Character Development to The Extreme

frozen moment

This time I’ll address the critical questions in developing your MC, or the other central characters of your WIP. I’ve talked about character questionnaires before, but if you haven’t read my blog, you can check out this one: https://www.novel-software.com/theultimatecharacterquestionnaire#basic

Or: https://www.freelancewriting.com/creative-writing/questions-for-creating-character-development/

What you see when you read a book is the tip of the iceberg. A fraction of character development ends up in the final text. The more work you put into building your character, the more natural he/she is during dialogue, action, and reaction.

Most writers start the difficult task of character creation from the physical features:

  • The color of eyes, hair, and skin.
  • Age, sex
  • Voice
  • Body type
  • Hands
  • Facial expressions

Choosing who goes through the difficult path of your story is a major decision.

“Am I still on the path of truth? Have I found fair equivalents into which to transpose the habits, the professions, the relations of feelings? For an act has by no means the same meaning if it is performed by a rich or a poor man, by a bachelor or a father of six, by an old man or a young girl.”

Joseph Kessel, Army of Shadows.

When you meet a person for the first time, you pay attention to their physical features like hair and eye color. When you meet a love interest, you’re bound to notice eye color, but what if you’re applying for a job? Do you remember afterward what the person interviewing you looked like? I’d bet you didn’t take note of his eye color but you might recognize his voice, or mannerisms during the interview because you read his movements subliminally. You searched for clues: did he like you or did he hate your guts?

The situation

If you sit in the interrogation room and you face a powerful opponent who holds all the cards, what do you observe?

I see the body language of my opponent. I search for signs that he exaggerates what he knows. I’d wait for his hand to form a fist, in which case, I’d raise my arm to block a hit. Okay, the interrogation scenes in my books are bloodbaths, but your local sheriff might go easier on the suspect. Again, this depends on your worldbuilding.

Body language is essential

I cannot stress this one enough. I use the interrogation as an example because the power balance is unequal and offers the writer possibilities to bring out the worst and the best in people.

The body language depends on the character’s goals: does your hero have something to hide? What’s at stake? The fate of his comrades? If your MC is a professional soldier who received SERE training, he filters his reactions. If your heroine stands amidst her enemies, she might use different means to survive or impress her opponents. Her goal in the scene defines her responses.

Who is the attacker and who tries to block him? These positions cause our body language to change. Is your suspect a serial killer or a wrongly-accused ex-spouse? High- and low-power poses in the images below are just examples. The interpretation of body language is a science, and if you write a crime novel, studying this field pays.

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Source: https://blog.bufferapp.com/improve-my-body-language-secrets

The same unspoken language rises to the surface if two persons negotiate a deal in the middle of a bazaar, or if a husband and wife engage in an argument. What their mouths say, and what their bodies tell, are two different things. Body language is ancient—it predates speech. Our brains interpret these patterns instinctively, whether you like it or not.

In Retrospect

Your character wasn’t born ready. He learned a few tricks along the way and his family and friends had an effect on him. He belongs to society: defending the status quo or fighting to topple it. That’s why the questions about his past are essential. Character questionnaires will guide you to develop a history for your MC.

Examples of questions which dig deeper:

  • What are his biggest secrets?
  • How does he display affection?
  • How competitive is he?
  • What are his political views?
  • What will he stand up for?

You might never offer the reader a complete history,  but you’ll choose a few star moments for painful flashbacks or golden memories… bitter chalk of defeat which fills your heroine with anger at the right moment. Build a past, and use it.

Each person comes with a past and future: an arc of development. You can’t create believable literary characters without the dimension of time, the essence of change. We age. We might become different persons because of painful trauma. What we expect from the future says a lot about our personality.

The Action

The writer faces a terrible dilemma. You must fit so much into a single scene and remember your plot outline. Most of your troubles might not even survive into the final manuscript.

Tips for writing dialogue that connects your characters to their world:

  • Use background action to add tone and mood
  • Add movement to dialogue to keep the story moving
  • Use mid-dialogue actions for tense interruption
  • Reveal character relationships through movement and action
  • Add dramatic emphasis to characters’ emotions in a scene
  • Use movement, gesture and action to reveal personality

The Now Novel article is pure genius. Source: https://www.nownovel.com/blog/movement-action-in-dialogue/

The job is impossible, I know. I’ve shed tears on my keyboard because the puzzle refuses to decode. That’s why I turn to writer thesauruses:

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https://www.amazon.com/Emotion-Thesaurus-Writers-Character-Expression/dp/1475004958

masterlists

https://www.amazon.com/MASTER-LISTS-WRITERS-Thesauruses-Character-ebook/dp/B016U2K20O

The scene and the character are inseparable. Otherwise, your character becomes an info dump upon entrance, and his presence remains shallow throughout the chain of events: the scenes.

