Character development tips from K.M. Weiland, author of Behold the Dawn
Ms. Weiland is in the middle of a “blog tour” to promote her book, and has made time in her busy schedule to share with us some of her tips and experiences with creating the kind of lively characters this blog is all about.
Tell us about your favorite character from one of your books, a character that you particularly enjoyed writing. Why does that one stand out for you?
Marcus Annan, the hero of my recently released medieval novel Behold the Dawn, is easily one of my all-time favorites. He was one of those special characters who leapt off the page and took on a life of his own. He was inspired, largely, by the real-life knight William Marshall, who was considered the “greatest knight who ever lived.” I read a children’s book about this son of a lord, who, because of his lack of inheritance as a second-born child, sought his fortune in the tourneys. I was instantly fascinated by these huge mock battles, which were repeatedly banned by the popes and yet remained wildly popular, and I began wondering how the lives of the competitors would have been shaped by their brutal and dangerous exploits. In Marcus Annan, I got to explore at least one answer to that question.
What’s your take on backstory? How much do you create for your characters, and how much of it ends up in the book?
I’m actually a tremendous fan of backstory. I have to laugh sometimes when I look at my stories, because their backstories are often twice the size of the stories themselves! Ernest Hemingway once spoke about how a good story is like an iceberg: nine-tenths of it is underwater and out of sight. That’s pretty much how I approach backstory. I want to know everything I possibly can about my characters, and I often fill up whole notepads with my character sketches and interviews. The information I uncover during these exercises is invaluable. It gives me depth, character motivation, and sometimes entirely unforeseen plot twists—as in the case of Behold the Dawn. As far as I’m concerned, backstory is one of the most enjoyable parts of the process.
However, it’s vital to keep all this intoxicating information in perspective. The best backstories are those that carry the story proper, instead of weighing it down. As with research, it can be tempting to share everything with the reader, either because you’re mistakenly convinced they’ll find it just as interesting as you do—or as a way of patting yourself on the back for all your hard work. Backstory, for the most part, needs to remain invisible. Its proper place, after all, is in back of the story.
Tell us about a character who pushed your story in an unexpected direction.
Characters always push stories in unexpected directions. If they didn’t, there wouldn’t be much point, would there? If a character fails to pop off the page, then he isn’t worth my time. That isn’t to say, of course, that I haven’t struggled with certain characters, trying to figure them out and find the magic button that will bring them to life. But every character in every one of my completed novels has taken on a life of his own. And, to one extent or another, they’ve all manipulated their stories to suit themselves.
How important are character arcs to your novels? What’s your strategy for relating the outer plot events to the characters’ inner personal journeys?
My stories are plot-driven, but they start and end with characters and the thematic depth they bring to the table. The stories that move me most are those that exhibit great depth and, inevitably, growth in the life of the main characters. I am inspired and I am challenged by these stories. That same reaction is what I’m seeking from my own readers.
Character arcs and themes are inseparable; to have strength in one area, you must also have strength in the other. So I usually start my search for a character arc by searching out a character’s core needs and motivations. Buried somewhere within one of those, I usually find the pulse of the theme. I would say I look for the lesson the character needs to learn, but that sounds too moralistic. The key to strong themes is that they flow organically from the heart of the characters. Subtlety is vital. I’m a novelist, an entertainer. It’s not my job to bash people over the head with lessons. But I do strive, through the growth of my characters, to give readers something deeper than just entertainment. I want my stories to have take-away value; I want them to be remembered, not just for dialogue or action scenes, but for some truth that connected with the reader on a primal level.
Whose books should we be reading for great examples of well drawn, fully three-dimensional characters? What do those authors do particularly well in their characterization?
Patrick O’Brian. His historical Aubrey/Maturin series is mind-blowing. I’ve never read an author who made it look so effortless, so seamless. In fact, he’s one of the few authors who almost entirely disguises himself working behind the scenes. He wrote, not as though he was creating these characters from scratch, but as if he were simply recording the lives of people who really lived and breathed. You put down one of his books and almost forget it’s not real.
I’m also a big fan of Orson Scott Card. His body of work is uneven, but when he’s on, he’s on. I remain particularly impressed with how skillfully he revealed his main character through the actions of other characters in Speaker for the Dead.
What character building tip would you like to share with my readers?
Interviews. As an in-depth outliner, I’m very comfortable spending months on “pre-production” work, and one of the most important steps in that work is my character sketches. Over the years, I’ve created an extensive list of “interview” questions, which I use as a guideline when crafting characters. It’s important to me to know my characters backwards and forwards, so my questions cover even such seemingly inconsequential details as favorite foods, birthdays, and collections. I answer the questions longhand because, for some reason, my semi-illegible handwriting gives me the permission to eschew perfectionism and really tap into the vagaries of my subconscious. I interview different characters at varying depths. POV characters get the full interview, while minor characters and antagonists often get only a sketch of their personal histories. Anyone interested in my list of interview questions can find them on my blog, Wordplay.
Thank you, K.M. Weiland, for appearing as the first guest interview on Show Some Character! There’s some great advice in there that I’m sure readers will appreciate; I know I can’t wait to interview the heroine in my work-in-progress. May you have every success with Behold the Dawn!
About the Author: K.M. Weiland ( www.KMWeiland.com ) writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in the sandhills of western Nebraska. She is the author of A Man Called Outlaw and the recently released Behold the Dawn. She blogs at Wordplay: Helping Writers Become Authors and AuthorCulture.
