Interview With a Killer (or not)

While we’re on the subject of villains…one way to get a handle on your mystery is to get a handle on your villain.

killer

Your killer (or any other criminal) should be fully developed before your story even opens. That is to say, he won’t be changing over the course of the novel. Everything that has contributed to your villain’s life of crime has already happened, especially because, by the time your story opens, the crime will have already been committed or will be committed very soon. So it makes sense to create a comprehensive character sketch of your villain before he sets foot on the page.

The best place to start is with the most significant event in the killer’s life that directly affects your story–AKA the murder or other terrible crime that needs to be solved. You can learn more about this event and get a feel for your villain’s voice by conducting an interview with him.

A few ways to do this is by establishing the scene as:

  • A police interrogation after being arrested
  • A written statement after confessing to the crime
  • A courtroom trial with testimony and cross-examination
  • A deathbed confession
  • A confession to a clergyman
  • A confrontation with the sleuth (amateur or otherwise), possibly in the moment he’s caught

Or you can get creative and have your villain apply for a job with Killers For Hire and get called back for an interview.

The idea with any of these interviews is to establish not only your murderer’s character but the details of the mystery as well.

Consider asking the following questions in your interview to establish the motive, method, and opportunity of the crime:

Who was the victim and what was the nature of your relationship?

Where did the murder take place and why this particular place? 

What time did it occur? What was the weather like?

What were you wearing? Were you trying to blend in or avoid being seen?

How did you get there? How did you get away?

How much planning was involved?

What weapon did you use, if any, and why that particular one? 

Where did you get it or who did you get it from?

Have you ever used that weapon before? Did you need special training to use it?

Did the weapon deliver a swift death or a long, slow, tortured process?

What wounds were inflicted?

How long have you planned the killing or was it a crime of opportunity?

Were there any accomplices?

Were there any witnesses that you know of?

Was this your first kill? If not, how old were you when it happened? How did the killing make you feel?

What did you do with the victim? Did you leave the body there, mutilate it, bury it, drown it, burn it, pour chemicals over it, leave it for the vultures?

I know this may sound scary to some of you pantsers out there, but trust me, once you decide who your killer is and figure out the what, where, why, when, and how of your murder, writing the rest will be cake. Even Dame Agatha Christie knew her killers and how she wanted her novels to end before she began writing.

So what does your killer have to say for himself?

 

 

Advertisements

NaNo Warm-Up Part 3

Welcome to Week 3 in the NaNo warm-up writing prompts.

In last week’s post, we explored ways of coming up with story ideas based on book titles. Some of you may have come up with your own titles or some may have worked with titles of already-published books that you knew nothing about. Either way, writing a short book synopsis is a great way to start thinking about a story in terms of plot.

But what if writing plot isn’t your strength or you prefer to write a story based on character instead?

Mary Hilton in Potent Fictions: Children’s Literacy and the Challenge of Popular Culture criticised the Point Horror series’ main characters, who were often teenage girls, as basically being used as a plot device. These femalce characters spend much of their time being upset, stalked, dumped, terrorized, paranoid, or killed. It’s true. The main characters of any of these books could be swapped from one to the other without changing storylines much.

But for literary writers, stories begin with character, and plot grows organically from there.

This week’s exercise focuses on creating characters who have a specific story to tell and comes in two parts.

Remember the Bestselling thriller, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo or the movie The Man in the Iron Mask? How about Girl With a Pearl Earring? Each of these titles is basically an innocuous character description, and if you had never read any of these books, you would be hard pressed to guess what genre or plot they suggest.

The first part of this exercise is to come up with a list of various character descriptions. These could describe some physical attribute, a personality quirk, or an emotional state. Heck, you might even want to take a cue from Edgar Allan Poe and be as generic as possible: The Black CatThe RavenThe Sleeper.

Here are a few examples to get you started:

  • The man in the green speedo
  • The girl who cried at midnight
  • The boy who ate glass
  • The cat whisperer
  • The woman in the rain

The second part to this prompt is to randomly select one from your list and create a character from it. This could be done any way you want: personality profile, character questionnaire, backstory narrative. You can work on one character per day or spend several days on the same character. There is no wrong way to do this.

