A Protagonist’s Anatomy #3: Character Traits

Well it’s already time for part 3 in this little series of posts collectively entitled A Protagonist’s Anatomy. Over the last two weeks we looked at the importance of creating a strong set of motives and goals for your protagonist and how crucial their backstory is in creating a motive which is understandable and believable. This week we’ll focus on adding another important layer which will take the words on your page and make them read like the written record of a real life person: character traits.

Character traits are those little personality quirks that will not only influence the kind of things your characters will do and say but also how they do and say them and you can have lots of fun playing about with different traits to see which ones work the best for your characters. On a more important note, having your character’s traits firmly established in your mind allows you to show your reader exactly what sort of man your character is without ever having to tell them. You don’t need to say ‘Bob was a cold-hearted man.’ You can show us what a cold-hearted man Bob is by the way he interacts with other characters and the kinds of decisions he makes.

There’s no exact rule for determining your character’s traits, but I personally find it helpful to give each of the main players in my stories a balanced mixture of positive, neutral and negative traits, irrespective of whether your character is a good guy or a bad guy. However, while it is a good idea to mix a handful of different traits together to create a reasonably layered and complex character, try to practice a little bit of moderation too. You wouldn’t make soup with peas, brocolli, beef, onions, pasta, cheese, pork, cake, pizza, chicken, tomatoes, salmon, cod, haddock, oranges, bananas and avocados. All of those things might taste nice when combined with the right ingredients, but mixing them all together would be unpalatable. The same is true of character traits. Find ones that compliment each other (without necessarily matching each other) and try not to add too many.

There is, of course, almost no end to the list of possible character traits you might use, but I’ve listed a few below:

Because a character’s various traits must work together to form a single personality, it’s a good idea to experiment with them to see what works. I find writing little zero drafts or character auditions helpful for this process. While some traits may appear to be a more obvious fit for your character based on their motives and goals, there is something to be said for making more unlikely choices. A bitter old man, a hopeless romantic, a loudmouthed blowhard or a mild-mannered introvert may all be motivated towards very similar goals such as the pursuit of love, revenge, justice or whatever other motive you care to mention. The way they pursue their goals and deal with the ensuing conflict, however, will vary greatly. So for example, let’s pretend our protagonist is motivated by a desire for true love and his goal is to woo Jeanie, whom he is in love with. Jeanie, however, only sees him as a friend.

Our bitter old man will respond to Jeanie’s ‘friend-zoning’ with a certain level of resentment. While he may still harbour affectionate feelings for Jeanie, his hurt will likely be manifested in cruel comments and unkind behaviour. Our mild-mannered introvert, by contrast, will disguise how he feels with an easy-going manner and an apparent willingness to be a really nice ‘just friend’ for Jeanie, even though inwardly he still dreams of marrying her. Same motive, same goal, same problem, completely different results.


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ATTENTION AUTHORS:

Every Tuesday, I post a new edition of Spotlight: a short post which shines a proverbial spotlight on a published novel or collection of short fiction. If you would like to have your book considered for a future edition of Spotlightdrop us an e-mail including a short synopsis of your book and a link to where we can buy it. Better yet, send me a copy of your book and I can include a mini-review.

I’m still looking to interview fiction authors here on Penstricken, especially new or indie authors. Whether it’s books, plays, comics or any other kind of fiction, if you’ve got something written, I want to hear about it. If you’re interested in having your work featured on Penstricken, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter/Pinterest.

Please be advised that due to a recent surge in interest, I am presently committed to a significant number of reviews/interviews over the next couple of months. If you would like an interview or review, I would still love to hear from you, though it is unlikely that I will be able to begin work immediately.

You can check out our previous interviews here:

A Protagonist’s Anatomy #2: Backstory

Real people don’t just pop out of thin air fully formed. Everything about them, from the way they speak to the things they believe, to the way they dress and to the decisions they make, is the culmination of what has gone before. This is is why if you want to write a protagonist of any real substance (and you do, dear reader) a strong backstory will be a vital part of his or her anatomy.

So what is a backstory? I hear you cry.

Put simply, a backstory is everything that happened to your protagonist before the events of your actual novel. More precisely, however, a backstory is whatever has happened in your protagonist’s past to make them who they are today. You may recall that last week we discussed character motive; but what is it that happened in this character’s past to endow them with this particular motive? That’s your backstory.

At this point, I would like to sound a note of caution. It can be tempting to write a detailed backstory which documents every single event in a protagonist’s life but this really isn’t necessary. It may or may not be the case that every single day is formative in the development of real life people, but we’re not writing real life. We’re writing fiction and fiction is reality refined to take away all the rough edges. Therefore, focus on what matters.

I find that the simplest approach is think of your character’s backstory like a photograph of the protagonist’s life. If you look at any good photograph (and I realise I’m stepping outwith my area of expertise here), you’ll see two things: the main subject of the photograph which sits in the foreground and the background which surrounds it.

Children holding hands in the foreground; a cobbled road and sunset in the background.

Your ‘background’ is all the basic stuff that goes into a character’s history: where they come from, who they grew up with, education, work, all that sort of thing. This doesn’t need to be too detailed. I find a simple list of basic facts will do for this point. E.g.:

Hometown: Somewhereland
Parents: Betty (deceased) and Bob
Siblings: Tom, Dick and Harriet.
… and so on and so forth.

Our ‘foreground’ backstory, however, ought to be a good deal more detailed. These are key events that have had a significant impact on your protagonist and were instrumental in making him the person he is today. Take Batman for instance. Why does this millionaire playboy feel the need to dress up in a frightening black costume and throw himself night after night into the criminal underbelly of one of the most lawless fictional cities in America?

Because when he was a little boy, he witnessed his parents being murdered. Every single version of Batman I’ve ever come across includes that key moment because that one event, more than anything else, makes Batman who he is. It’s what endowed him with that righteous fury which now serves as the key motivation behind everything he does. Without that righteous fury, he isn’t Batman; and without that painful single moment in his childhood, he has no real reason to be so motivated. It’s worth your while, therefore, writing out events like this in detail, perhaps even in the form of a little stand-alone short story. You don’t need to include this in your published book (in fact you probably shouldn’t), but it would probably be helpful for you as the author to have a detailed record of exactly what your protagonist experienced.

