Debbie W. Wilson is the author of Tiger in the Shadows, the winner of the 2005 Christy Award in the suspense category. Joseph Dewey, Associate Professor of Contemporary American Literature at the University of Pittsburgh, reviewed it for Masterplots in Christian Literature published by Magill/Salem Press.
The Teaching Home, Homeschooling Today, The Christian Communicator, and The Indiana Informer have published her articles. She has been a guest columnist with the Fort Wayne News Sentinel.
Wilson has also reviewed books for online websites, Christian Book Previews and Black History Review. She has spoken at community events, book clubs, and has debated on TV and before college audiences.
The 5 Elements of Fiction
Writing a good story resembles weaving a beautiful tapestry. Instead of using differently colored threads, we use five elements which, interwoven, creates a picture for the mind. Sometimes we design a fascinating character who becomes a dear friend. Sometimes we take a reader to a time and place he’s never visited before. At other times the events we stage whisk someone’s breath away or transform the way they think about an issue.
And, occasionally, we keep readers up until dawn biting their fingernails in suspense. When we weave these five elements together skillfully, the reader does not notice the elements, only the story.
The five elements are character, conflict, plot, setting, and theme.
First, let’s talk CHARACTER.
“There are technical tricks that may help you create more effective characters. My approach to characterization is not at all technical. I can’t really analyze how I do it, but I am sure of one thing. To write convincing characters, you must possess the ability to think yourself into someone else’s skin.”--Juliet Marillier (my emphasis)
Every character must carry something of the writer in his personality or the writer cannot describe him. Whether we dig into the depths of the evil we could do under certain circumstances or the heights of goodness we might aspire to, we must be able to understand our characters to convey them to the reader realistically. If we do not understand the character, we should write another character or do enough research that we can understand him. Without our understanding him, our character cannot live for our reader.
“Character is Plot.”--Henry James
Think of Scarlet O’Hara from Gone with the Wind. How would you describe her? Determined, passionate, charming, beautiful, fickle? One woman told me, “Fierce.” Scarlet chased Ashley Wilkes and protected Tara, her family’s plantation, with fierce passion.
Now take Scarlet out of Gone with the Wind and replace her with Stephen King’s Carrie White. Carrie is overweight, and has stringy hair and acne. The other girls make her life miserable with ridicule. How would Carrie pursue Ashley Wilkes or would she? Could she save Tara?
Let’s cast Pollyanna as the heroine. She has the ability to make even the most miserable hypochondriac see the good side of life. I picture the carpetbaggers giving Tara to Pollyanna because she has melted their stingy hearts. Then Ashley and his wife would adopt her.
Next insert Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone as heroine. Kinsey introduces herself in simple sentences. She leads a simple life. Her trailer became too luxurious for her, so she moved into a one-bedroom apartment over a garage. She keeps no houseplants and no pets. If she were the heroine, how would Gone with the Wind be different? Would she sell Tara and move into one of the slave shacks?
Regardless, replacing Scarlet with a different heroine changes the story dramatically because a good story depends on the decisions the character makes.
What do we do when we have a story idea, perhaps the theme or some of the scenes, but we don’t know our main characters? That was my problem when I wrote my thriller, Tiger in the Shadows. I knew my theme: the persecution of Christians in China. I knew several scenes because I based them on things that had really happened to other people, and I knew several of the secondary characters, but my main character eluded me.
To discover the heroine, I asked myself several questions:
- What must this character accomplish in the story? My heroine needed to go to China to help rescue her grandfather, an elderly preacher who had been arrested during the Cultural Revolution and had spent most of his life in China’s laogai.
- Does this character need a specific ethnic background to make the story work? Because of what she needed to do, my character had to fit into the culture. She needed to look Chinese and be able to speak the language.
- How does the character’s back story fit into his story present? Stefanie Peng, my heroine, grew up hearing stories of her grandfather and praying for him. He was her hero. She was also very close to her grandmother. Her history provides the impetus for her to risk everything to save the grandfather she has never met.
- For another example of the importance of back story, consider Dee Henderson’s latest novel, Unspoken. When the story opens, Charlotte Graham has survived a 4-year kidnapping and has just been rescued. She is nearly dead. The rest of the story occurs years later as she tries to overcome the celebrity and the trauma of that ordeal and the fear that a third kidnapper survives and will harm her twin sister’s family if Charlotte comes forward with her story.
- What is the character’s biggest problem? Stefanie’s biggest problem in Tiger in the Shadows is spymaster Kong Qili who wishes to entice her to China as bait for her father. Andrew Peng had escaped the Cultural Revolution and become a pioneering physicist in the United States. Successfully recruiting Dr. Peng as a spy for his advanced defense projects will advance Kong into the next level of power and influence in the government.
- What is there about this character that will make readers keep reading? I hoped that Stefanie’s commitment to her grandmother, her vulnerability, her dedication, and her courage would draw readers to her. A couple of male readers told me her looks didn’t hurt either.
Two Approaches to Getting to Know Characters.
“If they are good characters, they have minds of their own. If they are great characters, they go stomping off into the sunset and leave you to pick up the trash.” ― Wendi Kelly
We all hope to write the really great characters who live on in literature. Sometimes we must settle for good characters. A couple of methods can help us get to know our characters and keep track of information we want to use to make our character come to life.
