An open dialog on characters

Hi, gang. Craig here again. I’m noticing that my posts tend to be more open ended than the other authors here. Part of that is because there are so many different methods to produce a good story. I like to discuss things and present options. This time the topic is characters.

I’ve been told I write good characters. (Both my fans said so.) I’m also on record as saying the character comes to me during the first draft more than any other time. There is a method to plotting a good character arc though. Readers expect the character to evolve over the course of the story. Imagine taking a conservative or a liberal, and making them accept some opposing points of view to get through whatever hellish torture you have planned for them. This evolution is the character arc.

I tend to write more stoic main characters, and surround them with colorful secondary characters. It’s a cycle I tend to repeat over and over again. For some reason, when I write a buddy story it doesn’t come out this way. The two main characters, on an equal footing, tend to bring all the color the story needs.

I like to assess what I’ve done, and think about what I could do in the future. My writing is an evolutionary process, so lather – rinse – repeat doesn’t quite work for me. Think of it like my own character arc.

To discuss this, I need to talk about some of my own characters. I’m not including purchase links, because this isn’t a promo kind of post. It’s more to get a bit of discussion going in the comment section.

Even though it’s mildly dangerous, I’ve been thinking again.

Lisa Burton

There are times when we want to tone down some aspects of our writing, and others where we want to step it up. We can plan our characters accordingly, and still come up with a good story.

Lisa BurtonWhen I wrote Will O’ the Wisp, I intended for it to be a young adult story. I got a lot of compliments about the character of Patty Hall. In the planning stage, I gave her a mild handicap to overcome. This became part of her character arc. Patty is a teenager, and that means she’s still a child. When writing for a young adult audience, I didn’t want to put her in a ton of adult situations. Her story is scary and she dealt with some frightening situations. This isn’t to say there weren’t some teenage issues, but even when she danced naked in the moonlight, she was alone and unobserved.

I also have a short story, The Soup Ladle of Destiny, that has a child hero. This was a fantasy/comedy, and while I’ve read some funny stuff with adult situations, it doesn’t work with a child main character.

Lisa BurtonOn the other hand, there are times when you want to do a bit more. Two, okay three, of my more popular characters were a bit more over the top. Clovis appeared in The Playground. He’s a brutal thug for hire. One of his hobbies involves what he calls deporting people. He does this by sinking them to the bottom of the Mississippi River and letting the river take them into the Gulf. And yet readers liked him. This is because he had a character arc himself. He shows a bit of twisted friendship with his Chinese neighbor, adopts a stupid dog, and develops feelings for a woman in New Orleans. When he winds up doing the right thing, in his own way, it made people love him even more.

Lizzie and the hat, appear in a book oddly titled The Hat. Lizzie is one of those stoic personalities at the beginning. When she meets up with the hat, she kind of loses it, and the two of them go on a rollicking adventure. Her motivations are stability and playing a bit of catch-up. She took a huge loss before the book begins, dropped out of college, and is trying to stabilize her life so she can return to college. The hat has other plans. These two bicker like an old married couple. By the end, Lizzie adopts a more bohemian lifestyle. She still worries about stability, but concedes that other ways may work. Again, character arc.

I have a totally unproven theory that over-the-top characters are better in small doses. It’s the old “leave them wanting more” philosophy. In Clovis’ case, he is one of three main characters who alternate throughout the book. Smaller portions of him. The Hat is a novella. Enough to leave everyone happy, but not so much the characters become predictable either.

I’m toying with the idea of turning the crazy meter up past ten, pulling the knob off and throwing it away for a character. Readers seem to love these characters. I haven’t done it yet, but it could happen.

Now we’re back to you guys. I postulate that character development is like using the oven. You can’t set it to five-hundred degrees for everything and have it turn out. Do you plan your character arc? Do you consider your target audience? Are there lines you won’t cross in a story? Does it depend on the story? Talk to me in the comments.

Kudos to Sean Harrington who produced this artwork of my spokesmodel, Lisa Burton, on short notice. I’m including this link as thanks for his help over the years.

Entertaining Stories

61 thoughts on “An open dialog on characters

  1. Pingback: Author Inspiration and This Week’s Writing Links | Staci Troilo

  2. One of the writing classes I took delved deeply into Character development and it included a character wheel on which you would write the strengths and weaknesses of all characters. The idea was that the spokes of the wheel would be opposing aspects of the character. For example, on one spoke you might write that the character is a law-abiding citizen, while on the opposing spoke you might write that the character is cheating on his wife. So it helped add dimension to character development. Nice post, Craig.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I go with character development on a write as you go basis. I agree on development in the first draft. That’s where most comes from. Planning an arc to the fine details is tough for me. I have to get into the story to figure out what a character is going to do in certain circumstances. My characters will never abuse kids or animals. The thought of writing that kind of scene gives me the creeps.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Sean Harrington is a genius. I love the new artwork!

    When it comes to characters and how they develop, I usually have a good idea of what motivates them before I start writing. I’m a character-driven writer, so plot comes after I have my head wrapped around the character. As for the character arc, I know where they start, and generally have an idea of where I want them to end up. Fleshing out the middle occurs as I write.

