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FUNDAMENTALS OF WRITING FICTION

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Lesson # 1 – Characterization

Developing characters is one of the most exciting and

enjoyable parts of being a writer. What could be more

fulfilling than learning how to create people from scratch!

MATERIALS NEEDED FOR THIS LESSON

• Purchase a journal. Make sure it is one you feel comfortable


writing in. For example, will you want a lined-page one? Will you
want a spiral-bound one? Will you want a soft-covered one? Buy
one that “feels” like you! Use it to:

• Write down your thoughts as they occur throughout your lessons


• Write down questions as they come to mind
• Record or draw images pertinent to the topic at hand
• Jump start ideas as they present themselves
• Answer homework questions or “thought-starter” questions

• Purchase six file folders. Look for the fun, colorful ones instead
of the boring manila ones. Also, gather some old magazines.

• Purchase a deck of regular playing cards and some rubber


cement.

LEARNING OBJECTIVES

In lesson #1 you will learn how to:

• Understand how archetypes can help in creating characters


• People Watch
• Mind map the “selves” of a character
• Prepare personal file folders on characters
• Research jobs for your characters
• Develop characters by various means
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• Identify main, secondary, and minor characters
• Create characters for special missions
• Show not tell
• Put together a “mix-and-match” people file

TUTORIAL - A

Carl Jung studied the unconscious mind and found that in dream
images and in various life situations, all people have certain common
threads that unite us one to the other. Jung coined the term
“archetype” to mean a person’s recurring way of being human.
Archetypes exhibit common characteristics no matter what time frame
they are found in, no matter what environment they are found in, and
no matter what culture they might find themselves in. So, for
example, the archetype of a hero would be someone who leaves what
he or she knows to embark on an adventure in order to save the day
whether the hero lives in 1802 or 2010; whether the hero lives in
Savannah, Georgia or Rome, Italy; or whether the hero is an Asian or
a Native American.
Let’s look at the most common archetypes:


•• r Hero • Lover
•• manager • Destroyer
Mother
•• mentor • Seeker
Wise Old Man
•• caregiver • Prostitute
Trickster
•• orphan • Victim
Mentor
•• wwwinnocent • Saboteur
Innocent
• Thief
• Double
• Addict
• Sacrificial Redeemer
• Ruler
• Administrator
• Magician
• Facilitator
• Jester
• Manager
• Underdog
• Caregiver

Now, let’s think of some universal, common to all, traits that would
apply to each of these; for example, the hero is tough and
courageous; the hero can set goals and achieve them; the hero can
overcome obstacles; the hero is persistent even when things get
difficult; the hero leaves family and the familiar to strike out in new
territories; the hero can bring honor to his community. Of course, we
could go on with many more characteristics.
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Who are some heroes you know in your own life? In public life? In
movies?

Let’s try another one! What are some universal traits that would apply
to the underdog? The underdog is someone who is weak, not
powerful; the underdog is oppressed; the underdog plays victim; the
underdog is used to being picked-on; the underdog is vulnerable; the
underdog is the object of bullying.

• In your journal, go through the list above and write down all of
the traits that you believe are common to each of the
archetypes.
• In your journal, write down which archetypes you have come
across in your own life: personally, publicly, or as characters in
film.

Tutorial – B

Where can you begin to find “real” people who might make great
fictional characters?

First, where would be some good places to “people watch”? Certainly,


busy places are the best: a local coffee shop, an airport; the food
court at the mall, or at a store.

Think of any others? (Hint: Jot down additional ideas in your journal.)

What do you do when you people watch? Here’s your chance to act as
private detective as all writers must be curious. Some things you
might want to record are: the physical appearance of the person; the
sound of their voice; the mannerisms that they use; the body
language that you see.

Think of any others?

Read your daily paper. How many people in the paper would make
great characters; for example, those who write into advice columns;
those who write letters to the editor; those who commit the heinous
crimes.

• Choose at least one place this week, where you can take your
journal and go out “people watching.”
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• Find at least six people from your daily paper who might
make good characters.

TUTORIAL – C

Every human being has six parts or selves that make him or her a
person. These are: physical; affective or emotional; social; cognitive
or intellectual; creative; and spiritual.

