Posts Tagged ‘Character’

What makes a story tick? What gives a tale that spark of life that sets it apart? What connects a reader to a story? What drives a story to a conclusion?

The answers are: Theme. Setting. Character. Plot.

In essence, a writer toils over words, sentence structure, and descriptions to discover the HEART OF THE STORY.

We can find definitions for those four concepts. Grab your Webster or click over to dictionary dot com. But knowing what they are and enriching them within a story are completely different and will not enrich your story. Today is Valentine’s Day, when heart décor runs amuck, when flowers are gifted to loved ones, when red and pink and white abound, we writers turn to what we love most: the written word.

Just like a heart with four chambers, a story has four chambers. Amy Deardon, author of The Story Template, calls these four chambers ‘pillars’. To high school writing teachers they are the four basic elements. No matter how you look at it – chambers or pillars or elements- a heart doesn’t work without all four chambers pumping perfectly.

A tent requires four pillars or the strength of the structure is weak. The four elements? Well, if you’ve read my novel,Gateways, you know how much I love the natural elements :)

And so it is with stories.

Think of the stories – either stories you read or movies you watched – that stick with you past “THE END”, past the rolling credits. What did you carry away from that story? That is the heart, the still beating entity that becomes a piece of us. Yeah, that sounds a little Frankenstein…sorry, but that was a great book!

The hidden (or not so hidden) message of the story. The lesson. The moral. The purpose the author has in writing. The essence of understanding behind the tale. How do you strengthen the theme of your story? First, you should identify it.

What is the backbone of your story? Or, continuing with the heart analogy, what is the blood, that source of life? Identify the theme your story will share. For example, in Frankenstein, the theme is creation, the act of creating outside the divine. It’s recycling to the extreme. But don’t stop with just one theme! Frankenstein is deliciously rich in themes (some of which are stretched pretty far by grad students) such as: revenge, desire, love, faith, truth, fear, loss, family, justice, nature vs. nurture, solitude, sympathy… the list goes on. Goggle “Themes of Frankenstein” and you’ll see what I mean.

Then, what is the opposing force to that theme? If the character is seeking revenge, what might make that revenge impossible? If truth needs to be told, what circumstances would keep the lie alive? If the character wants justice, how might that never be possible? Think of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis. The four siblings are sent to the country to avoid the dangers of war, but end up smack dab in the middle of a war in a magical land. Let’s look again at Frankenstein. He wants to create a life, but the responsibility to care for it and it’s monstrous fate are too much. The creator abandons his creation and refuses to create for it something that would appease it – a mate.

Examples of novels with a strong Theme: Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austin, Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls, The Underneath by Kathi Appelt.

I don’t know about you, but the term ‘setting’ in relation to writing brings back nightmares of high school writing classes. Time and Place. Referring back to Deardon’s book, The Story Template, she uses a beautiful term: Story World. That has a lovely fantasy feel to it – the genre I first loved. What is the story world of your novel? Write down everything you can about where and when your novel takes place. Include notes about the weather, the culture of the people, the clothing, lifestyles, common complaints of people in this story world. Does your story take place in a real place at a real time in history? If so, gather as many photographs and paintings as you can and decorate the walls of your writing space. Is there a type of music that would fit in that place and time? Make yourself a playlist and play that while you write.

Examples of novels with a strong Setting: The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien, The Never Ending Story by Michael Ende, The Secret of Nimh by Robert O’Brien.

Who is your story about? Take the time to do some extensive writing about this person – either fictional or a historical figure – you must know him intimately (you know what I mean!) before you can tell his story. It really doesn’t matter if she’s tall and slender and has long auburn hair. If the reader doesn’t know a little about her, they won’t care what happens to her in the story. The physical characteristics help create an image in the reader’s mind, but the personality, the choices a character makes drive the story.

Write the backstory. Create a tale from the character’s childhood. What were his parents like? Did she attend a boarding school? What was your characters worst nightmare? Was she raised in a faith-filled family? What happened during his first week of his first job? Many writers hesitate to spend this much time writing something that won’t show up in the novel, but just like dating before you marry, you must know his story to make sure that your future together won’t be hindered by his history. And backstory is just that – the story in the background. If you feel compelled to use some of it in the novel, that’s great. But only use 10% of the backstory.

