I got skills, baby!

Every once in a while, some writers pull off a successful story that features an unlikable protagonist. But for the sake of this post, I’m going to assume you’re like me and trying to write a likable, sympathetic hero or heroine. And if that’s enough for you, no need to keep reading this post.

But likable and sympathetic–that could be your grandma. The milkman. Your 8th grade Social Studies teacher. A lot of nice people that you know in real, boring life. And I’m not saying those people don’t have some interesting stories in them, but c’mon–I think I want a little more than nice for my book. This is, after all, my wish fulfillment, a way to live everything I’m not. (And I’m nice, okay?) But that’s not enough. So I want a cool protagonist for my book–a kick-ass hero that makes readers pump their fist in the air and cheer, “Hell, yeah!”

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So how to pull this off? When I started thinking deeply about characterization, I remembered a writing workshop where the presenter gave a list of character attributes that make a character immediately sympathetic.

This list included:

  • loyal
  • beautiful
  • loves someone
  • is loved by someone
  • altruistic
  • having plans, purpose, or dreams (duh, your character needs a goal!)
  • courage
  • genius (I think intelligent is probably sufficient)
  • funny
  • self-deprecating attitude
  • in jeopardy (and no, not the game show–although that’s pretty cool)
  • no self-pity (no whiners, please!)

This is a great list of traits. A trait being defined by Webster’s as:  a distinguishing quality (as of personal character)

  1. a:  a distinguishing quality (as of personal character) <curiosity is one of her notable traits>

  2. b:  an inherited characteristic

So to a certain extent, your character’s traits are inherited and beyond their control. Regardless of how our personalities might or might not be determined by a genetic lottery, we like people who have positive character traits. I highly recommend The Positive Trait Thesaurus by Ackerman & Puglisi and their corresponding The Negative Trait Thesaurus. It’s a great way to come up with likable traits for your hero and unlikable traits for your villain and at the same time, balance both positive and negative in both kinds of characters so you don’t end up with a goody-two shoes cardboard hero or a moustache-twirling, evil 2-D villain.

But traits alone are not enough to a make a kick-ass, cool, hell-yeah kind of hero. For that, we need skills, baby, skills!!

Here’s a free-stylin’, random brainstormed list of skills that could, with varying degrees of success, catapult your hero into the coolest stratospheres of Cool Cat-dom.

  • Athletic skills: How about a character who excels at a particular sport? They could run fast or swim. Skateboarding, skiing, surfing, snowboarding? (Yeah, you know those are cool)

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  • Martial arts: Karate, jujitsu, tae kwon do, etc. They don’t come much cooler than Daniel LaRusso, right? (You can roll your eyes here, but you know, I did have a poster of Ralph Macchio in my bedroom once upon a time and it’s hard to let that go. And he was, after all, the best around and nothing was ever going to keep him down.)
  • Weapons: Swordsmanship, anyone? Archery? It worked for Katniss as much as Robin Hood. Or maybe even think bigger. Fighter jets. Maverick from Top Gun fo’ sho. I don’t want to think too deeply about why holding the power of life and death in someone’s hands makes them so cool, but it does.
  • Techie skills: I married a computer programmer. ‘Nuff said. Seriously, in today’s world, being way skilled in technology gives you a serious advantage and a lot of power.  Think Lisbeth Salander in Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
  • Artistic: If anything might be sexier than computer programmers, I mean, only a smidge, of course–it’s musicians. Or what about someone who can sing like an angel? A painter or sculptor or photographer. What about an amazing dancer? Now that I think about it, writers are probably THE coolest people ever. I can see you’re nodding in agreement. Bottom line, artists are cool. Just visit Greenwich Village. And then tell me what it’s like, please, because I’ve never been.

