Who Are You?

A Pen In Each Hand

By Beaver

This one’s for those of you who find yourself falling down internet rabbit holes when you should be doing something else.

Set a timer. ⏱ How long is up to you—adapt it to the time you have available. For example, if you have a half-hour of free time, set your timer for 15 minutes.

Pick any real person, dead or alive, and find out everything you can about them. Type their name into your favorite search engine… and go! Click from link to link, but with purpose. In the course of your research, if you find someone (or something) more interesting than your original subject, don’t hesitate to make a detour. You’re looking for a story idea—an intriguing character, an unsolved mystery, a fantastic setting.

Time’s up! Stop researching, set your timer for the remainder of your time, and write, using your research as inspiration.

This exercise can be done any time, anywhere, as long as you have your phone with you, and is a great way to make productive use of time you might otherwise spend aimlessly surfing.

Fictional Fête: 15 Fantasy Guests

Absolute BlankBy Shelley Carpenter (Harpspeed)

Dear Fiction Readers and Writers,

Do you remember that cool TV show from the 1970s—Fantasy Island? For some of you this may be a way-before-your-time era, but for the rest of you, you might recall a Mr. Roarke and his cute little friend, Tattoo, who entertained guests in their fantasy pursuits. They would wait at the Fantasy Island dock in their matching white tuxedos at the start of every episode. “The Plane! The Plane!” I imagined in my own kid-way what my fantasy would be should I pay the million-dollar guest ticket price for my fantasy to become real. I had many fantasies (which I won’t share!), but sadly I never could afford the million-dollar fee.

I’ve grown up since then and have discovered that there are other ways to a good fantasy that are “off-island.” Here’s one of mine: I’m having a small fête this month. I’ve decided to invite only the people I like: good and bad, famous and infamous alike. The thing is that the guests are fictitious characters from a few of my favorite novels. (I have many favorites!) The venue is my imagination.

Bon Appetite!
Harpspeed

P.S. In case you are curious, my character guest list follows:

Background Image: Jesper Larsen-Ledet/Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa)

Background Image: Jesper Larsen-Ledet/Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa)

  1. Icy Sparks (from Icy Sparks by Gwyn Hyman Rubio)

Ten-year-old orphan Icy Sparks is from 1950s Kentucky who has an interesting trait: uncontrollable tics and some of the most outrageous cursing I have ever heard. She is someone who really says what she thinks. Icy doesn’t know it but she has Tourette Syndrome. I like her very much because she is a precocious, quirky character who changes the other characters in her story. I would vote for her if she ran for president.

  1. Mina Murray (from Dracula by Bram Stoker)

Wilhelmina ”Mina” Murray is a remarkable character and a marvel, she (I can’t recall if I’m remembering Winona Ryder from the 1990s film version) and that modern fancy-dancy typewriter that she uses to type personal letters to her fiancée, Jonathan, who’s under the impression that he’s the hero in Stoker’s horror story—when in fact it is Mina who is the real star. If you don’t believe me—ask Dracula. Mina’s character marks the rise of the modern female detective. If I go missing, please call Mina. Posthaste!

  1. Dustfinger (from Inkheart by Cornelia Funke)

Dustfinger is a supporting character that I followed in Funke’s three-volume story, Inkheart. He is a tragic and talented character who can breathe fire and curiously is also a reluctant hero. He has his own agenda but puts it aside to help the other protagonists. Still, Dustfinger can be unreliable and is sometimes a curmudgeon. Aren’t we all at some time? I enjoyed his dry wit and actor Paul Bettany’s very human portrayal of this complicated character in the film version, too. I think Dustfinger would amaze my guests with his special skills, but I won’t pay him until the show is over!

  1. Hig
  2. Bangley
  3. Jasper (from The Dog Stars by Peter Heller)

Hig is the main character in Peter Heller’s post-apocalyptic story, The Dog Stars. Hig is optimistic, philosophical, and loves nature. He flies around in a small Cessna plane with his faithful dog, Jasper, looking for signs of life and renewal all the while quoting Whitman and Johnny Cash. I think I met my literary soulmate in Heller’s story, if that is possible. If I invite him to my dinner party he will probably bring Jasper and his cranky friend, Bangley, who balances Hig’s optimism with his self-righteous mistrust of everyone and everything and whom I also like very much. You can’t invite one without inviting the other. It wouldn’t be very kind with the lack of people in their lonely world and limited opportunity for socializing. There is plenty of room at my table, and besides, who doesn’t love a good argument with their dinner? Please pass the **** salt!

  1. Mary Beth Mayfair (from The Witching Hour by Ann Rice)

Remind me to warn my guests that Mary Beth is a witch. (Some people are squeamish about that kind of thing.) Not the pointed black hat kind but rather the modern-world kind of witch. She comes from a long line of witches. You could say that it is the family business. I don’t like everyone in her family, but I do like her. She is very kind to strangers and children and exceptionally talented in bilocation and managing money. (Did I mention that her family are millionaires?) In fact, if she ever gives you money, she’ll tell you to spend it quick because somehow coin or cash always return to their place of origin be it Mary Beth’s coat pocket or beaded purse. She’s the bee’s knees for sure! Wouldn’t she be fun to go shopping with?

