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Creating Credible Fiction Characters

Dana Bowman from the Beyond mystery series

Creating characters that resonate with your readers, characters that are three dimensional – in other words credible characters – is not always easy. But it can lead you down interesting and unexpected pathways and forge a bond between author and character. Sometimes that bond means the character thinks he or she is writing the story.

That’s what happened with the main character in my Beyond mystery series – PI Dana Bowman. Maybe it’s because as part of my book promo she comes to life when I dress up as her for presentations in libraries,cafes and the like.

I have to keep reminding Dana that is is my  name, not hers, on the book cover as the author.

And we really are not alike, so not the same person – as I keep telling Dana.

Here’s a  character comparison of us on my website

So how do you create credible characters? Do they suddenly appear in your head? Sometimes. Sometimes you get your plot first

Characters can come from real life, your imagination or by osmosis. Here are a few pointers

  1. If you create a character from real life, make sure you use the real person as only a kicking-off point – perhaps how they look, perhaps one distinctive characteristic and create from there.

  2. Don’t steal other authors’ characters – evenly loosely disguised as your so-called character.

  3. Personal experience and knowledge can help in creating and developing characters. but remember you are creating fictional characters for fiction, not writing a memoir.

  4. An oxymoron – fictional characters must come across as real characters, real people, so readers can connect to them.

  5. Once created, characters don’t remain static – they evolve; they change, even in just one short story, and more so in novels, especially series novels.

I have lots more info on this and will be teaching a workshop on Creating Compelling Characters this Sunday, November 5, from 2 p,m. to 4 p.m. with the Toronto Writers Circle at the Toronto Reference area. It is free and open to the writing public. Here is the library info about the group and location. If you live in the general area you might like to join us.

And here is my latest Beyond mystery book. Click on it for more info

Cheers.

Sharon A. Crawford

 

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Writing fiction from anger

Cover of Sharon A. Crawford's mystery short story collection. Click on it for publisher's website

Cover of Sharon A. Crawford’s mystery short story collection.

Do you get angry at the crap that happens in your life? Some stupid motorist running a red light nearly hitting you when you cross the street? You or a family member keep getting sick or suffer a serious injury? You get a lot of “junk” phone calls and/or emails? Some utility has messed up your bill? Your garbage isn’t being picked up but all your neighbours’ garbage is? And customer service for the latter two is rude and unhelpful. You get the picture. You feel a swirl of emotions and often anger is at the core. Maybe you even want to kill the person causing the problem – or making it worse.

Don’t do that.Instead  write about it. I don’t mean a play-by-play of your situation – but fictionalize it. One way to do this that can work very well is writing a noir satirical short story.

I do that all the time. Many of my stories in Beyond the Tripping Point are based on something bad that happened to me or someone else or something that really makes me see red, purple, and blue. Examples from BTTP include The Couch, For the Love of Wills, and No Breaks.

Currently I am writing a short story about something I have been (and still am) inundated with – telemarketers. Usually I ignore them or pick up the phone, get sarcastic and tell them off, then bang the phone down. But many of these telemarketing calls are also scams and are computer-generated, so you get a recording – which if you don’t pick up the phone will actually go to your voice mail.

So, I’m writing about telemarketers and two women’s revenge of one telemarketing company. But as I write mysteries, it is not that straight-forward. The characters are not me or anyone in particular in my life. However, I have used one tactic that I did in No Breaks – two female friends, but not the same two friends. And I make it humorous, quirky and yes sarcastic. Does the telemarketer get just desserts? I’m not telling – that will come out whenever the story gets published.

To get started on that you need to develop your quirky characters. One or both are victims of the problem and one is usually not so smart or sophisticated as the other. It works better to tell your story from the point of view of the victim who isn’t as savvy as the other one. And you need a villain or two – and if writing a mystery you need some red herring type of villains. Depending on your story you might need a police officer. In my telemarketing story I do have a police detective Larry Hutchinson, who made his first appearance in “For the Love of Wills” in Beyond the Tripping Point.

You also have to develop a plot – based on your characters and their situation.