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  • Domestic skills: What?! I hear you say. Do you mean mopping like a fiend or something? No. Two words: Supermarket Sweep. Give your character mad grocery shopping skills! Okay, kidding. But cooking really well can be very cool. What about a person with a green thumb? It’s incredible how everything comes back to The Karate Kid, but remember Mr. Miyagi and those bonsai trees? That was kinda cool, right?
  • Magical/Paranormal powers: Something along the lines of Harry Potter or the X-Men. I do, however, understand where literary agent Russell Galen was coming from when he told me he’s turned off by “Master Race” stories in which characters are inherently more wonderful than ordinary people. The trick is to give your characters a villain worthy of their magical powers. Or maybe it’s not as big as a super power. Maybe it’s telepathy like Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse character. I’m reading a fun paranormal western right now, The Curse of Jacob Tracy by Holly Messinger and her cowboy hero can see ghosts. (Check out this original book!)
  • Survival skills: Bear Grylls! Okay, maybe he’s not the best example. Drinking your own urine is never cool. But someone who can build fires, track people, put up a four-star shelter with just some twigs and branches, and catch a fish with her/his bare hands is pretty cool. Maybe more Karana from Island of the Blue Dolphins or Julie in Julie of the Wolves than Bear Grylls.
  • Smooth criminal: I guess we shouldn’t root for criminals, but they can be oh-so-cool sometimes. How about Hans Solo and his smuggling? Or books like The Grifters and Fight Club? The character of Fergus in the Outlander books and his pickpocket skills. Frank Abangale in Catch Me If You Can certainly had some skills–even if it was pure nerviness.
  • Word to your Mother Nature/Mad Scientists: Can I get a shout-out for the coolness of people who rock climb, mountain climb, scuba dive, spelunk, and hike? The character of Saul in Lucy Clarke’s A Single Breath opens up an underwater world of free diving for Eva. Or maybe your character can commune with animals. Do they have a special relationship with nature? Anna Pigeon, the Park Ranger in Nevada Barr’s mystery series is one example. They could be a storm-chaser. Scientists who study the natural world. Neil deGrasse-Tyson, am I right? So cool. Albeit not a character, but a real person.

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  • Handy-(wo)man: Who doesn’t love a character who’s good with their hands? Mechanics, carpenters, general handy people. We’re talking real skills. Nora Roberts must have a thing for this because so many of her leading men remodel houses. I think her husband did something in this line of work so I get it now.
  • Speed Demons: People who do things fast. Drive sports cars or racecars, fly airplanes or helicopters, speedboats, parachute. Or spaceships like in this fun sci-fi book about a lizard pilot, Would I Ly to You by Lawdon. You know. Cool.
  • Medical know-how: Claire Fraser in the Outlander series (again, sorry I keep coming back to this series) is a perfect example. Or the woman in The Midwife of Hope River. Just like people skilled with weapons, the medical expert holds the power of life and death in their hands.
  • People skills: From charming to manipulative, this can be an incredibly powerful –and cool–skill for your character. Tyrion Lannister, though small, is packed with people skills that carry him to a position of power many times throughout Martin’s Game of Thrones series.
  • Deductive reasoning: There’s a reason Sherlock Holmes has been done and re-done to death. The dude is just plain cool. Or how about Caleb Carr’s character in The Alienist? A sharp, observant mind is the bees’ knees to me.
  • Random skills: The Taxidermist’s Daughter by Kate Mosse featured a heroine who was skilled at…you guessed it, taxidermy. A quirky or one-of-a-kind skill can make your character a cool standout. Susan Elizabeth Phillips’s Heroes Are My Weakness featured a ventriloquist heroine who was surprisingly cool in a dorky way. Think of a random skill for your character and then work it into the plot–or maybe an entire plot will stem from the skill itself. Can they speed read? Wing walk? Identify any song in less than five seconds? Make the world’s best balloon animals? Are they a champion at curling? Your imagination is the limit.

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Positive character traits take you most of the way to creating a sympathetic character, but for a truly memorable, cool character, don’t forget to give them some serious skills!

What kind of skills do you think make for the coolest characters? Let me know in the comments.

 

 

Trusting Your Reader

“What writing is…telepathy, of course. All the arts depend upon telepathy to some degree, but I believe that writing offers the purest distillation.” ~Stephen King

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I have trust issues. I can admit it. There are few people in this world I trust and when I do, it’s been hard-won, though unknowingly, by the people who’ve earned it. But when I sit down to work on my novel, I have to take a giant leap of faith and trust The Reader. (Whether or not I’ll even have readers to trust is another, and different, leap of faith for another post!)