    I’ve always been a panster, but I’ve recently found that it helps to have an idea of scene order ahead of time. I sketched out a few scenes in my current WIP when I got stuck and it helped me to power through two chapters. There is definitely something to be said for story-boarding and plotting. I may have to rethink the way I write!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Glad you like the artwork. The only way I could finish Panama was bookend outlines. One got me started, and another one got me to the end. I look at this like tools. Sometimes a different tool is better. If you have all the tools, it makes life easier.


  5. A few years back I had a really fun idea. So I wrote the first draft and sent it off to some really smart writing friends. After that I handed it off to my writers group. Sadly they all agreed I had a problem: The protagonist was boring. The reader didn’t care. In a nutshell it fell flat.

    What bothered me the most was that the idea of the story worked. The supporting cast worked. Everything was there but the main guy was a dud. So I put the story away and went on to other things. During the Christmas holidays my wife surprised me with a book on story development. I rarely read those books but she had a hunch and as always her hunch was right.

    Fast forward to March the protagonist is completely rewritten. I am outlining the chapters. Uncovering wrinkles that will slow the story and keying on the antagonist as well. I wrote this as a pantser. Now I’m a plotter and I’ve discovered this works a lot better. The characters deserve this. I can see them standing in the field waiting for me to get started. Looks like I better go.

    Excellent stuff. Thanks!!!

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Love the art, Craig.

    I think for me, characters come to me the same way friendships develop. (That’s also how I try to write them.) When I first conceive of them, or meet them, I get them at face-value. You know, they’re on their best behavior (most of them) putting on their public face. But as I work with them, bonds form. I get to know them better. (Then I’m able to reveal more about them to my readers.) By the time a book is done, I know them incredibly well, and I hope my readers do, too.

    I don’t really consider audience or genre expectations, although I suspect there’s a subconscious-element to my character development that considers those things. Not sure about lines I won’t cross. It probably depends on the story, but I’m willing to push things pretty far, provided it’s not just for shock value.

    Liked by 3 people

    • I like the explanation about friendships. That’s a great way to look at it. Jason Fogg is the one I struggled with. His nocturnal habits were disturbing before he found focus. That focus made him a better man, but I’m not sure everyone can forgive his previous life.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Tough questions, especially since I always say my stories are character driven. I try to give some color to all of my heroes and villains because I want them to stand out enough for their evolution to be noticeable. It could be a big one where they become less positive about the world or a small jump where they simply find that they can smile more often. As long as there’s enough flavor from the beginning to allow the change to make some impact. I actually make character bios before outlining, which is where my subplots come from. So, there is a basic level of arc planning. Mostly the beginning, ending, and a general idea of the middle to make sure I stay on track. Still goes haywire a bit at times. Not sure I have an answer for the lines being crossed since I’m including villains in my thought process here. I have some of them go too far to make sure the audience doesn’t like them too much. For example, Baron Kernaghan in my series had some fans from his few scenes and even came off likable to some even after he had people leap into a demon spawn pit. To be fair, he kept a little girl because he didn’t want to hurt her like the adults, which might have undermined that. Anyway, I had him torture one of my heroes for an entire book to bring him more to the villain side. I’m talking a no-holds-barred level of torture too. To be honest, I’m not sure it worked as well as I wanted it to.

    Liked by 4 people

  8. I write character-driven fiction and I’m more of a panster than a plotter. I have a general idea of the story and the main characters, but I allow them to take on a life of their own. I let the characters speak to me. Sometimes the results are surprising. Another thought-provoking post today, Craig.

    Liked by 3 people

  9. My target audience is always middle grade and younger for my stories. Beyond that, it depends on the story. Sometimes it’s the character and a rough idea of the character arc that I start with, other times it’s the story I start with and the character is created and developed as I write it. As for the part of your questions regarding lines I will or won’t cross: I bear in mind how far is too far for the age range, but other than that go with what feels right for the story.

    Liked by 3 people

  10. This is a fun and interesting post, Craig. Thanks for sharing!
    When I write, my books are character driven rather than plot driven, and by the time I start on the first draft … being more a pantser than a planner … the main character is fully formed and in charge, lols. It’s when my characters get right into my head that the writing really takes off. I love the artwork and photo! 🙂
    Pressed This on: … A fun and interesting post about Character Arcs and Development from author Craig Boyack over on Story Empire today. You really do want to check this out … including the brilliant imagery! 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

  11. Pingback: An open dialog on characters | Welcome to Harmony Kent Online

  12. Great post, as usual!

    Characters are usually what sparks my stories. I come up with a character or two that seem intriguing, then I start to think about a setting for them and only in the end I put the wheels of he story in motion to see what happens. So yes, I think I plan character’s arch in advance.

    Before I actually start writing, I play with the characters in my head a lot. I can’t plan an arch for them if I don’t know them very well. In the end, my characters tell me what they need to change in their life or their attitude, so that I can put them on a path that will ultimately lead at the end of their arch.

    It’s an exciting process and I prefer to go through it during outlining, when I can free write and I don’t have to care about language, sentence structure, pace, description all at once.

    At present, for instance, I’m debating about my main characters in my sci-fi WIP. Should they fall in love or not? I’m trying to listen to them, to see what they want. But their ideas are confused about it. And I’m not even working on that particular WIP right now!

    Liked by 4 people

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