Character Dimensions

Human beings are three-dimensional. Your characters should be, too. This is what makes them compelling. This is what makes us fall in love with them or love to hate them.

I’ve often come across posts online where authors are asking for character quirks. They’ll list a bunch of qualities their character has. “Dorothy is blonde, blue-eyed, and loves to knit. What quirks should she have? I can’t think of any!”

This is the first dimension. What we see on the surface. Maybe Dorothy chews her fingernails. Maybe she collects cats. Maybe she’s a rabid Doctor Who fan who wears her hair in a perm like her favorite character, River Song. This first dimension is a combination of how Dorothy sees herself and how she wants to be seen. Sometimes these things will contradict each other, which takes us to the second dimension. But we’ll get there in a bit. Let’s stick with the first for a moment longer.

The first dimension traits show your reader what is. It’s up to the reader to assign any meaning to it. So what if Dorothy knits sweaters for her cats? If you show the reader why she does this, you’ve just crossed into the (cue music) second dimension.

In the second dimension, you show the reader why Dorothy does what she does. Whether it’s her conscious choice or whether she does something to cover up something else, the second dimension exposes backstory or maybe Dorothy’s hidden agenda. Dorothy may have been a neglected child who never felt warm or cared for, so she knits sweaters for her many cats to give them the care she never received. Maybe. It’s a thought.

The third dimension takes all the first dimension choices and subordinates them to more important choices and behaviors that must be made when greater things are at stake. What will Dorothy choose when faced with such a dilemma? Since she only trusts her cats, can she trust another person? What if it were a life or death situation? Could she risk her life to save that other person, setting aside her distrust? The third dimension will let us know. These third dimension choices are good for showing character growth. Just like there’s a story arc, characters have an arc of their own. Do they grow and change? Is it for better or for worse? Can Dorothy grow as a person and trust again? Will she run back to her cats instead? Each of these dimensions lets the reader see the character from three different perspectives, even though they may not realize it, since it should be wrapped neatly in the story.

Now that you understand the three dimensions, let’s see what fun you can have with it. The first dimension may be a sham. Maybe it’s all an act. Maybe Dorothy puts on this mask because it makes her feel safe or it allows her to hide her true self. If you go with this approach, it is crucial that you show her true colors at some point or the reader will never know.

Look at your own choices in life. Every morning when you get dressed, you’re making first dimension choices. You can watch people around you and pick out first dimension behavior. This is great practice and research for writing.

Editing on Slush Heap

I just had a great time appearing on Slushheap.com’s Google Hangout On Air. It was loads of fun. The host, Rudi Fischer, ran the show wonderfully with a little help from my hubby John, who was filling in for their regular co-host Darcie Duranceau, who was out sick. I hope I get to go back sometime so I can meet her. The other guests were Jim Ault, who specializes in marketing, and Katie Hayoz, a YA author from Switzerland, who told us all about the writing group she uses to help critique her stories as part of her editing process.

The hour was full of great information and fun. I encourage anyone writing a book to listen in. Slush Heap does a weekly show specializing in matters facing writers, so you might want to check out their backlist of shows as well.

What Makes the Editor Tick

Sherlock the betta

Last Thursday, I was interviewed at Luscious Literaries. It was a fun interview, and I hope you pop over and take a look. Kassanna was a gracious host. :) It will help you learn a bit about me, you’ll see my cluttered desk, and get a peek into my crazy head. It’s good to get to know more about someone, isn’t it?

So, what makes the editor tick? Could it be the sound of bubbles popping at the surface of one of my aquariums? Really, it sounds like a fish store in here. If you ever went to a fish store in the 1970s (my mom was into fish at the time), they all sounded like bubbles. Back in the day, most of them ran in-the-tank filters that ran bubbles to the surface. It was a wet, plopping sound that I find soothing to this day.

Could my Chinese astrological sign of the water rabbit have something to do with how I tick? Maybe that’s why I like the sound of water? Hmmmm. I used to raise rabbits, but I don’t anymore. Now I chase literary rabbits in the form of commas hiding where they oughtn’t.

