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 January, 2002

Announcing - Our New Website - www.SlushPile.biz

Breathing Life into Characters

by Sandy Tritt


Giving life to a character is one of the most rewarding parts of being a writer. It is also one of the most difficult. Too many times in fiction, we witness the "cardboard" or one-dimensional character. Real characters, those we can visualize and root for and love, aren't created with the snap of a finger. Instead, they develop over time, over many hours of time spent together. Surely, writing is a spiritual endeavor. The closest any of us will ever get to God is by our desire to create another human. But once we do, we find out something God discovered years ago: once you breathe life into a being, he takes on a life of his own.

I like to think of the development of characters as being a process, a life cycle, instead of a moment of genius creation. My most requested workshop is "The Life Cycle of a Character," which breaks getting to know a character into several phases.

CONCEPTION is the initial spark, the idea that originally causes us to want to create this character. Sometimes it is generated by plot -- we know a story we want to tell, and we need a character to tell it by. Sometimes we see a setting -- a country porch with a dilapidated swing or an isolated island -- that makes us wonder what kind of person would live there. Sometimes we run across a photograph that sparks our imagination, and we create personality to go with the physical features. Or sometimes we see a possession -- an antique spinning wheel or an outrageously expensive emerald ring, and wonder the type of person who would own such a thing. Whatever the cause, a character is conceived by an idea.

During the conception phase, we need to start assigning characteristics (knowing that once our character takes on a life of his own, he may change any of our assumptions about him). But, to get us started, we still go through the paces. You may find it helpful to use a Character Trait Chart to assign physical description and background information. Regardless, we need to know basic facts about the person: His name? Age? Sex? Marital Status? Occupation/Social Class? Physical Description? How does he feel about himself? Who are his friends? How intelligent or educated is he? What does he sound like? Smell like? What is the very first thing you notice about this character? And on and on.

BIRTH is when we pick up that limp character that we assigned physical attributes and psychological traits to, hold him in our arms, and breathe the breath of life into him from our very own souls. It is also the turning point -- his actual birth -- and we cease having absolute control over him.

The first breath of life is when our character has a goal or "character statement." What, more than anything else in the world, does this character want? Some examples from my characters are:

To become wealthy so the love of my life will return my love.

To have fun.

To be the best teacher I can possibly be, and to give my students the desire to continue their education.

To keep my family together.

To break into the Rock 'n Roll charts and become a rock star.

To know and do God's will.

As you can see, a character's goal can be as deep or as vapid as the individual. Note that for some characters, this statement may be a life goal, but for others, it may change as the character matures. Regardless, this is what motivates our character, and we must understand this motivation if we are to continue to add depth to his personality.

Part of a character's birth is the "layering" of personality traits. I have found that a good book of the Zodiac that includes both star signs and moon signs (such as Complete Book of the Zodiac, Sterling) is a "cheap" way to add dimension to a character. Also, I search psychology books for complementary traits. The Writer's Guide to Character Traits (Linda N. Edelstein, Ph.D.) is excellent for this, suggesting, for example, that alcoholics often possess irrational fears and suspicions or that a criminal skyjacker often has a religious mother who made him her confidant, that bed wetters are often aggressive and have difficulty adapting to new situations. These are the types of traits that add dimension to our characters.

ADOLESCENCE is when our character begins interacting with his environment. How does the setting of the story affect him? What is going to happen to him, and how will he react to what happens to him? What conflict or fatal flaw will prevent him from achieving his goal? How will he overcome this conflict or flaw? How will he grow?

MATURITY is the final fleshing-out of a character. We now add body language (be sure to study a good body language text to understand how posture, facial expressions and mannerisms affect the way we are received by others) and dialogue to our character. We need to give him a distinctive voice, not just externally, but the way he will think in internal dialogue. Perhaps most importantly, we need to understand his emotional makeup. To fully understand our character, we need to mentally try him out in several emotional scenes so that we can know how he will react.

DEATH.. Great characters never die. Never.

So -- giving life to a character is much like being a parent. We do the best we can for our characters, give them years of our lives, our love and understanding, but the day comes when they rebel and say, "Enough. Let me be me," and we must allow them to live their own lives. And that is when we've truly given life.

(c) copyright 1999 by Sandy Tritt. All rights reserved, except for those listed here. May be reproduced for educational purposes (such as for writer's workshops), as long as this copyright notice and the url: http://tritt.wirefire.com are distributed with the pages. For use in conferences or other uses not mentioned here, please contact Sandy Tritt at tritt@wvadventures.net for permission and additional resources at no or limited charge.

   Keep writing!

