Friday, February 2, 2018

Discovering My Cast of Characters

Shannon Dittemore is the author of the Angel Eyes novels. She has an overactive imagination and a passion for truth. Her lifelong journey to combine the two is responsible for a stint at Portland Bible College, performances with local theater companies, and an affinity for mentoring teen writers. Since 2013, Shannon has taught mentoring tracks at a local school where she provides junior high and high school students with an introduction to writing and the publishing industry. For more about Shan, check out her website, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest

Happy Friday, friends! Before we jump into today's blog post, let me share with you something fun. Because Jill and I are on the west coast (waving across the country at you, Steph!), we've had a couple of co-teaching opportunities pop up for us of late. This March, along with author Paul Regnier, we'll be co-teaching the all new Teen Track at Mount Hermon Christian Writers Conference. If you're anywhere near the Santa Cruz mountains, consider joining us. We're incredibly excited and would love to sit down and talk writing with all of you.

Here's a silly little promo video (that I can't watch without guffawing). For more information on the conference, please visit the official site. There are some fantastic discounts available for teen writers and their chaperones.



And now, with the commercial break over, let's continue to Grow An Author, shall we? Last Friday, we talked about how I write my hero into existence using a process called discovery writing


To follow that up, I want to show you how I choose the individual characters who will make up my hero's supporting cast. 

The initial process cannot be separated from the discovery writing that brings my hero to life. As I'm writing my main character, the others climb onto the page and into existence. As mentioned last week, I start with my story idea and I brainstorm an opening scene. Once I know how I want the story to begin, I make a chronological list of five or six follow-up scenes that will give me plenty of space to explore my hero and the characters that surround her.

As daunting as it can be to create characters from scratch, that's not really what happens when I sit down to write. Most always, the genre itself will require certain types of characters.

For example, when writing a murder mystery, there are three characters that I know will be necessary from the outset: the murderer, the victim, and the detective. When writing a teen novel, I can't overlook the fact that teenagers are generally supervised. I'll need to create parents, or at least develop a reason for their absence. Readers will expect certain character types based solely on the genre of the book you've handed them.

Every genre is going to have its expectations and this is not a bad place to start as you begin to discover your way through the story. Perhaps even more important than genre conventions though, is a character's ability to help you show off your hero as you want her to be seen.

There are several attributes I'm on the outlook out for when I'm discovering a cast of characters. 

PURPOSE: What is this character's purpose in the story? It's not always clear at the outset why I need a specific character in a story. And that's okay. As I write, I often uncover various possibilities. The trick as I move forward is to be honest with myself. Every character I end up keeping must have a purpose. 

This can be a difficult thing to decipher as a writer; we have a tendency to fall in love with characters we create and often lose our objectivity. Here's a simple question you can ask yourself: Does this character reveal something important about my main character, setting, or plot? 

Maybe conversations with this character give the reader insights into your hero's motivation or wiring. Maybe the way your hero treats this character reveals his attitude, personality or level of integrity. Maybe the character has a job that helps us understand the story's setting. Maybe the character is entwined intrinsically into the plot and provides a vital moment as the story unfolds. Maybe the character is schooled in ways that your hero is not--maybe that character provides the expert wisdom that both the hero and the reader need to make it from point A to point B. 

There are many solid reasons for including a character in your story. Just be sure that at some point during the drafting process you're able to pinpoint what that purpose might be.

DESIRE: What does this character want? Yes, it's a question I ask myself regarding the protagonist in my story, but it's just as important to understand your minor characters and what they want. After discovery writing your secondary characters for a while, can you state their two most integral wants? What do they want more than anything? AND what do they want in relation to the hero's journey? Your secondary characters should have their own desires and goals, totally separate from the main characters. This makes them authentic. They should also have an opinion on what the hero's doing and whether or not the hero is on the right track. Maybe they'll never say these two wants out loud, but you, as the writer, should know them. It will help you craft both their actions and their words.

VOICE: Does this character have his own, clearly recognizable voice? Not every minor character will deserve such attention, but those closest to your hero need to be recognizable on the page. In my Angel Eyes books, especially in Dark Halo, one of the most popular characters is the protagonist's best friend, Kaylee. She has her own dreams and desires and, while Brielle is her best friend, Kaylee's life does not revolve around Brielle. As I discovered my way through the series, Kaylee became as real to me as my main character and her voice became just as recognizable. She uses her own vernacular and she processes conversations and situations in her own unique way. She is her own person though she shares many life experiences with my hero, and because of that, she's a very good sounding board and companion. She provides an anchor and helps us make sense of Brielle and the strange things happening all around her. And, because I can hear her voice in my head, I could easily write Kaylee's story if I had to. In fact, I just might.