Could it be the excitement of helping to birth a book, to midwife it into being? I studied midwifery for years and birthed eight of my own children, who are the joys of my life. I never became a midwife, mostly because it was difficult to become an apprentice and attend the births necessary when we only had one car and my own children needed me. I could midwife a book while still attending to the needs of my children, half of whom are grown or mostly there. I did attend a few births as a doula… it was amazing. :)

Could it be my own inherent obsession with correct spelling and grammar? That’s probably a big part of it. I’ve been correcting things ever since I can remember. I have lots of fun stories from English class. In first grade, I got in trouble for refusing to read the word ‘darn’ out loud because my grandmother had taught me it was a bad word and I wasn’t to say it. But there it was in my reading book. What was a little girl to do? Then there was the class when I had the teacher in stitches because we were to write words on the chalkboard beginning with the letters ‘er’ and ‘ir.’ I wrote ‘erp’ and ‘irk.’ She questioned erp (which in my mind was another word for vomit) but she thought me imaginative, nonetheless. When I graduated high school, I gave my creative writing teacher a spelling dictionary so he could make it through the next year without me. I always corrected his handouts and gave them back to him. Helped me win the departmental award upon graduation, however. :) So, words and I go way back. I think this is mostly why I like to edit.

Words are meaningful. They can be silly. They can be powerful. They can be tender. They can tear someone apart or build them up. Words are amazing. While I can draw and paint a little and can be in awe over the feelings I get from looking at an amazing piece of art, words can take root in my soul. So, that’s what really makes this editor tick. I can’t speak for all the others out there, but deep down, I’d guess it’s something similar.

That’s why I write so much about learning the craft and words being a tool to use fully… they can do so many marvelous things if you know how to use them. They can become more than just letters arranged on a page. Just as a painter can make magic with color, so too can a writer make magic with words. I want to see magic on the page.

Your Toolbox

You’re a writer. What do you use? Words.

Words are your most frequently used tool. Make friends with them. Caress them. Fondle them. Throw them against the wall. Whatever you do, use them. Get a dictionary. Make sure you’re using the right one. I recommend Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. Would you build a brick wall and mistakenly use one brick made of styrofoam? Of course not! So don’t do it with your writing. Make sure each word is solid and well placed.

By the time I see a manuscript, this should be a no-brainer. Sure, mistakes happen occasionally, a word slips through revisions and past beta readers. But if you’re paying an editor to replace your malapropisms, you need to go back to square one and work on your writing skills. If you’re submitting your manuscripts to small presses full of these, work on your skills. If they’re paying their editors to replace your malapropisms, they’re wasting their editing dollars. You owe it to yourself as a writer to learn your craft.

Repeat after me: Every story you write should be crafted better than the last.

What did you learn from the last story you wrote? Did you eliminate your bad habit of ending sentences with a comma or did your main character have greater depth? Have you figured out the art of foreshadowing or did you learn that ‘he said’ is not a sentence in its own right? Each one is a step in the right direction.

Back to your toolbox. Words. How do you learn to use words? You should have these resources at hand when you write:

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus

It doesn’t matter to me if they’re books on your desk or websites you can access. What matters is when you stumble, you can look it up. How do you know if you’re stumbling? The word won’t quite sound right in that context. Does an artist fasten a piece of art? Maybe to the wall, but not when he’s creating it. He would fashion it. Can you prompt a chair against the wall? No, but you can prop it against the wall.

These tools also come in handy for spelling, avoiding repetitive usage of the same word, and so on. It may be awkward at first, but once you get accustomed to checking your resources, you’ll find them extremely helpful. Repetition of word usage seems to go in waves, for example. I’ll see an author get a word stuck in their head, breathed, for example, and it will pop up repeatedly for a few pages. She breathed, he breathed, everyone is so busy breathing you wonder if they ever took a breath before.

I do get manuscripts with these kinds of issues in them from time to time. I correct them gently and go on. It’s part of my job. The author will either improve or not, that’s their decision. If I can help you improve before I see your manuscript, however, that’s even better. I want you to grow as a writer. I want you to be successful.

Cut the Clutter

Part of being a writer is knowing what to dramatize and what to leave out. Wait. Did I say to leave something out? Why, yes I did. I’ve touched on it before, but I see it time and again in the pages I edit. You don’t need to mention every detail, only the important ones. Do you consciously remember every detail of everything you do every day? Of course not! Not everything is memorable, nor should it be. In fact, even some things that are memorable can be glossed over in a story for the sake of brevity if it’s all pretty much the same. Perhaps one of your characters has started a new relationship and a week later, they’re still spending every moment together staring into each other’s eyes. Instead of spending pages detailing all that, it can all be summed up in a nice little sentence or two.

For the next week, Joey and I were inseparable. We ate, slept, and breathed as one, separated only by the necessities of work.

The story can then pick up where it left off with something important happening. This not only helps by condensing all those similar details, but it condenses time. Now we know time has passed. They’ve spent this amount of time together and know each other to this extent.