One more thing to remember: your character’s backstory is not the actual plot of your novel. It’s just the history of your character that makes them who they are today. Most of the background stuff will never need to be explicitly stated in the final published version of your story and even the foreground need not be laboured (though it should be gently inserted somewhere non-obstructive). What matters is that your protagonist has a clear origin so their motives don’t appear superficial to your reader, but your readers do not want to read lengthy portions of backstory which interrupt the flow of the actual plot. Click here to read a bit more about presenting a character’s backstory.

Thanks for reading. Be sure to come back next week for part 3, where we’ll be looking at character traits.

Missed part 1? Click here to go back!


Thanks for taking the time to read this post. If you enjoyed it, don’t forget to ‘like’ this post and also follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on TwitterPinterest and like Penstricken on Facebook.

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ATTENTION AUTHORS:

Every Tuesday, I post a new edition of Spotlight: a short post which shines a proverbial spotlight on a published novel or collection of short fiction. If you would like to have your book considered for a future edition of Spotlightdrop us an e-mail including a short synopsis of your book and a link to where we can buy it. Better yet, send me a copy of your book and I can include a mini-review.

I’m still looking to interview fiction authors here on Penstricken, especially new or indie authors. Whether it’s books, plays, comics or any other kind of fiction, if you’ve got something written, I want to hear about it. If you’re interested in having your work featured on Penstricken, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter/Pinterest.

Please be advised that due to a recent surge in interest, I am presently committed to a significant number of reviews/interviews over the next couple of months. If you would like an interview or review, I would still love to hear from you, though it is unlikely that I will be able to begin work immediately.

You can check out our previous interviews here:

A Protagonist’s Anatomy #1: Motive, Goals, Conflict & Epiphany

Well, it’s been a while since I did a series of posts so here begins my brand spanking new four post series entitled A Protagonist’s Anatomy. Over the next four weeks, I’ll be breaking down some of the most basic and essential elements that go into forming a full fledged character. This will be very much a whistle-stop tour of the various different elements that go into creating an imaginary person.

And so for the first post in the series it seemed only right that I begin with the four things that form the beating heart of any good character: motive, goals, conflict and epiphany.

I’ve written about these things on this blog a lot. Regular readers (♥) may feel like I’m repeating myself in this first instalment but I make no apology for that. Even if you have meticulously crafted every other element necessary to make a good character (we’ll come to those in the next couple of weeks), your character is as good as dead if they do not have a strong motive informing a clear goal hindered by a substantial conflict resolving in some kind of epiphany. This will not only produce a strong character but it will form the foundation of your story’s whole plot, so neglect it at your peril.

Motive

The most foundational element involved in making a character of substance is motive. This is, in the most simple terms possible, what gets your character up in the morning. Sure, the antagonist might be threatening to commit an act of unspeakable evil which will spell the end of life as we know it for all humanity, but why should the protagonist take it upon himself to do anything about it? Why not just leave it to the police? This is your motive; not what the character is trying to do but why they’re trying to do it. Ask yourself: what matters to this character more than anything else (e.g.: revenge, love, to escape their destiny, etc.). Then you will know their motive.

Goal

This, on the other hand, is precisely what your character is hoping to achieve before the end of the story (e.g.: to get to a certain place, to find a certain object, to marry a certain person). Try to be as precise as possible in your mind as to what your protagonist’s goal is because this also forms the foundation of the actual plot. The reader will intuitively understand that there is something that the protagonist must do, and that the story will not be finished until that goal has been decisively accomplished or thwarted. No goal, no story.

Conflict

This is where characters and the overall plot really start to overlap: something is keeping your character from accomplishing their goal. In the best stories, most characters will struggle against both an external conflict and an internal one.

The external ones are usually pretty obvious, such as an antagonist whose own goals stand in direct contradiction to the goals of the protagonist, thus bringing the two characters into conflict with each other. However this will usually make for pretty bland reading if the protagonist does not also struggle with an internal conflict: personal demons that they carry with them wherever they go which they must overcome in order to accomplish their external goals. For instance, in the original Star Wars trilogy there is the obvious external conflict between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader, but there is also an underlying internal conflict where Luke must learn to use the Force to defeat Vader without succumbing to the ‘dark side’ as his father did. In most stories, the protagonist finally triumphs over the antagonist only once he has overcome his own inner-conflict.

Epiphany

There is an old cliché that says we should not be called human beings but human becomings, because we are all in a constant state of change (hopefully for the better). If you want your characters to read like real live people (and you do, dear reader) then you absolutely must reflect this in your writing. Your protagonist must evolve between the first and the final chapters, usually by learning an important lesson having finally put to bed the inner demons they have been wrestling with throughout the story.

Thanks for reading. Be sure to come back next week for part 2, where we’ll be looking at developing a protagonist’s back story.


Thanks for taking the time to read this post. If you enjoyed it, don’t forget to ‘like’ this post and also follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on TwitterPinterest and like Penstricken on Facebook.

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ATTENTION AUTHORS:

Every Tuesday, I post a new edition of Spotlight: a short post which shines a proverbial spotlight on a published novel or collection of short fiction. If you would like to have your book considered for a future edition of Spotlightdrop us an e-mail including a short synopsis of your book and a link to where we can buy it. Better yet, send me a copy of your book and I can include a mini-review.

I’m still looking to interview fiction authors here on Penstricken, especially new or indie authors. Whether it’s books, plays, comics or any other kind of fiction, if you’ve got something written, I want to hear about it. If you’re interested in having your work featured on Penstricken, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter/Pinterest.

Please be advised that due to a recent surge in interest, I am presently committed to a significant number of reviews/interviews over the next couple of months. If you would like an interview or review, I would still love to hear from you, though it is unlikely that I will be able to begin work immediately.

