Charting Main Characters

A Characterization Resource for Fiction Writers

A few early readers of The Evangelist in Hell told me, “The main character reminds me of you.” These were friends and family members who saw my life on a regular basis and felt smugly convinced that they’d cracked the code, torn back the veil, discovered my secret inspiration for creating lifelike protagonists in the novel. I was always tempted to say, “Well, aren’t you clever? Now guess which character reminds me of you.”

The Stuff (Or People) Ideas are Made Of

The classic advice is “strong fiction is character driven,” but where do these characters come from? No matter how or when the muse whispers, authors will invariably draw on some kind of personal experience to create a realistic character. Most often it’s an amalgamation of faces and events, some firsthand, others borrowed. Knowing what it’s like to hope, love, fail, succeed, embrace acceptance, or face rejection allows writers to create characters in those same situations. Journaling, reading, and even sharing life stories help develop a sense of universal themes and worldview. Writers can ask, what happens to people, and how do they respond? What do they want?

Character Charts

Now to the practical advice—how to take these existential questions and mold them into a character with an actual body and voice. Many writers have similar advice for character charts, some with more categories than others. The idea is to organize physical characteristics, personality traits, and goals, so anything achieving that will work just fine. Here’s what I use:

Age

Pretty self-explanatory here, but I also include the character’s birthday. If the birthday’s coming up or just passed, it might factor into the narrative.

Hometown

Here I describe the setting as much as possible. What drives the economy or culture? What do people do for work or for fun? What’s the education like? What inspires the citizens, and what constrains them? How did growing up here affect this character’s overall worldview?

Physical Description

In addition to height, hair color, eye color, scars, body type, etc., this is a place to chart out the character’s typical wardrobe. Knowing the character’s clothing helps create continuity across different scenes and set pieces in the story.

Personality

It’s important to include both how others would describe the character and how the character would describe herself. Does the character have any quirks or catchphrases? Common archetypes can help describe a character’s general mood or behavior. This is a baseline, and various stressors and events in the story might bring changes here.

Family Background

All the traditions, all the drama, all the loyalties and betrayals. What secrets might come to light in the story? What relationships might feel strain because of the character’s actions or inactions? Family trees are especially useful for historical fiction and epic fantasy so ancestry lines don’t get confused.

Motivation

While motivation can mean what gets the character out of bed in the morning, it’s really about a belief system. It’s the driving force behind every choice. For example, what motivates the decision to order a caramel macchiato instead of regular coffee? What informs the decision to answer on the first ring instead of letting it go to voicemail? Fears and desires fill this space.

Goal

The goal is a more simply stated, measurable outcome. He wants to find his father. She wants to be a senator. The character will either do this or not—no middle ground.

Conflict

What makes the goal hard? Why, internally and externally, can’t the character just have what she wants?

Epiphany

The lesson learned—what the character realizes en route to the goal, or how he’s different after succeeding (or failing) to achieve it.

Making the Acquaintance

A robust character chart can save a plodding scene. Many plot problems originate as character problems: An unclear motivation will stall any narrative. With fleshed-out characters, though, a story writes itself. Well…almost.

Click here for more lite posts (600 words or less) or follow @AuthorJLeonard.

Don’t Hate Me

The Pronoun Problem, and Why Anyone Should Care

When we’re young, most of us learn to cover our mouths before we cough, wash our hands before eating dinner, and always refer to ourselves and another person as “that person and I.”

I haven’t done the research, but I’d guess that “and I” is one of the most overcorrected constructions in all of English.

Grandma gave ten dollars each to my brother, my sister, and I.
Mr. Smith asked Johnny and I to lead the presentation1

Are we so afraid of me? An even more perplexing problem is the rampant insertion of myself, perhaps under the mistaken belief that the word is somehow a longer, more formal version of me for use in adult conversation. I hear this one everywhere. Recently, a friend informed me, “Anna and myself are meeting with Kathy on Tuesday.” A coworker instructed a group of us, saying, “Email any questions to Robbie or myself2.”