  1. Laura Ingalls Wilder (from The Little House Books by Laura Ingalls Wilder)

I know what you are thinking—but how can I not invite Laura? She is one of my oldest character-friends. Laura is a protagonist in her own life story that is truly memoir. Heck, they even made a TV series about her life. There’s that, and the fact that she was a big influence on me both personally and professionally. I quite figuratively and literally grew up with her. Her stories kept me company and occupied me on many a rainy day, during the long, boring, sometimes tumultuous middle years up through my teens and beyond. I caught up with her again in my twenties and later again in the classroom. Laura was one of my icons in children’s literature and has earned her velvet chair at my table. Subject closed. Icy will be her dinner partner. Maybe I’ll seat Jasper between them just for fun. Dogs are people, too, you know.

  1. Kirby Mazrachi (from The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes)

When I think of this character, the word tenacious pops up into my head. It’s a perfect adjective for her and if you’ve met her already you will understand and perhaps agree. You see, Kirby, single-handedly went after a time-traveling serial killer who targeted his victims when they were children. It gives me chills just thinking about her adversary, a serial killer—very creepy bedtime reading—and his modus operandi of stalking little girls and then returning for them when they were older. Kirby was one of his victims, but she survived him and decided to end this creep’s career. It wasn’t easy because she had to navigate in a crime story that was also science fiction. How do you track someone through time? Kirby found a way. I’ll seat her next to Mina. They have much in common. Don’t you agree?

  1. Mr. Rochester (from Jane Eyre by Emily Bronte)

Oh my stars! Edmund Charles Fairfax Rochester is wonderful! Maybe you have met him already if you have read Jane Eyre? He is an amazing character. He is probably the best friend anyone could ever have next to Jasper, of course. He is so charming and witty and interesting and mysterious in a beguiling, romantic way, of course. He’s the quintessential Romantic Era hero. He always says what he means and even though he can be aloof and secretive, he never lies… well, except maybe once to Jane, but really who could blame him? I will have to warn my guests not to get too attached to him. He’s already taken.

  1. Scarlett O’Hara (from Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell)

Katy Scarlett O’Hara seems to have a dark cloud hanging over her all the time. But the thing about Scarlett is that no matter how bad things get—and they do get pretty bad by modern standards—she loses her baby, her husband, her friends, and her home to the Yankees. Yet despite it all, Scarlett is always so very optimistic. After all, “Tomorrow is another day.” She doesn’t stay down long. She is an also an opportunist. What I call an optimistic-opportunist because she always finds a way to get what she wants or what she needs, by default—if you can call Rhett Butler a default. I wouldn’t. Anyway, she’s coming and hopefully not dressed in the living room drapes and she will be sitting between Bangley and Dustfinger. Oh what fun!

  1. Ralph Truit (from A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick)

As you might have guessed, I’m a sucker for romance and the American West. Ralph is, too, even though he says he isn’t. He’s the worst kind of romantic—hopeless! Anyway, he placed an advertisement in a Chicago newspaper in 1907 for an “honest and reliable wife” and got more than he bargained for when a woman named Catherine Land answered his advertisement and, let’s say, stole his heart among other things. But don’t feel too badly for Ralph. He had a plan of his own and Catherine was quite surprised, as was I. Ralph will be sitting next to Hig; they are both pretty even-tempered individuals and I think would get on well.

  1. Jim Quick (from Darling Jim by Christian Moerk Holt)

Jim is a storyteller who travels around Ireland, going from pub to pub on his Harley like a bad-boy from the bygone beat generation, seducing young women, stealing from them, and maybe killing them, too. Nobody is perfect! Not even Jim. However, Jim is a wonderful antagonist who picked the wrong women to prey on: three feisty Irish sisters who I think got the better of him—or was it the other way around? I’m hoping Jim will have some stories to share. Don’t worry! I will turn out his pockets when he arrives and hide the butter and steak knives before and after dinner. He’ll be sitting with Mina and Kirby. Those two will keep him out of trouble, no doubt.

  1. Harpspeed

As for me, my story is still being written.

  1. Reader

I left an empty seat for you, dearest Toasted Cheese reader and writer. Come fraternize.

Who’s On Your Guest List?

A Pen In Each HandBy Harpspeed

Dear Fiction Readers and Writers,

It’s your turn. Imagine you could meet a favorite character from a work of fiction. Any character. Whom would you choose? A character from your own shelves? A character from your past? Or how about a character you haven’t met yet? Perhaps, someone who was once recommended to you? (For me it would be that astronaut from the book and the film, The Martian.) A stranger-character? How intriguing that would be!

Now imagine you could invite a dozen or more characters to your house for a party or a backyard barbecue or what-have-you? The trick is to know your characters well, to be select with your choices: Would they like each other? Would they share similar traits or politics? Would you break out the tequila or the sherry or make a grab for Chekov’s gun on the wall?

