Monday, September 26, 2011

CREATING CHARACTERS WHO LIVE ON THE PAGE

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By Shirley Jump

In my very first rejection letter for my first novel, the editor said, “unfortunately, the characters didn’t come alive” for her and thus, she was sending back my masterpiece unwanted.
I was crushed and dejected. What did that mean, anyway? Characters come alive? They were certainly alive and well to me. I’d written several hundred pages about them, too. They’d been in my head for months. They’d been my constant worry for weeks while I waited to hear back on my submission.
But they hadn’t existed for anyone else but me. Let me show you why

Excerpt from VERY FIRST BOOK:
When Lindsay walked in the townhouse, she immediately kicked off her shoes and dropped her purse on the nearest chair. Her cats, eager to see her, were rubbing up against her legs within seconds. She looked down at them and laughed. They were practically knocking each other over to get to her. George, the biggest one, had little trouble shoving his way in closest. Tabby, a smaller gray cat, was pushing up against him. Maggie, the tiniest of the three, just sat off to the side, mewing softly. Lindsay, feeling bad for her, picked her up first, scratching her gently behind the ears. Maggie was pure white and partly deaf. Lindsay had found her on the side of the road one winter morning, cold, hungry and afraid. After a few meals and a cozy bed, though, Maggie had warmed up to Lindsay and was now the most affectionate of the three.

EXCERPT from HOW TO LASSO A COWBOY, April 2011
Harlan Jones set the sixth chair of the month on his front stoop, removed his cowboy hat and brushed the sweat off his brow before replacing the headgear. If he kept up like this, he’d either have to get married and have twenty kids or start giving the damned things away. Or, better yet, quit building them. If he was a smart man, he’d put the circular saw and drill away for good. Get over this stupid fantasy that he could be a woodworker.

A soft barrel-shaped body brushed against his leg. Harlan chuckled, leaned down and scratched Mortise behind the ears. The Golden Retriever’s tail slapped happily against his rump, and he snuggled closer. Tenon, not to be left out, brought her slender golden body into the mix, and slobbered onto Harlan’s hand.

“A sane man wouldn’t waste time building chairs he isn’t going to sell,” Harlan said to the dogs. Because they never argued back.

“A sane man focuses on a job with benefits.” Harlan moved away from the dogs, heading into the garage he’d converted into a woodshop, and started to put his tools away. “One that has a nice retirement package.”

Mortise dropped to his haunches in the doorway and panted. Tenon bounded off after a squirrel in the yard.

Harlan exited the garage, then shut the door. Was it crazy to be talking to his dogs? Probably, but hell, it was only him and the mutts here. Had been for six weeks, ever since he’d moved from Dallas to this tiny rental house in Edgerton Shores, Florida. The small town was quiet, peaceful. And gave a man too much damned time to think. “If there’s one thing I learned from my father, it’s that hobbies don’t pay,” he said to Mortise.

He had a job. A job he wasn’t always fond of, granted, but it was a job he was good at. A job he also needed to keep because a hell of a lot of people were depending on him. Harlan Jones was nothing if not a dependable, hard worker, one who took care of those he loved.

His gaze went to the distance, to a hospital that lay fifteen miles to the north. Out of sight, never out of his mind. “I have a job,” he repeated to the dogs, to himself, and to the air linking him and the Tampa General Hospital. He best not forget that when he was sanding a leg and admiring the sheen of the wood after the finish was applied. He had seen firsthand where foolish dreams got a man—penniless and unable to support himself, never mind his family. And right now, people were depending on him not to be foolish.

Harlan was about to go back inside and find something else to do with his Saturday when he caught a movement out of the corner of his eye. Here she came. Again. Bound and determined to mess up his life, that woman. “Be good,” Harlan muttered to the dogs. “And I mean it this time.”

“Mr. Jones,” Sophie Watson called to him from two houses down, her blond hair back in a loose ponytail, swinging along her shoulders. From the first day he’d moved into Edgerton Shores, he’d seen Sophie Watson on his daily walk to work. They were pretty much the only two people up and about at that time in the morning, before the sun even thought about rising. She to open her downtown coffee shop, Cuppa Java CafĂ©, and have it ready for people wanting an early morning java, and he to greet them when they were looking for weather forecasts or traffic reports or a quick chuckle as they got ready for their day.

In those early morning moments, Harlan hadn’t done much more than say hello as he passed by. Sophie had seemed nice, friendly even, the first few times he’d encountered her. She was a beautiful woman, too, with delicate features and a penchant for skirts. That had intrigued him, made him even consider asking her out. Then he’d found out she lived across the street from him, and that was when the trouble started.

“My dogs are staying on their side of the street,” Harlan said, putting up a hand to stop Sophie Watson before she started her daily rant about the twin’s tendency to wander around the neighborhood. So they’d relocated a couple of Sophie’s rosebushes, and, well, creatively repotted her lilacs and a rhododendron. Oh yeah, and that incident with the muddy paws and her living room sofa.

Still, Mortise and Tenon meant no harm. They were merely being…dogs. Something Sophie Watson didn’t seem to appreciate, as she’d told him at least a dozen times. “The dogs are staying out of trouble, and out of your flowerbeds. No need to come over here and ruin my day.”

Excerpt © copyright 2011 by Shirley Jump. To read more, visit www.shirleyjump.com

Now, granted, the second excerpt is longer, but it shows a great deal more about the character. I chose two where the characters were dealing with animals on purpose, so you’d have similar scenes to look at.