You can check out our previous interviews here:

Throwback Thursday: Figuring Out Foil Characters

Originally published 29/04/2018

We’re all familiar with some of the traditional character types you find in most fiction: protagonists, antagonists, love interests and so forth. But there is another common type of character out there; one which can sometimes be harder to define, though we know them when we see them (intuitively at least). I am talking about foils.

The OED defines a foil in this way:

A person or thing that contrasts with and so emphasizes and enhances the qualities of another.

https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/foil

In fiction, therefore, a foil is a character (or sometimes an object or idea) who highlights the traits of another character (usually the protagonist) by contrasting with them. But apart from that, these characters can play just about any role in your story you like. They can even (and often do) fulfil other key roles in your story, such the main antagonist or love interest (actually, as an aside, I often think love interests make great foils; opposites do so often attract, especially in fiction).

There’s a lot of good reasons to include a foil in your story. They can be an excellent tool for emphasising qualities in your protagonist which you might wish to draw out without stating explicitly. They can also go horribly wrong if executed poorly or needlessly.

As is so often the case, I have one particularly important rule I like to stick to whenever I write a foil (though you can apply this rule to any of your characters). Ready? Here it is:

No character should exist solely for the benefit of another.

Yes, a foil character must, by definition, contrast with another, but if that’s their only function in your story, watch out! All people in real life have their own motives, goals and problems and so should your characters. A good story can get along just fine without a foil character, but a character who serves as a foil and nothing else will be nothing but a burden on your narrative. At best they will read like a two-dimensional sidekick.

No one wants to only be a sidekick.
Image source: http://gph.is/257jTXn

I would therefore strongly advise against sitting down to ‘write a foil character’. Figure out who the main players are in your story first. Ask yourself what they all want, what’s preventing them from getting it and why they are necessary for your story. You may well find that your story will benefit from having a foil and it will probably become pretty obvious who should assume that role once you’ve finished most of your planning.

Take Star Wars for instance. Power and its ability to corrupt is a central theme in these movies. Every Jedi, trained in the Force, faces the temptation to be seduced and corrupted by their power. In the original trilogy, the protagonist, Luke Skywalker, faces this very issue in the form of his foil and antagonist, Darth Vader. Both of these characters come from humble backgrounds, both were trained by Jedi Masters and became powerful Jedi themselves. Yet only Darth Vader was seduced by the Dark Side; Luke resists the same temptation and his life takes a completely different path. Cosmetic contrasts such as differently coloured lightsabres also add to the effect.

Darth Vader works as a foil for Luke, because it feeds right in to one of the story’s key themes and draws out Luke’s inner struggles against the Dark Side. Indeed, Darth Vader serves very much as a personification of Luke’s inner struggles. He represents the course of life Luke can but must not choose.

Darth Vader: You’ve only begun to discover your power. Join me and I will complete your training! With our combined strength, we can end this destructive conflict and bring order to the galaxy.

Luke: I’ll never join you!

Darth Vader:  It is your destiny. Join me, and together, we can rule the galaxy as father and son!

Star Wars (ep. 6): Return of the Jedi

Of course, not all foils are antagonists. They don’t even need to be central characters (I’ve even heard it argued that they really shouldn’t be, though I don’t personally agree with that). All a character really needs to be a foil is to draw out your protagonist’s key traits by contrasting with them. But for my money, a good foil should be a fully-fledged secondary character, antagonist, love-interest, etc. in their own right first and a foil second. Perhaps a better way to think of it is to say that a foil is not so much a character type as it is a literary technique; one which just happens to often be associated with one character in particular.


Thanks for taking the time to read this post. If you enjoyed it, don’t forget to ‘like’ this post and also follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on TwitterPinterest and like Penstricken on Facebook.

Want a blog of your own? Start writing today with WordPress.com!

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ATTENTION AUTHORS:

Every Tuesday, I post a new edition of Spotlight: a short post which shines a proverbial spotlight on a published novel or collection of short fiction. If you would like to have your book considered for a future edition of Spotlightdrop us an e-mail including a short synopsis of your book and a link to where we can buy it. Better yet, send me a copy of your book and I can include a mini-review.

I’m still looking to interview fiction authors here on Penstricken, especially new or indie authors. Whether it’s books, plays, comics or any other kind of fiction, if you’ve got something written, I want to hear about it. If you’re interested in having your work featured on Penstricken, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter/Pinterest.

Please be advised that due to a recent surge in interest, I am presently committed to a significant number of reviews/interviews over the next couple of months. If you would like an interview or review, I would still love to hear from you, though it is unlikely that I will be able to begin work immediately.

You can check out our previous interviews here:

Throwback Thursday: Writing Non-Human Characters #2: Aliens

Originally published: 21/05/2017

Last week, I had planned to write a single post talking about how to write non-human characters, such as animals, aliens, mythical creatures and so forth. Unfortunately, it turned into such a long post that I decided to chop it up into a series of posts instead. This week’s post is the second instalment on writing non-human characters and today I’m going to focus on how to write aliens from other other worlds. If it’s animal characters you’re interested in, that was covered in last week’s post, which you can see by clicking here. If, on the other hand, it’s robots or mythical creatures you’re after… well, you’ll just have to wait.

Before we begin, let’s take a moment to remind ourselves of the golden rule for writing non-human characters:

Your audience is made up entirely of human beings; therefore, your audience must be able to sympathise with your characters as human beings.

In other words, if you want your audience to sympathise with your character, you need to give them certain human qualities. In doing this, you anthropomorphise your character; that is, you humanise them in the minds of your audience. The more human they are, the more easily they can be related to. So, with that in mind, let’s have a think about aliens.

Unlike animals which are very common and familiar things in real life that science has taught us a great deal about, we know nothing about real sentient alien life. We can’t even be certain that it exists at all. However, if it ever turned out that sentient alien life actually did exist, it would almost certainly have very little in common with us Earthlings. There’s absolutely no reason to believe that they would share human values and culture (or even understand concepts such as ‘values’ and ‘culture’), walk on two legs, communicate with spoken language, listen to music or do any of the other things humans do. Culturally, socially, philosophically, anatomically and in every other way, they would almost certainly seem bizarre to us in the extreme. After all, we humans often find it hard enough to relate to other human cultures, never mind alien ones!

