Character Development 1: Developing your Lead

As a part of my series of Virtual Writing Seminars, I’d like to start a series of blogs on character development today. This series of posts has no definite end in sight, and may go on for quite some time. It will focus on how I develop characters both for a series and for a single novel or short story, and will hopefully give some insight as to why some insight into why some of your characters pop and others… Don’t.

With this post I’m going to focus on the most important character you’ll create: your lead. While other characters may be more entertaining or even interesting, your lead is the hook on which every other event in your story is hung. It’s his story (pardon the male pronoun… Nothing against female protagonists).

The first thing to make sure of is the your lead is three dimensional. I know that sounds obvious, but you’d be surprised how often it’s not. A lot of books and movies feature one-note characters, and it absolutely drives me insane. Think of yourself. Do you act the same way towards your mother as you do your partner? Or to your friend? Or your boss? Of course not. We all wear different hats at different times, and so should your character. Sit down with a list of all your characters and figure out how your lead interacts with each of them. Does he love them? Does he hate them? Is he attracted to them? I don’t know. But you should.

This also leads into having the character fleshed out at the start of the story. It really draws a reader in when characters are fully formed, real people. Take Victor from Infinity. He’s enigmatic and we know little about him… But I do. I know everything about him. I even know where he went to high school. I’m not telling you that yet though… I simply know it ahead of time so that he can react appropriately to the situations I put him in. The result works well. There’s a reason we, as fans, love characters like Mal from Firefly and dislike characters like Bella from Twilight… It helps when the writers knows what they’re doing beforehand.

That said, a big part of your character is dialog. This is what makes your character believable, and almost all suspension of disbelief hinges on it. Nicolas Brenden once said of Buffy the vampire slayer that: “It’s realistic. Well, the things that happen aren’t realistic but the ways people respond to them are.” (I’m paraphrasing from memory, apologies if it’s off). What he’s saying is true: it doesn’t matter that a dragon just came out of the floor. If your character responds to it realistically it will be bought.

On the flip side, if you claim your character is a scientist and they get every scientific fact they say wrong, his (and your) credibility is gone.

Also, if you say they’re “grim” but all they do is joke around, you’ve undermined yourself there too. (side note: it’s better not to SAY your character is anything, just to let your reader decide for themselves… But that’s a rant for another time).

Another point is to not let them be passive. This is one that’s not so obvious. A lot of professional writers do this, myself included. I consider Xander (in the first Black Womb book only) to be passive. It’s something I’ve tried to resolve for the international release. For those of you who haven’t read Black Womb (what’s wrong with you? Lol) a good example is Jennifer Connoly’s character from The Strangers. These characters are frustratingly passive. They don’t affect the plot, the plot happens TO them. This isn’t just bad character development, it’s bad storytelling. Make the character the active part of the plot. Make their actions affect the story and the world around them. If it’s a crime story, have him hunt bad guys rather than simply react to their actions. If it’s a love story, make the character be proactive in his relationship rather than just reacting to their partner. This, above almost anything else, makes engaging stories.

Once that’s all done, be consistent in how you’ve portrayed them. Nothin comes out of left field more than a character acting in a way that doesn’t jive with the rest of what you’ve told us. That said, they can’t remain the same. The characters have to move over an arc. They have to grow and be different at the end of the tale than they were at the beginning.

Hopefully I haven’t been too overwhelming with all this, and that you’ve got a great character in mind. Don’t be afraid to base them off yourselves or even other characters in fiction either, there’s nothing wrong with that.

Hope your stories are coming along great.
Matthew LeDrew

Cake-day!

Ellen Curtis
Ellen Curtis

Yesterday was Morgan’s birthday party, so after work I was whisked off by Liz and Hedley to Melane’s for pizza. As usual, Matt’s side of the family was out in full force for his sister’s party. I have to say, it was nice seeing everyone, as work has forced me to be absent for the last few family gatherings. It’s hard to believe how far all of us have come since this time last year. Georgia and Brandon had a beautiful little baby, it was last year this time Matt decided to go back to school, Matt and I are settling into shared living arrangements, and for once, everyone is in relatively good health.

All in all, it was a nice day. Morgan loved her presents, and I lucked into picking up things for her that she liked and needed. I even got some nummy gluten-free pizza. And I heard a funny story about Matt, but really it would be cruel to post. My sweet boy probably wouldn’t be too pleased.

Anyway, after a long day of work, with school in the morning, a girl needs her rest! Hope your days are just as fun 😉

History of Black Womb 1

20110911-113654.jpg Alright, so this isn’t so much a “writing tips” series of posts as it is a “how I did exactly what I did” post. It’s something I’ve been wanting to do for a long time, and I’m finally getting around to doing it. A lot of this has been touched on before, in the ‘from the author’ sections of the books and such, but I really want to get into it here as much as I feel comfortable.