October 04, 2009 06:17 UTC
Getting the bones right
I’m going to take another little departure from character development tips today to address a question I hope every writer is asking themselves: When is the right time to involve an editor in the creation of your novel?
This question actually came up at the PNWA conference a couple of weeks ago, during the Q&A session I was in with one of the conference’s other book doctors. An audience member asked if she should wait to find a good editor until her manuscript was finished, or until she had done her own edit pass on it first, or what.
My answer to her was “As soon as possible. Now would be good. Let me give you my card.” Because seriously, the earlier I get to see the story the more I can help.
This never happens, but ideally writers would contact me as soon as they get a solid idea for a premise. They’d e-mail me and say “I’ve got this idea for a book. It’s a paranormal mystery with comedy and romance themes, sort of I Dream of Jeannie meets X-Files. What do you think?”
Ok, so I just made that up. But we’d kick the idea around and I’d help them build their initial premise into something stronger, something with what literary agent Donald Maass calls “gut appeal". I’d help shape that premise into something that has the potential to be a really interesting book, by eliminating elements that might distract from the core concept, ensuring that the premise has appropriate levels of conflict and stakes built right into it, and helping the author find the right focus for the story.
That never happens, but it sure would be nice. I think forlornly about all the books I’ve seen that were trying to be too many things, to fit into too many genres. Books which had a surplus of subplots but didn’t pick any of them to be the main plot. I think about all the time those writers spent banging their heads against problems they could sense, but didn’t know how to fix because the problems were deeply structural in nature. They’d have been easy to fix at the premise stage, but they often imply a major re-write to fix once the first draft is done.
This next thing never happens either: After I helped a writer get their premise squared away, they would go off and build it out into a whole plot, which they would describe in a nice, detailed outline. Ideally, they’d break the whole thing down into chapters and scene-by-scene sequences within each chapter. They’d send me that and then I’d make sure the plot actually works.
This is the time for eliminating sub-plots that don’t add enough to the main story, collapsing redundant minor characters into single, less-minor characters (if not cutting them entirely), finding the story’s themes, ensuring that they’re touched upon at appropriate times, and identifying ideas that don’t quite rise to the level of themes but could if strengthened. This is the time to look at the story’s overall pacing, to make sure it’s fast and slow at appropriate moments, to make sure the story provides drama everywhere, that the stakes are both plausible yet rising, and (for those thriller authors especially) to ensure that the sense of tension mounts with each passing scene.
Get all that done, and you’ll know the bones of the story are right. You’ll know the story’s skeleton has the appropriate number and placement of arms, legs, and heads. Only when you know you haven’t conceived of some sort of seven-armed, legless, three-headed mutant Cerberus of a story—and only then—would the writer sit down to write that first draft.
But, alas, that never happens. Writers get an idea, half-formed as all initial ideas are, and they start straight in on chapter one, scene one. To take Stephen King’s metaphor, their initial kernel of an idea is nothing more than a fragment of bone sticking up through dry, rocky ground. They rarely take the time to discover the actual fossil buried beneath. They start writing before they really understand what it is they’ve found.
Every writer has their own process, and I know I’m bound to spark some ire in writers who love the joy of jumping into that first page to discover the story through the writing process. They’ll argue that planning everything out ahead of time like that eliminates the possibility of having those spontaneous moments of inspiration, when suddenly you realize how great it would be if the main character’s paranormal love interest turned out not to be paranormal after all, but merely possessed by the spirit of the person whose murder is the crux of the story’s central mystery. Or whatever.
I understand that concern. Discovery through writing really is fun, and that’s hard to give up. All I can say is that from my own personal experience this concern is unfounded. I plan the crap out of my novels before I write them, mostly as a paranoid defense against writer’s block: I can’t get blocked if I always know what scene comes next. But I have yet to write a novel that didn’t end up deviating from my plan, sometimes in large ways and sometimes in small, when those flashes of inspiration hit me.
You can, after all, only do so much thinking ahead of time. You can anticipate and avoid the big problems—and I argue that you should. But you can’t anticipate every little nuance of the story. As you write it, you’ll see possibilities in your outline that weren’t evident before. But guess what? Because you already understand your story on a deep, structural level, you’ll know immediately whether that brainstorm is a helpful idea or a dud. You’ll be able to see, right away, how that idea fits in with the structure you’ve outlined. You’ll know where to add that great plot twist, what character’s mouth to send that critical clue out of, or whatever it might happen to be.
Yeah, the jump-in-and-write strategy works for some writers. To paraphrase one of my personal heroes Elizabeth Lyon, it even “occasionally results in a manuscript that is worth improving.” But for most of us, jump-in-and-write is nothing but a recipe for spending a lot of time on a story that’s going to end up with fatal flaws. Yes, it’s good practice for our surface-writing craft, but why not spend some time beforehand working on deep structure first? Before you jump in, figure out how deep the pool is.
It’s easy to fix writing that’s rough on the surface but solid underneath. I can totally help with that. But if you send me a story with deep structural flaws—those seven armed, three headed beasts—no amount of surface editing in the world is going to fix them. I’ll still happily find and show you those structural flaws, so jump in and write if you want to. By all means take advantage of inspiration. Strike while the iron is hot and all that. But jump in with the understanding that ninety-five times out of a hundred, you’re setting yourself up for a mountain of re-writing later just to get the bones right. Mere editing won’t do it.
If you’re cool with that, I won’t stop you. Otherwise, do yourself a big favor and get some skilled eyes onto your premise and outline before you write that first draft.
August 13, 2009 20:09 UTC
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