Getting to Know You

More new stuff on the website: All my book tour appearances are now posted. Just click on News and then on Appearances and you’re there. But to give you an idea, the cities I’ll be in or near are Chicago, Salt Lake City, L.A., Houston, and Boston. I’ll be in Orlando and Milwaukee too, but no signings. This came up the last time I toured, so I’ll repeat that I don’t simply sign at a signing. I read from the new book, talk about it, and take questions before I start signing, and generally there’s time to get a little acquainted. Hope to see some of you!

Also new on the website: The first chapters of all my books have now been posted, so you can take a look. Let me particularly direct you to my least known novel, Dave at Night, which may be my favorite.

Since I’ll be touring for the next two weeks the appearance of the blog is iffy, but I’m going to try to keep it up.

On March 3, 2011, maricafajaffa wrote, …I have this habit of jumping right into the plot. In the story I have been writing, the characters are introduced with a small amount of background and then suddenly the main plot line is introduced. I have tried to stretch it out but I haven’t been able to work it out properly. Please help me. You can read my story on one of my blogs:

and maricafajaffa later added:

    I’m not sure if it is bad, but I just get the feeling that I’m getting into the story too quickly and there isn’t much for readers to really get acquainted with the characters.
Then Charlotte commented, @maricafajaffa– sometimes I find you need to write a bunch before even you can get acquainted with the characters. I know I’ve found that it really doesn’t matter how much I figure out about my characters before I start writing (I’m a total fan of the age/gender/height/weight/likes/dislikes/etc forms), because once I’m in the story, they often end up going off and doing their own thing anyway. I guess what I’m trying to say is that there’s always time to add more about who your characters are in the beginning AFTER you’ve written enough to know that yourself. There’s a huge difference between the first draft and the final product. You don’t have to get it perfect on the first try. Heaven knows I never have. 🙂
    Hope this has been helpful…

Thanks, Charlotte. Very helpful, I believe.

maricafajaffa, if you’re worried about us readers, we aren’t likely to care about the characters until they’re in at least a tiny bit of trouble or somehow at risk, no matter what their backgrounds are. Let’s imagine Irena, an abused teenager, for example, in a foster home, living with Mr. and Mrs. Nembler. Irena has her own bedroom and she’s on the phone with her cousin Jeb from her old life. She tells Jeb how much better her situation is now, and the conversation reveals a lot about her. We hear her voice. She says “You’ll never believe” frequently. She tells Jeb about the shopping spree her foster mom took her on. From the elaborate description we get Irena’s fashion sense. From her enthusiasm we realize that her fashion sense has rarely been indulged. We sympathize with her. If she asks Jeb what’s going on with him we see she cares about other people and we may begin to like her. But the stakes are low.

Suppose she ends the phone call and lights a cigarette. Uh oh. A seed of worry has been planted. Is she allowed to smoke in her room? Do her foster parents know she smokes? Is she sabotaging her wonderful new place? We may wonder where she got the money for cigarettes. When the cigarette dwindles to a nubbin she puts it out between her thumb and forefinger. Youch! How self-destructive is this girl? The conversation with Jeb has put us on Irena’s side, and now we’re worried. Now we care.

A million other things can pull us in. The Nemblers’ youngest son, theirs by birth, can announce he doesn’t want Irena living there. Mr. Nembler can enter Irena’s room and close the door behind him, enough to tinkle our alarm bells. Another foster child can warn Irena about Mrs. Nembler’s temper.

I’m naming mundane but potentially important problems; however, you don’t have to go that way. Irena can go to the bathroom in the middle of the night. She glimpses Mr. Nembler in the living room watching TV. She knows it’s him because he’s wearing the same University of Kentucky sweatshirt, only his human head has been replaced by the head of a horse.

I agree with Charlotte. We need to put our characters into a situation and imagine what they might do. Sometimes they’ll take matters into their own hands and act independently seemingly without our intervention. But more often, especially at the beginning of a story, we have to consider the options for them and pick. If we have a sense of the story we’re telling, we think of possibilities that will take our character where we want her to go. Best not to force her. We don’t want to make her do something strange just because our plot needs her to.

If we ourselves don’t have a clue about Irena, we may have her do something generic when the action begins or behave as we would, and the results may not be as interesting as we’d wish. If I were Irena I’d sneak out the back door and go to the police. But first, being a cautious soul, I’d peek in the police station window to make sure the cops don’t have horse’s heads too. That’s me and one version of Irena. One of my friends adores horses. She’d probably imitate a whinny and march right in and strike up a conversation. Another friend would be likely to question her own sanity. Sometimes it helps to think of actual people you know to develop options. What would your best friend do? How about your daredevil cousin? Your older brother? Your mother? When you finish running through actual people, imagine other options. Might Irena wonder if Mrs. Nembler has a horse’s head too? Might she go back to her room and push the bureau against the door? And so on.

Whatever Irena does in this situation, or in any of the other scenarios, begins to establish her character for both the reader and the writer more vividly than any amount of background can. Once you have a start on her – once she begins to act – then future options are narrowed. The girl who marches into the kitchen to speak to the horse is unlikely to run away when Mrs. Nembler comes out of the bathroom with the head of a sheep in place of her human head. Irena may bolt, but if she does, you have to explain.

The events that follow also depend on what Mr. Nembler says or does, how his personality shapes up and the personalities of the other people in the family, possibly the town.

I’ve written this before, that sometimes I start with a character’s back story because I need to know his history before jumping into the present problem, but the back story gums up my beginning and the book doesn’t get off to a clean start and I wind up amputating the back story. So I think it’s generally fine to get into the action quickly. And, yes, I agree with Charlotte that in revision you’ll be better able to see what you need in order to introduce your characters. When the whole sweep of your story is behind you, your perspective clarifies.

You’ve probably guessed the prompt. Write about Irena in any one or more of the difficulties I suggested. She’s self-destructive; a member of the family doesn’t want her; Mrs. Nembler has a terrible temper; Mr. Nembler, and possibly others, is transformed at night. He doesn’t necessarily have to get a horse’s head, either. The animal could be far less benign. Also, you can give Irena problems I haven’t even dreamed of.

Have fun and save what you write!