for a while now, an internal discussion inspired by my love/hate relationship with this near future SF TV series. I watched the first three seasons over the course of a few months and a couple times when I turned off my Kindle, I thought I wouldn’t be going back, but I couldn’t resist. Naturally as a writer when I experience both exasperation and fascination, I have to question what’s going on and how the writers have managed to piss me off and hook me in at the same time.

If you haven’t watched the show, this is a British series about clones. Yes, clones. The big secret revealed in the first episode is that the main character, Sarah Manning, is a clone. She meets several of her “sisters”, along the way, all with wildly different personalities, all played by the absolutely amazing Tatiana Maslany.

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Sarah, stuck between a hard place and another hard place, as usual.

We have Sarah, the street-tough Brit with a heart of gold, Beth the cop who’s identity she steals in the first show, Alison the suburban soccer mom, Cosima the nerdy scientist, Helena the psychopathic Ukrainian nut job, Rachel the evil director of an evil corporation, and so on. The best character in the series, in my opinion, is Sarah’s brother Felix, the smart-alec gay artist who is Sarah’s rock, although she constantly ignores his sensible warnings.

All great fodder for a wild SF thriller. So how did this series hook me?

  • Great acting. For a writer, this can translate into great character development and dialogue. In other words, how convincingly we portray our characters on the page.
  • The characters are working toward a solution, finding answers, taking the bull by the horns, etc. They aren’t sitting back waiting to be victimized. Being clones is out of their control, but they never stop fighting back against the Evil Corp that would destroy them.
  • Constant, exciting forward motion of the plot. This can easily be overdone but Orphan Black manages it well, alternating the life-or-death situations with down time for deepening relationships between the characters— just a breather right before they get shoved off the next cliff.
  • Good guys win more of the battles. This is a big one for me. I have a low tolerance for grim, unrelenting BADNESS just for the sake of being grim and bad. While the “war” continues to expand, with more bigger and badder bad guys always crawling out of the woodwork, the immediate LOD situations Sarah finds herself in are usually resolved in a satisfying, aren’t we all relieved she survived/escaped/rescued the kitten etc. sort of way.
  • Plenty of humor and a sense that the writers are aware there is a ridiculous side to this story.
  • Not overdoing the Next Worst Thing. There’s a rule in writing that states in order to keep the conflict and tension building, you should ask yourself what’s the worst thing that could happen to your character and then make it so. Again, easily overdone. I for one get tired of brutality and misery pretty darn quick. Orphan Black definitely has a dark edge and bad things happen, but the hook for me is that although the ‘worst thing’ often looms as a threat, it usually doesn’t happen. This is a big relief to me as a viewer.

So how did this series piss me off?

  • Relentless stupid character syndrome. Making bad decisions over and over. True, these decisions are often what forwards the plot, but I really wanted Sarah to get smarter. There is only so often you can throw yourself against Evil Corp with no plan other than to wave a gun around, get caught, get saved and then do it all over again.
  • Overuse of the Big Coincidence. To the point of eye-rolling and mockery. And it wasn’t even new coincidences, but the same old one used in nearly every episode; no matter how far Sarah runs or how well the characters hide themselves, the bad guys show up like five minutes later with absolutely no explanation of how they ended up there. And don’t even get me started on the pencil to the eyeball moment.
  • Well-meaning bystanders as sacrificial victims. I mentioned above that one of the things I liked about the series was that our heroines tend not to die. Orphan Black gets around this pesky issue and retains its hard edge by pretty much murdering any minor character who decides to help Sarah. This irritates me. I think this is a matter of tone. On one hand, OB is a fun, humorous, somewhat ridiculous thriller, but on the other, it goes for the brutal dystopian view of an Evil Corp run world where bad guys can indiscriminately blow away cops and bartenders with no fear of reprisal. Maybe as writers we can have it both ways, but we have to be much more sparing with our use of senseless violence if we want to keep the viewer/reader who is attracted by a lighter touch.
  • Overuse of theme music. Helena, the psycho sister, comes with her own sound track. Whenever she’s about to do something wacked, the music becomes what I can only describe as techno noise-to-hack-and slash-to. Perhaps it’s off the Serial Killers’ playlist. As a writer, this would take the form of waaaay overdone foreshadowing. In OB, it actually worked the first few times, but then it became comical. You don’t want to rob your wildly flawed villain/heroine of her impact by making her cartoonish. Again it almost seemed as if the writers weren’t sure if they wanted to be funny or scary.
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Cue theme music

