People Watching and Developing Fictional Characters

I spend more time than I should just staring out windows. It’s not that there’s a lot to see here, but you never know what you’ll miss if you don’t happen to be looking at the right moment.

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You can observe a lot by just watching.

[Yogi Berra]

Watching 2

You may get real tired watching me,
but I’m not going to quit.

[Harrison Ford]

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Discipline is just doing things
the right way
whether anyone’s watching or not.

[Michael J. Fox]

While I’m watching I try to put into practice what my father once told me when we were out hunting: “Look for what doesn’t belong.” Of course, that had us checking out a lot of stumps on hunting trips, but it’s true — a movement, a shadow or shape that wasn’t there before is often what alerts me to the presence of a visitor in the garden.

I like to people-watch, too. In a stadium or on a bus, train or plane there are wonderful opportunities to study the people around me. (I try not to stare, especially in church!) Some of the characters in my novels bear the traits of people I may have seen during one of those times. A few well chosen quirks or tags can make a character memorable.

My characters are totally fictional, not modelled on anyone specific. Seeing them in my head and developing them into believable people within a story may end up with them being a composite of people I’ve seen or known, but it’s important to me that they behave true to their personalities. I can’t combine a random assortment of personality traits and expect the resulting character to be credible. People may act in peculiar ways, but there’s usually a good reason. The writer’s challenge is to find that reason.

One resource I’ve found valuable for ascribing appropriate traits to my characters is the WRITERS GUIDE TO CHARACTER TRAITS: Profiles of Human Behaviors and Personality Types by Linda N. Edelstein, PhD.
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So, I’m curious. How do you develop your characters? How do you select the key personality traits that govern their actions and reactions? Oh, and are you a people watcher? Do you have a method for camouflaging your observations… or do you just go ahead and stare? ;)

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Christmas preparations, secular and sacred

Our family has a dual heritage when it comes to Christmas preparations. There’s a combination of the sacred and the secular because my hubby and I came from those two backgrounds. Christmas was always a special time when we were children, but for different reasons, and celebrated in different ways.

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When Advent begins, along with the nativity figures, our decorations come out, lights are strung and a tree goes up. Christian friends might wonder how we can put energy into all the secular preparations and still focus enough on the anticipation of such a holy season, but somehow we do.

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Last night, for the umpteenth time, we watched the movie, “Miracle on 34th Street“.  “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” will probably be next, along with “It’s a Wonderful Life“, “A Charlie Brown Christmas” and assorted other television specials. Years ago we watched these with our children. Now we’re on our own and we still watch them.

Soon I’ll turn my attention to a bit of baking. Not a lot, since there aren’t many of us to eat it, but we need a few of the annual goodies, like Shortbread, Melting Moments and Peanut Butter Snowballs. We’ll also be caroling to shut-ins, finding delight in the children’s Sunday School Pageant, singing a Cantata with our choir, and of course attending all the special Christmas worship services.

There’s a little magic and a lot of mystery associated with Christmas, and we experience both, in ways that are meaningful to us. I doubt that God minds our strange muddle of traditions. We still meet Him at the manger.

What are some of the meaningful traditions you’ll experience again this Christmas? In your writing, have you allowed your characters to establish traditions?

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Blame everything on the weather!

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Streaks of clouds in pre-sunset peach and charcoal-purple cut through a cerulean sky. The weather is changing. There’s been intermittent light rain interspersed with brief sunny breaks through much of the past few days, but flurries are in today’s forecast.

I don’t fuss over the weather. There’s a saying here on the west coast, “If you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes.” Some folks also say, “If you can’t see the mountains, it’s raining. If you can, it’s going to rain.” The more optimistic of us point to how green everything is, thanks to the rain.

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My mood isn’t affected, whatever the colour of the sky. There are people whose mood is, and some who even experience S.A.D. — Seasonal Affective Disorder — during low light seasons. I tend to forget that it’s a very real, clinical disorder, and I can sometimes be insensitive to those who complain about the weather, or display negativity, discouragement and depression because of it.

During November’s NaNoWriMo my project was to rewrite the ending of a recently completed manuscript. As I rushed headlong through the words, instead of resolving my protagonist’s dilemmas, I ended up heaping more upon her. Nothing seems to go right for her, and I’ve realized a lot of the time it’s because of her negative perspective. The story happens between November and February. I’m beginning to wonder if she has S.A.D. That would explain a lot, but it complicates the plot.

The story is taking off in a direction I didn’t intend, and I’m not sure I like this feeling of losing control.

If you’re a writer, are you always in control of your story and its characters? What happens when your control slips away?