I also advise you to write your characters bit by bit. Polishing through rewriting makes them perfect. What is a thin film, in the beginning, can evolve into a master portrait of a human being after the edits. The readers will love or hate your character. Both are equally desirable because you want to arouse an emotional response.

If you get stuck, take a look at an iconic character in your favorite author’s book. What traits catch your eye? Make a list.

The Art of Choosing

As you write a scene, you see every little detail with your mind’s eye. You notice the light reflecting from the heroine’s honey blonde hair, and you know she’s got blisters in her palm from wielding the massive sword. You feel the temptation to write every single detail into her movements, and the objects she uses, because you want to convey the movie which plays in your head.

But here comes the hard part. You should concentrate on significant action: on the parts which move your story forward and tell the reader what she needs to know. Remember to leave room for the reader’s imagination.

Trust your readers.

One of the most misunderstood rules among newbie writers is “Show, don’t tell.” Mastering that law is a basic lesson in writing, but you can’t show everything! Your book would stretch on forever as the plot would go nowhere. You must choose your battles. Picking what to tell is something you’ll learn only by writing and rewriting. Also, peer critique, beta-readers, and a skilled editor will help you get there. Separating the important stuff from useless junk is impossible if you sit in your hermit’s chamber alone.

The things which matter most to you might be the wrong ones! Hence the rule: “Kill your darlings.”

As you see, the theme of character development runs through the fabric of the book. Every essential element of storytelling has something to do with the character. Even the setting, which you might think is a standalone complex, must be shown through the eyes of the point-of-view character. If you show something the heroine couldn’t possibly observe, you break the spell of the POV.

Character Movements

When the character travels through the scenes, describing his movement is essential. When you’re on page 305 of your manuscript, you’ll feel the temptation to repeat the same key motions. Turn to the thesaurus for inspiration. Open your favorite book and write down the mannerisms of the characters amid different situations.

An excellent article by K. M. Weiland on character movements, with examples:

https://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/common-writing-mistakes-describing-character-movements/#

And remember:

“You’ll note that correctly describing character movements doesn’t necessarily mean you have to describe every single detail.”

—K.M. Weiland

 

Give Evil The Central Stage – Groundbreaking Villain Moments

Demonic male with burning beard and arms.

I’m back with the concept of the villain because he/she is crucial to your story. As far as I can remember, I wanted to write a brutal villain who will stop at nothing. And I remember movies by their villainous character actors.

The definition of the villain is:

“In their role as an adversary, the villain serves as an obstacle the hero must struggle to overcome. In their role as a foil, the villain exemplifies characteristics that are diametrically opposed to those of the hero, creating a contrast distinguishing heroic traits from villainous ones.”

Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Villain

The definition reminds writers of the importance of struggle but contains various traps which can cast your evil one with one of the extras. The antagonist is a series of obstacles on the hero’s journey, but also an entity of his own. He has to be of the same caliber as your protagonist- preferably stronger. You wouldn’t confront Batman with a minor criminal in the final battle, would you? The Joker, played by Jack Nicholson or Heath Ledger, is an unstoppable force of nature.

The villain is a central character of your book and you must treat him with respect.

He/she demands a lot of work. I advise you to sit down opposite your villain after you’ve Googled a character questionnaire form. An example of a set of character questions: https://www.novel-software.com/theultimatecharacterquestionnaire

Remember, he’ll fool you- like any respectable villain would deceive a cop during the initial interrogation. Each layer of deceit leads you closer to what makes him tick. That’s the point of the character interview. You might never tell the reader what he does first thing in the morning- unless that signifies something important- but you can resource the library of him when you write the groundbreaking villain moments I’ll discuss next.

If you know the depths of the villain, you know instinctively what his reactions are.

Groundbreaking Villain Moments

Whether you outline your story or start tapping away in the presence of your divine muse, remember to create major plot points for the villain. These key scenes can make the character relatable, or scare the shit out of your readers if that’s what you’re aiming for.

My list of villainous scenes isn’t complete. I’ve chosen the important few, with movie clip examples.

The First Look

The first impression of the antagonist defines the image of the hero’s counterforce. How do you introduce the villain? Hopefully not by describing his hair and eye color, and his dashing good looks which make the ground shake beneath your feet. Don’t get me wrong- I daydream of good-looking villains, but you must start with:

  • his first crime
  • the first harsh word
  • the evil glance
  • he camouflaged as the slightly creepy everyman
  • someone you’d never suspect but happens to be on the scene
  • And so on. The sky is the limit with villain introductions.

