Characters That Step Off the Page

HelenKay Dimon never clapped about her election as president of Romance Writers of America’s National Board. She’s been involved with the board long enough to know it’s going to be tough work. However, she will gladly address any questions so don’t forget that she is on the loop. If you are an RWA member, don’t spread rumors. Ask her!

Before we started looking at character building, HelenKay used the movie Something’s Gotta Give (Obviously Diane Keaton made the wrong choice between Jack Nicholson and Keanu Reeves) where the playwright is attempting to hold everything together. HelenKay is 59 books in and the reality is, it doesn’t get easier. Don’t drink that Koolaide. You’re okay and every writer goes through the same thing. No number of books brings you around the corner to where the going gets easier. You are not alone. Everyone, even Number 6 on the New York Times Bestselling List author Jill Shalvis struggles.

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Characters That Step Off the Page is the title of HelenKay’s workshop. Even though a projector was set up for her use, her husband couldn’t find the cord she needed to bring the slideshow to us. She also doesn’t do handouts because people being what they are, they would then stare at the paper and miss what she would be saying. So here are:

Ten Things That Make Great Characters.

As she writes a book, HelenKay takes out a new small notebook and puts the information in it. Characters, names, descriptions, etc. She uses Pinterest and creates a private board. Finds inspiration there for what the hero looks like. When she puts the photo on her board, under the picture, she writes out what they look like.

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Gardeners and Architects: Plotters are Architects, have to know where every brick is going to go. Pantsers plant a seed in the garden and see what grows. (George R.R. Martin said this) Gardeners find it frustrating to use Architects’ plans. But some things need to be spelled out.

1. This character is the center of everything. A character-driven story is about how this person reacts in the situation. The movie Prometheus is the best example. There were good points but it was totally about how you get to the point where the alien for the next movie is born. That’s why you have super smart scientists doing totally stupid things, like remove your helmet and glove and touch that egg-like alien thing. This was the wrong way to tell this story. The best story is driven by compelling characters. Keep your characters as the most important things in your story. We as readers need to understand why they love each other. They are not just walking from A to B but growing from A to B. In Romance, series becomes so important because reader wants to hear everyone’s story, especially if the characters are compelling enough. They become attached to the character’s family or the family they build. Friends are family. Maybe it’s the residents of a town. The writer becomes so invested in these characters, we want to write the next story.

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2. Great characters don’t stand alone. They are connected to the setting, the other characters, everything. In the book, Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith, the character is tied to place and people, as is the plot. It takes place in Soviet Russia during the Cold War and you could not place it into another country or time period. This is the story that only these people can tell. He is who he is because of everything around him, everything is around him because of who he is.

3. Compelling. Likable heroes are a requirement but not so likable heroines are okay. The Fixer (by HelenKay) meets a desperate woman. Some reviewers found her too angry. He drugged her! That didn’t seem to matter. You want to create a character like Hannibal Lecture. Make your reader want to know more. Against your will, you want to know Hannibal. Other good examples are Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, and Dark Places and Sharp Objects by that same author. Your character is not always a flawed person. Instead, like The Martian, he or she is in an iffy situation. Even when the camera was off him, they were talking about how to get him home. (Also, secondary characters don’t know they are secondary characters. Very important. Likewise, villains don’t think they are villains.)

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4. Motivated. This means not so much action as active. Does life happen to them? That’s not interesting. Too passive. Some authors have pulled these opposites off, but in general, you want to read about the person who went out and made it happen. Sometimes they get it wrong. In the movie Volcano, set in Los Angeles, the main characters split up and it doesn’t make sense. Tommy Lee Jones’s character was given a son because justified him actively fight against the idea of dying in the lava. High Stakes are compelling, like Hunger Games. What is the thing above all else that they want that they will forfeit everything to get it? It colors everything.

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5. Great Characters are active. Don’t make them reactive. Don’t end the scene or chapter with the characters going to sleep. The readers are going to think, “Yeah, I’m tired, too.” They put the book down and go to sleep. (We call that narcolepscene) Everything has to matter. We don’t want to talk about how you were raised in Ohio. We want to talk about how you knew this guy was bad news. Remember the scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark, where Professor Jones is back in his classroom environment? Indiana Jones grounds you in both his regular worlds and both are active.

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6. Great characters fail. They are not perfect or all-knowing. They tie plot to setting to other characters. “Too stupid to live” is a character in a horror movie where a knife-wielding killer is after her. The front door is to her left, the stairs to her right. She goes up the stairs. Big fail!

The Three Act Structure makes the ending of the story happen in the right place. The stakes are high, your characters might make bad decisions. What can you deny them? It’s okay to fail, you need to fail. They need to fail.

7. Great characters have great moments. These two crazy kids are going to make it. Clear up some huge mystery and/or problem. They can come to some understanding. Plan out how they’re going to make it.

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8. Great Characters think the story is about them. All characters feel like they matter to the plot, to the main characters, etc. They matter because they are central to the plot in a big way. Readers will pick up on the throw-away characters. Readers will be displeased.

9. Great characters know great dialogue. Don’t be cleaver, move the story forward. For every chapter, HelenKay writes out just the dialogue. She used to keep to one chapter at a time, she now has to write three or four to get it fleshed out. Finds it helpful to see the dialogue like that so she can make sure each character has their own voice, that she can tell who is speaking. This method also avoids narration overload. The back story can be pieced out in dialogue. Using an example from her own life, her two brothers are very different. Raised in the same house by the same parents with the same rules and chores, they turned out to be totally different people. She can tell them apart easily by how they speak.

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10. Great characters can’t be removed from the stories. These are the only people in the world who can be in this situation doing these things. The reluctant CEO, the passionate environmentalist, or the covert FBI agent. No one else can do what they can do in this place.

In conclusion, HelenKay explained very clearly about “Show, Don’t Tell”. Why do I care? The difference is reading a book and putting it down versus living a book and can’t put it down. Show rather than tell because it invites the reader in to start the movie in their head. This is why you read Harry Potter then saw the movie and saw something very different than you had imagined. Ravished by Jayne Ann Krantz/Amanda Quick is one of HelenKay’s favorite romances. She imagined the hero as big, gruff, and a marshmallow on the inside. His face didn’t matter. His unique character mattered. This is a read that she has remembered for 20 years or more. Now that you understand, you can apply it better.

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Thanks for reading! Be sure to look for HelenKay Dimon’s wonderful books and tweet what you read as well as doing a review. I’ll be back on Thursday.

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