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A word about observation

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Human Behaviour

He caught me staring. My parents had frequently reminded me staring was rude, so when his eyes engaged mine, I looked away, leaving only an embarrassed smile in the space between us. But it was impossible not to snatch another furtive glance. This time it was his turn to smile. I dropped my gaze and tried to focus on the page, searching for the line of music in my hymnbook that everyone was singing except me.

I was a flustered teenager, standing beside my boyfriend during a Sunday church service, fascinated by the tall sandy haired young man in the back row of the choir loft, but totally unaware that he was my future husband. For days afterwards the visual encounter was imprinted in my memory. I knew little about him except that he was the minister’s son and the leader of the church’s youth group.

Later I discovered that he knew even less about me, but during those stolen glances it had occurred to him one day he would like to marry me! And three years later he did.

How is it our powers of observation can instill reactions and emotions with such life-altering results? Observation is more than mere looking. It’s seeing beyond the visible, discovering motivations before they’re obvious, and recognizing the attitudes behind actions. It’s taking in the view and examining how it relates to one’s presence.

For writers, observation is critical in the creation of our characters, especially the protagonist.

“Your protagonist is your reader’s portal into the story.
The more observant he or she can be,
the more vivid will be the world you’re creating.
They don’t have to be super-educated, they just have to be mentally active.
Keep them looking, thinking, wondering, remembering.”

Janet Fitch

This is what is meant by using Deep Point of View… writing from within the mind of our characters and seeing through their eyes.

Can you think of a passage in your current work that makes use of a character’s power of observation in such a way that readers will be able to “see” the scene for themselves?

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What about all those secondary characters?

Most of us don’t go through life totally on our own. We encounter the letter carrier, grocery store and bank clerks, family members, relatives and neighbours, and our child’s coach or math teacher. We have conversations with people that may be anything from a trivial pleasantry to a life-altering exchange.

If we were to write our life story, would we include all of them in it? Not likely. Neither could we ignore everyone except ourselves. (It’s hard to keep even a memoir interesting when it’s all about us!) A large segment of life involves relationships, but if we include them in our storytelling, and give them names, they need to be significant to the plot.

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Secondary and tertiary characters support our key players, the protagonist and antagonist, but mentioning them by name will signal readers that they are important to the story and must be remembered. Too many names, especially difficult-to-remember (i.e., Angaidh and Donnchadh) or too-similar ones, (Carmen and Carolyn, Bradley and Brandon) get challenging to keep straight. After a while they all blend together. We don’t want our readers focused on a Who’s Who guessing game instead of on the storyline.

Only main characters need to be memorable. Characters playing bit parts can be given minor identifying tags – features that make them temporarily visible – or very common names that easily slip from memory when the character disappears back into the wings.

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As I see it (to borrow a phrase from my hubby), our main characters should be clearly identified as such early in the story. The few others who need to be remembered for their supporting roles should be named only if necessary and when they appear… and all the rest should end up as a blur of unremarkable nonentities.

Am I wrong? Do you enjoy books with ‘a cast of thousands’ and if you do, what’s your system for keeping everyone sorted out?

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#10 on Elmore Leonard’s List of Ten Rules of Writing:

“Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.”

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Taking my own advice…

I attended a ‘Lobby Night’ presentation by my writers’ group last night — a very worthwhile event, but as I drove home in the descending darkness I realized how scratchy my eyes were. Unfortunately I had left writing this post until the end of the day and when I opened my laptop to begin, I was suddenly too tired to find anything pertinent to say. I sat here with my eyes blinking faster than the uncooperative cursor, until I decided this was probably as close to Writer’s Block as I wanted to get. My solution? Re-run an old post. Just over four years ago I posted the following under the title of A Daily Dose of Motivation. I hope you’ll forgive me if I post it again. My brain is lost in a fog tonight. Tomorrow I’ll take my own advice about getting motivated for Friday’s column.

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Everyone has an opinion about how to combat Writer’s Block. Whether believing it’s a mythical non-entity or a super-size monster, experts are quick to offer suggestions for overcoming a writer’s inability to make words materialize on the monitor.

The one I like best? “Just sit down, put pencil to paper (or fingers on keys) and start writing anything that comes into your head. Don’t stop for ten minutes.” Yeah, sure — recommending writing as a cure for not being able to write. That’s logic for you. But what can we do when the words won’t come, when we honestly try but the effort only magnifies the angst?

I’m not convinced I’ve ever faced Writer’s Block. Yes, there have been days, weeks, even months when I haven’t written anything significant, but in retrospect I think I was procrastinating. I wasn’t ready to risk failure, so I found something safer to do. I read.

