Writing Great Characters Step 1 – People Watching

child-laughingWriting great characters is one reason why we write. Right? We get to imagine being a whole other person – lots of them – and the better we put ourselves in our character’s heart, mind, and body, the more we give our reader a strong, effective and touching experience. It’s the essence of the art.

But first we need to have a character to write about. I’m talking starting from scratch here, when the last story is done and we’re wandering about with an empty imagination waiting for the next to arrive. Who will we imagine?

The good news is, they are all around us. Characters are everywhere.

Eyes Wide Open

Plant yourself on a bus bench. In a mall, at the fountain in the town square, anywhere you will see masses of people moving. (I come from a massage therapist’s perspective, so I prefer movement.) Sit still, open your eyes, and as far as possible without staring, look at them.

You’ll see people. They’ll be moving. Then you will notice something – they all move differently. That guy with his head high and chest out, striding forward like he’s going to conquer the day and save the damsel; that laughing fat man with the rosy face who carries his weight like a point of pride; that other fat man with the complexion of underdone pastry who looks like he’s drowning inside himself; that young girl with an armful of books, moving slowly with eyes wide open because there’s just so much to see. She’s the one who catches you looking.

See? Do you really see? Every body shape, every variation of movement and set of face and style of dress, tells you something about the person inside. And your writer’s mind creates the story behind the moment. Your fabulous writer’s mind, always and forever asking the magic question Why. Then you will start to know why the little girl smiles when she sees you, and why the conqueror has such a bold stride but looks so frightened.

Inside Their Skin

Just like that, you have the beginnings of a great character. Lots of them, in fact. Just by looking. Take out your notebook – you brought it along, right? – and jot down the salient points of your favourites.

What’s next? Seeing is good, but a thoroughly-imagined character is much more than skin deep. Next, you get inside their skin. We’ll save that for another post. For now, go out and watch people.

Writing Technique – Black Belt Manuscript Editing

samurai-swordWhen you meet twelve reputable agents in one afternoon and they all give you the exact same piece of advice, you kind of have to take notice.

It’s called Agentfest, an incredible afternoon in the middle of the incredible event called Thrillerfest. Three minutes of undivided attention to give an agent your pitch and hear the magic words – “Sounds interesting, send it to me.” Then line up for the next agent and do it again. I spent all morning getting help polishing my pitch with other writers, managed to talk to twelve agents in the afternoon, then slept for twelve hours. I kid you not, it’s an intense time.

I got eight positive responses, requests for partials or the full manuscript of The Night Nurse. An outstandingly successful day, I’d say. But all the agents – every single one of them – told me to take my story from 136,000 words to 100,000 or less.

I said, no problem. Be in touch in a couple of weeks.

Do the math. I needed to cut my story by almost a third. That’s a lot. In story-speak, that’s two and a half characters, ten scenes, or an entire subplot. Holy crap.

One agent, a delightful man named Bob Mecoy, gave me some sage advice. “Take a Sharpie to every line of description,” he said. “Polish what’s left to really bring out the story’s plot, character development, and themes. Then add back in the description that absolutely has to be there.”

Okay, that was good advice. I also found out that vigorous application of standard editing techniques helps, too. Here’s some of them.

How To Cut A Manuscript

Give your story the Mecoy treatment as described above.

Look at all those brilliant, illuminating, scintillating adjectives and pick one of them for the whole sentence or description. Better yet, kill them all in favour of the right verb.

Don’t belabour the point. If a character trait, plot point, or theme has been made once, don’t make it again. If your second mention of the point doesn’t make it grow or take it in a new direction, then out comes the sword.

Is that chunk of character history really necessary? You might love it, but if the reader doesn’t totally need to know about your character’s disturbed past, burn it.

Keep the end in mind. Your story has one overall thrust, one overall direction. Subplots can add colour and pattern to the weave, but if a scene or character takes the story off in a different direction entirely, that’s too much. That’s a distraction. Hit delete.

Each paragraph, each sentence, should move a character or plotline forward. If it doesn’t, it goes.

Give your baby over to someone else. I am lucky enough to be married to a detail-oriented prolific reader and writer with an analytical mind. When she edits my stories she sees everything I cannot. If you know someone who can really see your novel with the eyes of an editor, they will give you a second perspective on what needs to go and what needs to stay.

Getting It In The Bones

Some good stuff is coming out of this process. I can see how most of my cuts are making the story stronger and better. I can also feel that many of these editing tools are becoming ingrained in my thinking. They are becoming a part of the way I naturally write. Which means – hopefully – that novel 2 will be that much better out of the starting blocks.

My interested agents will have a damn good story on their desks soon. I’ll be diving into novel 2 soon, with a sharpened suite of editing tools at my fingertips. I’m pretty sure I’ll also stop writing at 100,000 words or so.