As regular readers of this blog know from previous posts, I am a seat-of-your-pants plotter. I take my characters, my idea, figure out a few plot developments and then run with it. I let the characters (particularly the POV one) take over, along with what happened to me in real life – which is also in my mind.

I also keep focusing on how much fun I am having with the bad guys getting their come-uppance.

Of course, the plot isn’t that straightforward – like real life it gets messy and goes on tangents. But in the end if the baddies get their come-uppance, that is good. Because in real life that often doesn’t happen.

As an old boyfriend once said, “Life is not fair.”

That’s why we have fiction – to at least right some of these wrongs.

And as usual,if you click on the book cover at the top of this post, you can link to more info about it and Beyond Blood.

Cheers.

Sharon

 

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Developing fiction characters from observation

The latest Beyond book in the series

The latest Beyond book in the series

Here are a couple of excerpts from the Developing Characters and Dialogue in Fiction workshop I taught this past Tuesday.

If you want to get your dialogue bang on with your characters, here are some tips:

Listen, watch and read who and what are out there. That could be a TV series, a movie, a book, and in-person. A couple of TV series with excellent and diversified characters (each quirky in their own way) are NCIS:LA. Even if you are not an NCIS fan, the two sets of investigator partners are priceless – not only to watch for entertainment but to study as a fiction writer. Briefly.  the one set consists of Deeks who is actually an LA detective transferred to NCIS. He tends to run off at the mouth and fixates on weird things in life. His partner (professional and personal in the series) Kensey is so different – she is the slob in this duo and likes to pick on Deeks. The other duo, in a nutshell, Sam and Callen – Sam black and Callen is white but they are different in personalities and lifestyles. Sam has been married for many years to another agent, Michelle and they have two children including an adult son in the military. Callen is a minimalist in his life and has problems with committment.

I suggest checking out reruns of NCIS:LA as Kensey is in a coma from a severe injury for the next few episodes as the actress playing her is on maternity leave. But there are other interesting unique characters in the series including the unit’s second in command played by Linda Hunt.

Another series with quirky characters is the British Heartbeat. It ran from around 1992 to 2010 but repeats are shown on various TV stations or you can probably see it there or on alternative viewing. Heartbeat is set in the late 1960s in a fictitious small town in North Yorkshire, England. It focuses on small town policing operating from Ainsfield station at that time and is intertwined with some of the social issues then.  Not all the characters are cops, but all characters are so well developed and except for a core few, the characters do come and go over the years. My favourites are Mr, Greengrass who is an elderly con artist with the most disgusting dog you may have ever seen, and Oscar Blaketon who is the Sergeant in charge of the police station until he takes early retirement due to health issues. Then he becomes a postal clerk and then co-owner of  the pub which is also central to the series. Blaketon is an interferring know-it all and keeps that up even after he retires.

Another way to absorb characters is to listen. A writer I know wanted to find out how teenagers speak so she would go to where they hung out and listen without butting in. Getting the slang and other language peculiar to your characters often requires this up-front listening. I also like to listen in on loud cell phone conversations when travelling on public transit – although there is not as much of that now with people texting.

The idea is to observe and absorb but not steal characters from TV, film, books or real life. And if your character has disabilities, you might want to actually interview someone with the same disability and also try to live in their shoes, so to speak, for a bit of firsthand feelings. For example, life in a wheelchair is so much different and not just operating the wheelchair and getting through doors. The view is a bit different. Just a caution: if you are going to get the feel of being blind, it might be a good idea to have another person with you for safety’s sake.

As for me I had a six-day experience of being 85 percent deaf. It was terrifying going into a grocery store and trying to read people’s lips. The only thing I heard was two people yelling and it must have been quite loud for me to hear it.

It was only temporary – ear wax. Who what have thought that?

How do you create distinctive characters in your fiction?

Cheers.

Sharon A. Crawford

And as usual, the Beyond Blood book icon at the top takes you to one of the places with my profile and books.