There is a real danger in procrastination, even in the short term, because the time we would previously have spent writing slowly becomes absorbed by a substitute. Reading is easy to justify because writers need to read — for exposure to good writing, for knowledge, for inspiration. But as an excuse to avoid writing? I don’t think so.

I always have an assortment of books on the go from my TBR pile but when I finally realize I’ve been reading at the expense of writing I figure it’s time to shift my focus. I reach for the volume that continues to give me daily writing inspiration no matter how many times I read it: Bonni Goldberg’s Room to Write: Daily Invitations to a Writer’s Life. (Tarcher/Putnam, 1996) There are lots of daily meditations available but “Room to Write” has been one of my most useful tools. Admittedly I don’t often do the accompanying exercises but the short readings motivate me.

Excuses are impediments to achievement. Had I continued to stare at this blasted blank monitor until my eyes blurred, blaming my lack of words on Writer’s Block, or  immersed myself in someone else’s plot as I was tempted to do, this posting wouldn’t have happened today. Mind you, it’s already 11:55 p.m. If I don’t immediately staunch this flow of words that originally wouldn’t start, today’s posting will become tomorrow’s!

See what a bit of motivation can do!

Do you have any favourite go-to books that provide motivation in those moments when writing inspiration is lacking?

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How do you pick a name (for a cat or a character)?

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DSC02105This is Zeke. Our grandchildren started out calling her ‘Trooper Zeke McGuire’ until it eventually ended up as just plain Zeke — not that either name was particularly appropriate for a female kitten. Of course at the time of naming, everyone thought she was a he, and by the time it was discovered she wasn’t, nobody was about to change the name.

Zeke has attitude. Oh, I know… you’ll tell me all cats do. I’m not a cat person so you could fool me. My life has been filled with dogs for more than sixty years but there’s never been a cat. Zeke and I have the loosest of relationships. She belongs to my son’s family, and has a chocolate Lab in her household to boss around when she feels the need to play her dominant card.

The Lab barks when she wants into the house. If the cat also happens to want in, when the door opens she darts in ahead of the dog. When Zeke wants in and the dog isn’t around to offer assistance, Zeke backs up to the French doors and thuds a rapid tattoo against them with her back paws! For some reason that reminds me of a jackrabbit. Why couldn’t they have named her Jackie? Or then again, wasn’t it the song about Frosty the Snowman that tootled, “Thumpity-thump-thump, thumpity-thump-thump, look at Frosty go?” Why couldn’t they have named her Frosty?

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Zeke’s Chocolate Lab is called ‘Java’. Our own Black Lab is ‘Tynan’, which is Gaelic for ‘the dark one’. No further explanation needed, right? But ‘Zeke’ for a grey, long-haired female house cat???

Finding suitable names for cats or dogs, babies or characters in a novel is a challenge. How can anyone know what will suit them when they first arrive… before they’ve displayed or even developed a personality?

When it comes to characters, I usually have an image in mind. Then it’s a matter of checking the image against a list of potential names — sometimes it’s in my mind, other times it’s in a telephone book, a ‘name your baby’ book, or possibly rolling credits on the movie or television screen. I discard them one by one, depending on who I might have known with a particular name, and whether it suggests either positive or negative connotation or remembered personality traits. It can be a slow process.

I’ve been known to change a character’s name several times in the course of writing a story. That can cause problems of its own. While the ‘search and replace’ function in my word processing software is very handy, it’s not fool proof, as author Denise Jaden reminded me on Facebook yesterday when she said she’d “changed a character’s name using the Find and Replace option in Word, but forgot to add spaces before and after the names. Now I’m coming across words like resebastianable (instead of remarkable). Makes me laugh every time.” Later she added, ” Upon further thought, I think I may keep reSEBASTIANable as my own addition to the English language. I’ll use it whenever anything is extra remarkable.”

How difficult is it for you to find the right name (for a cat, kidlet or character)? Have you ever regretted your choice?

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It’s that ‘same old, same old’ routine

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A walk to our marsh isn’t anything new for me, nor is the view. Yet I wander down there regularly. You’ve accompanied me on a few occasions (here and here), following the trail and sitting on the bench beside me. The same path takes me past the same trees, footsteps cushioned with decades of fir needles and crushed cones. Ferns and mosses, leathery salal and the occasional huckleberry shrub return every spring under the same dense evergreen canopy.

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Marshes don’t change much. There are always grasses emerging from their watery roots, ducks and geese diving for fresh shoots, swallows swooping after mosquitoes and herons stalking lunchtime morsels. I have photos taken fifteen years ago that I can’t tell from others taken last week except for the seasonal colour variations.