It is, of course, certainly possible to create “realistic” aliens like this for your story. Unlike with animal characters (who you probably will want your audience to relate to), it can sometimes be beneficial to have aliens who are bizarre and impossible to relate to, depending on the kind of story you’re writing. Many have done it already to great effect. However, it is worth remembering that there is a reason these “realistic” aliens are very seldom portrayed as good guys. They’re not even usually portrayed in the same way as traditional bad guys, who will usually still have goals and motives that we can relate to and sympathise with (even if we don’t approve). Instead, such aliens are usually portrayed as destructive (or at the very least, strange and frightening) forces of nature. The aliens in War of the Worlds or Alien are good examples. These characters, while believably alien, are more of a danger to be overcome or escaped than a character to be related to. Because your audience cannot sympathise with them as people, it makes it an almost(!) impossible task to create aliens of this type who fit into any traditional role for a character to play. Remember, the weirder your alien is, the less your audience will sympathise with or even understand them. This can be a great boon to authors who want to create terrifying monsters, but not to authors who are trying to create relatable people.

Contrast this with the types of aliens you are perhaps more used to seeing in popular science fiction such as Star Trek or Doctor Who. They sit somewhere in the middle of the alien-human spectrum. They might have one or two physical features that make them look alien, such as blue skin, pointy ears or strangely shaped foreheads, but they still basically look human-ish with mostly recognisable human body parts in roughly the correct place. They will usually have one or two cultural or social quirks to keep them from seeming too human (for instance, the Vulcans in Star Trek are famous for their logical and stoic minds) but nothing so bizarre that it defies understanding. After all, humans often do appreciate logic; the only difference is that Vulcans have founded their entire culture upon it whereas we have not. This makes them seem exotic, but relatable. Such aliens are not terribly realistic when you analyse them closely, but they’re sufficiently different from humans that the average audience will accept them as aliens while still being able to sympathise with them as people, rather than monsters.

Beware, however, that you do not go too far in trying to make your aliens relatable. Aliens are, by their very nature, foreign in the extreme. Your audience, then, will expect your alien characters to be at least a little bit unusual. If they seem too human, you will have utterly failed in your goal to create an alien character. For example, one of the biggest things that irks me about Supergirl (the TV series) is the character of Mon-El who, having only just arrived on Earth from the planet Daxam, is utterly indistinguishable from the average American millennial in the way he talks, behaves and relates to other characters. This level of anthropomorphising goes too far and robs the audience of their ability to believe that the character they’re witnessing is really from another world at all. Sure, he’s a relatable character but remember, it’s important when writing sci-fi to suspend your audiences’ disbelief. Your audience will not be able to believe in an alien who seems more human than their own family do.

Creating alien characters, then, is all about balance and purpose. Before you begin, ask yourself: what is the purpose of this alien to be in my story? Are they a protagonist, antagonist, love-interest, etc.? Why exactly are there aliens in this story? This will determine to what extent your audience (and indeed, your other characters) will need to be able to understand and relate to them, and consequently, will help you to determine how alien or human they should appear. However, let’s be clear on one thing: this is not the same as creating a balance between how good and how evil your character is. Rather, it’s a balance between the familiar and the strange. Very human characters can still be bad guys. Very alien characters might even be good guys, although it’s unlikely that the audience will relate to them and so I would be very careful about how you go about doing this.

That’s all I’ve got time for this week I’m afraid, but be sure to come back next week when I’ll be continuing the series on creating non-human characters, this time focusing on robots and cyborgs. 

Until next time!


Thanks for taking the time to read this post. If you enjoyed it, don’t forget to ‘like’ this post and also follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on TwitterPinterest and like Penstricken on Facebook.

Want a blog of your own? Start writing today with WordPress.com!

WordPress.com Jetpack WooCommerce

ATTENTION AUTHORS:

Every Tuesday, I post a new edition of Spotlight: a short post which shines a proverbial spotlight on a published novel or collection of short fiction. If you would like to have your book considered for a future edition of Spotlightdrop us an e-mail including a short synopsis of your book and a link to where we can buy it. Better yet, send me a copy of your book and I can include a mini-review.

I’m still looking to interview fiction authors here on Penstricken, especially new or indie authors. Whether it’s books, plays, comics or any other kind of fiction, if you’ve got something written, I want to hear about it. If you’re interested in having your work featured on Penstricken, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter/Pinterest.

Please be advised that due to a recent surge in interest, I am presently committed to a significant number of reviews/interviews over the next couple of months. If you would like an interview or review, I would still love to hear from you, though it is unlikely that I will be able to begin work immediately.

You can check out our previous interviews here:

Throwback Thursday: What Do Your Characters Think of Each Other?

Originally published 19/02/2017

Think about someone you know well. Anyone. A friend, a relative, a colleague, anyone. I bet if I asked you what that person was like, you would be able to easily give me your opinion on what sort of person they are.

John? Oh, he’s loud-mouthed, arrogant and opinionated. He’s not a bad person but he’s a real pain to be around…

Jeanie? She’s the most beautiful creature I’ve ever laid eyes on but she’s a liar and a thief. I wouldn’t turn my back on her. 

Willy? Nice guy I suppose, doesn’t say much (but let me tell you, he’s got the sharpest wit you’ve ever come across).

Now ask yourself… would that person’s own mother sum them up the same way you did? What about their spouse? Their boss? Their arch-nemesis? Even though you see John as loud-mouthed, the chances are his mother would focus on some other, more positive qualities, such as how kind-hearted he is. If John has a wife, she would be more likely to emphasis his physical attractiveness than his mother would (or, perhaps, she thinks he’s a lazy good-for-nothing and she can’t believe she married him).

