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By Renee Stevens in Writing Tips 8Hey All! I hope everyone is having a wonderful week so far. Today we're going to look at a writing tip provided to me by Cole Matthews. Cole has put together a bit of a primer on a way to build character. As he told me, it's something that he's always reminding himself of and he was hoping that by sharing his thoughts that it would help other authors out as well. Thank you, Cole! If you have any advice that you would like to share with the GA authors, send me a PM!
So, you’ve got an idea. You even have the beginnings of a main character and a hilarious best friend/sidekick. You have started writing about how your protagonist feels about things and views the world. You are kicking into high gear and then you hit your first speed bump.
Your character is alone in the world.
The point of your story is to convey how a young gay man navigates the difficult shoals of a changing world and a kaleidoscopic life. Yet, you are stymied by these details, and creating the annoying back story. For example, you need a difficult past, a troubled childhood, parents who don’t understand him, and a hostile environment. Right? This is what we must get past in order to discover the many crannies and crevices of our character’s deep personal history.
Quickly, almost without effort, you create a distant, absent family, no room for siblings or cousins or even grandparents. You have a best friend/sidekick who gets your character, but haven’t taken the time to flesh out the rest of his world. You cobble together the most likely antagonist to act as a foil for your intrepid main character. Obviously, she/he’s a bully who hates/scorns/ignores gay people as a matter of course. You invent the perfect love interest, and now your novel is practically writing itself.
Well, not really well done, but you get the picture. Consider this, we are not just the internal aspects of our being. Human beings are a myriad of roles juxtaposed against a series of situations. Everyday. Several times a day. Unless we’ve sailed alone into the sunset or moved to a remote cabin in the woods and are writing our manifesto on an antique Underwood typewriter on hand-made paper created from soaking woodchips in spring water and pressing the pulp into sheets and drying on racks in the sun, we interact with others and these actions define us.
You get the picture, or at least my first stab at it.
Look at your day. You get up and pour a bowl of cereal. Your roommate is already eating his toaster treats and looking at his phone. He’s bleary-eyed from last night’s late night at the bar. He’s grumpy and you’re sick of hearing about his stupid love life which he is screwing up because he can’t commit to the love of his life.
You are a good roommate though so you chat and say goodbye because, well, that’s what roommates do.
You check your phone on the way to work. It’s your mother. She left a message about your sister’s birthday party. Your sister’s lazy, good-for-nothing, boyfriend is planning it, but needs help finding a cake. Apparently, he’s too stoned to Google a bakery or find a grocery store or buy a stupid ice cream cake at the local Dairy Princess. Regardless, you call your mother back and tell her you’ll help. After all, you’re a good son and an even better brother.
When you get to work, your boss has sent you a nasty email about performance. Instead of finishing that boring market research project, you blew it off. You get cracking at it right away. You’re a good employee, generally, so you work diligently at it.
In the meantime, your co-worker stops by to complain about the way her boss is treating her. You listen and nod and speak encouragingly about how things will get better. Let’s face it, you’re a team player and you really want to help make her feel better.
You look up at the clock when she leaves your cubicle, and it’s 10:30 am already. Today you’re meeting your best friend for lunch so he can talk about his upcoming wedding to that girl you set him up with. You’ve known Stephen for ten years now and he’s so happy you can hear the enthusiasm in his voice in your memory. You’re thrilled he’s found someone. If only… [End scene].
Note, I haven’t talked about how he feels about things, how the light from the morning sun glinted off the windshield of his car and blinded him revealing his empty life, or even about how he feels like a cog in this immense machine which we call the world. Nope. I used the ensemble cast of his life to build character. We know him through his roles and his relationships with others.
This is one way to build character, through the actions and interactions with other people. Think of all we know about him without any descriptions whatsoever. He thinks of himself as a good person who tries hard to fulfill expectations others may have. He works hard and tries to be a nice person. He’s operating by rote for the most part. His life is empty, but that’s by implication. You feel some empathy for him because you have experienced days, and episodes, like his.
Instead of stock-in-trade characters who become static furniture to your main character, these characters have motivations, hopes, fears, and dreams of their own. None of them are paper dolls with premade, tabbed clothing to press over their two-dimensional bodies. In fact, this makes your main character even more complex and richer because he’s showing character while dealing with their issues.
Take care to consider your cast and the richer their stories are, the richer your main character is. Does he snap at another co-worker, his rival, which begins a conflict neither can control? Is this how his antagonist comes into being? Be creative and think deeply. Not every antagonist is a homophobic, religious fanatic with sadistic tendencies. In fact, most aren’t.
Developing a well-rounded antagonist is just as important as creating the supporting cast. In fact, a good foil can make Protagony look even better. Our guy, Protagony, and the other guy, Antagony, are bucking for the same promotion. They don’t get along, at all. Antagony is a jerk who cheats on his girlfriend with his wife. [Yes, I love the cheating inversion for effect.] However, he is good at his job. He loves his two kids. His mother has cancer, which she is fighting and winning. Antagony runs in marathons to support this cause. That’s not all.
He stole our main character’s idea for a new promotional idea and is passing it off as his own. Protagony needs to figure out how to prove it’s his baby. The problem is, Antagony is really good looking and everyone likes him. In fact, Protagony hates him in part because he’s so attracted to him. He tries to hate him, fails, and then remembers about the stolen idea, and writhes in frustration.
The truly memorable and interesting antagonists are complete human beings. When their humanity is compared to their monstrous actions, we are intrigued. How can Antagony live with himself after stealing his co-worker’s idea? Doesn’t his cheating nature show what a horrible person he is, or is there something else there? Let’s explore.
Antagony’s wife cheated on him, but doesn’t want a divorce. He tried to make the marriage work, but she’s cold and distant. Their marriage is a farce kept alive by the children.
Antagony has his work and that’s all that seems to be working in his life. His mother is sick. His kids are having trouble in school due to the family issues they don’t even understand. The idea he stole will give him a much-needed promotion, and even more importantly, a boost of self-confidence in his life. He’s even persuaded himself he really did come up with the idea.
He’s convinced himself that Protagony tried to steal it from him. The rat bastard.
This makes both characters more interesting and gives them motivations, perspectives, and even character traits which will color and flavor their interactions.
Build a better main character by using the supporting cast and antagonist to flesh him out. Give them back stories which align with the main character. Let them have motivations and their own tales. Don’t be afraid to sprinkle both good and bad traits since we don’t know people with all good or even all bad tendencies. Craft the story using these other characters to help, hinder, advise, trip, and otherwise baffle or enlighten the main character. Don’t be afraid of using an antagonist to refine your character and challenge, but make them whole and not cookie cutter. Using characters to fill up your main character will make a more interesting and richer storyline.
That’s my advice to new writers and to myself as well. Trust me, I have to remind myself about this all the time. It’s another device to consider using.
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