Tag Archives: Hank Quense

Character Development

Award-Winning Author Hank Quense

Nothing tells the reader the author is an amateur quicker than reading about a make-believe, cardboard character, one that isn’t a ‘real’ person.

In this article we’ll cover the mental or inner workings of characters. These are the attributes that turn a character into a ‘real’ person. There are a number of areas involved and it will require creativity and hard work to complete the character development. These areas include the character’s personality, his dreams, his aspirations and any mirages that affect him. The character’s inner philosophy is also an important element.

Let’s briefly address each area.

• Personality: Here is a definition from the American Heritage Dictionary: The pattern of feelings, thoughts, and activities that distinguishes one person from another. If you scan the web, you’ll find a bewildering array of web sites about personality including some heavy-duty stuff from doctors. Basically, it seems to break down into two areas: personality types and personality traits.

According to one theory, there are sixteen types of personality. There are four types in each of four categories: analysts, diplomats, sentinels and explorers. Your character has to be one of sixteen. For more information see http://www.16personalities.com/personality-types.

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Within these categories, there are many personality traits. You need to define your character by giving him or her a personality trait or two. Is your character affable, charming, pompous, unfriendly? There are many personality traits that can be used. Once you select one or two, do a web search on that trait to ensure you can write convincingly about that type of personality. There is more information about personality traits here: http://examples.yourdictionary.com/examples-of-personality-traits.html

• Dreams (aspirations): What does your character want out of life? What does he want to do when he grows up? What does she want to achieve? This attribute can influence how the character acts and can provide a measure of conflict. What if she wants to become an engineer, but has to decide whether to stay in college or drop out to help her sick mother? This situation will provide inner conflict.

• Memories: These are influencers that characters have. Memories can also be used for foreshadowing and to build up internal conflict. How? Consider this example: as a five-year-old, the character almost drowned. Ever since, she has had a healthy fear of open water. At some point in the story, she sees a man drowning in the middle of a lake. What does your character do? Does her fear of water cause her to ignore the man and walk away? Does she search for a boat to use in the rescue? Does she suppress her fear and dive into the lake?
This inner conflict can provide a memorable scene in the story. Remember though, a heroine has to do heroic stuff. It would be acceptable for a villainess to let the guy drown, but a heroine will have to try to save him, or she won’t be believable.

Another example will concern a man who was punished as a child by being locked in a dark closet. Now he fears dark basements, caves, alleys and any unlit place. You can see how this memory and foreshadowing can lead to exciting scenes and gripping internal conflict.

• Mirages: These are fantasies the character tricks herself into believing. Want an example? Most politicians thinking they have the slightest chance of getting elected President. Another example: your character pursues a goal that he can’t possible achieve because it is a mirage.

• Descriptor (or voice): This item isn’t the same as the way the character speaks, it’s a brief description or summary of the character and the way he thinks and acts. This isn’t easy to develop but I believe it’s essential to have one for the major and main characters. Once you have the descriptor, it will help you write accurately about the character and his thoughts, his actions, his reactions.

Examples may be the best way to explain the descriptor. A banker can be the voice of greed and will endlessly talk about money and financial concerns. A psychopath is the voice of rage, always ready for an argument or fight. A warrior could be described as the voice of chaos. An accountant can be the voice of precision.

• Philosophy: Everyone has a personal philosophy. You have one whether you realize it or not, whether you want one or not. I don’t know if a personal philosophy comes with your birth package or is a product of your environment and your upbringing. To me, how it happened isn’t as important as recognizing that it did happen. My personal philosophy is skepticism with a healthy dose of cynicism. Since all people have a personal philosophy, it follows that your main and major characters should also have a personal philosophy.

Once you assign a philosophy to a character, limitations instantly follow. For instance, if your character’s philosophy is individualism, you can’t have him acting hesitant or asking other characters for help and answers. An individualist character tends to do stuff by himself. He’s decisive, not wishy-washy. Similarly, if the character is an optimist, you can’t have her bad-mouthing everybody’s ideas and suggestions. That’s the way a pessimist will act.