In your journal, draw a circle and from it shoot out spokes that lead to
six circles. Write the name of each self in each circle. From these
initial circles, continue to draw others that list traits that might fit the
categories; for example, from “spiritual,” I might have circles with
such things as the following in them:

• Baptist
• Right-Wing
• Pro-Life Member
• Bible Study Member
• Minister’s Wife
• Member of Ladies Altar Guild
• Visit Those in Assisted Living Centers
• Volunteer Hospice Worker

Do the same for each of the “selves.” Now, for the fun part! Because
mind mapping is such a wonderful visual, look carefully at all of the
circles you have developed. Like a spider making a web, can you pull
two traits together from two different sources? For example, I might
find that my “woman fictional character” is a minister’s wife, but I also
might see that connected with the “physical” circle is that she works
out with a personal trainer. Hmm. . .possibly a short story in the
make here. Bells should be going off! Ideas for a plot should be
developing.
FUNDAMENTALS OF WRITING FICTION

PHYSICAL

TRAITS
SOCIAL
SPIRITUAL
TRAITS
TRAITS

CHARAC-

TER’S

NAME

AFFECTIVE CREATIVE

TRAITS TRAITS

COGNITIVE
TRAITS

See how many ideas for plots you can develop from your Mind Map. I
started you with one already.

Personal trainer becomes more than friend to minister’s wife

TUTORIAL – D

For the next part on characterization, you will need to get out those
file folders and old magazines that you put aside.

In order to develop a character that “lives and breathes” on the page


instead of a stickman figure, your character MUST be three
dimensional. By that, I mean, the character must be more than just
six-foot two with wavy brown hair and blue eyes.
FUNDAMENTALS OF WRITING FICTION

The following suggestion will help you personally meet each and every
character in your short story or novel.

On the tab of a file folder put the name of your character. If we use
the above example about the minister’s wife, we could just put
“minister’s wife” on the tab until we find an appropriate name for her.

By the way, speaking of naming characters, never rule out scanning


the city phone book, glancing at street signs, and listening to lyrics
from songs. Sometimes, you can mix-and-match these. Once while
listening to a Neil Diamond CD, he sang about Brooklyn roads; at first,
I thought, he said, “Brooklyn Rose.” Ah hah! What an incredible name
for a character, right?

Back to the file folder. . . . On the next file folder tab, we could put
“personal trainer.”

It’s time to meet your characters. I read somewhere that the best way
to interview your characters is to see yourself sitting behind a desk
with your character in front of you. Out loud ask the questions as if
the person is physically present. (You might want to do this when no
one is around!)

Feel free to make a copy of the interviewer questions below, or better


still, make-up your own interviewee sheet. These are the kinds of
things you will need to ask your characters. Note the questions are
the same for all characters; it is the answers that will vary.

• Physical Description

What is your age? Birthdate? Zodiac sign?


What is your height? Your weight?
What is the color of your hair? Your eyes?
Do you have any noticeable imperfections? Obvious
birthmark? Warts?
Do you wear a hearing aid? Glasses? Contacts?
Do you have any tattoos? If so,where? What kind?
How would you describe your body build? Stocky? Over-
weight? Thin? Anorexic?
What do you like most about your body image? What do
you like least?
How would you describe your voice? Loud? Boisterous?
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Soft-spoken?
Are you aware of any particular facial expressions you
make? Squint your eyes? Nervous tick? Quivering lips?

• Race?

• Ethnic Group?

• Schooling

Where did you go to elementary school? High school?


Who was your favorite teacher and why? Which teacher
did you like the least and why?
What were your favorite subjects? The ones you liked the
least?
Did you attend college? If so, which one? Any degrees?
In what? How many?
Do you have any special certificates that qualify you to do
special work?
Did you belong to any sororities or fraternities?
What kinds of grades did you receive while in school?

• What kind of background do you come from? Traditional family?


Divorced family? Foster home? Adopted?

• Do you have any siblings? Step sisters or brothers? Half sisters


or brothers? How do you get along?

• Do you have any specific skills, such as in plumbing, electrical,


dog grooming, etc?

• Do you have any special abilities, such as psychic readings?

• Do you have any special talents, such as playing the cello,


singing, ice skating, etc?