Character Questionnaire: Build a character’s resume’. Building Believable Characters by Marc McCutcheon provides a master resume on pages 33-48 for writers to use. Typed onto the computer, the writer can plug information that he needs into it and can also add to it if it does not cover some subjects.
- Character Interview: Interview the character and respond in the character’s voice. What is your favorite movie? How is your romantic life? What do you most want out of life? What do you think about God? Who is your best friend and why? Tailor the questions for the story and characters.
Once we know our character we need to introduce him to our reader. In the past, the author described him fully as Dickens described Scrooge.
“Oh, but he was a tightfisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! A squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire, secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster. The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shriveled his cheek, stiffened his gait, made his eyes red, his thin lips blue, and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice. A frosty rime was on his head, and on his eyebrows, and on his wiry chin. He carried his own low temperature always about with him; he iced his office in the dog days; and didn’t thaw it one degree at Christmas.” –Charles Dickens
I love Dickens’ description, its alliteration and images, but today’s reader does not want a full description of the character like Dickens’ masterful account of Scrooge. Most readers want to form their own judgments, so we introduce them more gradually as Max Garwood and Joseph Chamberlain Henry did in The Patent.
Marc Wayne grabbed a fire extinguisher and doused the greedy flames. His eyes stung and fire erupted a second time. Emptying the contents of the canister, he ignored the chirp of his cell phone. At last, Marc and the extinguisher prevailed and the flames died. Just to be certain, he stood at the ready, poised to combat another fiery outburst. When nothing happened, he relaxed and set his weapon on the granite kitchen counter next to the television….
The CNN report continued while Marc threw open windows to vent the smoke and fumes. He swept up the disappointing remains of his invention, dumped the ashes into the kitchen sink, and flushed the mess down the disposal. While the faucet ran, Marc mentally recalculated the interconnecting elements and sequence of steps that led to the now purged ingredients. It was supposed to be an adhesive. He kept an ear tuned to the TV where the morning news predicted overcast skies.
“Weather guessers.” He gathered his hair into a ponytail and switched off the television.
The routine bicycle ride downtown was short and pleasant, cycling past welcoming brick homes in the neighborhood where he’d grown up. As he leisurely pedaled, his bike wheels crackled over the early September leaves swirling along the sidewalks and pooling against the curb. He wheeled around a corner and biked down Main Street. Passing the bank, funeral home, and Veterans of Foreign Wars Post, he braked in front of a narrow brick building that once served as the post office but now was divided vertically into two narrower offices. The sign read
Marcus Wayne, Patents. (pages 6-7)
So what do we know about Marcus Wayne? He’s an inventor and patent lawyer who doesn’t call 911 in an emergency. He first relies upon himself. He’s unconventional enough to have a ponytail and fit enough to ride his bike to work. He lives in the neighborhood where he grew up in what sounds like a small town in an area of the country that has leaves fall in autumn.
Certainly we don’t know as much about him as we do about Scrooge, but that knowledge unfolds in a more natural way. The authors allow us to determine whether Marc is a good guy, a bad guy, a likable enough guy to hold our interest. They allow us to make the judgment call.
We reveal our character with certain information:
- Name: We may choose a name that fits a genre or a person’s character, but sometimes we want to choose a name that an individual struggles against. Think of Johnny Cash’s song “A Boy Named Sue.” I went to school with a girl named Violet, but there was nothing shrinking about this girl. She was in more fistfights than any of the boys. Even the big boys steered clear of her though she was little more than five feet tall.
- Appearance: Leak the appearance out as Garwood and Henry did in The Patent.
- Speech: Dialect, sentence structure, and word choice tell us a lot about the character.
- Actions. Marc Wayne’s actions during the fire convey that he’s pretty cool in an emergency, something we suspect will come in handy as the story goes on. We need to be sure that our characters’ actions under pressure and their daily habits and mannerisms reflect something about them.
- Thoughts. Giving our character’s thoughts lets our readers into their inner lives. This can be particularly useful when the inner conversation and the ongoing external conversation say very different things.
- What others say about him: We can reveal a lot about characters through other characters’ conversations about them. Barbara Graham teases us about one of her characters in Murder by Artifact.
With a laugh, Theo stuck her tongue out. “One of your old neighbors came into the shop this morning.”
“Icky?” Nina’s eyes twinkled. “I see her uncle from time to time but I haven’t seen her in ages. She only lived up there off and on. Never for longer than a couple of months at a time.” Nina pointed to a small white house on the next hill over. “Since the county built the new road, Nelson doesn’t drive past here anymore.”
Theo frowned. “If she calls me for lunch, you have to come, too.” (7 – 28)
Now what do we know about Icky Vicky Parker? Not much, but we want to learn more because of the conversation. We expect that she will be either trying to prove herself to the old crowd who rejected her, that she will be our villain, or that she will be a major trouble maker. And Graham does not disappoint us.
WHO’s YOUR Character? How do you find your HERO?
(LOOK FOR next week’s post on CONFLICT, the second element of fiction.)