Recommended by Ricochet Members Created with Sketch. Until It’s Written

 

I’m trying hard to get to know a guy. The problem lies in that he doesn’t fully exist yet. I mean, he has a name, I’m pretty sure he has a family, and I know he’s a total stud, but other than that he’s a mystery. I’ll figure him out in time. 

Great storytelling involves us becoming invested in characters we love. Even though we know they’re fictional, they matter. We want them to succeed, to win, but sometimes for the good of the story we have to put them through the grinder.

I kill people all the time. It probably isn’t the case for most writers; my wife never kills anybody. But I write military fiction, and so it happens. I killed six guys just the other day in the span of about two hours (don’t worry, they were all bad). But sometimes you need to kill a hero, or take a character through a series of events you’d rather spare him from if you could.

My current book deals in part with domestic violence. It’s hard to write. You want these people to succeed and forgive one another, but life is messy and it takes time to heal, even on paper. I think things will work out, but I haven’t fully gotten them there, and until it’s written anything can happen, just like with the guy I’m still getting to know. His story could involve tragedy, or maybe not. I just don’t know until we get into it together.

Storytelling is a ride, and it matters. I don’t mean that works of fiction matter in the sense that we couldn’t live without them. We certainly could. In that regard, plumbers matter, firefighters and power plant operators matter, mothers and fathers teaching children right from wrong matter. I don’t mean to draw a moral equivalence with the work of artists and the work of everyday life. If disaster struck tomorrow, nobody would peruse Amazon to buy our books or head to the movie theater. But once things settled down, you can bet they would. After 9/11, a lot of people turned on old episodes of I Love Lucy, and I pulled Debt of Honor off the bookshelf. Why? It’s because we were designed to laugh, to love, to cry, and to mourn.

We turn to story for the same reason Christ did. He knew, the same way Stephen Spielberg does, that a story drives home truth in a manner that philosophy can’t. My older children can tell you what the Holocaust was, but they won’t really understand it until they see Schinder’s List because characters matter, because story matters, and you matter in a story someone else has been writing since the dawn of time.

One of my favorite movie scenes:

I’ve been spending a good amount of time lately digging into characters I’ve created, and bringing them through hard, sometimes unimaginable circumstances that would seem crazy if they weren’t based on true life accounts. There are a lot of stories being written out there, and not by fiction writers like me.

Your story is unique. It’s a tale of struggle and perseverance. The characters around you sometimes make life harder. Sometimes they cause you pain, and sometimes they die, and there is nothing good about it. There’s also nothing you can do about it, except go on and play your part, and maybe become the hero. Your powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.

You never can tell until it’s written.

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There are 13 comments.

  1. Arahant Member

    Vince Guerra: You want these people to succeed and forgive one another, but life is messy and it takes time to heal, even on paper.

    Was talking with a friend the other day, an older gent. He had a hard time in his first marriage and turned to booze and other women. Naturally, that marriage didn’t last. He married again, but was still living the last marriage, and that marriage failed, too. Still not having healed himself, he went into his third marriage the same way. One day his wife told him, “Go take a ride. Maybe go golfing. But you need to make a decision as to whether you want to be married.”

    He did go out for a drive, and when he came back, he told her, “Yes, I want to be married.” From there, he got serious about stopping the booze and other women, and more importantly, about healing the parts of himself he had been trying to “medicate” away.

    Sometimes the stories don’t end as we want them to with happiness at the end of Act One and throughout the rest of the play. Instead, it’s not until Act Three that things start to work themselves out.

    Is the character in Act One, Act Two, or Act Three when we meet him?

    • #1
    • July 29, 2019, at 12:56 AM PST
    • 8 likes
  2. Vince Guerra Member
    Vince Guerra Post author

    Arahant (View Comment):
    Is the character in Act One, Act Two, or Act Three when we meet him?

    Act One of book three as a side character. He will end up a main character in book four, I think. 