I’ve been creating for as long as I can remember. Some of my first and fondest memories are of playing superhero with myself or my friends, but most notably, with my father. A lot of my memories from that age (I’m talking 3-5 here) involve my father. At some point he brought home an old dos-based computer which could function as a word processor and little else and taught me how to write files and save them. I think I was ten.

I vividly recall two stories I wrote early on. One was a crossover between all the Disney Afternoon characters (something I still contest would have been a good idea) and the other was a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles story in which the Turtles finally defeated Shredder and the Technodrome, but Donatello lost his arm (because my action figure of Donatello had lost his arm, and I’d longed for an in-story explanation).

Black Womb, 2012 edition, Matthew LeDrew, Engen Books
I may have written more like that, but I know that not long after that I started writing stories about a Superman-esque character named Alexis Temple. This was it, the movement from imitation to actual, individual thought. I wrote ten books (to my recollection), and they took Alexis from his early teenage years into early adulthood. It felt like time to stop then. And I thought I was done.

Then one day when I was supposed to be studying I pulled out an excersize book and started to plan more stories. If anyone read Wizard Magazine while it was in print, there were price guides in the back that would list each issue and the basic contents of them. And there was a code, like ‘Amazing Spider-Man #1’ would be: ‘ASM 001: fa (first appearance) Chameleon, J Jonah Jameson, Daily Bugle.’ So I plotted the whole Alexis Temple series as though it were comics. Then I kept going, continuing his adventures even though I’d never written them… I was plotting.

I plotted several more storylines after what had previously been the final one. Around this same time, I was asked by my Drama coach to draw each person in our acting group for a mock-playbill we were making. Then like now, I’m not much of an artist, but I drew everyone as best I could, then drew everyone as superheroes. I recall this big group shot of everyone looking mean into the camera, all 20 of our little drama squad. People had robot arms and capes and laser eyes. I even drew myself in, but that was the only one I didn’t like… So I shaded him in all in black, except for the eyes.

The next time I sat down to plot, I added in the following line: “CHS #75: Alexis meets Sara, Cathy, Mike, Grendel and Black Womb.”

There’s more to it then that of course. There always is. But for all intents and purposes, that was the beginning. It didn’t look anything like what it does now, but it served as the foundation for what would become the longest project of my life.

I had started writing Black Womb.

To be continued 😉

Never Look Back
Matthew LeDrew

My Writing Process 2: Starting

Okay, so you’ve got your plot done. The details are ironed out, and you have at least some idea what the beginning, middle and end will be. It doesn’t have to be concrete, but it’s good to have a skeleton. What do you do now?

Start writing, clearly. But before that, you should make sure you’re not going to get stuck first. A lot of people writing novels tend to make it to around 20,000 words and then get hung up. We want to make sure that doesn’t happen to you. Your story it great, and it deserves to be told. Just like parents, we want to give our story the best chance we can before sending it out into the world.

The best way to do that is to start out strong, and have a lot of characters and tricks to fall back on.

First of all, choose your method of storytelling. This seems simple, but it’s really not. There are dozens of possible points of view that your story can be told from. Common ones that everyone knows about are first and third, but there are lots of others. Second person prose, though rare, can be engaging.

I find most people starting their first novel have the urge to write in the first person (that is, using I). Personally I found this very difficult in the beginning of my writing career. That could just be me, but I notice a startling amount of manuscripts coming into the submissions folder written in first person. Sad as it is, a high percentage of them are either never completed or… Well, bad. That sounds mean, I know. Hate saying it.

So you can obviously do what you want, but I’d suggest a specific type of third person storytelling called “Selective Omniscience.” Maybe in the future I’ll do a series on writing in the first person if enough people are interested.

So let’s assume we’re using “Selective Omniscience.” In that, the narrator knows everything there is to know but is choosing what information he relays to the reader… Basically, the narrator is you. Even then, the voice you use is up to you. Will you be comical? Gritty? Neutral? Totally up to you. The benefit of this perspective is that it gives you the ability to move the focus from one character to another, much like different scenes in a movie. In fact, thinking of it as a movie helped me a lot in early works.

Okay, so next make sure you have solid characters. Get to know each of them. Some people do writing exercises as each character to accomplish this. I prefer to talk to myself as though I’m in a scene with them. The important thing is, have a strong feel for them before you start so that they’ll act in believable, reasonable ways.

Make sure there are enough ideas for events scattered throughout your plot. If you only have 1-2 ideas for minor events, we’re likely talking about a short story. Plenty of things should be happening.

Finally, write the first scene. This is all important. Shakespeare (according to an old Prof of mine) used to start every play with something exciting to capture the viewers attention up front. The same is true here. Look at my series’: Black Womb starts with the woman fleeing from her captors. Infinity starts with a girl being stalked by a strange creature. Then, in both cases, the action quickly shifts to a normal setting where we introduce our main characters. That’s not a coincidence. It’s carefully formulated to bring the reader into the story, just like those scenes that happen before the credits roll on many television dramas.