Sandy Tritt

Inspiration for Writers tritt@wvadventures.net










Critiquing Special
  • First ten pages free, and, for a limited time, all additional pages at 50% off the regular rate of $2.00 per page.  Just mention Publishing New Writers  Newsletter (January, 2002).
  • Critiques by Sandy Tritt
  • Unlike most editors, I consider my role to be a mentor or a coach. Instead of just telling you what is wrong, I explain how to correct the problem, and I work with you to teach you how to write effective prose. More than 50% of my business is repeat business, and I relish establishing long-term relationships with other writers.
  • Treat you with respect and compassion. All criticism will be of the "constructive" sort. My purpose is to improve your writing, not to destroy your confidence.
  • Mark your manuscript, correcting grammatical and spelling errors and suggesting alternative wording where appropriate, line-by-line.
  • Highlight areas that are especially well-written, so you will know where your strengths are.
  • Where appropriate, offer suggestions for plot development, character development or other areas that could be strengthened.
  • Return a two-to-four page written analysis of your work. This will include evaluation of: plot, setting, characterization, dialogue, special effects (flash forwards, flashbacks, etc.), voice, point of view and any other areas particular to your work.
  • If appropriate, recommend reading or resources to strengthen your areas of weakness.
  • Answer any questions you may have via email.
  • Provide my telephone number for a personal follow-up, if you desire.

For Sandy's success stories, see http://tritt.wirefire.com/Manuscript_Critique.html

Write Sandy at tritt@wvadventures.net

(See Sandy's article in the left column.)

Writerly Websites...


This is Dianne Ochiltree's site for children, parents, teachers and writers for young readers. Dianne is an author of books for young readers (birth to teenage)

and she is also a children's book reviewer. She's been writing professionally for over 25 years---about 18 years in public relations/advertising/marketing and the last 7 years as a children's writer. Dianne has two books published to date, with Scholastic and with Simon & Schuster.

http://tritt.wirefire.com The Inspiration for Writers website offers help and encouragement to writers of all levels. Tips and Techniques give practical advice about frequent writing blunders. The Writer's Prayer, inspirational quotes, and essays about the writing life add insight and inspiration. The Fiction Showcase offers short stories for the reader's enjoyment. And, for those serious about improving their writing skills, manuscript critiques and coaching services are available. Visit http://tritt.wirefire.com today!


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Writer Training - Pardon Me...

by Bruce L. Cook

Editor, The AuthorMe Group

Aspiring writers. Have you assumed that you’d get in print if…, just if… you got a handle on grammar, dialogue, plot, alliteration, and other things we learn in writer school? Once you master the writing skills, you think, no acquisitions editor can reject you. Wrong.

In writer training, the student signs up with a general goal of becoming published. Naturally, the student is attracted to anyone promising an “inside story" and especially someone who has published fiction in print. But these pundits too often fail to address the main problem of new writers – how to get published.

Actually, the students are part of the problem. Usually they have a romanticized view of how they will overcome the vast obstacles to print publication, or they simply operate on risk assessment. (Remember? “I think I can… I think I can…”) I speak from experience. I had the same problem, big time. (My great American novel still rests in its binder.)

A few years ago I was teaching a one-night writing course for the Learning Annex in Chicago. I had done my research with local publishers and was teaching how these aspiring authors could actually get into print in the city of brotherly love. But gosh! By break-time these was a near insurrection. The problem, I soon learned, was that these students had come to learn how to write fiction. Worse yet, almost all of them wanted to write fiction for children. If I didn’t teach how to write fiction for children, I could forget the class.

So what’s a teacher to do? Tell them the truth – that the marketplace is almost closed to aspiring children’s fiction writers? No, my assignment was to teach how to write children’s fiction. My students simply weren’t interested in learning about the marketplace. So I did. And that was a lot easier than dealing with publishing realities.

Wherefore the Slushpile

In light of the writer training problem, AuthorMe has initiated a market-based writer training service that provides a distinct alternative to the how-to classes usually offered.

Instead of blaming the publishers for ignoring the new writer, this package lets the new writer take the blame too.

After all, we reason, any dedicated writer would agree to polish floors and dust the bookshelves before entering the glamorous world of writing.

Don’t we all expect that when we first enter a profession or trade? We have to start by seeking temporary apprentices or graduate assistants or whatever opportunities we can find.

We accept it not as a goal or achievement, but as a stepping-stone with real potential for success.

We at AuthorMe therefore challenge new writers. Take our training. It’s inexpensive and not too time consuming. But, above all, it requires you to dig and identify markets where you can actually get into print. (Hint: don’t tell us you want to start with children’s fiction!)

You can get into print if you will do the work. But will you? Can you set aside the beautiful dream for awhile? Can you handle the challenge?

Try us. Go to www.slushpile.biz and show us your stuff! See you there!

Publishing New Writers,

January, 2002 (no.301)

Editor Bruce L. Cook, P.O. Box 451, Dundee, IL 60118.  Fax (847) 428-8974.

Submissions and comments to cookcomm@gte.net. Links are welcome.







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