    • #2
    • July 29, 2019, at 1:05 AM PST
    • 3 likes
  3. Arahant Member

    In my own fiction books, characters are either historical or part of the main family the books are focused on. I generate many of the characteristics of the family members out of a worksheet with a lot of random number processing. What’s their birthday? What’s their deathday? How many years do they live? How tall are they. How many times will they marry? How many children will each marriage have? What occupations might they pursue (Eighteen listed based on random numbers picking from three groups of over a thousand. Not many will have more than three or four occupations, such as navy, astronomer, cartographer, explorer. Many men have done all four of those things in history.)?

    Sometimes I have to adjust, such as when a character is supposed to die at 18 years of age, but is supposed to have three marriages with a total of thirty children. Maybe I adjust the length of life or eliminate the marriages altogether. But sometimes, the tension of these factors is where the main story of the character comes from. He has a wife and two mistresses and died young? Which one of the ladies killed him? Or do they only find out after he’s dead?

    Who they are is important, but how you present them is also important. Will the reader see the character though that character’s eyes? Or through another character’s eyes? I have one character who never shows up in my books directly. Yet, he is the main character in a serialized story in a magazine. The reader sees who he is, his weaknesses, what led him to lead a multiple life, and how that went wrong for him. The story around the magazine story shows his family interacting in the aftermath of his death.

    I have another story where there are a couple more characters we never see, characters who are dead before the story begins. The main character of the story is playing music written by a cousin of his who had died, and her father had had her compositions published. The main character is wishing he had known his cousin better, since he had never seen the depths in her that he finds in her music. Now she, the composer, is a very minor background character who never shows up except in a few paragraphs of remembrance. But I know her. I can tell you more about her.

    Finding who the characters are is important not only with the major characters, but with the minor ones. Their lives are just as important, even if all we see is their walk on in someone else’s story.

    • #3
    • July 29, 2019, at 1:20 AM PST
    • 5 likes
  4. Arahant Member

    Vince Guerra (View Comment):

    Arahant (View Comment):
    Is the character in Act One, Act Two, or Act Three when we meet him?

    Act One of book three as a side character. He will end up a main character in book four, I think.

    Right, but what act is he in of his own story?

    • #4
    • July 29, 2019, at 1:21 AM PST
    • Like
  5. Vince Guerra Member
    Vince Guerra Post author

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Vince Guerra (View Comment):

    Arahant (View Comment):
    Is the character in Act One, Act Two, or Act Three when we meet him?

    Act One of book three as a side character. He will end up a main character in book four, I think.

    Right, but what act is he in of his own story?

    Act Two of his own story. I’d like to tell his Act One exploits, but it doesn’t work in the timeline, unless it’s with a flashback, but I avoid those. I’ll probably touch on it within dialogue instead.

    • #5
    • July 29, 2019, at 1:54 AM PST
    • 3 likes
  6. Arahant Member

    You got me thinking about some of my characters. My series is really a family saga composed of short stories. There are certain threads involving various storylines, and characters may only be involved in their primary storyline or involved in many. I have one thread where one of the family members is hunting a serial killer. The action takes place over about six years and nine chapters, although he had been hunting the serial killer for thirty years before we first meet him. The chapters will be split across at least two volumes in my series.

    I just went back and read that storyline. I have no idea how this particular storyline came to me or how these characters developed. But, man, is it ever a good one.

    • #6
    • July 29, 2019, at 4:20 AM PST
    • 2 likes
  7. Arahant Member

    Another thought or bit of advice for young writers. You don’t know the character? Just write. If you’re ready to be a writer, the characters should reveal themselves. That’s not to say they’ll coöperate with you as the author. You may have to change your plans. You may find details popping out that surprise you. “Wait, he listens to classical music? He seems like more of a rap guy. How did this come about?”

    And every little detail matters to sketch out the character. Is he anti-smoking? Does he smoke? What does he smoke? Cigarettes? Where did he pick up the habit? A pipe? Seems like a habit for a more thoughtful character. Is he thoughtful? Or is he the type who would murder his son-in-law in a fit of rage after being insulted one too many times? Does he smoke cigars? Are they cheap cigars or expensive? Does he chew tobacco? Each of these habits or lack thereof might give us a clue to who the character is. Every detail matters, even if you as the author don’t know why it matters as of yet.