 

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Using fictional characters’ inner thoughts for character development

The latest Beyond book in the series

The latest Beyond book in the series

We’ve all read fiction where the characters come across as superficial. I’m not referring to their traits (and superficiality may well be one of them). Instead, I’m referring to characters that don’t evoke a strong reaction from the reader, characters that  don’t connect in some way to the reader, characters that leave the reader thinking “Who cares?”. Chances are fiction with characters that the reader can’t seem to get into means that the writer doesn’t really know their characters. The writer didn’t get inside each haracter s’ head.

Getting inside your protagonist’s or antagonist’s head is key to understanding them and bringing them to life to your readers. Here’s a short excerpt from my novel Beyond Blood to illustrate this.

Chapter Twelve:

David:

He had woken up to cold and darkness. Beechnut. Where was Beechnut? He was lying on his back and tried to sit up but his arms were stuck in front of him and his feet were stuck together. Shadows seemed to come at him.

“Mom … mee,” David said. “Mom … mee. Where are you? Mom … mee, I’m scared.”

No answer. Where was he? Where were Mommy and Uncle Bast? Where was Debbie? They’d been reading Alice in Wonderland. Then he had gotten hungry and run downstairs to the kitchen with Debbie after him. It was a game they always played. When he’d heard a noise in the basement he’d run down there and seen one of Mommy’s friends playing the game, so he’d chased after … and then … he couldn’t remember. His head hurt and he felt a little sick. He tried to move his hands again, but couldn’t. They were still stuck together.

Where was he? His toes hurt. His teeth hurt and he was so cold.

“Mom … mee. Mom … mee.” Now he was yelling.

A door burst open and something thudded in.

Oh no, a monster. Coming after him.

“Mom … mee. Mom … mee. I’m scared.”

He heard a click and a bright light blinded his eyes.

“Pipe down,” a voice shouted at him from above, or was it beside him?

“Who are you? I want my mommy. I want Beechnut.”

Instead he felt something heavy and sticky cover his mouth. The bright light clicked off and footsteps receded to the doorway, and then he heard a door slam.

In darkness and alone, David began to cry, his sobs muffled by the tape over his mouth.(From Beyond Blood, copyright Sharon A. Crawford, Blue Denim Press,2014).

It is probably obvious that David has been kidnapped and that he is a small child (he is six). Here the reader finds out how David feels about this from first discovering he is not at home and his Mommy is not around. The reader can feel for David, can feel his fear and despair.

Of course not all characters get kidnapped. Some fall in love; some are con artists, etc. The writer needs to convey all this to the reader and getting inside the character’s head is one way to do this.

There are other ways to develop characters. I will be teaching a workshop on Developing Characters and Dialogue in Fiction next Tuesday, Oct. 11 at the S. Walter Stewart library branch in Toronto, Canada. If you are in the area and want to attend, it is free. The library prefers you to register first (call 416-396-3975) , but you can just show up at 6.30 p.m. Workshop runs to 8 p.m. Here are the details about it.

Developing Characters and Dialogue in Fiction

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Learn how to show, not tell, to develop credible characters and make their dialogue sing. Uses excerpts from Beyond the Tripping Point and Beyond Blood by Sharon A. Crawford to illustrate. Writing exercises and some writing critique.

Facebook Event

Location:
S. Walter Stewart Library Branch (auditorium)
170 Memorial Park Ave.
(Coxwell Ave. and Mortimer Ave. area)
Toronto, Ontario

Time:
6.30 p.m. to 8 p.m.

And if you are interested in reading more about developing characters but can’t make the workshop (for obvious reasons such as you live in another part of the world), you can click on the Beyond Blood icon at the top and that will take you to my publisher’s website where you can see my profile and where my books are available online and elsewhere. I didn’t do the usual link to Amazon because they have the incorrect price for my mystery short story collection Beyond the Tripping Point. It is not $94.36. I have contacted Amazon about this error so hopefully it will be corrected shortly.

It would be nice to get that much from a book, but who will buy it at that price? Somebody with big fingers on little keys maybe entered the amount?

Cheers.

Sharon

 

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Being Dana – precautions when getting inside fiction characters

The latest Beyond book in the series

The latest Beyond book in the series

Dana Bowman is the main character in Beyond Blood. Because some of the novel is told from her viewpoint in first person singular, I get inside her head a lot. Of course, Dana thinks it is her getting inside my head.

