Excerpt from Creative Wordsmithing – How to Build Great Characters

Here is an excerpt from Creative Wordsmithing by Bill De Herder, available now on Amazon!

Front cover

“Characters can make or break a good story. Without attention to character, readers may not become invested in the plot. In order to better create interesting characters, let’s first talk a bit about what character is. Character is comprised of two or more traits, which may be either internal or external and may be either active or reactive.

To clarify, let’s discuss the different kinds of traits a character can have. First, traits can either be internal or external. Internal traits involve something nonphysical inside the character (spirituality, mental illness, a particular fear, and so on). External traits are physical (a scar, a limp, tall stature, a pretty face). However, these traits do not always need to be something out of the normal. Some of the most interesting characters are forged from traits that everyone can relate to.

Let’s say we have a character named Joe Average. Joe is a man who is pretty normal. He enjoys his job as an accountant (internal); he likes restoring classic cars (internal); he has a wife and kids (external); and he does not always drive the speed limit (internal). Now, think of how fun it will be when Joe Average is framed for murder and forced to run from the police to prove his innocence. By making Joe normal and placing him in an abnormal situation, the writer has significantly increased suspense and conflict.

But hold on: making a character is not as easy as that. True, two or more traits must be selected, but simply describing character traits will not create character. These traits must be active or reactive. Active traits are things the character will repeatedly do all on his or her own (like not drive the speed limit or adjust his tie unnecessarily). Reactive traits are things the character repeatedly does in response to an outside force (like going for a drive when his boss stresses him out or swearing at the neighbor when he drives by too fast on his motorcycle). These traits must influence scenes early on in the story to give the audience a sense of character. The more the story focuses on a particular character, the more influence his or her traits will have over scenes.

The active/reactive trait rule also applies to external traits. Why bother to write that the character has a wife and kids if they do not influence the story? To make it relevant, Joe Average could have to pull out all the money from a secret bank account (remember, he’s an accountant) and give it to his wife without being spotted. If your character has a limp, create a scene where he or she has to run. Traits complicate your story as well as your character.

Lastly, these traits should change by the end of the story. Plot arcs keep readers busy; character arcs keep them invested. The most engaging stories strive to provide each character with traits that shift somewhere in the plot. If Joe Average has a moustache, perhaps he shaves it off in order to not to be recognized. If your character is a coward, maybe he finds his courage in order to solve the primary conflict.

TV shows are notorious for using this trait-shift technique to keep viewers engaged over extremely long periods of time.

Breaking Bad (2008-2013), for instance, features Walter White, who begins the story as a poor, submissive chemistry teacher. By the end of the series, he has gradually transformed into a conniving, brutally violent meth manufacturer, whom no one is sure they can trust. Almost every long-running character in the series experiences a similar shift, sometimes more than once. Pinkman becomes increasingly unpredictable and complicated because he flip flops between being sober and a junkie, a gainfully employed man and a drug dealer, loyal and disloyal, a killer and a soft-hearted man. The success of this series speaks to the success of the writers’ ability to craft and shift character.”

Learn how professional writers build novels from the ground up with Creative Wordsmithing. In depth, carefully dissected analyses with extensive examples examine the tricks and tools behind plot, phrasing, details, organization, characterization, and much, much more. With a friendly style accessible by all, Creative Wordsmithing employs a new strategy never before used to understand the unruly beast of creative writing: the principles of genre analysis, a technique Applied Linguists use to break down academic writing in a scientific way. Creative Wordsmithing informs its readers with unique, exacting details of how books are written, and insight into how to create a strong draft, right from the first sentence.

Bill De Herder, the author of Creative Wordsmithing, holds an M.A. in Creative Writing from Central Michigan University and is the author of the thriller The Omega Principle (forthcoming from Wordpool Press). After graduating grad school, De Herder became a freelance editor, where he helped his clients improve their novels by breaking down creative writing into steps and commonalities. It did not take long for De Herder to amass what he considered to be a comprehensive guide of the unspoken rules of creative writing. Now, those unspoken rules, originally written in the margins of first-draft novels, have been expanded into Creative Wordsmithing: The Tools of the Creative Writing Trade.

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