To clear things up once and for all, here’s the trick: Remove the other person’s name, and see what makes sense. If I meet with Kathy, then Anna and I should meet with Kathy. People can email me, so they can also email Robbie or me. Myself is only ever used as a reflexive object (I see myself in the mirror) or for emphasis (I can do it myself).

What inspired this post, however, is less the modern assault on good grammar and more the question of why anyone should care. With first person pronouns (I, me, myself), we can learn the rules and move on. Death to awkward sentence constructions! Third person pronouns, on the other hand, are a whole lot trickier.

Gender-neutral language is a hot topic in the world right now, and, for English speakers, much of the debate centers on pronouns. Traditionally, he and she were singular while they was plural. Some instances of “singular they” have existed for well over a century: Emily Dickinson used they to agree with anyone back in the 1880s, despite anyone being a singular word (source: Merriam Webster). Most of the time, writers can avoid the potential confusion of these sentences by simply using a plural subject:

Anyone who has their ticket printed can form a line here.
People who have their tickets printed can form a line here.

Related to singular they is a form called nonbinary they, which refers to a person’s intentional use of “they” as a preferred pronoun.

Alex brought his/her book to class.
Alex brought their book to class.

In the first sentence, speakers must decide if Alex is a he or a she, but not so in the second sentence. Numerous alternatives to the singular they (such as ze) have appeared over the years, although none have garnered much traction outside of university settings.

Intriguingly, they might have some historical precedent to survive where other pronouns fail. Seven hundred years ago, thou was a singular second-person pronoun and ye was the plural form. Gradually, the more plural-looking you took over, and it’s since survived as the sole second-person pronoun for any number (y’all notwithstanding).

So should grammarians take a hard line on he/she vs. they? Time will tell, but history suggests a pronoun takeover is possible in the cultural mainstream. Regardless of how society changes language, our grammar can still stand up:

They have knowledge.
The future belongs to them.
They see themselves speaking correctly no matter how society changes.

1. Me is correct here, in case that wasn’t obvious.
2. Names changed to protect the innocent people unknowingly involved in these syntactic horrors.

Click here for more lite posts (600 words or less) or follow @AuthorJLeonard.

You Don’t Decide

I thought I’d mix it up from my usual type of blog post. This is a free verse poem (or at least as close as I typically get to poetry) based on a writing prompt I did last year. I was thinking about people’s inherent value and where it comes from, and these words came to mind.

In the beginning,
the Maker stood and shaped the stars.
Whole galaxies set in motion,
ablaze and coruscating,
swirling arms to dance for
eons across the endless void.
White dwarfs and icy comets,
lonely moons and fields of asteroids,
and beneath it all
a single planet
whispered in the dark.

“Stop. I know what you’re doing.
You sculpt with finest chisels and paint with deftest strokes,
but the hands that brush a billion worlds should hardly pause for me.
Go fill those gaseous giants or shine those stunning rings.
Why should I boast land and oceans? Why make my air fit to breathe?”


But the Maker answered, “You don’t decide what you’re worth.”

Then he poured the rivers
to fill the jungle tropics
and cast fists of seeds into
the fertile mountain soil.
From clouds spun flocks
of birds awash with sunlight;
On waves rode fish as varied
as the islands of the sea.
Beasts found homes in every corner—
the marsh, the cave, the trench, the hill,
the towering forest canopy.
Yet man
spoke softly in the breeze.


“Stop. I know what you’re doing.
You anoint my soul and craft my heart,
but of all the wondrous creatures, surely I should not appeal.
Go climb with monkeys or sing with whales.
Why should I know self and purpose? Why burden me to rule?”


But the Maker answered, “You don’t decide what you’re worth.”

A thousand sunsets since we met,
but tonight’s the one that counts.
Humid air and untouched supper
and muddy streaks across the sky.
You speak as if it’s nothing;
you kiss my cheek and say goodbye,
but I block you at the door.