Examples of novels with a strong Character: Diary of Bridget Jones by Helen Fielding and Where the Heart Is by Billie Letts

Oh, plot. How I love to write thee…and how I hate it when it becomes too real. A fellow writer was recently lamenting her list of troubles, but I saw only conflicts that had ‘best-seller’ written all over them. That’s the advantage of a third-person point of view :) Plot, by definition, is a series of connected events (think cause and effect) that take the main character from the old-self to the new-self. The conflicts the character must overcome are closely related to the theme, affected by the setting, and determined by the personality of the character.

And that is the clincher – all four chambers must beat together in order to bring life to the story.

How do you ensure a well-functioning heart of a story? Think Cardiac Rehab.

This next exercise is the therapy to keep the Heart of your Story strong. After you make notes on all four chambers, draw connections between them. How does the location of the story bring conflict to the plot which the character must overcome? How does the character’s driving need in the story bring conflict to the plot and touch off the fuse to revealing the theme? (Coming soon – a graphic organizer for the visual learner/writer.)

If this is intriguing and if you need more speicifics on these four elements, I highly recommend the following books:

The Story Template Amy Deardon

Story Engineering Larry Brooks

Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook Donald Maass

These are three of my favorites. I’m not receiving any benefits by suggesting them to you – just being a good neighbor and sharing what has been helpful to me :) If you have other recommendations, please leave it in the comment section. For, as much as I have written, I’m hope to always be a student to the skill.

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I’d like to give a big shout of thanks to all the people who help me quiz my children on their academic standings. No, really, I mean it! It’s so helpful to bump into people in the middle of the day, who upon learning that we home-school, proceed to ask, “What’s the capital of New Jersey?” “What do you call an insect without a backbone?” and my personal favorite, “I can buy five cans of tomatoes for $4.00, plus I have a coupon for 20% off my entire order. How much will the tomatoes cost?”

Sarcasm aside, I’m both puzzled and thankful for this phenomenon. Academics are crucial to the success of anyone who wishes to have a decent career. But math doesn’t hold the same importance for a writer as it does for someone interested in becoming a doctor. Words are lovely when they are crafted into a well-written blog post or story, but they do little to organize finances. To think that one pop-quiz in the middle of the grocery store or at the park is going to determine the quality of home-education is ridiculous.

What matters in the overall education of a child is character development, faith formation, and perseverance in the face of adversity. I’m still waiting for someone to ask the girls, “What is the most valuable lesson you are learn from being home-schooled?” I’m quite certain “I know that Trenton is the capitol of New Jersey” will not be the answer.

This is a slice of what homeschooling looks like, but missing in this mini-slide show are the field trips, the science lessons, and vacations that are rooted in history lessons. And I have yet to capture a picture of the emotional bonds that homeschooling creates, but rest assured that when I do, I will post it here.

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Another short story to share, this one is for adults – not that there is anything grossly inappropriate, but the overall theme is intended for the adult mind.

The idea for this came from to me at the Calvin College Festival of Faith and Writing 4 years ago while I sat in a room full of writers who were (and likely still are!) haunted by the presence of characters we had yet to write.

As always, enjoy and please share your thoughts.




Patricia wouldn’t leave; didn’t take the hint that she wasn’t welcome anymore. My plan was simple. I’d let her crawl around inside my mind as I took notes, and wrote a story; one that pulls at the heartstrings and screams of hear-me-roar feminism among the Texas dust that craves Wild West justice. But this short meeting has grown into a week-long sabbatical and I am her constant host.

It all started with an idea. I wanted to look at the world through the eyes of a woman who had to fight for life; not in an effort to save herself, but the lives of her children. Not a hip-holster hero with a Colt, but a woman in a skirt ready to fire her fierce rage. That’s when Patricia came to me. She had been raised here in the country, dodging tumbleweeds and side-stepping rattlers, when she followed him to the city, a setting where an angry drunk was her persistent predator.

Patricia preferred the wide open frontier where her ancestors coaxed crops from the earth. On the back porch of her childhood home, she spent evenings watching the trees along the property line tickle the bellies of distant clouds.