Conclusions:

  • Plot is ultimately character-driven. Anything can happen that’s out of the characters’ control: flood, famine, cloning. How the characters respond is what really matters. You can get away with almost anything if you create characters who are interesting, engaging, and yes, likable. I firmly believe you need at least one character to root for in order to keep the readers interest up past the initial “isn’t this interesting” phase of a book or series.
  • Allow your characters to Learn From Their Mistakes and to behave differently. While Sarah gets a little bit softer, she keeps doing the same exact dumb things and endangering everyone around her. There are plenty of new dumb mistakes for characters to make, so why keep rehashing the same old ones?
  • If you’re going to bring in characters simply to give the bad guys someone expendable to kill, do so sparingly. Overuse reduces impact and pisses me off.
  • If you’re writing a thriller, keep it thrilling. Not a lot of introspection going on in OB, but it works because exciting stuff keeps happening, the characters respond in new and inventive ways (unless they’re Sarah), and there is very little time to worry about all the glaring errors in logic.

Ultimately, I stopped watching. To be honest, it was the abuse of the innocents that finally killed it for me. I’m sure some day I’ll get over it and watch Season 4 and whatever comes next, but for the moment, the errors overwhelmed the genius. Perhaps the main lesson to learn is don’t become so enthralled with your inventiveness that you forget to mind the basics.

The Space Between

By Cynthia Ray

I’ve been exploring the space between things over the last few months, in my life and in my art. It all began with Viktor Frankl. In Mans Search for Meaning, he says, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

Frankl.jpgWhat he said about the space between stimulus and response fascinated me, because our words and actions seem so automatic, I couldn’t imagine having that much self control, so I spent time observing, trying to find that space. After a while, I was able to slow down enough to feel the space between, but not enough to change or stop my response. I kept at it, and eventually, after much practice, I was able to slow down even further, and could remain poised there, between the catalyst and my reaction, long enough to choose a new and different response than I had automatically followed in the past. It’s an exhilarating and powerful tool, but like anything, requires practice.

But the space between things is much more than the space between stimulus and response. All of art is about the space between. Where things are placed, how far they are from each other in relationship to each other in a painting is more than just perspective. It is balance between what is and what is not. Music is the space between notes. If that is true, then writing is the space between the words.

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The Space Between Words: The Origins of Silent Reading by Paul Saenger talks about how the spaces between the words were consciously created to move us from oral to a written tradition. We take all of that for granted now, but it was not always so.

He says, “Over the course of the nine centuries following Rome’s fall, the task of separating the words in continuous written text, which for half a millennium had been a function of the individual reader’s mind and voice, became instead a labor of professional readers and scribes. The separation of words (and thus silent reading) originated in manuscripts copied by Irish scribes in the seventh and eighth centuries but spread to the European continent only in the late tenth century.” This resulted in the spread of reading and education among the common people, not just the elite.

Not only does the space between words give order to the story, and make it possible to find the story in the words, but those spaces also carry deep meaning and impact. What is happening in dialogue? What is not said? Sometimes what is not said is far more powerful than what is said and carries a message that can break us apart.  Its not the words that are said, but the ones that are not.  Sometimes the best dialogue is not dialogue.

I started watching what my characters were doing in the space between their actions, in the space between their dialogue, in the space between the catalyst and their response. It is a wonderful place to explore interaction, feeling and nuances.  Looking at what is not, rather than what is, or at what is between what is and what is not.