You can also condense information this way. While you may need to add technical information on a profession or other task in your story, if you provide too much, it could sound like a manual. First, you want to understand it well, then you want to present it through the character’s point of view. This will offer a taste of your character’s insight, which will make it infinitely more interesting to your reader.

For example, if your character is a draftsman, perhaps you could portray what he feels like as he first puts pencil to paper, how it feels to draw those strong lines upon the virgin paper rather than technically explaining how it is done. Likewise, it would be much different if he is more tentative, and he’s afraid to lay down those first few lines because he might make a mistake. How might he feel about his work then? It gives a completely different feel to a scene in which the character draws a few lines. Use these details to build your character, to build the tension of the scene. They all work together. Condensing the information like this can heighten this quality, it cuts out the excess that fills pages, but clutters the story. So learn to cut the clutter. Condense when you need to so you can focus on what’s important.

Milestones

Does your story have milestone scenes or does it wander all over the place? Milestone scenes serve a specific function in a story and support the structure. These are the points in your story where new information  comes in and changes things up. Maybe the tension grows, or the stakes are higher or the direction takes and about face. You can think of a milestone as a plot twist if you like, though not every plot twist is a milestone.

Think of the milestone scenes as the support poles that hold your story up. For each milestone scene, there are several scenes that lead up to it, and several more that lead away from it. If you have your milestone scenes planned, most of your story is laid out before you. So, just what are the milestone scenes?

  • The opening scene
  • The hook (in the first 20 pages or so)
  • The inciting incident (which in some stories is also the first plot point)
  • First plot point (approximately 20-25% into the story)
  • First pinch point (approximately in the middle of part 2)
  • Midpoint (a shift in the middle of the story)
  • Second pinch point (in the middle of part 3)
  • Second plot point (approximately 75% into the story)
  • Final resolution of the story

These will be the most important scenes in your story. If you plan these moments, if you know what they will be and how they work with the flow of your tale, how to connect them and how to set them up, you’ve got a nice structure for your novel. Structure that will pay off.

All the other moments in your book are either heading towards one of these scenes or reacting to them… these key scenes have a purpose. If you plan your story this way, your first draft can actually be quite good from the start.

So can you do this without planning? Yes, but you’ll end up doing it in one of your later revisions when you realize the story isn’t where it needs to be. You’re still planning, you’re just doing it by writing instead of outlining. Don’t cover your ears and sing ‘la la la.’ It’s true. We all plan our stories, we just use different ways to do it. I’ve tried to pants it, but I end up lost in circles. It’s not for me, just as I’m sure my constant outlining and post it notes aren’t for all of you. Okay. I use Scrivener, because I already have so many post it notes on my desk for client projects that I’d never find the ones intended for my own story. Scrivener gives me index cards and an outlining feature.

My point is you need to know your key scenes and what they’re going to do for your story. Whether you do this before you write or during your 5th draft is up to you. These milestone scenes will propel your story forward like a bullet train headed for Tokyo station, where it will crash headlong from the track into the crowded platform, causing death and mayhem. Your hero (or heroine) must react in some way and eventually figure out who did it and why. Was it a mechanical failure due to a disgruntled employee? Was it a terrorist attack? Was it planned to take the focus away from an equally evil plot elsewhere? Only you can decide, but unless you understand these milestone scenes and how to make them work for you, your plot may fall flat somewhere along the way.

 

Growth and Improvement

Do you still grow and improve with each book you write? You should. Each book should improve your storytelling skills. Every time you stretch those plot muscles, they should get stronger. Every time you get edits back marking the same things over and over, you should learn and adapt so you don’t make those same mistakes in the next book. Why? Because that’s part of learning your craft.

Athletes at professional levels still work out to stay at the peak of their game. Writers should too. This is common sense. You don’t lie back and rest on your laurels because you published a book. You push through and see where your weaknesses are and strengthen them. Push through the pain. Grow stronger.

Why?

Because if you want to really make a career for yourself as a writer, this is what you do. Look at Stephen King. Carrie was good, yes, but his later work was better. Why? Because he kept at it. He grew. I love to listen to his talks on writing because he’s not only entertaining, he gives good advice. He’s honest about what it takes. Now his character development is second nature. It just happens because he put in the work early on. You can do that too if you put in the work. It doesn’t happen overnight. It takes practice to hone those skills.

If you just churn out your stories without improving, they’ll all be the same. Would you rather have a body of work that remains at one level or one that shows your growth and depth as a writer? I know what my answer would be.