Nothing is pruned in the wild, she said. In the city, everything is cropped and managed.

“The city is its own jungle and you survived,” I reasoned.

Perhaps, she sighed, but not all rattlers slide on their bellies.

She had one exciting moment and I learned all about it during our walk and through dinner. I had taken all the notes I needed and was ready to start writing. It was her relentless need for reminiscing that became the antagonist of my existence.

Around three in the morning, I woke to her voice calling me to the window.

Look at the stars! she said. In the city, you only see the strongest. Here, every little shining beauty is dancing. I haven’t seen the Milky Way since I was out catching fireflies with my cousins. It seems bigger now, the Milky Way, you know? Everything else seems smaller: the house where I grew up, my old school, my mother. But the Milky Way is bigger.

The next day, she followed me through my routine with awe. I made a meal, did the grocery shopping, and went to the dentist. When she saw something she thought I might like, she nudged me lightly.

See that man? He reminds me of my father. He liked to wear wide-rimmed hats. Quite old-fashioned, you know. He spent his youth as a ranch-hand and always liked those hats.

At the grocery store she pulled me over to the meat counter.

Steak. I had steak all the time growing up. Daddy kept cows. In the city, steak was a luxury, used more on black eyes than on plates.

It was easiest to ignore her at the dentist. With my mouth open and full of scraping instruments, I just let her thoughts drift around me like laughing gas.

At home I read some of my previously published work hoping she might understand that I had what I needed from her. But no. The old stories fueled her, kept her talking about the single dimension of my characters and asked what their life had been like before the climax.

“That’s too much back story,” I reasoned. “It’s just this moment that the reader cares about.”

She made no response. Maybe she was starting to understand.

I was wrong. The next morning, I heard her voice in the bathroom over the din of my shower.

I just saw something….

“Get out!” I didn’t let her finish. “I’m in the shower!”

I just thought you wanted to see the—

“No!” I toweled off quickly, rubbing my skin so hard it left me red. “No! I got what I needed from you. Leave me alone.”

She stood there. I see, she straightened her skirt and tucked her hair behind her ear. I see. I’m sorry. I thought you wanted to write my story.

“I did. It’s done.” I showed her a paper copy of what I had sent to the magazine.  “I only wrote about the incident with your husband.” I felt ashamed. There was something more to this story and I had failed to grasp it.

It’s my fault, she said. I could have lived a much more interesting life, but I had to raise his children and feed them all on his salary. There wasn’t time to do anything else.

“But that day,” I started.

It wasn’t heroics or anything like that. It was just farm life falling into the city; he was like a coyote after my chickens. When the chickens are in danger, you defend them. That’s all it was.

“You did a great thing.”

It is a mortal sin.

“You protected your family.”

But I did not trust Him. I took matters into my own hands. His Word says to not kill. I didn’t do that. I took a life.

“It was instinct.”

No! her voice echoed loudly in my mind. It was a lack of instinct. All my life I had prayed for help, for patience, prayed for the flour to make an extra loaf, for the meat to be on sale. But when it really mattered, when I needed Him the most, I didn’t pray at all. I acted without one thought of Him or His laws.

I didn’t know what to say. I had called on her to learn her story, to absorb as many details of that night when she saved her family from her husband’s rage. But I had missed the point. She wouldn’t be proud of her actions. Other people might call her a hero, a female warrior in a small southwest town, but that’s not what she would feel. How could I have been so foolish to believe that an act as grave as murder, even as a means of saving her family, would not leave her feeling powerful, but weak? My Patricia has something I did not. Remorse.

“What did you do after? Before the police came?” I wondered.

I knelt next to him, trying to ignore the kitchen knife in his chest. I prayed to God to forgive me. I asked him to forgive me. But he just stared. Fear leaves a trail of blood that no amount of tears will ever wash away. My story is finished.

“No.” I said. “I understand now. I can change your story so others will understand.”

No. I’ll leave, she said.

“Where will you go?”

Patricia pointed to the first page of my manuscript. Here. This is before I experienced the cruelty of wrath and its aftermath. She smiled, I’ll spend the rest of my days in my back-story.

And she left my changed mind.

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