As you can see from this discussion of inner attributes, building a memorable character requires a lot of creativity and work. However, the effort is worth it and your readers will appreciate it.

The material in this article is based on my book Creating Stories.

© Hank Quense 2017

Character Development

Award-Winning Author Hank Quense

Building a main character in a story requires a bit of creativity and a lot of work.  Let’s talk about two topics on character development that don’t get much attention: limitations and biographies.

1. Limitations

As you build the characters, you may notice that limitations crop up.  Perhaps, a character can’t do what you want him to do because he is too old.  An elderly person, for instance, can’t do many things a younger person can do. You are becoming limited in what you, the author, can do and what your characters can do or can not do.  These limitations or restrictions will also occur with plotting and motivation.  The more the story design develops, the less freedom you and your characters have.  As an example, if you build a character’s physical aspects so that he has a serious limp, you can’t have him outrunning the bad guy.  Similarly, if your character dropped out of high school, he can’t use the laws of thermodynamics to develop the solution to the plot problem.  This is one huge advantage to building a complete biography; it gives you a better understanding of what the character is capable of doing.  The biography will expose the limitations the character will have to deal with.

2. Biographies

A biography for the character serves a dual purpose.  Besides providing background information, it allows the author to understand the character and that understanding is vital when dealing with the character in stressful situations.

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For a short-story character, I write a few paragraphs of bio material.  For the main character in a novel, the bio may run to more than a page.  Other novel characters will get less of a bio.  The less important the character, the smaller the bio I create.

The strange thing to many new story writers is this: most of the biographical material won’t show up in the story so why bother developing it?  The answer is that the bio allows the writer to understand the character and what makes him or her tick.  The better the writer knows and understands the character, the better the writer will be able to predict how the character will respond to situations and stimuli.

For instance, suppose someone walks up to your character and punches him in the mouth, or a beautiful woman unexpectedly kisses him.  How does your character react to the punch?  Does he punch back?  Does he walk away?  How does the character react to the kiss?  Does he get red in the face?  Does he kiss her back?  Does he develop a stammer?  Your detailed biography will guide you in writing the character’s response.  If you don’t have the bio material, the character’s response is really a guess.  In addition, the writer will have difficulty keeping the character’s response consistent when other situations occur.  Your second guess may be different from your first guess.  Believe me, the readers will pick up on it.

There are a number of biographical elements the writer should address.

Family: Are his parents alive?  Does the character have any siblings?  What is everyone’s age?  Are any siblings married?  Where did the character grow up?  Did the character have any unusual childhood experiences?  What were they?  Do these experiences affect the character?  Is the character’s family stable?  Or is it chaotic?  How does this affect him? 

Education:  Schools, degrees, favorite subject?

Career: Jobs, military experience?

Adult experiences: Married?  Divorced?  Children?

It’s the author’s job to come up with events that affected the character’s life and outlook. After that, the author must incorporate this information into the story.

This article is based on material in my book Creating Stories.

© Hank Quense 2017

Creating Stories: The Uses Of Setting

Award-Winning Author Hank Quense

The story’s setting gives the readers a sense of time and location. This allows the readers to begin building images in their minds. The scene settings (which are subsets of the story setting) give additional image building information to the readers. But setting does much more than provide image building clues.
These uses are listed below.

1. The setting of the story should give an indication of the type of story the reader is about to encounter and this should be conveyed early to the reader, the earlier the better. Ideally, this should be the opening paragraph in a short story or the first few pages in a longer work. Is it a mystery set in Victorian London? Is it a story of survival set in war-torn Iraq? Are those vicious aliens on their way to Earth? The reader expects and has a right to know this stuff as early as possible. Don’t disappoint the readers. They may put the book down and never open it again.

2. There are two types of setting in a story. First, there is the overall story setting and second there is the settings used in scenes. The scene settings are subsets of the story setting. For instance, if the story setting is the Sahara Desert, then scenes can be set on sand dunes, at an oasis, in a sand storm or at a deserted fort.