GROWTH: How will this character grow as the story moves forward? Again, the less impact a minor character has on our hero, the less time and energy we need to devote to their development, but for those with a lot of "onscreen" time, we need to consider their own personal arcs. Does your secondary character grow in some important way? Ability, wisdom, integrity, empathy. Or, maybe, this character regresses. Maybe this character shows us what happens if growth is refused. Maybe this character is a reflection of your hero's "what could have been." Either way, characters close to the hero should show some sign of change by book's end. Change is authentic and we desperately want to be authentic.

I've given you just four of the attributes I look for in secondary characters as I discover my way through a first draft. Can you think of any more? What do you look for when you're casting your book?

20 comments:

  1. Another thing I try to discover in my characters is their background and how that affects who they are in the story. Their past affects their character a lot, so I've found that knowing at least the basics of their background and some important details are good to know about a character.

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    1. Yes! Absolutely! Backstory touches everything from voice to charactec arc. Good job.

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  2. Yes, I look for all of these. Of course, because of my discovery writing, I've ended up with quite the cast. One extra thing I've been doing with the characters is comparing and contrasting them to make sure they're all necessary and that none of them are too similar.

    There have been a couple of minor characters so far that I've either gotten rid of altogether, or merged with a similar character. The key for me is getting past the desire to keep all of them in the story somehow.

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    1. I totally understand! I had to cut a favorite character from my last manuscript and it nearly gutted me.

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  3. I'm at the point where I'm making my characters different. Since it's changed a lot, I've cut characters that they don't meet because the story is going in a different direction. Most of them weren't very hard though because I hadn't developed them, yet.

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    1. It's constant! The evaluating and the cutting. Good on you for being strong enough to do it.

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    2. Thanks! I do have a question considering my characters age. Most of my characters are over 20, but I'm writing YA. Does that matter or should I try to make them younger?

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    3. There's no hard and fast rule, but foe the most part, the hero in a YA book is 18 or under. The other characters in his or her life must be whatever makes sense for the story. Without knowing your story, it's hard to speak to the best age for your secondary characters. Just keep the plot and hero's needs in mind when deciding.

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  4. I love my side characters in most of my stories almost as much as I love my hero(ine). Letting them become real and do what they want to, and knowing who they are and what they want, is so vital to the storytelling process. Thanks for sharing your process with us!

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    1. I think that's fantastic! And thank you for reading.

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  5. Merging characters is actually kind of fun sometimes. I did that recently, combined a minor character with a secondary. It opened up a lot of possibilities.

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    1. I merged two characters recently as well. It was hard because I didn't want to let go of a character, but I'm glad I did it. It's those hard decisions that change everything.

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  6. Is "the story would be weird without them" a viable thing to go under 'purpose'? I'm working on a story about a person in her late teens who becomes a superhero, and it would be super weird if she didn't have parents, but at the same time, I just can't figure out how the parents fit into the story. They don't feel right. I can't just cut them, but they really aren't fitting. Any advice?

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    1. Would it be possible that died somehow? I don't know the specifics of your superhero or their abilities, but maybe that ability somehow killed their parents? That could also install insecurity in their powers. Like I said, I don't know your story, so I don't know if that would work, but it's an idea.

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    2. Could the main character's relationship with her parents be important to how she views the world/other people? It could be a loving/sheltered/abusive/lonely, etc. relationship, any of which will affect how she sees authority/parental figures, etc., so maybe that could help them fit, even if they don't have much screen time?

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    3. In the classic hero's tale, he or she usually ends the journey alone, but there is some pushback in the YA community right now regarding entirely absent parents, so definitely think on it. Whether or not you decide to make the parents an active part of the story, you need to come up with some way to deal with them. Readers will always wonder about a teenagers parents.

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  7. Do you have any suggestions on how to make your characters sound different from each other when they talk? I have been doing much better at this lately, but as I get into the story the characters seem to lose some of the unique things about themselves, like when they talk to each other. They are still different from each other, a lot, but I don't know how to keep their voices from getting tangled; especially since my three main characters all want the same thing. (However, I will also be adding a a few subplots when I go back to edit, so that will also help a little with what they want and how they act.)

    Thank you for this advice!

    ~Mila

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    1. I often have the same problem. One thing that helps me is to develop their personality a little bit. If they're an optimistic, happy-go-lucky person, they might tend to be more positive, more active, or quote inspirational sayings. If your character is more of a tough cookie, maybe with an unsavory past, they might tend to be a little darker, and that would reflect in how they interacted with other people. They might be more untrusting, or not say very much.

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