The most challenging option for this exercise is, once you have selected your character, to write his or her story. This is done by asking simple questions: WHO? WHAT? WHY? HOW?

For instance, why is that man wearing a green speedo? Is it socially acceptable because he’s on a beach in Italy or Spain? Is he on a swim team? In the Olympics? Is his choice of swim attire out of place on the rocky Maine coast?

Why is the girl crying at midnight? Who is the woman standing in the rain? How does one know they can communicate with cats on some otherworldly level? What makes a young boy eat glass? The answers are endless, and no matter which ones you decide on, your character will dictate your story and not the other way around.

Happy writing!

Character Creation

According to the Oxford dictionary, the definition of “story” is:

NOUN (plural stories)

Notice how the first element in this definition is “people.” That is, characters. Whether real or imaginary, all stories begin with a character. And only then can we as writers put them into messes and conflicts and see what happens.
Sounds like bad news for those of us who come up with plotlines first. For instance, I can’t think of one idea where I came up with a character and said, “Now, what happens to this person?” Rather, it goes something like this: “I”ve got a slew of dead bodies piling up in Jack the Ripper-esque fashion, and now I need someone to stop the killer before he strikes again.”
And guess what? I can’t go any further without figuring out who that person is. I can’t even really go any further unless I know why this killer is doing what he’s doing. So see, it’s not that hard to start with character even if you’re a plot fiend like me. Because whatever inspires you to write a story, you’re still going to need a character. That’s why the first step in Karen S. Wiesner’s First Draft in 30 Days begins with character creation.
Now while I won’t share any of her brilliant insight or worksheets (you’ll have to buy the book yourself), I will share my process of character creation using methods she describes tweaked by me. And that’s what you should be doing: take the knowledge you’ve learned from various sources and manipulate it until you find out what works best for you.
Any book on writing or writing teacher will probably have/give a list of character sketches to complete with categories like Physical Description, Background Information, Personality Traits, Internal Conflicts, External Goals, etc. But to really get to the heart of your character, it’s imperative to know what s/he would do in extraordinary circumstances. This, in turn, will organically inform other areas of the sketch you hadn’t previously realized.
Here are some probing questions you might ask of your character (which may or may not make it into your story):
  1. What is your character’s biggest weakness/greatest fault?
  2. What is your character most afraid of?
  3. What is your character’s most prized possession? What one item or person would your character save in a fire and why?
  4. What is your character’s proudest accomplishment?
  5. What is your character’s guilty pleasure? Bad habits? Secret talent? Pet peeves?
  6. Who is your character’s greatest hero and why?
  7. If your character could bring anyone back from the dead, who would it be and why?
  8. What is one thing your character doesn’t know about him/herself? Who knows about this?
  9. Does your character have a recurring dream or nightmare and what is it? What wakes your character up at night?
  10. What is your character’s moment of most profound guilt? Redemptive forgiveness? 

But don’t stop here. Come up with your own questions. Anything that leads to deeper insight goes.

While some writers like (or need) to keep to a strict schedule, I’ve found it’s best to let things percolate. Fill out a few sections of the sketch at your leisure in any order you wish and revisit it often. There is nothing linear about writing and just because you don’t have an answer for one category in your sketch right now doesn’t mean you won’t in a few hours, days, or weeks. And it doesn’t mean you have to keep the first ideas you come up with either. As other elements of your story become clear, new ideas and answers will unfold. I promise.

In my last post, I mentioned how I didn’t like my main character. More often than not, my protagonists are neurotic, moody, overly-dramatic, bitches with a chip on their shoulders. I always love my secondary characters; they seem so much more complex, interesting, and sympathetic. Why is this? Maybe it’s because I have been writing in first person, and the only way I can show secondary characters is through action and dialogue–two of my strengths. I don’t have to get into their heads and describe what they’re thinking and feeling especially when there isn’t anyone else around to talk to.

