Shades of Character

Diana Pharaoh FrancisDiana Pharaoh Francis
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I’ve been working on my WIP, and I hit a sticky spot. It kept me stuck for a bit and I realized that my issue with the scene was that my characters were flat. I stared at words for awhile, went away, thought, returned and tinkered and stared and tinkered and left again. I did this several times. Many times. I couldn’t figure out how to unflatten them in this scene. I’ll admit that I know how to do this. But in this instance, the how of how to implement totally escaped me. I have multiple characters in the jungle trying to get somewhere by a certain time in a terrible rainstorm while carrying a mostly dead person and trying to not get killed by many monsters. The thing is, though I’d introduced the characters, I hadn’t built them well enough to feel like their dynamic and interactions made sense together this situation. It felt a lot like a bad play acted out by wooden sticks.

Well, finally I decided what I had to do. I had to shade. My characters felt about as flat and complex as stick drawings. Maybe less. But in this scene, how could I do that shading in a way that didn’t stop the action? With four characters? And a mostly dead body?

I started by examining the  dialog to see if I could do more to make connections and raise tensions between characters. I also tried facial and physical action descriptions to help indicate thoughts and feelings. In order to keep the pacing, I could only hint at things, trying to make more out of the details than they actually were. I then added a bit (a tiny bit) of introspection. Too much and I end up with info dumps that interrupt the flow and action and drag the story down, but I need a bit to lend shading detail to characters. 

I don’t think I’ve been entirely successful in this particular scene. I still have one character that’s still fairly flat. But then, she hasn’t really come much into play. One of the things that Charles Dickens was able to do was to take a character and pull them into a round character when he needed to, then flatten them out again until he needed them to be round again. I’m working on being able to do that. Right now, I don’t know if the one flat character is good enough yet. I’m still contemplating, but at the same time, I can’t stay in the one place. I need to progress. I know, I *know*, that writing always gives the answers eventually, and keeping on keeping on is the best choice. I stopped when I ran into a flaw because I couldn’t figure out how to progress, but I probably should have pushed through it quicker.

I guess you’re never too old or too experienced at this stuff to learn new things (course I feel like a perpetual newbie).

And on a final note, first, Blood Winter, fourth in my Horngate series, is coming out December 26th. So far it’s getting rave reviews and if you want some “dark urban fantasy at its best” (RT Reviews), then you need to pick up a copy. Encourage your friends. Give them for Christmas.

Also, since there’s many of you I haven’t met, I’m doing a Shindig Event next week on Weds, at 6-7 EST. It’s an online event where I can see you and you can see me. I’ll be reading a bit from Blood Winter and doing some chatting. So please RSVP and come!!!!

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10 comments to Shades of Character

  • Di, I live this way. My roughs are usually full of wonderful descriptions, but no charcter depth. That comes later. Always later. It’s good to know that I am not alone.

  • I’ve been told I’m good at the characterization and dialogue, but there are times… Like in the sci-fi I wrote, there was one character that was being difficult. His past was so secret it was even a secret from me. And then betas wanted to know more about him after he died nobly. And I didn’t know.

    What I ended up doing was thinking of what I wanted to know about him, and then wrote a short story from his past before he was with the team (few thousand words max), detailing his turning point into what he became, the catalyst, so to speak. It worked. I ended up writing in a scene where he finally details a tiny piece of his past to the male protag over cups and it worked well and I think added more depth to his eventual death. Perhaps, this sort of “getting to know you” session might work for building upon a character that seems too flat.

  • Diana, I love the art metaphor, and the idea of taking multiple passes to bring out the characters. Thanks for the concrete examples of what you do!

  • I recently stepped back from my Ya Fantasy because I was stuck with flat characters. Jenna’s voice kept coming out and I would push it down because I’d already wrote half in 3rd person, but now she’s in 1st person (since last friday when I started back writing yay!) I think it took me stepping back to find out how much better it can be in 1st pov than if I would have if I pushed through. Good luck though hun.

  • Razziecat

    I’ve got one of those flat characters in my WIP right now. Shading, huh? I’ve got to think about that. When I start revising/rewriting, I need to bring this character alive and make her worth caring about. Right now she’s mostly annoying ;)

  • Faith: isnt’ amazing how it always feels like you’re the only one struggling? Everyone else makes it look so easy.

    Daniel: That’s the funny part. I know her background and a lot of who she is. I just haven’t managed to make her feel real and round yet. No shading I guess.

    Laura: you’re welcome!

    WaitforHim: I know how that is when the person is wrong. It’s frustrating. I’m glad it’s working for you!

    Razzicat: Annoying can be fun, for the right reasons. But of course, when it’s not, then you want to yank hair out.

  • sagablessed

    In my current WIP my writer’s group has complained the MC is a typical teenage girl. She comes off flat as a shadow. All other characters are fine.
    So this post comes at a perfect time. :) Thanks. I now have impetus to continue, and hope as I write the MC will ‘flesh out’ as it were.

  • quillet

    When I run into trouble with characters, I like to interview them. Just as an exercise, I’ll ask a character a question like, “Hey, what do you think of [other character]?” Or, “What’s your favourite thing to do when you’re alone?” Sometimes a character will refuse to say much (depending on the question!), but often I end up writing a whole ramble or rant in the character’s voice, which not only helps bring her/him to life but sometimes surprises the heck out of me. Also, it’s pure fun, because I know I’m the only one who’ll ever see it, so it doesn’t have to be “good” writing.

  • Gypsyharper

    That’s kind of how I feel about my whole WIP right now – flat, flat, flat. So this is timely. I don’t think I got to know my characters as well as I should have before I started – this was my NaNo project, and even though I started preparing early, I wasn’t prepared enough. So now I have to go back and do that. I really like the idea of shading. Also quillet’s idea of interviewing the characters. Maybe this will help me get back on track. :)

  • The other thing I do is take an event from a character’s past (before the current WIP begins) and write a short story about it. Sometimes that means creating an incident, since I often don’t know the character in question that well. But the point is, it allows me to bring that character to life, to discover his/her voice, and to spend some time inside the character’s head. And as a bonus, I get a short story out of it that perhaps I can sell.