• Areas of expertise?

• Occupation? Describe your thoughts on your boss, if you have


one. Describe your opinions of any fellow-workers, if this
applies.

• Military Background?
FUNDAMENTALS OF WRITING FICTION

• Goals: Where do you see yourself in a year? Five years? Ten


years?

• How would you describe your personality? Introvert? Extrovert?


Party animal? Wallflower? Gregarious?

• How would you describe your temperament? Quick to anger?


Controlling? Domineering? Manipulative? Easy going?

• What would you say are your three most admirable traits?

• What would you say are your three vices?

• Do you have any prejudices? If so, what? Why?

• What do you dislike most about people? About life?

• Does anything make you embarrassed?

• What was one of the most painful experiences that you have
ever had?

• Belong to any groups? Political? Social? Religious?

• What is your political affiliation, if any?

• How would you describe your sense of humor? Dirty? Dry?

• What is your greatest fear? Phobia?

• Do you have any physical ailments? Mental issues?

• What do you like to do in your spare time? Hobbies? Interests?

• What is your favorite book? Favorite movie? Why?

• Have you traveled? If so, when and where?

• What is your favorite food?

• Do you have any pets? If so, what? How many?


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• What do you like most about people of your same gender? What
do you like least?

• What do you find most appealing about the opposite sex? What
do you consider to be a turnoff?

• How would you describe the way you dress? Formal? Casual?
Sloppy?

• How many close friends do you have? Why do you consider


them to be your friends?

• Are you close with any of your relatives? If so, who and why?

• Is there anything in your past that left you with a scar? Abuse?
Object of bullying?

• Do you have any favorite sayings?

• What is your philosophy on life?

• Where do you live? In the city? Suburbs? Country? Trailer


park? Mansion? Apartment? Condo?

• What are your opinions about authority?

• If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?

• Do you have any identifying “tags”? Walk with a cane, for


example, own an ebony one with a fox head, a bronze one with
a crystal ball at the top, or a mahogany one with a gold hook?
Have a twitch that makes your shoulders jump periodically?
Have a prosthetic limb? Drag your left leg when you walk?

Once you are done interviewing each of your characters, put the
question and answer sheets in that character’s file. By the time you
complete the interview, you should be able to pick that person out on
the street if you saw him or her. This is where the old magazines
come in handy. Find a picture of this person. Match it as best as you
can to all that you have learned about this person. Paste it to the
front of the file folder. You will be surprised at how many times you
will be carrying on a conversation with this person during the course of
your writing.
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0

Go back to your mind map. Develop two characters as explained


above.

Tutorial – E

Every character should have an occupation even if it means he stays


home, eating potato chips, and watching soaps all day.

As a writer, your audience is going to expect that you have done your
homework—your research—and that you know what you’re talking
about.

Worse case scenario would be to say your character is a mortician and


does autopsies, for example!

Because the Internet is so accessible these days, the usual trip to the
library becomes unnecessary. You can probably find information about
any occupation you look for. But, go that one step further. . .interview
a “real” person who is in that occupation. You will be amazed at how
people love to talk about themselves and about what they do.

Try to go beyond the box. I wrote a psychological horror novel and


researched the cult mentality and demonic texts. Sometimes, it gets a
bit strange, but you are, after all, a writer.

Remember, the two characters that you pulled from your mind map
and that you interviewed? Well, now it’s time to research what each of
them do for a living? Get busy surfing the Web, talking to people,
reading books or articles, or whatever it takes to totally understand
what a taxidermist does, a senator does, a coroner, or whomever.

TUTORIAL – F

We are getting to the specifics of character building. In actual scenes,


how does the reader come to know your characters? Here are some
ways:

• Inner monologue

These are the inner thoughts of the person that are NOT
spoken. These thoughts do not need to be typed in italics,
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not do you need to keep repeating, “He thought,” or “She
thought.” Here’s an example:

Stone Hemstead looked at her one more time as she


passed by. She would be an easy make. She had all of
the traits of someone who needed a man.