What changed this time? I took out the horrible event from her past. Of course, I still needed a reason for my character to give up her education in the US to move to England, but it didn’t have to be so tragic. So now she didn’t have anything to prove or have a chip on her shoulder. She didn’t have to be tough (although she is). And that changed everything about her.

I wrote a few opening lines in third person to further remove myself:

Tate stepped off the plane all boots and leather and bleary eyes.

Then I made her outgoing, a chatty-cathy if you will, because, after all, if she’s going to be a journalist, she should probably like talking to people. So I wrote a few lines of dialogue between her and the cab driver:

 “The Queen said that?”

            “I swear on me mum’s grave.” Bartleby, the cab driver, crossed his heart and looked back at me in the rearview mirror. “Heard it straight from Georgie, me second cousin twice-removed.”

            “Georgie? The dishwasher with the lisp and the cauliflower ear?” I asked, leaning farther into the front seat.

            “Well, I only got one cousin who’s a dishwasher.” He erupted into a gurgling chortle that ended in a pneumatic wheeze.

            Wiping tears on the sleeve of my jacket, I gasped for breath between fits of laughter. “Wow. I never would have guessed.”

This new reincarnation of my main character percolated for at least a couple of months. I kept wanting to go back to some horrible event in her past. And I did. A couple of times. Until I finally settled on a more realistic reason for her to leave her friends and family behind, a reason that would connect her to the antagonist as well.

With this new inspiration, I was ready to work on all my characters.

First, I typed up a brief synopsis of each character’s identity and role in the story then filled out a pre-fab character sketch for each. For some characters, like my protagonist, I was able to fill out most sections relatively quickly. For others, like some of the secondary characters, particulary the red herring, I’ve only just begun to make a dent.

L: brief synopsis R: basic character sketch

L: brief synopsis
R: basic character sketch

Though you can’t quite see on the left image, there are some characters who only have one or two sentences descriptions as well as changes made to others after the fact. As a rule, I like to do most of my prewriting by hand. It seems more organic to me to have the thoughts flow from my brain to my hand to my pen to create the letters and words on the page. Typing is faster and less messy, and it’s all up to you how you like to write, but writing, in general, is messy. Plus, it’s easier to carry pieces of paper around with you to fill out as the ideas come instead of trying to get into a computer file. And, I’ve found, these sketches are not set in stone. I keep revising them all the time.

After I filled out the basic sketch, I worked on answering some of the harder questions for my protagonist and then free-wrote a summary of her backstory.

The hard stuff

The hard stuff

L: Antagonist freewrite R: Protagonist backstory

L: Antagonist freewrite
R: Protagonist backstory

The whole idea with freewriting is to just slap a whole bunch of ideas onto the page and see what sticks. I won’t use everything or maybe even anything that are on these pages, but getting your ideas out there on the page will lead to new and improved ideas you may never have come up with if you hadn’t gone through this process. I ask questions in my writing, some I follow up on, some I discard before even considering the answer. I make notations about things I would need to research. I contradict myself over and over again. And that’s okay. Nothing is perfect in this stage and it shouldn’t be.

There are other tricks writers use to get to know their characters, and I’ve tried pretty much all of them: journaling in your character’s voice, interviewing, writing dialogue between two characters, writing the scene of one of those hard questions. And you probably have some of your own methods: making a collage of your character’s favorite things, finding a photo of someone who represents your character, making a playlist that represents specific moments in your character’s life…

Whatever your strategies are, use them. Not just for your main character but for all your characters. Figuring out what motivates everyone will inspire new ideas. I promise.

If you’ve got a favorite method for creating characters or have a question or even just want to chat writing, leave a comment below. I’d love to hear from you.