When I was seven, a known bully- a big one- waited for me on my way home from school. Trying to outrun him was futile, and he knew where I lived. He caught me and suffocated me with snow. This happened each winter afternoon until I learned the subtle art of evasion.

Meeting your villain is like the childhood moment when an overpowering person grabs your arm and you understand that he’s not letting go.

Think of ways to make the reader afraid of him- or what he can cause- and you’re on the right road. We’re talking about power and violence. You might go the sly route: let him appear harmless, and the fear doubles with shock as he strikes. The ill omen of doubt must be present from the beginning. Building a believable personification of evil is hard work.

The First Confrontation

“The moment when your villain and hero meet face-to-face is a wonderful opportunity to show us why your villain will be a good foil for your hero. These confrontations are at their best when the villain reveals a chink in your hero’s armor.”

Source: https://thewritepractice.com/villain-scenes/

An example from the movie Matrix, Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) interrogates Keanu Reeves: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4D7cPH7DHgA

At the end of the scene, we understand that something is seriously wrong with the movie’s world.

The Hero’s Temporary Defeat

You’ll recognize the hero’s failure from every Hollywood movie you love. You can combine this scene with The Villain Shows His Cards, or The Monologue– the spot in the James Bond movie where Ernst Stavro Blofeld describes his complete plan to rule the world.

The Hero’s Temporary defeat deals with stakes. You’ve given us the stakes at the beginning of your hero’s journey (inciting incident) and when you introduced the villain. Now is the time to provide us with a bitter taste of defeat. The temporary failure means a foretaste of death.

What would a bad guy do if your loved one was at his mercy and you were unable to stop him?

Let J. T. Walsh tell you while the hero (Kurt Russell) is rendered powerless. A magnificent scene from the movie Breakdown: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2NAszvB80Ws

The occasional movie-goer knows instinctively that the hero will get help, or he has an ace up his sleeve, or the villain is so mesmerized by his plan that he doesn’t see the sidekick creeping up on him… whatever you choose as the vessel of turning the tables, and moving towards the resolution. Temporary defeat is at its best when the reader believes that the hero cannot recover from the blow.

It’s your villain’s grand moment. Let him show off his hideousness. In movies, this trope takes a hell of an actor to twist the scene into something previously unseen.

The Origin Story

The Origin Story is the villain’s chance to explain himself. Let his humanity shine through, and the reader can relate to him. Take Marvel character Loki: “sibling rivalry and daddy issues explain his actions. Being always in Thor’s shadow isn’t good for Loki’s overall mental health, and finding out that he’s adopted doesn’t help.”

Source: https://io9.gizmodo.com/10-villain-origins-that-actually-make-sense-1742183593

Most of us don’t work for the Devil. Reasons like: “the end sanctify the means” and “history demands action” and “I obeyed orders” have paved the way to hell on many occasion. The explanations don’t make the crime justifiable but offer a view on human logic.

Remember that explaining the Devil can take the scare away. If your evil one is a psychopath, don’t bother with the origin story.

Sometimes the human mind attempts to see something which isn’t there. The search for Ted Bundy’s soul is futile. Javier Bardem offers one of the most accurate movie depictions of psychopathy as the stone-cold hitman Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men. He needs no origin story. He is what he is.

The hotel scene between Woody Harrelson and Javier Bardem is pure brilliance:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_-d1S79zt8c

Enjoy!

The Sidekick – The Shadow or The Flame?

Young attractive Witch walking on the bridge in heavy black smoke.

When I hear the word sidekick, the image of Batman’s Robin conjures. Who could forget the guy wearing the green pantyhose? The word is forever linked with the lesser one of the power duo.

The Urban Dictionary defines a sidekick:

“A friend/associate of a more popular, charismatic person. The sidekick gains most of his/her acclaim from merely being connected so closely to the more powerful acquaintance.”

It’s easy to write a sidekick who follows the heroine like a shadow. Sometimes the shadow is long, and sometimes it travels ahead of her, but shadows rarely mean anything except symbolism.

And then an interesting secondary character flows out of your pen like lightning. This person keeps you awake at night and leads the story into unknown depths as a bright flame.

The safest route to prevent the sidekick from stealing the spotlight, is to make her/him inferior to the heroine/hero but where’s the drama in that?

Someone to save the day

If you’re like me, you write a villain who radiates raw power. He keeps kicking the hero’s ass, and you need someone to help defeat him. My recommendation is to make the villain stronger than the MC because this way you build pressure and suspense! You drive the plot forward with bloody desperation.

The sidekick can come to the MC’s aid at the darkest hour: when the villain is about to strike a spear into the hero’s heart.