Please share this occasion with your friends at Toasted Cheese. Tell us who you plan to invite and do tell us why. Or tell us after the fact. Was it a “screaming” success or did you lose a few guests? Did any characters run off together? Any foul play? Just a sentence or two is fine. We can read between the lines. We’re pretty good at that.

Harpspeed
TC Reviews Editor

P.S. A few words to the wise: You may want to steer clear of the psychopaths and vampires. They can be so unpredictable! If you insist on inviting one or more, be sure to have a strong antagonist or protagonist with them to keep them in check. And be mindful: characters can change whether for good or for bad. Those are the best characters and the most interesting guests! They also stay with us long after their stories resolve.

Mashup

A Pen In Each Hand

By Beaver

  1. Pull any four novels off your shelves.
  2. Flip through the first book randomly. Write down the first name you see. This will be your main character‘s name. Repeat at least one more time (so you have a minimum of two characters) but as many times as you like. (Remember you’ll have to incorporate them into your story, though, so don’t get too carried away.)
  3. Open the second book randomly. The first place name or description you see (e.g. London, bedroom, mountains) will be your primary setting.
  4. Flip through the third book randomly. Write down the first five events you see. These will form the backbone of your plot.
  5. Open the fourth book randomly. Base the theme of your story on the first emotion you see (envy, fear, guilt, grief, happiness, jealousy, love, pride, shame, trust, etc.).
  6. Make the story your own by using your own style to combine these elements.

 

Writing Diverse Characters

A Pen In Each Hand

By Billiard

Create a character with a distinctly different gender/ethnicity/sexuality than yourself.

Looking for resources to help you write authentic characters?

Sex and Setting

A Pen In Each Hand

By Baker

  1. Set a story or poem in the town you’re in right now.
  2. Set a story or a poem in a real place you’ve spent a week or less visiting.
  3. Vanessa Blakeslee said that she doesn’t do a lot of backstory or biography for characters in her short fiction. Start writing the story of a character named Lee who is riding public transportation or driving a car. You know nothing about Lee. Just write and see where you both go.
  4. In a few days, go back to Lee and fill in any necessary biographical information you created while working. How does it change your story, if at all?
  5. Vanessa said that the absence of love and sex in fiction is “as noticeable as an elephant in the room.” Go back to a stalled or abandoned story or poem and add a previous or current sexual relationship or encounter to the action. How does it change the story? How does it change your characters? As an extra challenge, push your scene or backstory out of your character’s (or your) personal comfort level.

See Through a Glass, Darkly:
View Your Story Through Your Character’s Filters

Absolute Blank

By Amanda Marlowe (The Bellman)

All that we experience is filtered through our preconceptions, our previous experiences, our beliefs, our prejudices, our misunderstandings. No two human beings view things entirely the same way. In some way, there really is no objective truth. Four million people can read your story and come away with four million interpretations. Many may vary only by a small amount, but no two will be exactly the same, and none will be the same as the one you were working with when you wrote it.

Consider this exchange in Hamlet:

Hamlet:
What have you, my good friends, deserv’d at the hands of
Fortune, that she sends you to prison hither?

Guildenstern:
Prison, my lord?

Hamlet:
Denmark’s a prison.

Rosencrantz:
Then is the world one.

Hamlet:
A goodly one, in which there are many confines, wards, and
dungeons, Denmark being one o’ th’ worst.

Rosencrantz:
We think not so, my lord.

Hamlet:
Why then ’tis none to you; for there is nothing either good or
bad, but thinking makes it so. To me it is a prison.

Hamlet Act 2, scene 2, 239–251

Hamlet sums it up very well—thinking makes it so. How we think about things determines how we react, and how we think about things is determined by our filters. We all have filters. Some we are aware of, some we are not. Some filters help us see the glass as half empty, some help us see it as half full.

Some filters are so strong, they distort everything that comes into the brain. You probably know someone with a filter like that: the coworker that turns everything you say into an insult, the partner that takes any disagreeing statement as proof of your failure to be loyal, the friend that interprets every previous commitment as a passive-aggressive way to show that you no longer like him, the child that assumes that everything you say is a command… And eventually, the constant distortion ends up bringing about the very thing the filter is trying to prevent.

Your characters should have filters too. In fact, they do. You probably just think about it as “characterization” rather than filters. But thinking about your characterization in terms of filters can help you develop characters that are self-consistent in their reactions. Knowing their key filters and really thinking about what events look like through those filters is the first step. The next is to figure out what emotions would follow from the filtered event. Then figure out what the response would be to the filtered event—preferably while those emotions are at their peak. This process will give your characters truly authentic responses to key situations that show your audience how multi-dimensional and uniquely human they are.

Consider the following primary mental filters that three different characters might have:

Character 1: I can’t do anything right. Everyone hates me. No one respects me. They all think I am stupid.

Character 2: Everyone in my life leaves me. I am always alone. I can’t form any lasting relationships, and I don’t know why.