Take the advice of your editors, your beta readers, your publishers. Sift through them and find the true faults in your writing. Don’t let yourself be too sensitive… be honest with yourself. Find those faults and correct them. Practice. Take workshops or use exercises from books to help with those issues. Write your next book. Are there fewer issues?

So practice. Write. Grow. Improve. Each story should be better crafted than the one before. Each plot point meticulously placed. Each character deftly drawn. Each setting meaningful and poignant. Each scene memorable. You’ll get there if you work at it.

The Senses

When writing your scenes, don’t forget to use all five senses. It’s so easy to just use the visual. She saw the wind whipping through the trees. Bill saw the car flip and land on its roof, spinning gradually to a stop against the hydrant. But what about the other senses?

She saw the wind whipping through the trees, the leaves rustling madly. It tore at her clothing, pulling her skirt against her legs. She reluctantly took a step forward in response. The air smelled odd as the storm’ intensity built. She tried to remember when last she’d smelled something like it, but the drama in front of her occupied her completely. “Mama!” she cried. “Where are you?”

Now we’ve got sight, sound, touch, and smell involved. Not bad, and the storm feels a little more real.

Bill saw the car flip and land on its roof, spinning gradually to a stop against the hydrant. The grating crash of the metal against the concrete still rang in his ears. He ran to the vehicle and pulled at the doors, one after the other. They wouldn’t open. He pounded on the driver’s window. The man was unconscious. Blood smeared his face. He recognized a familiar smell and sniffed. Gasoline. Quickly he looked around for something he could use to break the window.

Using the different senses brings the scene to life. But now let’s take it even further.

SIGHT

Visual cues are what helps the reader visualize what’s going on in the scene. Your point of view not only provides the the information your reader gets to understand the story, it is the lens through which your reader sees what’s happening. Do your best to place your reader inside, so they see what the character sees, they don’t get told what the character sees.

TOUCH

We all touch things. Depending on our age, touch may be the best way to learn about our surroundings. Sometimes we touch things out of habit or to comfort ourselves. A smooth stone or coin, a soft piece of fabric. We touch the edge of a knife to test for sharpness. Who can resist running their fingers over a piano keyboard? Touch can be practical, it can be comforting, it can be strategic, it can make someone fearful. It can be personal or casual. Use it in your scenes.

SMELL

Scent can evoke strong memories. It can make one sick. It can be used to differentiate the good guys from the bad guys. Smell can be used to transition a scene as a flashback can be triggered by the smell of lilacs or fresh bread or anything you deem important to your character.

SOUND

Sound is a great way to create a setting. Who can’t visualize a beach from the sound of waves? What about an airport? A train station? Next time you go to a restaurant. close your eyes and listen. You’ll hear a hum of conversation, the clinking of glasses and silverware, the special language used between cooks and waitstaff. Now do this exercise again at another location. What do you hear that is specific there? These types of details will help you build your scene effectively.

TASTE

This sense doesn’t always fit in every scene, but when it does, use it. Maybe there’s the metallic taste of blood after the hero gets punched in the mouth, or the lemony flavor of your heroine’s favorite pancake recipe. Taste can also be used to great effect in some scenes. Grief, for instance, can affect how things taste. Can that be used in your story? Perhaps two characters come into conflict or reach a deeper understanding when one tells the truth about how bad the other cooks. Maybe that home-cooked meal that was made with love is the symbol of rejection when the other partner asks for a divorce. See the symbolism and use it.

Setting the Scene

Where your scene takes place is, in many ways, as important as the scene itself. It sets the mood, the tone. The environment your characters are in can contrast sharply with what’s going on or add to the emotion. Perhaps Penny’s boyfriend is breaking her heart at the carnival, contrasting with the gaiety all around her as happy people and bright lights make her feel more isolated in her pain. In another story, the dusty relics surrounding Justin in an antique store can make his discovery of an old photograph he recognizes all the more exciting as he feels like Indiana Jones.

The setting can influence a lot more than location. It provides information to both you and eventually the reader. Setting can dictate things like politics, dialect, climate, and local flora and fauna. Houses can be luxurious, homey, cold, or derelict. While you don’t need to launch into a long dissertation describing the setting, a few well-placed details can inform the reader of the setting and add to the scene, making it come alive.

If you’re writing historical fiction, setting becomes even more important. Making that time period realistic to the reader can be challenging. You want to be accurate without overdoing it.