 

 

And Out of Character Comes the Ten Elements of Screenwriting

There’s a big difference between character and characterization. Characterization is all the work we do trying to figure out who our characters are. Usually this consists of filling out profiles about personality, mannerisms, private thoughts, etc. Character, however, is created through action–what he or she does and says. Think about it, one of our characters might describe himself as having a good sense of humor; however, we see him getting defensive when his friend makes an innocent joke about his choice of clothes that day. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing bad about creating complex characters–we all have contradictions in our personality–but we better make sure there’s a reason why at this particular moment he chooses to get upset at the comment. We also better make sure we see examples of his normal sense of humor.

Sometimes the best way to get to know our characters is not by creating tons of lists about physical and personality traits but by putting them into situations and see how they act. For instance, you might want to ask open-ended questions, such as if your character was in a house fire and could only rescue one member of her family, whom would she save and why? Or if your character was hurrying to the hospital to see his best friend before surgery and he witnesses a stranger attempting suicide, does he stop to help the stranger? Why or why not?

Once you start to get an idea of who your characters really are and how they respond to certain situations, you can begin to use this knowledge to plot out your story. Wait–I thought we were working on character this week, not plot? Well, we are, but everything that happens in your story, essentially happens because of your characters. This is where the Ten Elements of Screenwriting come in.

1. Back Story–this is everything that happens to your character before the story begins. Basically, this is how your character has evolved into the person he or she is today. Usually, there is some meaningful event or events that shape your character’s life and personality. Sometimes the antagonist may have even played a part in your protagonist’s past. Whatever your character’s back story is it gives us insight into her motives, actions, and responses in the present story.

2. Internal Need–your character needs to acquire a personal attribute to be truly happy with themselves and their life. They might not know what it is on a conscious level, but you should. Think about things involving the self-image like courage, compassion, forgiveness, self-reliance, ability to love. Often the Internal Need is related to or is responsible for their biggest character flaw. You would not say your character needs $1 million dollars to be truly be happy, but she could very well need the sense of security that money represents to her. This may in fact be the reason why she is also misrepresented as being greedy. There will always be something in your character’s back story to support this flaw.

3. Inciting Incident–Remember the house fire I mentioned earlier? This could very well be an inciting incident. As is anything that presents the protagonist with a problem to solve, a challenge to overcome, or a choice to make. It upsets the balance and the status quo of the character’s life, and it begins the action of the story. Inciting incidents come in three types: ACTION–a swimmer is killed by a shark (Jaws), A PIECE OF INFORMATION–the Nazis are about to discover the final resting place of the Ark of the Covenant (Raiders of the Lost Ark), or even by another character called a CATALYST–Ilsa asks Rick for Letters of Transit to enable her husband’s escape from the Nazis (Casablanca).

4. External Goal–Ah, this is what your protagonist thinks will make her happy–$1 million perhaps? It’s also an action or an object that the main character thinks will solve the problem presented by the Inciting Incident. It could be something like finding that special love, rescuing someone from danger, saving the world from zombies, Nazis, or aliens. It could even be something like finding the Fountain of Youth or the Meaning of Life. Whatever it is, it requires three things to function: STAKES–if the goal isn’t met, something great will be lost (the fate of the world anybody?), OPPOSITION–there has to be someone else intent on making sure the main character doesn’t achieve it, and DEGREE OF DIFFICULTY–the goal must be sufficiently difficult to achieve so that the protagonist changes while trying to reach it.

5. Preparation–now that your protagonist has decided to go after something, he has to devise a plan or strategy on how to do it. He has to gather resources, equipment, and allies. If your main character is the Karate Kid, you would probably have to enlist the help of someone who can train him in martial arts. He’d also have to develop strength and skill not just in body but in mind as well. How he goes about this is the preparation you must come up with as the screenwriter. But you can’t make it too easy for him either. You have to create obstacles or barriers that block your character’s journey, thus allowing him to change and grow as a person. And the stronger he gets, the greater your obstacles have to become. Make your protagonist work for it!

6. Opposition–this is another fancy word for any outside force trying to prevent the main character from reaching his goal. We most often see the opposition being represented by another character called an antagonist, but this isn’t always the case. It could be a vast ocean, a force of nature, or an element of weather. If your opposition is another character, he or she needs to either have the same goal as the protagonist or one that is mutually exclusive. He or she must also have unlimited resources and be more powerful than the main character. Sorry, but even with all the preparation and strategy, the protagonist must fail.