Character 3: I never have anything worthwhile to say. I don’t even know why I bother having any ideas, no one cares what I think anyway.

Now, imagine that each of these characters is a writer, and that they each get the exact same form rejection letter from an agent.

How would each feel?

Character 1: This character would probably get angry. The anger would start with the self (I never do anything right) and that anger would quickly move on to the agent that sent the rejection (Everyone thinks I am stupid).

Character 2: This character would probably feel betrayed. Even though the relationship did not yet exist, the character feels this is yet another example of being abandoned. The feeling of betrayal would probably lead to feelings of depression and loneliness.

Character 3: This character would probably feel worthless and insecure. They would withdraw inward. Once again, there is proof that they truly have nothing interesting to say.

Now, what might each of these characters do in response to the letter?

Character 1: This character is in a rage and blaming the agent. This state of mind would lead to a rash action that will boomerang on the character. Perhaps the character would send off a vitriolic and threatening letter to the agent and end up blacklisted.

Character 2: This character is feeling lonely and betrayed. In this state of mind, the character might seek out a bar hoping that a drink would dull the pain, and that they might be able to find some companion there that won’t betray them.

Character 3: This character would accept the judgement of irrelevance, and give up writing. Perhaps medical school would at least please the parents, who think writing is impractical anyway.

When multiple characters have very different filters, use the filters to up the tension. For example, suppose Character 2 and Character 3 are best friends, and 2 wants 3 to go bar hopping to “drown the pain of rejection.” Character 3 has given up on writing. The medical school application is due next week, and mom and dad have expressed their joy in the new plan. Character 3 says, “Sorry, can’t make it, and I won’t be in the writing group any more.” This plays right into Character 2’s major filter, and a blowup ensues that threatens the friendship.

Authentic responses come from the interaction of common events with unique personal filters. To get you started in thinking with filters, ask yourself the following questions:

  • In what ways are my character’s views of events affected by the way my character thinks? (These will be clues to identifying your character’s filters.)
  • What are my character’s primary filters? Do they color things in a positive way? In a negative way?
  • How strong are those filters?
  • How distorted are the filters?
  • How did the character get the filters? From a defining event? Gradually over time?
  • What types of inputs reinforce the filter?
  • What types of inputs “break through” the filter?

Then look through the glass darkly:

  • What emotions result from the filtered event?
  • What actions do those emotions lead to?
  • How does one character’s filter play off the very different filter of another character?
  • Does the story depend on the filter changing in some way? If so, what will make it change, and what will it change into?

And remember: there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.

Final Poll Results

Interview with a Dark Lord:
Creating Villainous Characters

Absolute Blank

By Amanda Marlowe (The Bellman)

In my never-ending quest for good writing tips, I, intrepid Toasted Cheese Editor, braved the Dark Lord’s lair to get some first-hand insight into what makes a good villainous lair.

Unfortunately, this editor fell into the first trap in the first Dark Tower. In order to gain enough time to escape, I used the old “get them talking about their evil plans” trick. So, change of plans. Instead of a piece on the villainous lair, a piece on the villainous character, gleaned from our conversation.

TC: So, Evil Villain Character, how are you feeling these days?

Dark Lord: Frankly, I’m feeling a little flat. But what do you expect when you are continually described as “The Lord of Evil” or “The Ultimate Killing Machine” and never given any other motive or depth in your evil doings?

TC: Well, labels are a quick way to identify a character type. What do you have against that?

Dark Lord: Look, I know as the Antagonist I’m playing second fiddle to the Lord High Fully-Realized Protagonist, but that doesn’t mean I’m just a cardboard cutout villain. Your standard protagonist comes complete with a past, motivation, and a flaw. Why can’t I get the same kind of attention?

TC: A flaw? You want a flaw?

Dark Lord: Damn right, I do. People are complicated. Look at Darth Vader, for example. First movie he is the ultimate in villainy. Black cloak, black mask, kills anyone who gets in his way. A stereotypical Lord of the Sith, if you will. And then what happens? Give him a little popularity, and suddenly he’s the protagonist’s father, and much more complicated than anyone ever imagined. And then we see how he was lured into evil, and how his flaw, caring too much, turns him into the evil guy we all know and love, or maybe hate. But why couldn’t we see some of that in the original movie? Was he really designed with that flaw? Not much evidence of it at the beginning.

And that’s what is bugging me right now. I’m just this evil dude. No one knows I was tortured as a child, no one knows I believe I am doing the right thing for my people, they just think I’m evil, and that’s the end of it. Take Sauron from Lord of the Rings for example. he is a total cardboard Dark Lord. He sits in his dark tower and sends his minions forth to do evil. You don’t really know why, or if he’s anything more than evil. He is just there to be defeated. Maybe I was good once, but became so proud that I turned into a dictator, thinking I knew better than everyone else. Like that Boromir dude in Lord of the Rings, who might have turned into something awful if he had survived. I mean, he just wanted the ring of power to save his people, but he was proud, and his pride would have been his downfall. Or maybe I loved a woman who ditched me for another, and I swore my revenge on her family. Or maybe I have good intentions, but can’t see the dangerous consequences of my actions, and don’t notice how I made it all the way to hell.