3. Consider your characters acting out the story on a stage. Behind the characters, instead of the scenery typical with plays, there is nothing but white panels. The people who paid money to see the play would be dismayed by the lack of scenery, so too your readers will not like it if your story doesn’t have the appropriate setting to back up the characters.

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4. The setting used in your story has to be accurate. Don’t try to set a story in Manhattan’s Central Park if you haven’t been there. Likewise, the French Quarter in New Orleans is unique and shouldn’t be used by anyone who hasn’t walked the narrow streets.

5. On the other hand, if you develop an imaginary location, you can describe the area any way you want. If you use a backdrop of a historical period in the distant past, none of your readers will have been there, but you’ll still have to do research to get the setting accurate. You can’t use St. Paul’s Cathedral with its great dome in London right after William the Conquerer became king of England. St Paul’s wasn’t built yet.

6. An effect of establishing the setting is the placing of limitations on the author and the characters. For the author, a space ship means he shouldn’t have the characters using swords and landline phones since these artifacts are from bygone eras. Your characters are also limited. A character in the Old West can’t have knowledge of computers or smart phones, unless he’s a time-traveler.

As you can see, the setting can have a major impact on the reader, especially if it isn’t handled correctly.

This article is based on material in my book Creating Stories.

© Hank Quense 2017

An Overview of Story Creation

Award-Winning Author Hank Quense

Let’s assume you are a new (or inexperienced) fiction writer.  You probably know that creating a story requires a great deal of work and thinking.  You may not know that the work involved is the same whether you are creating a short story, a novel, a play, a script or even a memoir.

“How can that be?” you ask.  Simply because a novel, a script, a memoir, a play, a short story are all stories.  And no matter what type of story you have in mind, each requires a number of common elements such as characters, plots, scenes, settings, character arcs and more.

The only difference between these types of stories is the output.  What the manuscript looks like, in other words.  The manuscripts for a novel and for a play will look very different, but the process of creating those manuscripts is exactly the same.

Let’s put that issue aside and discuss a different topic.  Stories are the result of three separate creative processes:

  • Ideas
  • Story design
  • Storytelling techniques

Let’s discuss each one of these processes.

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1. Ideas

A mistake many rookie writers make is to start writing a story when they have only a single idea.  While a single idea can be the genesis of a story, no story can be written from a single idea.  A short story needs perhaps a dozen ideas while a novel requires many more than a hundred ideas.  The writer needs ideas about the character development, plot events, the setting, the character arc and the scene designs.  To gather all these ideas requires time and a great deal of thinking.  This is where a notebook (a real one or a digital one) comes in handy.  You never know when a great idea when pop into your head.

2. Story Design

What is story design?  It’s the process of developing all the story elements such as characters, plot events and so forth.  To put it another way, story design is the where the writer incorporates all these ideas into the story.

I’m a planner (as opposed to a panster) so I spend a lot of time on story design before I attempt to write the first draft.  In most cases the story design process for a novel consumes three months or more.  A major portion of this time is spent on determining the scenes I need to get the characters from the start of the story to the climactic scenes at the end.

3. Storytelling

No matter how great your ideas are and no matter wonderful your story design is, if you don’t have the storytelling skills to hold the reader’s attention, your story is doomed.  Storytelling involves the use of a number of techniques that include point-of-view, foreshadowing, show-don’t-tell, stimulus & reaction, dialog vs exposition among other topics.

One storytelling skill that isn’t discussed much in writing books is the development of a writing voice.  Writers can’t tell a story by using their speaking voice: they have to develop a separate and distinct writing voice.  The reason for this is that our speaking voice tends to be boring.  Very boring.  Want proof?  Eavesdrop on the conversation between a few strangers.  I’ll bet you it won’t hold your interest for long.  So imagine trying to read a story written in a speaking voice.

I believe that once a writer understands the creative processes required to produce a story, the work can go forward more easily and more smoothly.

This article is based on material in my book Creating Stories.

© Hank Quense 2017