Hopefully this helps. I can’t give you much except for a good start… After this it’s all very, very fun. 😉

Never Look Back
Matthew LeDrew

Back to the Books

Ellen Curtis
Ellen Curtis

This week at Engen Books saw myself and Matthew back to school for the fall semester. Now don’t get me wrong, I love school, but there are things I’d rather be doing. Say, working on the tentative international re-release of Compendium for November. Or the upcoming Engen Universe book of short stories. Or the TR project.

What you can definitely expect in the coming weeks will be some brand new Engen Bytes, which we will be filming next Wednesday. As always, we’re trying to keep people informed about some of the new things we’re working toward.

Basically, I’m just going to be brief today. The early rise for school and the late nights of sick-Matthew (apparently the boss isn’t impervious to the common cold) mumbling and coughing are catching up to me, and quite frankly I need some time to relax! So, until next time, and until we get some Engen Bytes online, I’ll take off!

Happy reading!

2012 Anthology series information leaks

Engen Books plans the next leg of it’s in-Universe publishing schedule to be released this April, with the publication of an as-yet unnamed anthology collection with stories taking place within the Engen Universe of stories containing the Black Womb series, Infinity, and Compendium.

The anthology will feature many stories taking place throughout the Engen Universe, both with established characters and new ones.

Engen author Matthew LeDrew commented on his blog on September 2nd that he will be writing at least three stories for the collection, and that writing the shorts has opened up some new doors for him.

“Sometimes when I’m writing a short it’s less about story and more about atmosphere, which isn’t the way I normally approach things,” said LeDrew. “I’m usually of the mind that character, above all else, comes first; then plot, and then wherever the chips may fall. But as I write more and more short fiction I’m learning that these rules are often very different between the two.”

In addition to LeDrew, fellow Engen author Ellen Curtis is said to be contributing a tale of her own, as well as Ink’d Well Comics creator Jay Paulin. Other authors are pending, with both newcomers and established authors being rumored to be attached to the project.

“Until the ink is dry, I’m not saying anything,” said LeDrew. “But I think it’s going to be a lot of fun.”

The next Engen-Universe release is Inner Child, the eighth book in the Black Womb series, to be released this November at the second-annual Hal-Con.

42 Webs Review

Infinity, Matthew LeDrew & Ellen Curtis, 2010 edition, Engen BooksSometimes I read stuff and it makes me blush. The following is a review of Infinity lifted from 42webs.wordpress.com.

“Quick survey: who wishes that they had a superpower? That’s right – everybody does. We all want to have some supernatural ability. Whether it be the ability to fly, teleport, or even the all powerful brick-vision, we all wish we had some ability that put us above the average person.

But what would the world be like if we actually had them?

This is an issue that was examined in the latest book from Engen Publishing. The book, called Infinity, is penned by the Engen all-star team of Matthew LeDrew and Ellen Curtis. Infinity tells the tale of a small band of seemingly regular people who discover they are in fact nowhere near.

The book begins down a very traditional path, making sure to hit all of the required items on the ‘Urban Meta’ (42 Webs exclusive) genre checklist.

Enigmatic mentor: check

Mysterious School: Of course

Growing conspiracy: You betcha

The difference is in the writing skill of the two authors. Is lesser hands the story could have become bland and uninteresting but with the skill wordmanship (I swear that’s a word) we have a stellar story that doesn’t feel old or rehashed. The building mystery of Victor, Port Haven and the growing conspiracy is touched on in the book just enough to wet your beak and leave you wanting more much like how Lost or Morning Glory would tantalize us.

A crucial scene in the story, and one of my favourite, is a poker scene. Without giving much away our characters are participating in a crucial poker game with the life of an innocent in the balance. The trouble with many card games in books is that they tend to be very dry and drag on, the inevitable importance and tension of the game lost to the details. Infinity manages to keep the tension strong while not letting the game go by the wayside. It felt reminiscent of Ian Flemming’s writing in Casino Royale.

One of the benefits, and strengths of this story, is how the written work was separated. The two authors each had their own character that came together as the story progressed. The benefit was that the characters felt entirely different. Some times when a writer creates multiple characters they have a tendency to blend together, to be similar and to sound identical to each other (Joss Whedon). With the two authors sharing the writing responsibilities we see a stronger variation in the characters.

Another notable plus with Infinity is the smoothness of how the two writing styles fuse with each other. Often with joint projects one person writing style dominates the other but that isn’t found here. LeDrew and Curtis writing styles compliment each other’s perfectly, their individual characters becoming the strength that counteracts the others weaknesses.

All in all a powerful book that tackles more issues then just powers and conspiracies, it also tackles issues like spiritual infinity and the responsibility of those with power. This is a must for fans of X-Men and similar titles.”