TC: So what kind of flaw do you want?

Dark Lord: Well, the best kind is a flaw that is either similar to the protagonist’s, so that the reader can see how “there but for circumstances goes the hero” or one that is opposite to the protagonist’s, so they can play off each other and feed each other’s weaknesses and strengths. Either of those choices makes for good dramatic tension.

TC: But what about the ultimate battle of Good versus Evil? If you are complicated, and have a flaw like the protagonist’s flaw, doesn’t that make things messy and uncertain?

Dark Lord: Life is messy and uncertain. That’s the joy of fiction, to explore the mess and uncertainty. The best villains are the ones you love to hate. No one loves a stereotype. Really. Look at Shakespeare. None of his villains are cut and dried. They have their own agendas, and they do very evil things, but in the end, they are only human. Take a look at Richard III for example. All twisted evil, but why?

“I, that am curtail’d of this fair proportion,
Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,
Deformed, unfinish’d, sent before my time
Into this breathing world, scarce half made up,
And that so lamely and unfashionable
That dogs bark at me as I halt by them;
Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace,
Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to spy my shadow in the sun
And descant on mine own deformity:
And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover,
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.”

That’s really all I am asking for: to be human. I just can’t be interesting if I am not human. Even if I am an evil monster, even if I control millions of evil minions, even if I am a mass murderer, or even if I am just a schoolyard bully, and yes, even if I am some weird sort of alien, I am still human. If you prick me, do I not bleed? Why can’t I bleed meaningfully, instead of stereotypically?

TC: So you are saying you don’t want to be an archetype?

Dark Lord: Not at all. Nothing wrong with an archetype. But don’t confuse that with a stereotype. People are comfortable with archetypes, the various character types that permeate our literature. We expect, in the ultimate battle of good against evil that there be a villainous Dark Lord. That’s why we have them. But stereotypes are shortcuts, cardboard cutouts, and the lazy writer’s way out of understanding a character. Nothing wrong with making me a Dark Lord. But make me a specific Dark Lord, with my own personality and my own issues. Then I will be an archetype. But if you can’t tell me apart from a host of other Dark Lords out there, I’m a stereotype.

TC: So, what is it that you are asking your author to do?

Dark Lord: Just give me the same amount of thought as you give your main character. It’s fine to make me evil, but keep me human. Make me more than just Dark Lord #21,403. Use the same character development lists for me as you use for the protagonist. You can even base me on people you know the same way you might your protagonist: what might drive you or someone you know over that line between good and evil? What characteristics of good do you or others have that could get twisted into something hideous, or even just into something twisted?

TC: Wait, I’m not evil… how can I base something evil on me?

Dark Lord: Mwahahaha! I think that is one reason I tend to end up so two-dimensional. Totally evil people are far removed from our own flaws. We might have cracks, but hey, we aren’t totally evil like that character, so that’s ok! People are often afraid to acknowledge their own flaws, their own cracks. Afraid that if they admit to having a bit of the beast in them, the beast will win. That’s human, too. But we all know there is a dark corner in everyone. If you allow your villain to have a bit of the hero inside, and your hero to have a bit of the villain inside, then both characters can connect with the reader on a much deeper level.

TC: Well, I think it is time to free myself from this trap now. Thanks for the long backstory and lecturing while I undid my bonds and let my friends in…

Dark Lord: Eh, well, some conventions are still hard to overcome. But be careful on the way out: my evil minions actually practice aiming and hitting their targets.

Final Poll Results

Writer’s Glossary, Part I: Elements of Fiction Construction

Absolute Blank

By Stephanie Lenz (Baker)

Welcome to the first of Toasted Cheese’s new “Writer’s Glossary” series.

This article defines elements of fiction construction (characters and story elements). These are some of the most common storytelling elements, ones that writers and readers use when speaking about the story. If you don’t know what an editor meant when she said “the narrative didn’t work for me” or “I enjoyed the relationship between the nemesis and the antagonist,” this article might be the resource you’ve been hoping to find. Of course this glossary is not all-inclusive but it should give you a good foundation for you to perform further research.

The second Writer’s Glossary is scheduled for October 2009 and will be about the business of writing and publishing.

Writer's Glossary, Part I

Background Photo: SpeakingLatino.com/Flickr (CC-by-sa).

People in the Story

Narrator: the voice within the work telling the story.

  • Nick Carraway, The Great Gatsby
  • Holden Caulfield, The Catcher In the Rye
  • Scout Finch, To Kill A Mockingbird
  • Chief Bromden, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
  • Unreliable narrator: a narrator whose credibility is compromised.
    • Patrick Bateman, American Psycho
    • Dr. James Sheppard, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

Protagonist: the main character.