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But each time I go, it feels different, perhaps because I’m looking with a different focus. This week it’s on the Canada Goose who, after a three-year hiatus, has returned to occupy her old nest on top of the beaver lodge.

She wasn’t there in the early afternoon yesterday when I went to check up on her, and I feared she might have abandoned it again. But no, soon she and the gander swam back from the deeper end of the marsh and she clambered up to settle in.

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There are two pair of geese populating our marsh and they each respect their separate territories, although I occasionally hear a commotion if one meanders too close to the other’s domain. I assume it’s the same two pair every year, since geese mate for life and are relatively long-lived.

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Do you suppose they have any thoughts about the recurring, never changing cycle of their lives? Do they ever experience the hamster-on-a-wheel sensation, as people do – the here-we-go-again, tied-to-the-old-survival-routine kind of monotony?  Or are they even conscious of the renewal of a season? Geese are very family oriented. They show affection for each other, welcome each other after an absence. They defend their mates and their young. I wonder if they have any other emotions in common with people. I’ll probably never know, but I like posing such questions.

I do something similar when I’m establishing new characters for my stories. I want to know what they think, how they’ll respond, what personality traits they’ll display as the plot unfolds. Will routine bore them or help keep them grounded?

What kind of questions do you ask as you begin assembling a fresh cast of characters? Has the arrival of spring inspired any enthusiasm for beginning something new? How do you feel about the repetition of the seasons?

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While the earth remaineth, seedtime and harvest,
and cold and heat, and summer and winter,
and day and night shall not cease.

Genesis 8:22

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To every thing there is a season,
and a time to every purpose under the heaven.

Ecclesiastes 3:1

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Looking over my shoulder (or… how life changes)

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The traffic light was slow to change. I waited, impatient to get across the street and to my meeting. Ahead of me two young men also waited, black backpacks slung over their shoulders. Prior to the Boston bombing I wouldn’t have looked twice at them. Now…? When we reached the other side and they moved away, I peered back over my shoulder to check where they’d gone.

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It was silly, I know, but instinctive. As our world changes, so also does human behaviour. Events 4,000 or 5,000 kilometres away may not directly impact us, yet they alter how we think. Then again, so does life in general. We are not exactly the same people today that we were yesterday, nor the same as we will be tomorrow. It’s called growth.

In our novels it’s called the Character Arc.

In PLOT VERSUS CHARACTER, Jeff Gerke points out that in some novels, notably mysteries, the main character may remain unchanged, because the story is all about the plot and how it unravels. In most other genres, however, the story is about how the main character is affected by the plot. Jeff suggests the Character Arc should have five distinct parts:

  1. Initial Condition
  2. Inciting Incident
  3. Escalation
  4. Moment of Truth
  5. Final State

A static character will be flat, despite all the personality quirks we may give him. If we want him to come alive for our readers, he has to be challenged by something that requires him to reason and react. Inevitably he must encounter obstacles and/or discoveries that will change him either physically, mentally or emotionally.

Do you consciously develop a pattern of change for your character as you plan your stories? Do you evaluate during revisions whether or not you achieved an effective character arc? In your opinion, how important is such change in a short story compared to a novel?

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Fitting in or standing out — are we fictitious characters or our real selves?

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Some time ago there was a poster circulating on Facebook that said, “Why try to fit in when you were born to stand out?” I also have a poster in my office — I’ve mentioned it before — that says, “Be Yourself. An original is always worth more than a copy.”

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The truth of both axioms is obvious, and yet I’m not sure why I relate to them… why it appeals to me to have copies. It has something to do with believing I shouldn’t hide the authentic me behind a barricade.

Years ago I had a friend who understood how I felt. We would joke about how we hid behind brick walls and only occasionally pried a brick or two out so others could peek in for a glimpse. After we moved from that city I seldom saw her, and she’s been gone for many years now. I sometimes wonder if she allowed others beneath her protective surface or if most people missed out on getting to know the real person.

To figure out if anyone actually “gets” me would require understanding myself, and I’m not an introspective kind of person. Still, as an aspiring author, I wonder if my writing will allow readers access to me through my characters. (Scary thought!) Writers are often asked if they base their characters on real people, and it’s supposed to be true that we write a little bit of ourselves into all our protagonists, albeit unconsciously. In getting to know my characters I don’t recognize anything of myself in them, but since I don’t really know myself all that well, is it any surprise?

What do you think? Writer or not, how well do you understand yourself? Could you write yourself into a novel and have readers see the authentic you?

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“I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well. My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them.”

Psalm 139:14-16

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