• Dialogue

Listening to people speak to each other can tell you a great


deal about those people. If only two people are speaking
back-and-forth, there is no need to keep typing, “he said,”
“she said,” “he said.” To do so is the sign of an amateur
writer. The reader should be able to figure who is
speaking. Here’s an example:

“Are you dating anyone?” Stone asked.


“Just a jerk I don’t like,” Mia said.
“Don’t you believe in dropping dead wood?”
“Maybe, someday if something better comes along.”

Note that each time a different person speaks, it is another


paragraph.

Much can be learned about who these two characters are


by what they say to each other.
Thought Starter: What kind of person do you see Stone
as? What type of person do you see Mia as?

• Body Language

Here’s another place where observing people can help you


to understand who they are.

Stone hoped Mia didn’t see the smirk on his face.


He didn’t feel too badly, though. She had rolled her eyes
at him.

Thought Starter: What does this body language tell you


about Stone? About Mia? About their relationship?

• Treatment
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Even how a reader “sees” a character treating another can


tell much about that character. Notice in the following
example that it isn’t what is said as it is what is shown that
speaks a thousand words. This, by the way, is what is
known as “show, don’t tell.” More about that later. . . .

Stone spit onto the pavement, picked up a cigarette butt


at the curb, and shook it in front of Mia’s face. When he
was done waving it like an index finger in front of her, he
put it in her mouth.

TUTORIAL – G

There are three types of characters:

• Main characters (protagonist and antagonist)


• Secondary characters (those not playing a lead role but
appearing more than once in a story and helping to move the
action forward).
• Minor characters (those that usually only appear once in the
story).

Keep in mind that even an animal could be a secondary or minor


character.

Go back to the two characters you chose from your mind map.

Who might be a secondary character that you could develop if this was
a novel? How does this person fit into the storyline? Who might be a
minor character?

TUTORIAL – H

Characters—secondary—can play significant roles in moving the action


along. Some examples of these “mission” roles might be a double-
agent type who is actually an informant. Another example of a
“mission” role might be a whistle-blower who reports what he or she
knows is going on.

Can you think of any other “mission-type” roles a character might


play?
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TUTORIAL – I

What does it mean to “show, don’t tell”? Let me show you, rather
than tell you!

Take out all of the adjectives from a piece, and instead of using these
words, such as “She cried,” “He looked old,” “The teacher was upset,”
paint a picture for your reader of how these examples might look.

A person who has cried might be red-faced and have puffy eyes.

A person who looks old might have skin like a sculpture with tiny
creases and cracks.

A teacher who is upset might be tugging on her hair, pounding her fist
into her hand.

Note that in the above example, nowhere were the words cried, old, or
upset used. Rather, the images were shown.

This is a tricky task to learn, but once you have mastered it, you will
do it naturally.

Make a list of the following adjectives. In the second column, show


how these words might look if you showed them.

• Poor
• Hungry
• Decrepit
• Lonely
• Excited
• Manipulative
• Domineering
• Hateful
• Happy
• Nervous

TUTORIAL – J

The best characters are those who are a mix-and-match of one or


more people. Perhaps, you’ll take the qualities you like about your
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mother and combine them with what you disliked about your past
boyfriend or girlfriend. Poof! A whole new, original character emerges.

Type up a list of characteristics that a character of yours might have;


for example:

• Blind
• Conjoined
• Arrogant
• Sleazy
• Innocent
• Honest
• Holy
• Proud
• Jealous
• Complaining

Rubber cement one to each card so that you have fifty-four


characteristics.

Now, type up a list of people, such as:

• Priest
• Prostitute
• Clown
• Police officer
• Teacher
• Hair dresser
• Bank teller
• President
• Child
• Librarian

Rubber cement one to each card so that you have fifty-four people
cards.

Spend some time flipping the cards to mix-and-match people with a


characteristic until you come up with a non-stereotypical person. So,
for example, you wouldn’t want to put innocent and a priest together
as this is what is normally expected. But, you might mix-and-match a
priest and a prostitute, so that the priest is proud, for example, and
the prostitute is holy.
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Journal what matches you can come up with.

Choose ten of your people and ten of their characteristics, and “show,
don’t tell,” what these people would look like.

What would a proud priest look like? Remember, take out the word
“proud.”

What would a holy prostitute look like? Remember, take out the word
“holy.”