  • Scarlett O’Hara, Gone With the Wind
  • Jake Barnes, The Sun Also Rises
  • Celie, The Color Purple
  • Hero: a protagonist who faces and overcomes extraordinary challenges.
    • Harry Potter, the Harry Potter series
    • Frodo Baggins, The Lord of the Rings
  • False protagonist: a character who seems to be the protagonist until he is disposed of and a new protagonist takes over.
    • Bernard Marx, Brave New World (new protagonists: Helmholtz Watson, John)
    • Mary Crane, Psycho (new protagonist: Norman Bates)

Antagonist: a main character (or group) working against the protagonist.

  • Mister, The Color Purple
  • Randall Flag, The Stand
  • Nurse Ratched, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest
  • Villain: a main character who works in opposition to a hero.
    • Lord Voldemort in the Harry Potter series
    • Sauron in The Lord of the Rings
    • Jame Gumb in The Silence of the Lambs
  • Nemesis: A character who creates trouble for the protagonist but is not necessarily opposed to his goals.
    • Fagin, Oliver Twist
    • Gollum, The Hobbit, The Two Towers and Return of the King
    • Severus Snape, the Harry Potter series.

Foil: a character whose contrast with another character, usually the protagonist, underscores aspects of the other character’s personality. The characteristics they share are often superficial, such as appearance or a shared history.

  • In Hamlet, Laertes acts as a foil to Hamlet in that both men experience the loss of their fathers via murder (Polonius by Hamlet and King Hamlet by Claudius, respectively) but while Hamlet has spent the play deciding what to do to avenge his father, Laertes acts immediately by challenging Hamlet to a duel, underscoring Hamlet’s indecision.

Archetype: a generalization about individuals as created and reflected by the whole of a culture.

  • Father/Mother Figure (Sirius Black/Molly Weasley, The Harry Potter series)
  • Trickster (Peeves the Poltergeist, The Harry Potter series)
  • Mentor (Remus Lupin, The Harry Potter series)

Stereotype: a generalization about a group of people, which varies among cultures often based on prejudice. Common stereotypes tend to be applied to ethnic, racial or economic groups or classes.

Stock character: more narrowly defined than archetypes, stock characters can act as shorthand for an author to introduce a character about whom the reader already has an expectation or knowledge.

  • The hooker with the heart of gold, the ugly duckling or the “redshirt” (i.e. an expendable character who appears only to be eliminated, referring to the red shirts worn by undeveloped Star Trek characters who appeared as part of the crew for away missions during which they would be killed).

 

Elements of the Story

Narrative: the telling of the events of the story by the narrator; the way in which the narrator communicates the story to the reader

Prose: a free form writing style which uses full sentences and paragraphs, reflective of everyday language.

Voice: the unique way in which a writer uses elements like syntax (word order), character development, plot structure, etc.

Plot: The main sequence of events. (See also.)

  • Subplot:a secondary storyline, usually involving secondary characters
  • Plot hole: a gap in the logic established by the story
  • Plot device: an element introduced in order to move the story forward. Examples include deus ex machina or a MacGuffin.
    • Deus ex machina: literally “God from the machine” – an unexpected event which serves to alter action in the story or solve conflict
    • MacGuffin: an object that is not as important as the motivation of the characters to acquire it. Examples include the Maltese Falcon or the “papers of transit” in the film Casablanca.

Act: a unit of the overall story. There are usually three acts: the first act establishes character, place and scenario, the second introduces and perpetuates conflict and the third includes the climax and dénouement (ending). Acts tend to take up ¼, ½ and ¼ of the story respectively.

Pace: the rate of flow for the action.

Theme: an idea or message conveyed in the work, usually conveyed in an abstract way. Themes may be simple or complex and there may be several minor themes in addition to a main theme in a long work.

Atmosphere: the mood of the story

Symbolism: something in your story used to evoke something else. Symbolism may be cultural/universal or contextual/authorial.

Tone: the feel of the work.

  • serious, humorous, sarcastic, playful, etc.

Cliché: a saying or expression that is so common it lacks substantial meaning.

  • cuts like a knife
  • thick as pea soup

Dialogue/dialog: words spoken by characters; written conversations.

Dialect: speech patterns, determined by factors like region or social class, including vocabulary, pronunciation and grammar.

Flashback: shifts the action of the story to a previous point in time and then back to current action.

Foreshadowing: hinting at an event which will come later in the story.

Frame: “surrounds” the main story as a narrative technique that provides context for the story within.

  • Frankenstein
  • Wuthering Heights
  • Heart of Darkness
  • The Turn of the Screw

Metaphor/simile: connects seemingly unrelated objects (simile uses “like” or “as” to accomplish this). Specific metaphor types include:

  • allegory: an extended metaphor that illustrates an important attribute of the subject
  • catachresis: mixed metaphor, one that connects two disparate identifications (ex: While looking for the needle in the haystack, make sure you don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater)
  • parable: extended metaphor that teaches a moral lesson

Persona: usually refers to a unifying force throughout a book, linking different situations and narratives and guiding the reader through the work, sometimes subtly suggesting conclusions or opinions the reader should have about characters or situations, in the opinion of the author. The persona is not the same as the narrator.