As we all know, characters are the beating heart of any good story. However, no character is an island. How they respond to other characters is often essential in making your plot work (indeed, this arguably is your plot), so don’t be fooled into thinking it’s obvious how your characters will respond to one another. Just because you would respond in a particular way to Character A doesn’t mean that Character B will respond to Character A in the same way you would. Even though you, as the author, know all the facts about all of your characters, you’ll still have your own narrow opinion about what sort of person they are just the same as anyone else. That is why it is vital to know what every character thinks about every other character if you want to create a rich, vibrant and believable story.

Fortunately, it’s easy to do this. Here’s how I like to do it:

Start with a nice blank page. For me, it’s a separate document in my Scrivener project, but whatever floats your boat is fine (if you’re writing on paper, I would strongly recommend having plenty to spare; this could take up a few pages, especially if you’ve got a lot of characters). Now we make a table, as I’ve illustrated below, with as many rows as you have characters and two columns. Only the top row should have a single column, as this will act as a header. In this header, we write the name of the character we are wanting to find out about; Mr. Protagonist, for instance. In the cells below this, we ask every other character in the story for their opinion on Mr Protagonist. I find the easiest way to do this is to write out the answer in their voice, as if they were speaking to me. Even though I’ve only included two other characters to show you how it works, I would recommend you have a much larger table which includes every character in your story so that you get the most out of it.

Mr. Protagonist
Baron Antagonist Mr. Protagonist is a meddler and a constant thorn in my side. We were friends growing up but it is clear now he does not understand the great work I am doing here. His table manners are appalling but he has great taste in single malts.
Lady Loveinterest Mr. Protagonist is ruggedly handsome. His personality is quite charming, if a little brash and uncouth. He has a fiercely righteous (if misguided) streak which almost makes up for his poor breeding. Unfortunately, he drinks a little too much.

Once you’ve done it, repeat the process for all of your other characters.

Baron Antagonist
Mr. Protagonist Baron Antagonist is a snake-in-the-grass. He acts all sophisticated and like he’s everybody’s friend so that he’s got the whole world wrapped around his finger. How do you expose a guy like that? Even the king’s daughter has agreed to marry him. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he beat her.
Lady Loveinterest Baron Antagonist is a great man; a real visionary and a man who knows how to get things done. He’s got the patience of a saint too. I can see Mr. Protagonist irks him sometimes but he has never lost his temper with him, not once. Mr. Protagonist is fortunate to have a friend like the Baron.

Do you see how this can help you to gain a much deeper and fuller understanding of all your characters and the threads of friendship, enmity, mistrust and devotion which bind them together in an elaborate web which I like to call a “Story”?

If you really want to go the extra mile, why not throw in an extra row on each table telling us what each character thinks about themselves?

Mr. Protagonist
Mr. Protagonist I’m a cook and an employee of my former friend, Baron Antagonist. I have to say, I feel a bit out of place living in such a splendid house. The other servants don’t talk to me ’cause I don’t live in the servants quarters. I think that’s why anyway. But I’m more a man of their stripe than the Baron’s. I wish they could see that.
Lady Loveinterest Mr. Protagonist is ruggedly handsome….

Not only is all of this an effective means of fleshing out your story, it can actually be a pretty darn effective means of coming up with a story idea, similar to (in fact, arguably better than) auditioning characters. The above example, for instance, is only that: an example. I made it up as I was going along purely for your benefit. And yet, without intending it, I actually found myself getting quite involved in the story – a story which did not exist before I started filling in those tables. The embryo of a plot began to form in my mind as I learned more and more about each character from the lips of those people who knew them best. Who are these three people? What is the Baron’s ‘great work’ and why is Mr. Protagonist so distrustful of him? Will Mr. Protagonist ever get together with the slightly snobby Lady Loveinterest?

Give it a bash. I think you’ll find it helpful.


Thanks for taking the time to read this post. If you enjoyed it, don’t forget to ‘like’ this post and also follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on TwitterPinterest and like Penstricken on Facebook.

Want a blog of your own? Start writing today with WordPress.com!

WordPress.com Jetpack WooCommerce

ATTENTION AUTHORS:

Every Tuesday, I post a new edition of Spotlight: a short post which shines a proverbial spotlight on a published novel or collection of short fiction. If you would like to have your book considered for a future edition of Spotlightdrop us an e-mail including a short synopsis of your book and a link to where we can buy it. Better yet, send me a copy of your book and I can include a mini-review.

I’m still looking to interview fiction authors here on Penstricken, especially new or indie authors. Whether it’s books, plays, comics or any other kind of fiction, if you’ve got something written, I want to hear about it. If you’re interested in having your work featured on Penstricken, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter/Pinterest.

Please be advised that due to a recent surge in interest, I am presently committed to a significant number of reviews/interviews over the next couple of months. If you would like an interview or review, I would still love to hear from you, though it is unlikely that I will be able to begin work immediately.

You can check out our previous interviews here:

Throwback Thursday: D. Wallace Peach Interview Omnibus

Originally published 16/06/2019 and 23/06/2019 under the title ‘Author Interview: D. Wallace Peach’

SPOILER ALERT

While every effort has been made to avoid spoilers in this post, anyone who has not read Soul Swallowers or Legacy of Souls by D. Wallace Peach is hereby advised that this post may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

Diana Wallace Peach is an accomplished author of quality fantasy with seventeen books to her name. Her most recent offering, the ‘Shattered Sea’ duology consisting of The Soul Swallowers and Legacy of Souls, is another masterpiece filled with rich characters, political intrigue, and top notch world building.

I had the pleasure of chatting with D. Wallace Peach, whose books, including the ‘Shattered Sea’ duology, are available to buy now on Amazon.


What made you decide to become an author?

I never really planned on being an author, though I always enjoyed writing. A decade ago, my husband and I made a temporary move for his job. Our planned stay was too short a time frame for me to find work. He suggested that I write a book, and I said, ‘Okay.’

Well, that was that. I was hooked and I’m still writing.