Could be.

That’s where fiction authors have to be somewhat careful. How much of what your character thinks, does and says is him or her and how much is you? While it is true that some of our quirks rub off on our characters, they are distinct “people” at least between the book covers or in e-books, and in your head.

Add to all this head business is my comedy skits where I actually become Dana Bowman. Again, have to make sure I’m channelling her, not me and she talks and acts as Dana, not Sharon. I try to use the black wig as my changing point.Black wig on I’m Dana; black wig off I’m me. And no, I don’t wear the wig when I’m writing – or as I am doing now – rewriting the next Beyond book.

This brings up something else I’m having to deal with. Without going into a lot of details, Dana suffers some sort of injury in the latest book. What happens has not exactly happened to me – yet. So, besides doing the medical research, to understand better what Dana is going through, I went back (in my mind) to similar injuries I have suffered. How did I react? How did I feel right after it happened? Later? Injury consequences.

Earlier this summer I was at an open garden held by a member of my garden club. I had never been to her place before and because we were encouraged to walk all over the property outside, I entered the property by walking on the front lawn. After seeing the garden in the backyard, asking questions, and talking to the garden’s owner and other club members, I decided to return home.

This time I left by the normal route out front – used the cement walkway to the public sidewalk.

Except when I got to the end of the walkway I lost my footing and went flying forward, landing on my front on the hard cement sidewalk and injuring my knee – big wide cut, bleeding.

Shock, was what I felt. And anger – although the latter was not directed at the culprit – yet. Many people helped me up and one fellow lined up my purse and hat which had fallen off. Many (included the owner) brought out some first aid stuff and one couple drove me home (it was a 10 minute walk but I wanted to get antiseptic on my knee before putting on the gauze and band-aids to hold the gauze in place as soon as possible. I was deathly afraid of infection (because I had been bitten by flying ants a couple of summers ago and the areas did get infected). After the cleanup at home I headed over to the drugstore for more band-aids and gauze.

Later, like the next day, I began to re-direct my anger – at the homeowner. The step was deeper than a curbside step (from sidewalk to road) and unseen – no handrails, so unless you were familiar with the area you would not know the step was there. I wanted to report the homeowner’s negligence to the City – there is probably a bylaw for something like this. But I decided that if my injury didn’t become infected I wouldn’t do that, but would have a serious “chat” with the homeowner next time I see her. The injury didn’t become infected although at one point it looked like it might be and I rushed over to the walk-in medical clinic near my place. I haven’t yet talked to the property owner, because I haven’t made it to any garden club events since then.

How does that translate to Dana and her situation? Well, the fall part, the shock at it happening, the loss of control and the fear afterwards – that’s what I can draw on. The rest for Dana has to be different because she does not fall down an unseen step. Also she is 27 years younger than me, so “seniors and falls” doesn’t come into play.

What happened to me gives me some idea of something bad physically happening, something that is unexpected and how Dana could feel.

So, if you can pull something out of your life that occurred to get the feelings at least, it can help you get inside your character’s head when he or she has something bad happen that is similar.

Now I just have to contend with Dana’s chattering inside my head.

Who is really in control here?

If you want a look at Dana Bowman as I see her (and others when I do a comedy skit), her picture is below. For more info on her check out my website book page. You can see what I look like (on my good days) at the top of this blog

And you can check out my author profile at amazon by clicking on the Beyond Blood book cover at the top.

Cheers.

Sharon A. Crawford

Sharon A. Crawford channelling Dana Bowman from Beyond Blood

 

 

 

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Using real life in your fiction – more info

Sharon A. Crawford's latest in the Beyond series

Sharon A. Crawford’s latest in the Beyond series

A writer friend recently told me that I was one of the strongest people she knows and then she referenced that I raised my son as a single parent.

Once I got over the shock (I seem to live my life in worry and fear lately but I am very vocal and get after people and organizations that mess up my life), I started thinking that this may have a lot to do with the family situation I created in my novel Beyond Blood.