“Stop,” I say. “I know what you’re doing.
You’ll die for me and bear my shame,
but for once, my lord, you’re wrong.
Stand now with me out on the balcony.
Hear the crowds and catch their every slur.
My hands are stained without your bleeding,
my heart will grieve without your leaving.
I’ve cast my nets and found them empty;
I’ve torn seams no mortal hands can mend.
Die for the righteous! Die for the saints!
Die for the name of all goodness and virtue,
but I forbid that you ever d
ie for me.”

Your silence wraps my arms and pulls me down onto my knees.
Walls tilt and crumble, and space itself dissolves to form anew.


The Maker answers, “You don’t decide what you’re worth.”

The rarest painting is but oil on canvas,
and diamonds just stones pulled from the ground
until someone pays the price.

What price is there on man? I wonder.
What price is there on me?

He ascends and cries
My God
My God
Why have you forsaken me?

The terror of his question is
I already know the answer.

Click here for more lite posts (600 words or less) or follow @AuthorJLeonard.

 

Silent Killer, Mr. Anonymous

The Fake Quote Pandemic
and How to Fight Back

Anonymous.

No, I’m not talking about a computer hacker with a Guy Fawkes mask trying to steal your identity. I’m talking about the single most widely quoted person of our time.

If a quote’s any good, share it on the internet.            -Anonymous

Yes, the word anonymous has long been a convenient place holder to avoid the effort of tracking down an original source or to add some air of credibility to an inspiring text overlay. Yet this seemingly harmless act of attributing quotes to Mr. Anonymous has wide-reaching implications for the way we process information on the web. In the age of Fake News, internet users may be more gullible than they realize, and the problem starts off small.

Inspirational quotes remain one of the most ubiquitous categories of social media posting, garnering likes and shares no matter how many times viewers have heard the line before. Many marketing websites actually recommend sharing quote images as the number one way to engage with new followers, and the practice is not inherently bad—anyone who follows me on Twitter will know that I do it too. Yet here’s where Mr. Anonymous makes his entrance. Sometimes anonymous gets slapped on to a popular saying or maxim that doesn’t require any citation. (At least people are making an effort to list some kind of source, even if it’s a meaningless one.) But the ease of anonymous presents a real danger, and that’s a lack of basic fact checking or common sense. While researching for this article, I stumbled upon this gem:

23323

How is this anonymous? It’s a Bible verse. Matthew 6:34 is in the quote! Unless maybe this person is making a statement here by doubting the authenticity of Matthew’s gospel, but then I’m struggling to reconcile any subversive attack on religion with the clear reference in the background image to the God’s-Carrying-You-Footprints-in-the-Sand poem. Either this is just ridiculous, or it’s part of some Matthew/Footprints conspiracy—we’ll probably never know for sure. (As an aside, “Footprints” has its own raging authorship debate with various claimants to the throne. Check out an article from the Gospel Coalition to see the full controversy.)

The problem, however, gets more serious when people leave out Mr. Anonymous and valiantly look for a real human being to whom they can attribute the quote. Not all wise people are equal, and a quote belonging to the likes of Albert Einstein, Helen Keller, or Abraham Lincoln will see far more shares on social media than those from less notable public figures. In fact, most people trust these names so much that they’ll accept a wise or inspiring quote with one of their names on it, no questions asked.

Consider these quotes, all of which I’ve found published on the internet.

“A ship is safe in the harbor, but that’s not what ships are for.”
-Albert Einstein

So the great frizzy-haired physicist was really into boats? Although it’s a clever saying, this line predates Mr. Einstein.

“Well-behaved women rarely make history.”
-Eleanor Roosevelt / -Marilyn Monroe

Misbehaving in different ways, I suppose. Sadly, the saying gained popularity several decades after these two women.