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If we slow down and take the time to pay attention to that which is hidden right in front of us, we can find those vast in-between spaces in ourselves and the universe we live in to inform our relationships, our lives and our art.

In the space between

the in breath

and the out breath

lie all the worlds

In the place

between heartbeats

all the worlds

tumble to silence

between one thought

and the next

stillness extends out into the universe

                                       C. Ray

What I learned about fictional characters by watching Downton Abbey

By Elizabeth Engstrom

Spoiler alert: If you have not watched this series and intend to, do not read this.

I binge-watched Downton Abbey. Six seasons in two weeks, give or take, while my husband was fishing. As most of you know, this is a completely different experience from watching one hour a week for six years. I was immersed, and could therefore follow storylines very closely. Perhaps too closely.

These are some of the things I learned about a television series that captured the imaginations of pretty much everybody who watched it. We want to learn from the winners.

  1. The Upstairs people had ridiculous problems, and many of the characters were annoying in their lack of self-awareness. When Mary was on the screen, I went to the kitchen for another cup of coffee, or leafed through a magazine. She grated on me.
  2. The opposite of Mary was the Dowager Countess. Loved her. Love Maggie Smith in anything, but in this series, she had the best lines and the best facial expressions.
  3. The Upstairs men were all stupid, and the women surreptitiously controlled everything. I kind of enjoyed this subplot, as His Lordship Earl of Grantham was the big cheese, but never did anything productive in his life except lose his wife’s fortune and love his dog. Her Ladyship the Countess of Grantham knew what was what and took care of business, at least as much as her headstrong daughters would allow.
  4. The Downstairs people were fascinating. I loved every one of them, even the sinister Thomas Barrow, who became not only sympathetic, but eventually redeemed himself. This was a plot line that worked very well for me through the entire series.
  5. The relationship between the Housekeeper, Mrs. Hughes and the Butler, Mr. Carson (he was fantastic!) charmed me. Ditto the relationship between the Cook, Mrs. Patmore, and her assistant Daisy.
  6. My heart was really with the poor Mr. Bates and his darling wife. They were adorable individually and together, and the genius of the show (their storyline was really what kept me interested) is that they were the absolute picture of truth, goodness, and beauty, and injustice kept falling on their heads. First, he’s in prison, then she’s in prison, for offenses they didn’t commit. Then they couldn’t marry. Then they could marry but couldn’t inherit his dead wife’s ill-gotten estate. Then they couldn’t have a baby, the only thing they really wanted. For some reason, the fact that the Upstairs people were fertile and ashamed of it while these sweet people kept miscarrying invoked an interesting series of emotions.
  7. The series lasted one year too long. The writers were reaching for storylines by the end.

So, what did I learn about fiction from this marathon binge?

  1. Visit continual and horrific injustices on the nicest people.
  2. Let evil people run their evil almost to the breaking point, and then make them pay with whatever is dearest to them.
  3. Reward good people for their good works, but do it with a light touch. Let the reader/viewer fill in the happy ending details. Remember, fiction is about conflict.
  4. Let those who are their own worst enemy reap the rewards of their own making.
  5. Let the wily old ladies steal the scene. And
  6. Don’t keep writing just because you love the characters. Know when to quit, put in a period and write “The End.”

I know, these are not new insights, nor are they earth-shattering revelations. But it’s always good to pick apart something that works and see what makes it tick.

And now a question for you: What did you learn about fictional characters by watching the series finale of The Good Wife?

Populating Fiction

By Elizabeth Engstrom

It’s stating the obvious to say that the characters are the most important element of a story. But most writers, particularly beginners, don’t spend enough time designing the population of their book, and the result is lukewarm fiction.

Remember that your protagonist can only be as strong as your antagonist, and that plot is conflict.

Remember that if you don’t spend time designing your characters, they will all sound and act like you.