    • #7
    • July 29, 2019, at 4:31 AM PST
    • 2 likes
  8. Stad Thatcher

    Vince Guerra: You never can tell until it’s written.

    This is similar to what I tell people when they say, “I’ve thought of writing a book.”

    I tell them to simply sit down and do it. It’s kind of like the “Journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step” sort of thing. Getting started is hard.

    Pretty soon you find yourself inventing a background for your main character (or the plural). Then you do research on places they go and things they do (Thank you, internet! But check multiple sources).

    Then like a reader who comes to a plot twist at the end of a chapter and can’t put the book down, you write a plot twist and can’t stop for dinner until you’ve written the next chapter.

    And when you’ve finally finished? You find out proofreading and editing is one hot poker short of being like the Inquisition . . .

    • #8
    • July 29, 2019, at 5:53 AM PST
    • 2 likes
  9. Vince Guerra Member
    Vince Guerra Post author

    Stad (View Comment):

     

    And when you’ve finally finished? You find out proofreading and editing is one hot poker short of being like the Inquisition . . .

    I tell people that as soon as you type “The End” on the first draft is when it truly begins. My first book went through eight drafts after all the editing and rewrites were done. Then I had to make separate file formatting for the selected trim size, ebook, review and endorsement recipients. And the cover, talk about drama. 

    • #9
    • July 29, 2019, at 9:42 AM PST
    • 3 likes
  10. Vance Richards Member

    Vince Guerra: I’m trying hard to get to know a guy. The problem lies in that he doesn’t fully exist yet.

    Do you create much backstory for your own reference? By that I mean, a bio of things that most likely will never be revealed in the story itself, but help you understand the character and how he might view things? 

    • #10
    • July 29, 2019, at 9:57 AM PST
    • 1 like
  11. Arahant Member

    Vance Richards (View Comment):

    Vince Guerra: I’m trying hard to get to know a guy. The problem lies in that he doesn’t fully exist yet.

    Do you create much backstory for your own reference? By that I mean, a bio of things that most likely will never be revealed in the story itself, but help you understand the character and how he might view things?

    I’ve certainly been known to. Some of it may get slowly revealed over a few stories/chapters, but seldom all of it.

    • #11
    • July 29, 2019, at 10:23 AM PST
    • Like
  12. Stad Thatcher

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Vance Richards (View Comment):

    Vince Guerra: I’m trying hard to get to know a guy. The problem lies in that he doesn’t fully exist yet.

    Do you create much backstory for your own reference? By that I mean, a bio of things that most likely will never be revealed in the story itself, but help you understand the character and how he might view things?

    I’ve certainly been known to. Some of it may get slowly revealed over a few stories/chapters, but seldom all of it.

    I create a master character list. I start with physical attributes and age, then put in lines containing things like education, experience, likes and dislikes, etc. I find as the story develops, I add more stuff to the MCL. This heklps avoid discontinuities like being blond in one chapter, brunette in the next.

    My favorite proofreader (also a friend and former coworker) described one novel she was reading where the king beheaded the princess’ valet. He appeared in the next chapter, then became dead again in the following chapter.

    One advantage of self publishing only e-books is you can make the correction and have it update to everyone who’s already bought the book. But boy oh boy, reader comments like “Did he grow his head back?” can make you cringe . . .

    • #12
    • July 29, 2019, at 11:00 AM PST
    • 3 likes
  13. Vince Guerra Member
    Vince Guerra Post author

    Vance Richards (View Comment):

    Vince Guerra: I’m trying hard to get to know a guy. The problem lies in that he doesn’t fully exist yet.

    Do you create much backstory for your own reference? By that I mean, a bio of things that most likely will never be revealed in the story itself, but help you understand the character and how he might view things?

    I did with the most recent novel. I use Scrivener to write instead of Word and it has a feature on its novel template for a character list. It looks like a cork board with note cards on the screen so whenever I get a detail I need to remember I add it to the characters personal bio. It’s been incredibly helpful in figuring out rank for all of the military characters. Many of them have nicknames they use in conversation with each other, call signs they use on the radio in addition to their real names. It’s hard to keep it all straight otherwise.

    • #13
    • July 29, 2019, at 11:15 AM PST
    • 2 likes