“A house divided cannot stand.” -Abraham Lincoln

To be fair on this one, he did give a famous speech in which he quoted this Bible passage. So maybe we could write it like this:

“A house divided cannot stand.” -The Bible -Abraham Lincoln

xByII

Too much of Mr. Anonymous teaches people that they either (1) won’t find a source or (2) shouldn’t bother looking, and these are horrible habits to develop online. It often takes less than a minute to double check a source, whether it’s for a simple quote, a news story, or a compelling infographic. Don’t stop there, either. Comment on posts with misinformation, and respond when people unknowingly share hoaxes or fake stories online. I’ve posted three of my favorite fact-checking sites below, and feel free to join the conversation and comment with more. Before sharing anything on social media, unmask Mr. Anonymous and demand that the source provides its real name.

Some of my favorite resources:

Quote Investigator – Great site for uncovering quote origins
Snopes – investigating rumors in online stories
Politifact – fact checking politics
Click here for more lite posts (600 words or less) or follow @AuthorJLeonard.

17 Reasons I Hate List Posts

Number 13 Will Shock You!

It’s borderline epidemic. I’ll be at my desk, minding my own business while minding everyone else’s business on Facebook, when BAM! It grabs me.

The list.

10 Disney Movies Your Kids Should Avoid
22 Celebrities You Didn’t Know Were Vegan
99 Ways to Make $1,000,000 While Sitting on Your Couch

The ever-present clickbait soon drags me down into that dark rabbit hole of internet time-sucking. I admit it: Many a list has trapped me with its claws. So what’s my issue with the increasingly popular article format? Hold on—I’ve got a few.

1. I feel swindled.

Hoodwinked. Double-crossed. Downright duped. I’m halfway through “101 of Our All-Time Favorite Cat Memes” when I realize that my productive workday has transformed into a gallery of indignant felines. What happened? How’d I get here?

its-your-fault-595e49

2. Lists encourage my indecision.

Why can’t we have just one Best New Restaurant to Try This Summer? Too many lists and pretty soon I only drink beer in sample flights and want to know if extra cheese can go on a quarter of my pizza instead of the full half.

3. They insult my reading ability.

I can skim for relevant keywords without your bold title text, thank you very much.

4. The burdens are unnecessary.

Why do I need to worry about “where they are now” for all 25 women of The Bachelor Season 1? I didn’t want to know where they were then.

5. Actual burdens seem unnecessary.

My brain automatically categorizes “12 Ways Global Climate Change Will Affect Your Children” alongside “15 Foods You Didn’t Know You Could Microwave.” Oops.

6. The organization never makes sense.

This probably should have been my first point.

7. Random advertisements pop up in the middle.

this_space_for_rent_rectangular_sticker-r78bcd1767df64555b13d09fda9993922_v9wxo_8byvr_324

8. It’s hard to be original.

As Solomon said, there are no new life hacks under the sun.

9. They’re rarely controversial.

I prefer highly charged, one-sided political rants that I can post to Facebook without actually reading them. Really, nobody ever leaves amped-up five-paragraph responses to list posts. “9 Reasons You Should Start a Protest” just doesn’t fan the flames.

10. Talented authors sell themselves out.

Dear list writer: We both know you could create Pulitzer-worthy journalistic exposés, but we also both know your freelance blogging career is better launched through “23 Superfoods That Won’t Break Your Budget.” Fine literature, I grieve for thee.

11. I’m ashamed of how much Netflix I watch.

You want the truth? I clicked on “50 Shows To Binge This Weekend” because I wanted to. Because I can’t sleep without it. Because nothing in my life has been the same since Sherlock. Now go away.

next-episode-in

12. Those photo galleries where I have to hit the next arrow each time instead of just scrolling down and then a whole new window opens just because I clicked on something.

I can’t even.

14. I don’t trust lists.

“4 Fantasy Quarterbacks to Start This Week and 3 You Should Sit” all but guarantees I’ll start the wrong guy. But if I don’t click on it now, I’ll always wonder…

15. I like the idea more than the thing itself.

A post like “15 Ways To Improve Your Concentration” sounds good until I realize that I actually have to do stuff. Breathing exercises? I think I’ll just move on to “35 Workout Routines to Finally Burn That Belly Fat.”