7. Self-Revelation–this is what happens when the main character has essentially failed at all attempts of achieving her internal goal. She runs out of resources and allies, and she becomes conscious of her Internal Need. This is best represented by action rather than dialogue. No one wants to hear a character say, “I finally learned that what I really need is a sense of security, not a million dollars.” How do you know when your main character has reached self-revelation? When she tries one more time to solve the problem or overcome the challenge even in the face of failure and death. Two hours ago, she never would have done that. She would have continued to live unenlightened and remain in the status quo. (Does this sound like your life?) Think of Self-Revelation as coming in two parts: DARK MOMENT–this is the point of failure, and NEW STIMULUS–your character gets up and tries again.

8. Obsession–you may have heard this being referred to as the second plot point. Basically, your protagonist makes that crucial decision to try one last time. He focuses even more intently on the goal despite the stakes being at an all-time high. What does this say about his character? It should say something pretty special because there is nothing left to lose and yet, still, he continues. This is quite honestly the most important thing you can show about your main character. And again, it is shown through an action. It could be something as small as lifting his bloodied head off the ground or as big as getting down on one knee before an ex-lover to ask forgiveness one last time, but it shouldn’t be him saying, “I will live to fight another day.”

9. Battle–Well, what story would be complete without the ultimate showdown between good and evil, protagonist and antagonist? This time there is no compromise; it is a fight to the death, literally and figuratively. This is what the audience has invested all their emotions in, and they want to be satisfied. They want the main character to win, but even if he doesn’t, he has to achieve his Internal Need. He has to grow and change and know he has.

10. Resolution–you showed what your main character was like before she committed to solving some huge problem, before she realized what it is she truly needed to be happy, now you get to show us how she’s changed because she has it. Remember, your protagonist will never be the same person she was at the beginning of the story.

So there you have it. All the ten elements of screenwriting are intrinsically linked to character not characterization.

Exercise for the week: Fill in the details of each of the ten elements as it pertains to the “character” of your protagonist. Although you may not know what each and every obstacle will be, you should have some idea how your main character will respond to them. Try to make sure there is a pretty sizable difference between who your protagonist is at the beginning of the story and who she is at the end.

Bonus exercise: Your new protagonist encounters the old protagonist. How does he or she respond to his or her way of life, insecurities, thought-process, etc.

Dreamweaver

Even in my dreams I like to control things because, last night while in one, I thought up an idea for an adult novel. I know, what the hell do I know about being an adult let alone writing for them. But it seemed kind of cool and I ran with it. Three women, all friends and all with their own expertise, run a business. The business happens to be procuring real estate for vacation homes. One woman is an expert in real estate, another in travel, and the third in design or something. Clients would approach them to find and decorate a property overseas.

So it wasn’t exactly thrilling.

My brain then transformed the idea into three elderly women in the jewelry business who had their own reality show. Two very stark and emaciated women enter the shop looking for jewelry to complete their outfits of sheer belly dance choli tops and harem pants. Neither woman had ever worn anything that was related to monotheism.

I can’t make up this stuff.

But even when I awoke, I thought there might be something to my original vision of three friends in some kind of cool business together. What the plot could be, I have no idea.

Coincidentally, my friend relayed a dream she had of us about to fight high school zombies until she becomes scared and runs away leaving me to kill them all myself. Now this is a story! But not one I’m going to write.

These thoughts of dreams led me to come up with the writing exercise I’m sharing here.

Take one of your dreams and write about it. The homework I gave my friend, who is distraught over her fear of zombies, was to rewrite the dream on paper. I told her she could be scared and run away, but she must write it into the story that she returns to help me kill all the zombies, and we are victorious.

The dream of my designing women is a bit harder to work with because nothing much happened, but I still think there might be something to these characters if I could put them into action.

You never know, one of your dreams may end up being the next vampire cult phenomenon.