The sidekick is abler than the hero under unusual circumstances:

  • The hero is wounded and unable to defend himself
  • The hero is under a spell or doesn’t sense the approaching death
  • The secondary character is the only one around and must rise to save the day
  • The villain’s BFF changes sides and become one of the good guys to keep the hero safe. He has the element of surprise on his side.
  • The sidekick betrays the hero and reveals that he has been working for the evil one the whole time. You can feel the salt stinging on that wound for a long time. This twist forces you to prolong the final battle- which is a good thing. Keep postponing the reader’s satisfaction.

And so on. I’m sure you have seen movies which utilize a lesser character to bring the plot into a grand finale via roundabouts.

Just Different

The sidekick can be a person who contrasts the hero, like Arthur Conan Doyle’s Dr. Watson. Watson is a man of medicine with practical wits, and a war hero, who reflects the intellectual superiority of Sherlock Holmes. Where Holmes is in danger, Watson comes to the rescue. Where Holmes is at loss, Watson is confident because he is different.

Sometimes the secondary character, which you intended as a vessel for plot advancement, steals the readers’ attention. That’s what happened to Liva Löwe in my book The unholy Warrior. She’s the one my beta readers found most attractive because they can relate to her.

The key to the reader’s heart is arousing empathy. Keep your sidekicks relatable!

Sometimes the heroine can appear too strong and hardheaded, which is fine for the MC. But the presence of a gentler person who finds her courage when all else crumbles can have an earth-shaking effect on the reader.

In my book The Unholy Warrior, the heroine Rebane Nordstrom thinks she’s invincible, and the young German girl she saved is a mere nuisance to be dragged around:

“Each twig crackled under Liva’s foot and the fir trees slapped her with prickling branches. The willows grabbed the young woman’s shirt and her hair got tangled in the thorny bushes. The forest forbade Liva’s presence. Rebane advanced too fast for her to keep up.

“Rebane, wait!” she shouted when her friend’s leaf green camouflage merged with the shade of the grove.

Rebane turned around and her expression didn’t hide her frustration:  “You’re noisy like the running elk. The elk doesn’t care because she’s big. Everything cedes in front of her but you’re not the fucking elk, and nothing here fears you,” Rebane hissed and spat on the moss.

“I’m sorry. Can’t you see that I’m trying?”

“And be sure to step where I step as we cut through the swamp. The sacrificial grove is dangerous. It will swallow you if you stray one inch. I’d be unhappy to lose you, my friend.”

Liva’s eyes filled with tears. The words she tried to form stuck on her lips. Rebane took a firm hold on her smooth white hand and Liva squeezed her arm like she was about to drown.

“Thank you for saving my life,” Liva said but the wind which whispered among the trees scattered her voice.

****

At this stage, Liva is weaker than Rebane who is a trained soldier and a master survivalist. The women have just crossed paths, and I take my time to reveal Liva’s unique qualities. She has survived kidnapping and slave traders, but with a different approach than Rebane who shoots first and asks questions later. Liva is more than meets the eye. She is in touch with the divine healing power. Omens and visions give her understanding of what plagues Rebane. Mother Nature is a dominant bitch and she has a significant role in my book. Liva Löwe is an adapter: she molds her being to fit the surroundings.

Blurring lines

Is Julia a sidekick of Winston Smith in Orwell’s 1984? Yes and no. A love interest can be a sidekick. Winston and Julia rebel together.

Boy-boy and girl-girl pairs are abundant in literature and movies. If the heroine and the sidekick represent different sexes, you can write a sub-plot of budding love. One-sided affection raises the stakes a notch by introducing another level of conflicting interests. A disgruntled lover is a fertile ground for the enemy to grow resentment towards the hero.

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Suzanna Hamilton as Julia in the Film 1984, MGM 1985.

But I see Julia as the last nail on Winston’s coffin. From the introduction of Julia, Orwell predicts the main character’s doom. To make the aide betray the hero is a great idea: the knife twists deep inside the gaping wound. In fact, Winston and Julia betray each other at the face of an invincible enemy: the system.

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Barbara Bach as Major Anya Amasova in Bond movie The Spy Who Loved Me (1977 Eon Productions).   

The representatives of the enemy can become sidekicks for the hero. Just one kiss from the deadly 007 and poof! A battle-hardened communist assassin becomes the Playboy bunny because sex makes her see the system of Motherland as evil.

Okay, I over-simplify.

I’m not complaining because Ian Fleming’s James Bond is excellent entertainment. The secondary character can exist as a borderline case through the entire Bond movie.

We know where Major Amasova’s loyalties lie when we see the ending of The Spy Who Loved Me.