I’ve been reading The Shattered Sea duology, Soul Swallowers and Legacy of Souls; two thoroughly enjoyable books. There’s plenty going on in them both; family conflicts, slave trading, imperial politics and, of course, a fantasy world where people consume the souls of the dead. I wonder, how did this story first come about? What was your original inspiration for writing?

I’m curious about the invisible world and the nature of the soul. I think there is a lot more to this world than we can possibly imagine. Just think of the inventions in the last one hundred years that would have seemed impossible or magical. Do souls exist beyond death? Is reincarnation possible? Is possession a real thing? I simply took those questions and applied a ‘what if’ question. Then I added the rules that would bind this practice – physically, mentally, and through social norms. The rest simply fell into place as a rough outline that took further shape as I wrote.

Is that your preferred way of writing, planning while you write (‘plantsing’)? Or are you normally more of a planner or a ‘pantser’?

I always have a rough outline. Otherwise, I’m filled with writer-anxiety. That and I have no problem wandering off on tangents for hundreds of pages, which then need to be edited! Outlines keep me on track, but they’re loose enough that my characters can be themselves, and I will readily change a plan if my characters can convince me that it makes good sense.

I’m glad you mentioned your characters because the meaty characters you’ve created were one one of my favourite things about this series. The protagonist, Raze, for instance. I really liked the way this chap developed as an individual over the two books. How did you go about developing him?

I love reading books with strong characters, and so I strive to write the same. My background is in mental health, and I’m fascinated by the incredible depth behind every human face. Prior to writing, I pen each character’s biography in quite a bit of detail. I understand how their lives were shaped, their fears, weaknesses, and strengths, how they compensate, what they hide even from themselves, what they need to learn about themselves to grow. A significant part of my plotting a story takes into account the characters’ arcs.

I suppose that must be doubly important when you come to write a character who is a practised liar, like Benjmur? He weaves such an intricate web of deceit around all the other characters– how do you keep track of it all?

I wanted to write a different kind of character than I have in the past– one who is extremely duplicitous and able to keep the other characters off kilter. The biggest challenge was to make his lies believable without the other characters coming off as naive (except perhaps for his daughter who simply doesn’t want to think ill of her father). I don’t like books where the characters are ridiculously stupid simply to serve the plot. I kept track of it by writing twenty drafts. Ha ha.

I was quite struck by some of the big themes this story explored. The distinction between slavery and bonded labour (if there is one) seems to crop up time and again in this story. Was that a theme you were keen to explore?

I’m a political monster, and like exploring these issues. To support the book, I did a bit of research on the ‘justifications for slavery’ that were shared around the time of the American Civil War. I incorporated those into the characters’ arguments about slavery as well as Raze’s arguments for freedom.

Obviously in a high fantasy series like this, building a world like the Shattered Sea is no mean feat. Any world-building tips for prospective fantasy writers?

Just like I write bios for the characters before I start a book, I write a complete “bio” for the world, including maps. I go back about 300 years into the world’s history. I write about gender roles, politics, religion, societal norms, geography, world view, relationships with other nations/provinces, technology or the lack thereof, clothing, even the shape of their roofs! I try to take a couple real-life norms and turn them on their heads if I can. Some things develop as I write and some change, but I usually start with a good sense of the world and how the character meshes or rebels against it. In a way, the world is another character in the book.

Looking through your blog I noticed you’ve done a bit of flash fiction. How do you find writing shorter fiction compares with novel writing?

I rarely write short stories, but I enjoy flash fiction. The big difference for me is that I don’t need to think about what came before or what comes after. It’s a slice of time, a glimpse, versus a novel that has a history and a future. An interesting tidbit. The opening scene of ‘Shattered Sea’ duology started as a flash fiction piece in response to a prompt. So you never know where those flashes will lead!

What’s next for you then? Can we look forward to more books in the near future?

I’m working on a trilogy (as yet untitled). I’m obsessive about the cohesion of my stories and therefore write the entire series at once, holding up the first book until the last is ready to publish. This trilogy is daunting and the first draft is taking me forever to complete. I’m probably a year away from publishing. When they’re done, I’ll have 20 books, and hopefully, number 21 brewing in the back of my mind.

CLICK HERE TO VISIT D. WALLACE PEACH’S AUTHOR PAGE.
Soul Swallowers and Legacy of Souls by D. Wallace Peach are available to buy now from Amazon.

Thanks for taking the time to read this post. If you enjoyed it, don’t forget to ‘like’ this post and also follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on TwitterPinterest and like Penstricken on Facebook.

Want a blog of your own? Start writing today with WordPress.com!

WordPress.com Jetpack WooCommerce

ATTENTION AUTHORS:

Every Tuesday, I post a new edition of Spotlight: a short post which shines a proverbial spotlight on a published novel or collection of short fiction. If you would like to have your book considered for a future edition of Spotlightdrop us an e-mail including a short synopsis of your book and a link to where we can buy it. Better yet, send me a copy of your book and I can include a mini-review.

I’m still looking to interview fiction authors here on Penstricken, especially new or indie authors. Whether it’s books, plays, comics or any other kind of fiction, if you’ve got something written, I want to hear about it. If you’re interested in having your work featured on Penstricken, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter/Pinterest.

Please be advised that due to a recent surge in interest, I am presently committed to a significant number of reviews/interviews over the next couple of months. If you would like an interview or review, I would still love to hear from you, though it is unlikely that I will be able to begin work immediately.

You can check out our previous interviews here:

Author Interview: D. Wallace Peach (Part 2 of 2)

SPOILER ALERT

While every effort has been made to avoid spoilers in this post, anyone who has not read Soul Swallowers or Legacy of Souls by D. Wallace Peach is hereby advised that this post may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

Diana Wallace Peach is an accomplished author of quality fantasy with seventeen books to her name. Her most recent offering, the ‘Shattered Sea’ duology consisting of The Soul Swallowers and Legacy of Souls, is another masterpiece filled with rich characters, political intrigue, and top notch world building.

I had the pleasure of chatting with D. Wallace Peach, whose books, including the ‘Shattered Sea’ duology, are available to buy now on Amazon.