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Remember that fictional characters are all a little bit larger than life. By this I mean that your protagonist will have his good qualities exaggerated a little bit, and your antagonist will have his evil qualities exaggerated a little bit. But nobody is all good or all bad, except cartoon characters, so every one of those you choose to act out your message must be well-rounded personalities.

One handy tool for character development is the list of the Seven Deadly Sins: anger, greed, gluttony, envy, pride, lust and sloth. On the other side of this are the Seven Principal Virtues: prudence, courage, justice, self-control, faith, hope and charity. Mix and match these qualities in every one of your characters.

Pay attention to their names. Don’t burden your book with nondescript names like Bill, Bob, Joe, Tim, Stan, Debbie, Jane, Betty and Linda. Think Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lecter. Think Jim Nightshade, Scarlett O’Hara, Rhett Butler, Count Dracula, Major Major, Victor Frankenstein, Mary Poppins, Peter Pan.

Take every opportunity to reveal your characters’ insides. Show their hands. Hands tell a lot about a person. Show your readers how your characters react to children and animals. Show your readers the inside of your character’s refrigerator. Is his house filled with lush, thriving houseplants or is there one dead cactus on the windowsill? Give your characters guilts, pet peeves, irritants, quirks and physical oddities. Know their backgrounds and their (hopefully quirky and memorable) families in great detail. If you believe in astrology, know your characters’ signs, and their siblings’ signs and how they relate with each other.

But most importantly, reveal your characters’ emotions, for it is through their emotions that your message is conveyed to the reader. Remember that your protagonists are usually unlikely heroes. Fiction is about people in trouble. We all react strongly when trouble is visited upon us. When you think about “writing what you know,” instead of thinking about your mundane life, think love, hate, anger, joy, grief, disappointment and triumph. Your characters may live in a different time or be of an alien race, but they will have human emotions, and your readers will resonate with that.

For an extraordinary trip through a character’s development and emotional content, read Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell. There’s a reason this book is a classic, and if it’s been over ten years since you’ve read it, it’s time to revisit it. Read Watership Down by Richard Adams for an example of superb writing with non-humans as the characters. Invest in a good book of names and their meanings. And for a great reference tool for fictional relationships, Linda Goodman’s Love Signs can’t be beat.

The Faith of the Character

By Elizabeth Engstrom

One of the first things I do when I’m designing a character for a book is to distinguish that character from me. If I don’t pay particular attention to this detail, the characters all tend to sound like me. Middle age, middle class, average everything. But that, for the most part, does not make a memorable character.

A perfect example of this is in our current political climate. Look at Donald Trump and look at Jeb Bush. Which is more memorable? Which is bigger than life? Which would make a better fictional character?

So I exaggerate certain aspects of my characters’ personalities. I tend to use the Seven Deadly Sins (pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, and sloth) and the Seven Principal Virtues (prudence, justice, temperance, faith, hope, charity, and love), knowing, of course, that no bad guy is all bad and no good guy is all good. We’re all a mix of those things. Pick a few from column A and a few from column B and you have the start of a character.

faith

Today I’m thinking about one character’s faith. He’s not a church going guy. If he were, that would be easy. He’s Catholic. Or Mormon. Or Muslim. Or something else that’s easy to identify. And if you have a character who goes to mass every morning or to the Synagogue once a week or goes to meditation class once a month, you need say little more about the faith that grounds their moral character.

But some of us are more difficult to define than that.  Even if you never speak of your characters’ faith, you—as Creator of that character—need to know their heart. Their faith, no matter how flimsy, still underpins the foundation of their actions.

A violent character can feel violent recriminations for his/her actions, based on his or her faith. Or a violent character can feel great justifications for those same actions, depending. And that can be the same character.

Again, we can look to the current group of presidential candidates and see how their faith informs their actions. Or fails to inform their actions.  Is a candidate’s actions consistent with how he or she proclaims their faith?

And your characters? Do they toe the line, or do they find justifications for veering off?

Either way, when you know the depth of their faith, you know the depth of their character.

Designing a character is time well spent. Don’t overlook this very basic ingredient.