My main character, PI Dana Bowman has a seven-year old son, David. She is also divorced, so a single mom.

In my life, I do have a son whom I raised as a single mom. But I did have help from my ex-husband. Dana gets no help from her ex, Ron, but she and David live with her fraternal twin brother, Bast Overture, also a PI.

My son was a young child in the 1980s while Beyond Blood is set in 1998. But subconsciously I guess some of raising my son rubbed off. But there are several differences besides the time frame. Dana is much more outspoken than I was back then and she ventures where another character Great Aunt Doris says she shouldn’t because she is a mother. Aunt Doris says Dana shouldn’t be working as a private investigator and chasing after bad people also because it’s not safe for David.

Unfortunately, it turns out Aunt Doris is right here because David is kidnapped. But that puts Dana in the double-bind of being the PI to find her son and being his mother. That creates a lot of character conflict which influences the plot. And that is pure imagination. My son was never kidnapped. The closest he came to “disappearing” was when he was four years old. I couldn’t find him anywhere in the house (and yes, I was home at the time) or outside – at first. Then I looked a little closer in the big backyard. Yup! There he was, crouched down in the grass and playing with his toys.

My point here is you can use some situations and even characters loosely in your novels and short stories. But you have to fictionalize it all. Just think “trigger point” and use your imagination from there.

Maybe living my life in fear (balanced by being very outspoken and yes, I admit, sometimes grumpy) has spawned something good. Because Dana’s family situation continued in the four linked short stories in Beyond the Tripping Point and in the current Beyond novel I am currently rewriting.

Cheers.

Sharon A. Crawford

And as usual, if you click on the book cover at the top it takes you to my amazon profile and my two Beyond books

 

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Making Your Short Stories Sparkle and Sell

Cover of Sharon A. Crawford's mystery short story collection. Click on it for publisher's website

If you want to lift your short stories above the mediocre there are many things you can do. One of these is to be original in your story and in your characters. Readers like something different in their plot and eccentric characters can be a big draw whether you are writing commercial or literary fiction.

Three of us commercial fiction authors – Rosemary McCracken, Madeleine Harris-Callway and Sharon A. Crawford – who write both crime novels and short stories will be discussing why and how we do it. We will cover how we get story ideas and how much is from real life and how much from imagination. A couple of us have series characters in some of our short stories and in our novels, so we will discuss how we deal with time lines. Is it difficult going back and forth from writing novels and short stories and what the heck is the difference in how you write each?

Then there is marketing your short stories. Each of us has unusual ways we market our books (both the short stories and the novels).

And this panel will not be just the three of us talking. We are open to lots of  q and a.We want to get a real conversation going on short story writing. Here are the details about this upcoming panel being held by the East End Writers’ Group Wednesday, June 29, 2016.

Making Your Short Stories Sparkle and Sell

Do short stories come from real life, imagination, or both? How do you market short stories? For June’s East End Writers’ Group meeting join fiction authors Rosemary McCracken (shortlisted for the 2014 Derringer Award), Madeleine Harris-Callway (finalist for 2015 Arthur Ellis Award for Best First Novel), and Sharon A. Crawford (author of the “Beyond” mystery series) for a discussion on writing and marketing short stories.  Copies of authors’ books available and there will be  networking and food at 9 p.m.

Time and Date: 7 p.m. to 9.30 p.m., Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Location: S. Walter Stewart library branch, 170 Memorial Park Avenue, Toronto, Ontario, Canada

I am doing a guest blog post on Rosemary McCracken’s blog Moving Target about libraries and how they were and are important to me in my writing career, then seguing into this upcoming panel which is held at a library. There is a serendipity for me about this library branch. You’ll find this and more when my post is up on Monday, June 27 at Moving Target.

Meantime you can check out the panelists:

Rosemary McCracken http://www.rosemarymccracken.com/

Madeleine Harris-Callway http://mhcallway.com/

Sharon A. Crawford http://www.samcraw.com

Cheers.

Sharon A. Crawford

That’s my short story collection – Beyond the Tripping Point – book cover at the top of this post. If you click on the book cover, it will take you to my author profile on amazon.com

 

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