This is part two of that interview. If you missed part one, you can still view it by clicking here.


I was quite struck by some of the big themes this story explored. The distinction between slavery and bonded labour (if there is one) seems to crop up time and again in this story. Was that a theme you were keen to explore?

I’m a political monster, and like exploring these issues. To support the book, I did a bit of research on the ‘justifications for slavery’ that were shared around the time of the American Civil War. I incorporated those into the characters’ arguments about slavery as well as Raze’s arguments for freedom.

Obviously in a high fantasy series like this, building a world like the Shattered Sea is no mean feat. Any world-building tips for prospective fantasy writers?

Just like I write bios for the characters before I start a book, I write a complete “bio” for the world, including maps. I go back about 300 years into the world’s history. I write about gender roles, politics, religion, societal norms, geography, world view, relationships with other nations/provinces, technology or the lack thereof, clothing, even the shape of their roofs! I try to take a couple real-life norms and turn them on their heads if I can. Some things develop as I write and some change, but I usually start with a good sense of the world and how the character meshes or rebels against it. In a way, the world is another character in the book.

Looking through your blog I noticed you’ve done a bit of flash fiction. How do you find writing shorter fiction compares with novel writing?

I rarely write short stories, but I enjoy flash fiction. The big difference for me is that I don’t need to think about what came before or what comes after. It’s a slice of time, a glimpse, versus a novel that has a history and a future. An interesting tidbit. The opening scene of ‘Shattered Sea’ duology started as a flash fiction piece in response to a prompt. So you never know where those flashes will lead!

What’s next for you then? Can we look forward to more books in the near future?

I’m working on a trilogy (as yet untitled). I’m obsessive about the cohesion of my stories and therefore write the entire series at once, holding up the first book until the last is ready to publish. This trilogy is daunting and the first draft is taking me forever to complete. I’m probably a year away from publishing. When they’re done, I’ll have 20 books, and hopefully, number 21 brewing in the back of my mind.

MISSED PART 1 OF THIS INTERVIEW? CLICK HERE TO READ IT.

Soul Swallowers and Legacy of Souls by D. Wallace Peach are available to buy now from Amazon.
CLICK HERE TO VISIT D. WALLACE PEACH’S AUTHOR PAGE.

Thanks for taking the time to read this post. If you enjoyed it, don’t forget to ‘like’ this post and also follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on Twitter and like Penstricken on Facebook, if that’s what swallows your soul.

ATTENTION AUTHORS:

I’m still looking to interview fiction authors here on Penstricken, especially new or indie authors. Whether it’s books, plays, comics or any other kind of fiction, if you’ve got something written, I want to hear about it. If you’re interested in having your work featured on Penstricken, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter/Pinterest.

You can check out our previous interviews here:

Author Interview: D. Wallace Peach (Part 1 of 2)

SPOILER ALERT

While every effort has been made to avoid spoilers in this post, anyone who has not read Soul Swallowers or Legacy of Souls by D. Wallace Peach is hereby advised that this post may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

Diana Wallace Peach is an accomplished author of quality fantasy with seventeen books to her name. Her most recent offering, the ‘Shattered Sea’ duology consisting of The Soul Swallowers and Legacy of Souls, is another masterpiece filled with rich characters, political intrigue, and top notch world building.

I had the pleasure of chatting with D. Wallace Peach, whose books, including the ‘Shattered Sea’ duology, are available to buy now on Amazon.

This is part one of our interview. Don’t forget to check back next week for part two!


What made you decide to become an author?

I never really planned on being an author, though I always enjoyed writing. A decade ago, my husband and I made a temporary move for his job. Our planned stay was too short a time frame for me to find work. He suggested that I write a book, and I said, ‘Okay.’

Well, that was that. I was hooked and I’m still writing.

I’ve been reading The Shattered Sea duology, Soul Swallowers and Legacy of Souls; two thoroughly enjoyable books. There’s plenty going on in them both; family conflicts, slave trading, imperial politics and, of course, a fantasy world where people consume the souls of the dead. I wonder, how did this story first come about? What was your original inspiration for writing?

I’m curious about the invisible world and the nature of the soul. I think there is a lot more to this world than we can possibly imagine. Just think of the inventions in the last one hundred years that would have seemed impossible or magical. Do souls exist beyond death? Is reincarnation possible? Is possession a real thing? I simply took those questions and applied a ‘what if’ question. Then I added the rules that would bind this practice – physically, mentally, and through social norms. The rest simply fell into place as a rough outline that took further shape as I wrote.

Is that your preferred way of writing, planning while you write (‘plantsing’)? Or are you normally more of a planner or a ‘pantser’?

I always have a rough outline. Otherwise, I’m filled with writer-anxiety. That and I have no problem wandering off on tangents for hundreds of pages, which then need to be edited! Outlines keep me on track, but they’re loose enough that my characters can be themselves, and I will readily change a plan if my characters can convince me that it makes good sense.

I’m glad you mentioned your characters because the meaty characters you’ve created were one one of my favourite things about this series. The protagonist, Raze, for instance. I really liked the way this chap developed as an individual over the two books. How did you go about developing him?

I love reading books with strong characters, and so I strive to write the same. My background is in mental health, and I’m fascinated by the incredible depth behind every human face. Prior to writing, I pen each character’s biography in quite a bit of detail. I understand how their lives were shaped, their fears, weaknesses, and strengths, how they compensate, what they hide even from themselves, what they need to learn about themselves to grow. A significant part of my plotting a story takes into account the characters’ arcs.

I suppose that must be doubly important when you come to write a character who is a practised liar, like Benjmur? He weaves such an intricate web of deceit around all the other characters– how do you keep track of it all?

I wanted to write a different kind of character than I have in the past– one who is extremely duplicitous and able to keep the other characters off kilter. The biggest challenge was to make his lies believable without the other characters coming off as naive (except perhaps for his daughter who simply doesn’t want to think ill of her father). I don’t like books where the characters are ridiculously stupid simply to serve the plot. I kept track of it by writing twenty drafts. Ha ha.