16. They’re always way too long.

When I’m saying tl;dr to a list post, you know I’ve got attention-span problems. By the time I get to the bottom, I don’t even have the energy to troll the comments.

17. I still have hope for our world.

Stand up, dear reader! Raise your voice! We are more than just sponges to absorb whatever random bullet points these internet marketers decide to drop in front of us. Am I wrong to yearn for quality over quantity, knowledge over gossip, and cultivated discourse over mere stimulus injection? We must fight for meaningful content!

By the way, any good documentaries on Netflix?

Click here for more lite posts (600 words or less) or follow @AuthorJLeonard.

Stereotype vs. Archetype

And Why They Both Matter

Today’s topic for writers and students of writing: proper use of the archetype. The reluctant hero. The wise magician. The power-hungry villain. Yes, we know them.

Archetype: A typical and recurring example used as a model from which to build a character. Readers quickly recognize archetypes, allowing authors to provide context and backstory for their characters in only a few words. I say power-hungry villain, and readers think, “Oh yes, I know him!”

Not to be confused are stereotypes, or the widely held and oversimplified ideas of certain people. The power-hungry villain, yes, but not all villains want to take over the world. (Cue The Dark Knight: “Some men just want to watch the world burn.”)

Whenever I’m in an airport, I people-watch. Duty-free shoppers, low-battery outlet hunters, those efficient types who power walk on the moving sidewalk. Sleepless individuals zombified at the terminal, trapped in layover purgatory. Their clothing, facial expressions, juicy snippets of conversation. Hemingway said, “If a writer stops observing he is finished.” Everyone there has a story, and I try to figure it out.

For example, the woman by herself toting a purse the size of her carry-on, Kindle and neck pillow already out, is on her way to visit her parents. She bought the chips and bottled water at the snack stand; she’s comfortable, bored, and makes the trip a few times each year. Suit jacket guy is some kind of consultant making twice as much as me. It’s the end of the week, so I’m guessing he’s on his way back instead of on his way out. That family of four with kids glued to iPads, Frozen backpacks, and ziplock bags of Goldfish is going to Disney World—too easy, that one.

Anyway, to my point: Writers are detectives, deducing the logical, likely, and mundane aspects of a situation. After all, good characters are grounded in reality so that the inevitable twist in the plot comes with a willing suspension of disbelief. Certain universalities of the human experience tie readers to a story and allow literature to speak its transcendent truths. Readers understand the rebellious teen, the loathsome stepmother, the insightful mentor. Archetypes provide a framework, a proper syntax for the writer and reader to communicate. Conflict needs archetypes—the average office employee has no appeal until he becomes the workaholic father or the guy with a dead-end job lacking love or adventure. Readers know these starting points; they understand and relate to these problems.

Stereotypes, on the other hand, shut down a story instead of open it up. While archetypes provide background information to enrich a character, stereotypes limit and flatten them. The rebellious teen starts out okay until readers realize that their spike-wearing, punk-rock-loving, high-school-failing, parent-disobeying heroine is, well, just a stereotypical rebellious teen. Without anything fresh or unexpected, the story implodes. The characters are two-dimensional; the plot is no longer one to care about. Clever use of archetypes says, “Look, readers, you already know the beginning. Now keep going and find out where this adventure will take you.” Careless use of stereotypes says, “Look, readers, you already know the ending. So why bother?”

Back at the airport, my archetypes help me make sense of what I’m seeing. If I needed to know which gate is boarding a flight to Orlando, I’d do well to ask the Disney World family. Stereotypes, however, end the story prematurely. Assuming that the traveling consultant is an arrogant know-it-all? Well, I might miss out on a stimulating conversation aboard the plane. Real people are three-dimensional with story and complexity, and real characters ought to follow.

Click here for more lite posts (600 words or less) or follow @AuthorJLeonard.