Thursday, June 14, 2012

Hello Characters, Please Be Charming

Have you ever looked at your main characters and thought, "If only I could make you more interesting"? I know I have, especially when I'm writing the first draft and still trying to figure out all the quirks of my main characters.

Pepper wrote an amazing post last week on a similar topic after attending Susan May Warren's course at the Blue Ridge Mountains Writers Conference. I loved her idea of interviewing your characters to get to know their deepest thoughts. What a great method to use to discover the lie your characters believe about themselves and how you can use that lie to shape the plot.

So let's say you've taken Pepper and Susie's advice, and you've peeled back those layers your main characters have. What is the next step? How do you convey those deeper levels in the story itself?

This is something I've struggled with in my own writing. My voice tends to be more humorous and lighthearted, so at times I have to really make a conscious effort to step back and add in those deeper elements to really hook the reader's emotions. So, I thought I'd make a list of strategies we can all take to really pull out those layers and convey them in our writing.

1) External structure should mirror your internal character arc. A great DVD set I recently ordered on this topic is The Hero's 2 Journeys by Chris Vogler and Michael Hauge. Try to make sure all your turning points allow us to see a change in your character's internal arc. Really use those turning points to ramp up the characters' emotion as well as the reader's empathy. On the same token, strategically choose turning points that will allow you to do this well. If your character is afraid of heights, put her engagement ring on the top of the Empire State Building. If she wants to be on Dancing with the Stars... well, you get the idea.

2) Be sure your characters' reactions are appropriate. Give your characters something to react to. Think of it this way: would you find a ten foot hole in the middle of the street? Probably not, unless the Creature from the Black Lagoon showed up. You might, however, find a small pothole. Your narrative is the same way. You can give readers little glimpses of that lie your characters believe, but be sure you give them a major moment in the plot before letting them fall into a giant emotional hole.

3) Use secondary characters (in addition to plot points) to generate emotion. Secondary characters are great because they give us a lot more leeway in what we can get away with, both with their personalities and subplots. They can make terrible choices or be hilarious, and these characteristics give us a lot to go off when adding dynamics to our main characters' story lines. So when it comes to secondary characters, be creative in how you develop their interactions with the leading ones. And also be creative in how you allow your main characters to react. Think of the friend who's in a bad relationship, the one who's too obsessed with her job, the one who's flying to Africa to chase a guy.

4) Above all use, follow your heart. Allen Arnold, previous VP of Thomas Nelson and now with Ransomed Heart, always emphasizes this point, and I love the blog he wrote on this topic recently. Though he, of course, uses much less frilly language than "following your heart" because, let's face it, that's kind of a southern belle thing to say. The point is, God has written certain ideas and themes on your heart and into your story. You might not even realize that yet, but they are there-- I promise-- just waiting to get out. These inspirational messages are unique to you, to your calling, and it's very important that you trust God to let that out. Your story matters. Your. Story. Matters. So let your characters show that truth.

On that same note, sometimes it's really easy to hide the deeper layers of our story because we are afraid of rejection. Rejection stings, doesn't it? And after a while, it can be really easy to hide behind all the critiques we've gotten over time. (Side note: surround yourself with people who encourage rather than discourage you when they challenge your writing.) But if we aren't willing to be vulnerable first to our characters and then to our audience, what kind of story do we really have? So be brave and believe in your calling. Some people might not like it or get it. That's okay. It's not their calling. And the only life you're accountable for living, the only story you're responsible for telling, is your own.

I want to hear from you! What are your thoughts? How do you deepen the characters in your writing? Do you have any questions or advice to share?

Ashley Clark writes romantic comedy with southern grace. She's dreamed of being a writer ever since the thumbprint-cookie-days of library story hour. Ashley has an M.A. in English and enjoys teaching literature courses at her local university. She's an active member of ACFW and runs their newcomer's loop. When she's not writing, Ashley's usually busy rescuing stray animals and finding charming new towns. You can find Ashley on her personal blogFacebook, and Twitter. She is represented by Karen Solem.


Peaches Ledwidge said...

Important tips for writers. Thanks.

Julia M. Reffner said...


You have such a unique style in your posts that I LOVE. I always leave encouraged.

"But if we aren't willing to be vulnerable first to our characters and then to our audience, what kind of story do we really have?"

LOVE, LOVE, LOVE this line. I think I'm writing it down on a post-it note. Writing true is hard, but ultimately so worth it. God has shown me if I shy away from writing those hard things he can't use my writing to minister to others. It needs to be an outpouring from our own life and that's hard. But good.

Jeanne T said...

Ashley, thank you for this post today! I needed it. Not only for my characters, but for their creator (me). :) As one who recently finished her fast draft, I am feeling very critical of my story and its perceived lacks. I needed the reminder that my story matters.

As for my characters, using Susan May Warren's books have helped me so much in knowing how to develop characters who have arcs and lie journeys. I'm still learning how to convey their stories in a meaningful way.

I also appreciated the article by Allen Arnold. Thanks for your insights, Ashley.

Ashley Clark said...

Peaches, thanks for coming by today and sharing that encouragement!

Ashley Clark said...

Julia, you are so sweet! I feel honored to be gracing a Post It note. :) And true writing IS hard. Surface-level characters can be so much easier by putting us in a less vulnerable position, but in the end, they have much less of an impact.

Ashley Clark said...

Jeanne, congratulations on finishing that first draft! That is a BIG accomplishment. I hope you bought yourself some ice cream. As for MBT, I love their books too! I just pulled mine out last night. They've been such a help to me. Thanks for coming by today! :)

Lindsay Harrel said...

I think my characters deepened with each draft of my WIP...I'm on draft 4, I think? :P But each time, a layer was added that helped me get to their motivations.

My goal with the next ms is to take what I've learned from this one and establish more up front.

Ashley Clark said...

I'm the same way, Lindsay! I've found that I don't really discover the depth in my characters, or the symbols I've happened upon while writing, until those later drafts. I'm hoping these concepts will help me get some of that development in earlier on and save some time. Have a great afternoon!

Angie Dicken said...

Great post, Ashley! I like your idea of graphing your plot next to your character's internal arc...You have mentioned that before.
I stray each time I think I have the arc and plot down, so I have to remind myself to let it flow and not get hung up on what I expected. :)

Ashley Clark said...

Thanks Angie! I am the same way... I start feeling overwhelmed by all the changes that come with the first draft!