  • Authors who have used regularly personas include James Joyce (Ulysses) , William Faulkner (As I Lay Dying) and Charles Dickens.

Exposition: Opening narrative used to orient readers in the story.

Rising action: Narrative leading up to the climax.

Crisis: a turning point; a moment of decision; there may be several crises in long works of fiction or drama.

  • Celie standing up to and leaving Mister, The Color Purple
  • Janie shoots Tea Cake, Their Eyes Were Watching God

Climax: The height of action, the ultimate crisis or turning point where several elements combine to create “fireworks” (even though the climax may be a quiet moment with little action).

  • The fight over Daisy, between Tom and Gatsby, The Great Gatsby
  • Holden gives his red hunting hat to Phoebe, The Catcher In The Rye

Falling action: Narrative following the climax, leading to the dénouement.

Dénouement: the resolution of the plot (sometimes called “catastrophe” in tragedy).

Catharsis: purification, cleansing or purging, often symbolic in literature.

  • Brutus’s death in Julius Caesar
  • Gatsby’s body floating in the pool, The Great Gatsby

POV: Point of view. Point of view is either first person (“I” or “we”), second person (narrative voice addresses the reader as “you”) or third person (calls characters by name). Third-person POV may be limited (action shown through one character) or omniscient (action may be shown through any character’s experiences).

  • First person POV: Rebecca; The Great Gatsby
  • Second Person POV: Bright Lights, Big City
  • Third person limited POV: Harry Potter series
  • Third person omniscient POV: The Lord of the Rings

Narrative mode: encompasses POV and includes elements like stream of consciousness or the reliability of the narrator

Sequel/prequel: The events of a sequel fall after the events in a previous work. The events of a prequel come before the events of the previous work.

  • The Silence of the Lambs (sequel to Red Dragon).
  • The Magician’s Nephew (prequel to The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, both part of The Chronicles of Narnia).

Info dump: A chunk of information, usually exposition, not integrated into the story, usually superfluous to the action

AYKB: “As you know, Bob…” Implausible dialogue often used to explain something to the reader that the characters already know; an “info dump” disguised as dialogue. Here are some examples from Dracula:

“It is the eve of St. George’s Day. Do you not know that to-night, when the clock strikes midnight, all the evil things in the world will have full sway? Do you know where you are going, and what you are going to?” She was in such evident distress that I tried to comfort her, but without effect. Finally, she went down on her knees and implored me not to go; at least to wait a day or two before starting. –Bram Stoker, Dracula, Ch 1

When all was ready, Van Helsing said, “Before we do anything, let me tell you this. It is out of the lore and experience of the ancients and of all those who have studied the powers of the Un-Dead. When they become such, there comes with the change the curse of immortality. They cannot die, but must go on age after age adding new victims and multiplying the evils of the world. For all that die from the preying of the Un-dead become themselves Un-dead, and prey on their kind. And so the circle goes on ever widening, like as the ripples from a stone thrown in the water. Friend Arthur, if you had met that kiss which you know of before poor Lucy die, or again, last night when you open your arms to her, you would in time, when you had died, have become nosferatu, as they call it in Eastern Europe, and would for all time make more of those Un-Deads that so have filled us with horror. The career of this so unhappy dear lady is but just begun. Those children whose blood she sucked are not as yet so much the worse, but if she lives on, Un-Dead, more and more they lose their blood and by her power over them they come to her, and so she draw their blood with that so wicked mouth. But if she die in truth, then all cease. The tiny wounds of the throats disappear, and they go back to their play unknowing ever of what has been. But of the most blessed of all, when this now Un-Dead be made to rest as true dead, then the soul of the poor lady whom we love shall again be free. Instead of working wickedness by night and growing more debased in the assimilating of it by day, she shall take her place with the other Angels.” –Bram Stoker, Dracula, Ch 16

Final Poll Results

Nobody’s Perfect: Shortcuts for Creating Imperfect Characters

Absolute Blank

By Stephanie Lenz (Baker)

In Breakfast at Tiffany’s, the narrator presents Holly Golightly as an almost perfect person. He acknowledges at times that she may have some flaws but he also seems to remember an idealized version of the character and he’s reluctant to pass judgment on her faults or even to acknowledge them as such. Author Truman Capote knows better and it is because of his grasp of Holly’s character (and of the narrator, whom we only know as “Fred,” the name Holly gives him) that we’re able to see Holly for everything she is: a truly imperfect person. Yet we think of her as a person, not as a character, because those very flaws combine with the romanticized remembrance of her by “Fred” to create a truly three-dimensional person. Holly might be the person who lives across the hall or the woman we spot window-shopping on Fifth Avenue.

Faults and all, we tend to like Holly and we enjoy “Fred’s” fond portrait of her. So why is it that when we write characters, we’re reluctant to make them flawed? We might drop in a little something imperfect, more so if we’re writing a “bad guy,” but in general, we seem to try to keep them closer to perfect than to imperfect. Is it because we created them and we want the best for them? Is it because we’re reluctant to add characteristics that interfere with our plans for the story?