COME BACK NEXT WEEK FOR PART 2.

CLICK HERE TO VISIT D. WALLACE PEACH’S AUTHOR PAGE.
Soul Swallowers and Legacy of Souls by D. Wallace Peach are available to buy now from Amazon.

Thanks for taking the time to read this post. If you enjoyed it, don’t forget to ‘like’ this post and also follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on Twitter and like Penstricken on Facebook, if that’s what swallows your soul.

ATTENTION AUTHORS:

I’m still looking to interview fiction authors here on Penstricken, especially new or indie authors. Whether it’s books, plays, comics or any other kind of fiction, if you’ve got something written, I want to hear about it. If you’re interested in having your work featured on Penstricken, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter/Pinterest.

You can check out our previous interviews here:

On Character Traits

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: characters are the beating heart of every good story. Show me a good story with bad characters and I’ll show you a liar. There is a direct correlation between the quality of a story and the quality of its characters. Good characters are not optional. They are essential.

Are we all agreed on that?

Good. Go to the back of the class if you said ‘no’.

Now I know what you’re thinking: what makes a good character? Well, there’s quite a few things, but if you really want to write a character of substance, you’ll need to give him a few key traits. At their most basic level, a character’s traits can be defined simply as a list of a few critical adjectives which describe the sort of person your character is; for example, cowardly, obliging, sarcastic, compassionate, devout, holier-than-thou, etc. We’re not interested in physical descriptions here, nor are we interested in their thoughts or feelings at any particular point. We want to know what sort of person they are. If you don’t know what I mean, just think about someone you know well; a friend, relative or colleague. Ask yourself what sort of person they are.

‘John is really obnoxious.’

‘Susan is kindhearted.’

‘Peter is fly.’

These are all traits. They are fundamental to a character’s personality and will usually remain consistent throughout the story (with perhaps just a little wiggle room for growth). If you’re struggling, just Google ‘list of character traits’, you’ll find that the internet is simply teeming with lists of character traits that you can easily pick up and apply to your characters. It’s entirely up to you how many you choose, but I tend to go for nine traits for each major character: three positive traits (e.g.: generous), three neutral traits (e.g.: whimsical) and three negative traits (e.g.: censorious).

‘Sounds simple enough… ‘ I hear you cry, with a note of caution in your voice. And you’re right! It is simple. But there’s a way to do it and there’s a way not to do it.

Detailing your entire plot (or worse, writing an entire draft) and then deciding on your characters traits based on what happens to your character throughout your story is how not to do it. This will result in flat, predictable characters around whom the whole world seems to revolve.

Real people aren’t like that. The sun shines on the righteous and the wicked– and on the zealous, the pious, the pitiable and the proud. Life happens to people regardless of what sort of people they are, and we all deal with each situation in our own way, based on the sort of person we are. Therefore, if you take my advice, you’ll sketch out your characters’ key traits before you begin any detailed plotting or drafting, even if you’re a pantser. And stick to the traits you decide on, no matter what events befall your character. These traits will help to define every choice your character makes, everything they say and, perhaps more importantly, how and why they do/say it.

Try to be adventurous when it comes to selecting character traits. Even pick a few traits entirely at random (yep, there are places online you can do that too) and work with whatever you end up with. Don’t worry if the traits you end up with seem contradictory. Real people are full of contradiction too! This will only enrich your character and you can always smooth out any rough edges that seriously impinge upon your story later if you absolutely have to.

When you finally do come to draft your story, be sure to keep your characters’ traits in mind at all times but do not explicitly state your characters’ traits in the narrative (e.g.: ‘Dave was an evasive and brusque man’). Let your reader get to know Dave by experiencing Dave, not simply being told about Dave. Portraying a character’s traits is a subtle balancing act, where you drip feed your reader just the right quantities of each trait at the right time. You don’t need to bring them all out in equal measure all the time, however I would advise making a character’s fundamental traits fairly clear from the get-go. Even shifty, unreliable characters can be portrayed as such through voice and body language. Let’s think about Dave again. Dave’s a bit of an enigmatic fellow. No one really quite knows what he’s planning, whose side he’s on or what his true intentions are. You can portray this to the reader simply by making him guarded or abrupt in his dialogue.

‘Up to much this weekend?’ Pete asked, pulling on his coat and switching off the office lamp.

‘Nothing much.’ Dave sniffed.

‘Why don’t you come over on Sunday? Susie’s doing Sunday dinner and she always makes enough for ten–‘

‘Sorry Pete,’ Dave interrupted. ‘Maybe another week, I can’t this week.’

‘We never seem to see you anymore, is everything okay?’

‘Fine. Just busy that’s all.’

Thus the mystery is not only preserved, but it is also enhanced, because it makes the reader want to know more. Is Dave out killing people at the weekend? Has he got some illicit love affair on the go somewhere? Does he simply dread socialising? We don’t know. One thing we do know: Dave is evasive and Dave is brusque. The narrative doesn’t say it. Dave just is evasive and brusque. Experiment with using characters’ actions and dialogue and especially body language and voice to portray your characters’ traits and you’ll have a vibrant and distinctive bunch of characters before you know it.


Thanks for taking the time to read this post. Be sure to leave us a wee comment if you enjoyed it and don’t forget to ‘like’ this post and follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on Twitter and like Penstricken on Facebook, if that’s what mashes your spuds.

Until next time!

ARE YOU AN AUTHOR?

I’m looking for authors (especially, but not limited to, new and/or indie authors) whose work I can feature here on Penstricken over the coming year. It will simply take the form of a quick Q&A about yourself and your work via private message or e-mail and, of course, a link to where we can all get a copy of your work.

I’m open to interviewing authors of almost any kind of story, provided your work is complete, original and of course, fictional. I will not consider individual short stories/micro-fictions, however I am happy to feature published anthologies or entire blog-sites of micro-fiction, provided you are the sole author.

If you’re interested, or want to know more, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter.