Character: On Retrofitting, or It Ain’t Over Until the Twitchy Werewolf Grins

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Delilah S. Dawson is the author of the steampunk paranormal romance Blud series from Pocket including three books, three e-novellas, and a short story in the Carniepunk anthology. Her first YA, a creepy paranormal about demons and Savannah called Servants of the Storm, is out in 2014. Find her online at www.delilahsdawson.com and on Twitter, @DelilahSDawson.

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I’ll admit it: for a long time, writing strong characters was one of my weaknesses. The idea of a world would take hold, but my protagonist was a cardboard cut-out, an anyperson, a stand-in for the reader’s perspective. I was too scared to let the lead character make the wrong decision or say something that I didn’t believe. I’m pretty sure that’s why two of my books went on submission but didn’t sell, and I learned a valuable lesson:

Character trumps plot.

But what happens if you already have a book written or are halfway into a draft when you realize that your characters aren’t strong enough to draw the reader in and keep them reading? For me, the answer is retrofitting. Basically, writing the book and then deciding how to make the characters more interesting in ways that will make the plot more exciting and contribute to the overall story arc.

Let’s say you have a first draft about John, who discovers he’s a werewolf and has to fight the king of the vampires to secure the freedom of his ladylove, a mermaid. You have world-building, an exciting plot, and the major players nailed down. But something’s missing, and it’s great characters. John is a Reluctant Hero. Lord Vamp is The Villain. Meredith Mermaid is a Damsel in Distress; all cardboard cut-outs. But they have to be real people with hopes, fears, dreams, peccadillos, catch-phrases, memories.

Start with the hero, John. What’s his greatest fear? Let’s decide it’s water. He fell into a rushing stream as a kid while trying to save a kitten, and now he’s scared of water. That’s great, because if his lady love is a mermaid, he’ll probably have to deal with water, maybe leap into the ocean to save her. And Lord Vamp can use it against him. We also know that John is the kind of guy who would leap into a stream to save kittens, which means we like him more. And he’s a new werewolf, so maybe he’s sensitive about having overly pointy teeth, so he’ll have a nervous habit of picking his teeth with a toothpick and smiling with his lips closed. Yeah, he’s a kind of nervous guy. Which goes against the big, strong, alpha-male werewolf thing, so maybe he’s lower in the pack and wants to prove himself.

See where we’re going with this exercise? You want to avoid cliches and make your characters leap off the page, and that can be a lot easier when you know how your story is going to go and how they’ll be challenged later on.

When you get to the villain, it’s important to remember that every villain thinks he’s the hero of the story. Nobody wakes up and thinks, “I’m going to do bad things today.” They’re usually obsessed with something they need and feel they deserve, whether it’s power, recognition, love, or something else. Maybe Lord Vamp is also in love with Meredith and they have a complicated history. Or maybe he knows that Meredith possesses a necklace that once belonged to a vampire queen and can cure Lord Vamp of his vampirism so that he can see the sunlight again. Maybe his father was killed by a werewolf, and he thinks all werewolves are jerky alpha males. Whatever he’s doing, he believes he’s in the right.

And let’s not forget that Meredith is more than a damsel in distress. She needs to have qualities that would make John fall in love with her—maybe she saved him from that rushing stream when he was trying to save that kitten. Maybe she’s an underwater scientist working on a cure for werewolfism or maybe, until she met John, she campaigned against werewolves because they eat too many kittens. In any case, we need to understand why she would like John and detest Lord Vamp. And there must also be impediments to her love with John or the book would be three pages long. She needs to do something besides sit in an aquarium and pout.

If you’re not quite sure what your characters are like, a fun way to work through it is to find a character sheet online with dozens of questions and fill it out off the top of your head. What’s her favorite food, what’s her earliest memory, what would she do in a broken elevator, what would she do if she saw an old woman about to walk into busy traffic? The more you feel you know about a character, the better you can decide what would motivate them, which means you know why they would act the way they do and what they would say. It’s easy to write cardboard cut-outs and put words into their mouths, but the greatest characters in books, the ones that stick with us through the ages, are so real that we feel we actually know them.

If you’re not there yet, don’t lose hope. No matter how finished you think a book might be, after you’ve put your characters through the ringer, you’ll find new ways to tweak what they do or say to make them more well-rounded. As you go back through your last draft, you’ll see dialog go from:

Meredith stared at him. “Thanks for rescuing me,” she said.

You’re welcome,” he answered with a grin.

to

 Meredith gazed at John with the same awe she remembered seeing in his eyes that winter day, twenty years ago, when she’d pulled him from the freezing stream. “Looks like you’re the knight in shining armor this time,” she said.

John grinned, for once forgetting to hide his canine teeth behind closed lips. “Your tail’s shinier than mine, still,” he said.

And if you’re still stumped, try writing a list of your all-time favorite book or movie characters and their traits. What draws you to a character? What surprises you about the characters you like? What kind of unusual traits do they have juxtaposed that make them exciting? For any given character, you should be able to come up with three adjectives that make them different from all other characters. You wouldn’t call Buffy the Vampire Slayer pretty, brave, and strong, although she’s all three. She’s memorable because she’s sarcastic, tenacious, and melancholy. Your characters should be that way, too—as complicated as real people.

When in doubt, just watch a ton of Buffy—or any Joss Whedon show. That’s how I dreamed up Criminy Stain and the entire Blud world. Crim was the first character who dropped into my head fully-formed and didn’t require any retrofitting at all. When a character speaks to you that strongly and in a voice so unique you have no choice but to listen, it’s the start of a beautiful relationship. Especially when he’s a hot vampire Victorian carnival ringmaster.  ?????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????

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8 comments to Character: On Retrofitting, or It Ain’t Over Until the Twitchy Werewolf Grins

  • Thanks for the great advice, Delilah! A good character can overcome weak plot but a weak character can bring down a good plot. WHen I write, it seems I am always retro-fitting the characters and tinkering with them. Is there a time when that gets to be too much? How much retro-fitting is too much?

  • Delilah! Squeeeee! (covers mouth) (grinning) (Maybe a little tap dancing) (no. I don’t know how, but it seems like good exercise)

    SO glad to have you here! Starting out I had a terrible weakness too — plotting. I had great settings, wonderful characters, all 4 dimensional (back-story is the fourth dimension) and no plot. I did as you suggested for character, I pulled out my favorite books broke the plots down. Then I applied that to my Great Idea and it worked.

    Just out of curiosity, How much did your word count expand between draft one (2 dimensional character) and draft two (four dimensional character)? I bet it was a LOT!

  • Ken

    Welcome Delilah!!

    This is a great post about character and I’ll freely admit to holding up my characters and dialogue to the mirror of Joss to see if they sound real.

    I ask my characters a ton of questions like that to try and get a feel for them and what they’d do in a specific scene and, no matter how many questions I ask, they’ll still surprise me.

    Oh, and THANK YOU FAITH (!!!!) for insight on how to triage my plotting.

  • Hi, y’all! Thanks for having me– I’m so glad to be here!

    Mark: I think, for me, it’s all about balance. Retrofitting is, in a way, an unnatural way to work, and your job as a writer is to make the seams of your Frankensteining invisible. I keep notes on a card while I edit, reminding me of things that need to be dropped in, but not too much. “His pointy teeth” starts to sound silly if you say it a hundred times, so you have to change up your turns of phrase. “Sparkling canines”, “toothy grin”, “curved fangs”, etc. Have someone who reads a lot look over your document. If they complain that it seems overblown, repetitive, or like a bunch of weird parts pasted together, you’ve got some smoothing over to do.

    Faith: SQUEEEEE HELLO! I do that with plot, too. On my first big adult book, I had to make an Excel spreadsheet and break it down by chapter, giving each one a rating for excitement. Turns out it went something like: 2, 2, 6, 2, 2, 2, 10, 2. No excitement until the third chapter? Boo! And that’s when I cut the first chapter and punched up the second. My draft went from about 70k to 100k, the first time I successfully retrofitted. Now I aim for first drafts in the 60-80k range and expect them to bulk up later. Also of note: There are 3 books in the Blud series. First book was about 104k. Second book was 107k. Third book is about 110k. The more unique my characters became, the more they wanted to do and say. :)

    Ken: Isn’t Faith the best?

    And now, after an e-novella release on Monday (THE DAMSEL AND THE DAGGERMAN, y’all, my favorite one!) and a week of stomach flu, I’m ready to get on my next post for Magical Words.

  • khernandez

    I’ve been here on Magical Words for about 4 days, and I am in a steep learning curve. I’ve got a book that I have been kicking around for 2 years, and this is the year I want to actually write it. So any and all advice is appreciated. And I love all the successful authors sharing their techniques. I don’t know where to start! I want to do everything all at once.

  • Welcome, Delilah! Great to see you here. And congratulations on your recent release. I am in the process of doing a final polish on a book I have written and rewritten countless times and now have finally sold to Baen (along with two more in the same series). Throughout these rewrites, I have always LOVED my characters, but I had to change my plot, my magic system, my set-up for the book and pretty much everything else. The characters were the only constant. It was a different sort of retrofitting, but not unlike what you describe here. A very cool post; looking forward to seeing what you come up with for us next!

  • Hee hee. You’re not gonna like it, my friend It’s about… PANTSING! 😉

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Sorry I’m slow commenting, but your post required some mulling. (It is super awesome having a deluge of new contributors to Magical Words right at the time I’m starting a new project!)

    End result: I think I’ve come up with a way to make my new chapter 2 super awesome by bringing in some of the interesting aspects of my character I’ve so-far-in-my-head only developed in backstory. yay! And you are very right. I really need to do a lot more digging in terms of identifying the characters I most love, and *why*. In this case I think it’s pragmatism. I so much more respect a character who’s willing to bring a big gun to the table because, well, in this situation it’s warranted. Some amount of freaking out is okay, but I like a character who can move smoothly and quickly to the next logical conclusion, no matter how freaky that conclusion may be. 😀