Imperfect characters hold the greatest potential for making mistakes. It’s their poor choices, their shady backgrounds, and their inherent flaws that create the potential for disaster. This threat of their worlds crashing in around them because of who they are not only makes their stories fun to write but endears them to readers. Flaws allow readers to identify and bond with your characters.

Nobody's Perfect: Shortcuts for Creating Imperfect Characters

Good Guys

“The protagonist… cannot be a perfect person. If he were, he could not improve and he must come out at the end… a more admirable human being than when he went in.” –Maxwell Anderson

Ask an actor and he’s likely to tell you that playing the bad guy is more fun than playing the hero. That might be because so many traditional heroes are so milquetoast. Sure there are fascinating antiheroes (like Batman, Sam Spade, Holden Caulfield, Scarlett O’Hara and Severus Snape) but the most interesting characters—protagonists, antagonists, secondary characters and even minor characters—are the ones who are imperfect and are not usually at the center of the story.

Here are a few easy ways you can rattle your protagonist’s closet skeletons:

  • Make a small change in the character’s background, even if it has no immediate effect on the story. Think of the nature of your character. If one thing had gone differently in her life, how would it change her nature? For example, let’s say she’s a nurturing woman who acts as a mother figure to everyone around her. Now imagine this: her mother passed away when she was a small child. Would she still be nurturing, perhaps trying to fulfill a void in her own life? Would she become self-sufficient and unable to comprehend those who can’t do the same for themselves? Making one different decision or having one alternate outcome to a situation can make a world of difference in your character’s personality.
  • Make a change in the surroundings. Maybe the character fits too well with the world around him. Does your hero work in an office building? What’s it like? Is it bright and airy with lots of open space or is it a fluorescent-lit cubicle farm? Change the setting and watch the effect it has on your character. Maybe he didn’t realize how much he valued freedom over stability until you took away his office window.
  • Bring in a character who sees everyone as the opposite of what they’re trying to project. For example, a therapist, bartender, or childhood friend might see that the hero is always looking for something to do not because he is creative but because he fears boredom. If confronted with this fact, how might the hero react?

Bad Guys

“When writing a novel, a writer should create living people; people, not ‘characters.’ A ‘character’ is a caricature.” –Ernest Hemingway

Antagonists are more often given the juicy backgrounds, the flaws and the faults but just as often they may be a little too perfect in their roles. It’s easier to make the bad guy the opposite of everything ours hero stands for. It’s no fun to have a bad guy without a chink in the armor for our hero to exploit.

Everyone is the hero of his own story. Our antagonists are no different. They believe they’re doing what is best for someone or some purpose, even if it’s only for themselves. Here are a few questions that might help round out your bad guys:

  • What are his weaknesses? Does he share any with the protagonist?
  • What are the antagonist’s redeeming qualities? Again, does he share any of these with the protagonist?
  • What tempts him and how susceptible is he to temptation? Can one temptation cause him to weaken or let down his guard? For example, if the hero is a beautiful woman, could the villain become distracted by that fact? And for that matter, would your hero exploit that weakness?
  • How does the antagonist change over the course of the story? The antagonist takes a journey, same as the protagonist. At what points do their courses intersect and how do they compare in their responses to similar situations?

Showing the Reader

“Front-rank characters should have some defect, some conflicting inner polarity, some real or imagined inadequacy.” –Barnaby Conrad

It can be tough to convey these flaws without infringing on the story, especially in the case of a first person narrator, but it is possible. Your protagonist might not be as smart as you are, for one thing, and while he shows us what’s going on around him, we might pick up things he’s not seeing but that you are making a point to show us. Maybe your character uses alcohol or drugs and doesn’t relay things accurately. Readers will be able to determine this (and it can add some surprises later in the story). An unreliable narrator is a good example of a flawed character.

Characters will also view each other differently. What you might see as a good trait in your character—generosity, for example—another character (or a reader) might see as a flaw—he gives so much away that he has nothing for himself. Use other characters to help put shades of gray onto your protagonist or antagonist. For example, your hero might be having a conversation with her best friend when she mentions the villain. The best friend could relay some information or an opinion that adds depth to the villain. There are more points of view in your story than the one you’re using for storytelling.

It’s fine for characters to idealize each other, so long as the author and the reader know that what lies beneath isn’t always perfection, like the earlier example of the narrator in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Allow your characters to be neither all-good nor all-bad. Allow them to make the worst possible choice (for example, it would be “good” for the married character not to have an affair but is it good for the story?). Allow yourself to have fun creating the most well-rounded characters you can and to use them to tell the “perfect” story.


Note: The exercise accompanying this article is a mini-bio sheet designed as a companion to our Character Development Worksheet. The CDW already has lots of opportunities to make your characters less than perfect (scars, childhood traumas, manners, etc.). The mini-bio will help you tweak existing characters or go further in-depth as you create new ones.

Final Poll Results