Let’s dissect why they work/don’t work:

1. EVERY INTERACTION SHOULD TEACH US SOMETHING MORE ABOUT THE CHARACTER. What more do we know about Lindsay at the end of the excerpt? Not a whole lot, really. She has three cats and she rescued one from the street. Okay, that makes her a nice person and a cat lover. Doesn’t tell us a ton about her. Doesn’t make her come alive. Can you see her? Imagine her? Predict how she’d react in a situation? Probably not very well.

Take the second scene with Harlan. You can see his conflict over his job versus his hobby. When he stares off at the hospital, you get an inkling there is more to his stay in that town. You see his interactions with his dogs, and yet he’s still a cowboy and a manly man—you see that when he meets Sophie.

2. THE INTERACTIONS SHOULD MOVE THE PLOT FORWARD AND KEEP THE READER’S ATTENTION. In the first example, it’s one big blah-blah paragraph. Nothing happens. She comes home, feeds her cats. Big deal. In the second example, there is a visitor (the heroine) who will change everything. Harlan is trying to stick to the status quo, and Sophie comes and shakes that up, something she’s been doing since he met her. By the end of that scene, Harlan knows his quiet existence is shifting. The plot has moved forward and things are changing for the character.

3. WE SHOULD BE ABLE TO “SEE” THE CHARACTER. I don’t mean describe the character (that’s a whole other issue, dealing with Point of View, that I’m not going to get into here), but rather, you can see who they are. I talked about this a little in the first example. You can see what kind of person Harlan is, what kind of man he is, what he’s passionate about, etc. But other than that, there’s really no physical description. Yet, after reading that one, do you not feel you know and can see Harlan better than Lindsay?

4. USE DETAILS. The key to great characters are in the details. “Barrel-shaped body,” “loose ponytail,” etc. I don’t overdo the adjectives. One good one will do the work of five bad ones. You don’t want to overwhelm your reader with too much description. Yet in Lindsay’s example, there’s not a lot of description. A little of the cats, but that’s not what we need. We need to see Lindsay’s world. Where she lives, what she’s seeing, how she feels about it. The details are the character’s filter of the world around them. Use them.

5. DON’T PUT IT IN UNLESS IT DOES ALL OR MOST OF THE ABOVE. If the scene doesn’t show your character, move your plot forward, interest your readers and/or give a vivid idea of your character’s world, DON’T put it in. It’s fluff otherwise and you don’t need it. Don’t be afraid to cut things that don’t work. Sometimes you write them, just to get them out of your head so you can get to the good stuff.

Good characters are about good writing. Characters who come alive HAVE lives. You can see, touch, feel and hear their lives when you read the words on the page. Put those in and you’ll have an editor sending you an acceptance letter instead of a rejection!

Shirley Jump
  ~~~~~~~~~

New York Times and USA Today bestselling author Shirley Jump spends her days writing romance and women’s fiction to feed her shoe addiction and avoid cleaning the toilets. She cleverly finds writing time by feeding her kids junk food, allowing them to dress in the clothes they find on the floor and encouraging the dogs to double as vacuum cleaners. Visit her website at http://www.shirleyjump.com/ or read recipes and life adventures at www.shirleyjump.blogspot.com.


Thanks so much for stopping by. Leave Shirley a comment if this post gave you some value.

17 comments:

Susie Medwell said...

Great post Shirley, really helpful pointers on moving the plot forward whilst at the same time only giving the detail that's necessary. Will be using these tips and a red pen on my wip!

Shirley Jump said...

You are welcome, Susie! Glad you found it helpful! :-)

Anonymous said...

What a wonderful post. Such valuable advice. I can't wait to read your books.
Lena

Anne said...

I've read books where I got bogged down in details that have no apparent purpose in the story.
In the excerpt from the first book, you made the cats 'come alive' but not the character herself. In the excerpt from the second one, the female character came alive for me because of his reaction to her and his description of her determination.
This is great information, Shirley. Thank you so much!

Shirley Jump said...

You are very welcome, Lena! Glad you enjoyed it!

Shirley Jump said...

Great observations, Anne! You're very right! And I'm thrilled you enjoyed it!

Ruby Johnson said...

Shirley:
You have the ability to make explanations so clear. Now back to revising my scenes!

Shirley Jump said...

Aw, thanks so much, Ruby! :-)

Marsha said...

Great post, Shirley. You could have told us this information, but instead you showed us with your own writing. Two lessons in one. Nicely done. I'll have to print and keep beside me while I edit. Thanks. Marsha

Shirley Jump said...

You're very welcome, Marsha! I'm thrilled you enjoyed the post! :-)

Anonymous said...

I never get tired of saying that you are the best!

I learn so much more from being 'talked' through samples. Thank you.

That is why I'm finding a welath of info in New Voices just reading all the author comments on stories, and getting reader perspectives on the chapters has given me a few lightbulb moments.


I practically a chandalier after reading this post, Shirley. LOL

Wendy Curtis

Anonymous said...

Proofread before publish, Wendy lol

Trisha Faye said...

Excellent!! Thanks Shirley and thanks Ruby for posting. Only one other word comes to mind .... Ouch!

Now off to revise, revise, revise! Painful, applying this advice to my own ms, but the final product will be so much better now.

Thank you Shirley!!

Megan Kelly said...

Shirley, thank you so much for this article. Very clear. Very informative.

Misty Dietz said...

Thanks for the great post! :)

Chris Bailey said...

Thanks, Ruby and Shirley, for bringing this eye-opening example to the wannabes. As always, Shirley proves to be a skilled and generous teacher.

Shirley Jump said...

LOL, Wendy! Thank you! I'm thrilled you enjoyed the post!

Trish, revision may be painful, but it's always worth it in the end! :-)

Thank you, Megan, Chris and Misty! I'm glad you enjoyed the post!

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