When dealing with your settings, be aware of placing objects. Every object you describe should have its place. Pay close attention to how objects are placed the next time you watch a movie or a play. Everything is placed deliberately. This is how you dress your scene as well. These objects become your characters’ props. Every fork, every hairbrush… if they are used by your characters, they become a tool for you. This doesn’t mean every object has to be important. The fork can just be a fork, but if you need it to be, it could be so much more. Maybe it was the treasured object Mary’s mother inherited from her great-grandmother that really carried a curse on all who used it and only Mary put all the clues together to figure out its significance.

Other objects can help set the mood. An old photograph or a baby blanket could trigger memories. It all depends on how you make an object stand out. If you list them quickly, nothing gains importance, but if something in the setting draws a character’s attention, our attention is drawn to it, too.

Now it gets interesting. At some point, some object is going to have a significant impact on your plot. Look at the power of the ring in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. This object was so significant that it became the focus of every scene it was in.

And don’t be afraid to get specific. Is it more interesting to go into a building or a bank? Does your character drive a car or a Prius? The details don’t have to fill a paragraph to give information. Each one helps us set the scene and learn more about your characters. It tells us a lot that Joan prefers to sit at the corner booth in the local Denny’s than go to the ritzy diner on Main Street. These little details of the setting make your characters more real to us. To make them even more vivid, make sure they interact with the setting. Maybe Joan has a habit of playing with the sugar dispenser, flipping the little metal tab up and down before she doses her coffee with a hefty serving of the sweet stuff.

Keep notes of your settings just like you do for your characters, especially if it recurs so you can keep the details straight. Don’t want Joan sliding over the red vinyl seats in one scene only to have them yellow in the next.

So think about your settings. It’s okay to let them grow a bit as you revise your story. Sketch them in at first, then layer the details in as you go. None of us float through our environments without being touched by them. Your characters shouldn’t, either.

Show and Tell

Remember in kindergarten when you got to bring an item for show and tell? You got to show your possession and tell your classmates all about it. Well, in writing, it’s a bit different.

When we show something to the reader, we’re trusting them to fill in some of the blanks. We’re letting them use their imagination. We don’t have to say George walked across the room to the front door, reached for the door knob, turned it, pulled the door open, and peeked outside. We can say George opened the door slightly and peeked outside. Our brain fills in the rest. We only need to put in the important, interesting details.

When we’re telling something (and it is necessary sometimes), we’re explaining. Use this only when needed. For instance, if the scene takes place in a shipyard, it may be necessary to explain what the main character is seeing to a certain extent to understand what’s going on. Most people today don’t understand that rivets were put into the steel while they were red hot and that young boys were there to catch them. How would you like your son doing that job today? Sure, times were different then, but that’s one of the reasons why you’d put in some narrative here to explain the scene. It pulls the reader into the setting.

When we read, we’re dealing with the inner ear and the inner eye. Our inner ear deals with the narration of the story. Our inner eye is our imagination that pulls out the imagery the words written on the page bring forth in our heads as we read. Knowing how the brain works in this way is important when you write the story. Why? Because too much telling to that inner ear tends to lull the reader to sleep. Unless you’re writing a book intended to cure insomnia, that’s probably not your intent.

Let’s try an example. Let’s look at a fairy tale… Cinderella. The prince is going through the town, trying to find the girl who fits the glass slipper. He shows up at the home of Cinderella and her stepsisters.

The prince tried the slipper on first one sister, then the other. Neither could get their foot in the dainty slipper. Cinderella hovered in the doorway, wondering if she should ask for her turn. She thought about the time she’d spent with the prince. It had been wonderful. She remembered those moments at the ball, when she’d felt so special. Then she thought of her stepmother, and the tongue-lashing that would surely follow if she asked to try on the slipper. Her thoughts drifted to her life spent waiting on her stepsisters hand and foot, wearing their cast off rags.

So is she going to step forward and try on the shoe or not? I see a lot of manuscripts like this. The writing’s not bad, but you get so stuck in the internal monologue that nothing happens. Cut to the chase, my dear.

The prince tried the slipper on first one sister, then the other. Neither could get their foot in the dainty slipper. Cinderella hovered in the doorway, wondering if she should ask for her turn. She glanced at the prince, then at her stepmother. She took a deep breath, pulled her shoulders back, and stepped into the room.

“Excuse me. May I try on the slipper?” she asked.

Isn’t that better? You get the idea she’s tossing around what she should do because she looks at the prince, then her stepmother. That’s enough right there to show she’s weighing her options. Then she pulls her act together and steps forward. Action! Of course, it always blows my mind that she has to actually try on the dang shoe. Doesn’t the prince recognize her face when he sees her? Or did he spend the entire ball looking at her foot?