So what do I mean? I have to believe the reader can see in their mind what’s going on in mine. I can’t send them a Youtube clip of my vision, email them a photograph, or sketch them a drawing. As deep as my love for the parenthetical runs (and it’s deep as the Marianas Trench, I’m afraid) I can’t write my book in explanatory asides. I have to believe that the magic of writing is happening. That just as Stephen King describes it, my writing is creating a very real form of telepathy between me and my reader.

Why is it important to trust my reader to be telepathic, then? Because if I don’t, I’m going to write some boring, long-ass descriptions of settings, characters, and action in my book. And the irony is that when writers lapse into these long descriptions, the reader’s eyes gloss over like the students in Ferris Bueller’s Economics class and the telepathic connection is lost quicker than cell-phone reception in Wyoming’s southeastern corner. (Or was that only my provider?)

Stephen King gives an excellent example of how writer/reader telepathy occurs in his book, On Writing. It’s such an exciting idea, I’m going to give it a go here myself.

First of all, this is an incredibly visual process for me. Movies of books play on the screen inside my mind. But before I can press “play” on this mind-movie, the writer has to set the scene for me. And that part happens in a black, empty void whenever I crack open a new story. Each word from the writer illuminates a new corner of the scene, like a flashlight painting shapes into the darkness. Too much detail and it’s like somebody hit the floodlights. I’m overloaded and the end result is I can’t see a thing.

So let’s try it:

The girl opened the door and walked inside the school.

Is that enough? I bet you pictured a girl, but how old? If you’re anything like me, you took a stab at it. You might be picturing a kid going into an elementary school. I’ll fix that:

The girl opened the door and walked inside the high school.

Okay, high school. Generic enough I don’t need to give a lot of detail. Should I describe it then? Is it important to my story to tell you that it’s made of brick? Two-storey or one-storey (this might be important, but here, it’s not) Is it an old school or a new school? Who cares! Most all of us have not only seen a high school, we’ve been in one and we know it intimately. I’m not going to waste precious words painting a picture you already know pretty well.

So what should I use my words on?

The girl pushed her electric blue hair out of her eyes, glanced over her shoulder, and slipped into the dark, deserted high school.

Okay, now you’re getting not just a picture, but a movie. My telepathy is doing double-duty here. You’re not only seeing the scene in your mind, you’re drawing assumptions. This is a kid with dyed hair (trouble maker? Or I, the writer, want you to think possible trouble maker) and she’s slipping into a school when it’s maybe not open and at night. Sounds like she’s breaking into a school!

Now I might need you to make that fast assumption so I don’t have to spell it out for you. It saves me words and makes you, clever reader, feel–well, clever.

Or I might want to take your assumption and turn it on its head. Make you feel bad about stereotyping people. She’s actually at the school to tutor some boy who’s embarrassed about needing help.

Regardless, I had to trust the reader to see and assume what I thought they would based on what was in my mind. I sent you that movie clip…with my mind. (I hope you heard that last bit in a dramatic, whisper-echo voice)

How many times have you been reading a book without enough of that visual painting going on and you had to create the world out of that void for yourself? And you wished the author had given you their world, but hey, you’re going along for the ride and then Bam! they suddenly decide to cough up a detail and it made your entire world crumble because it messed everything up? That makes me so sad. I wasn’t having a telepathic moment with my author. I was having a visual monologue in my head.

I don’t ever want to do that to my readers.

Instead, I strive to do this. Write carefully. Use my words wisely. (Avoid adverbs and parentheses) Trust my reader will make that telepathic connection when I use just the right and just the right amount of description.

Now that’s book magic.

Wish fulfillment

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“To wish was to hope, and to hope was to expect.”

Jane Austen-Sense and Sensibility

My wish, above all else, is to write the best damn story I can–one that’s epic and sweeping and pulls people into a world I created. It’s arrogant and bold to wish such a thing. To knowingly want to achieve a piece of immortality for myself by making something that flies straight from my imagination and into the hearts and minds of a captive public. But that’s my not-so-simple, greedy wish.

I remember years ago, a woman in my critique group asked our members if we’d be satisfied with self-publication if our work was successful as a result or if we needed the approval and legitimacy of an agent and traditional publisher. It was kind of a silly question. I mean, she put the caveat in there that our work would be successful so this should have been a no-brainer. An enthusiastic, “Yes!” should have been our unanimous reply. But it wasn’t. And I understood. What she really meant, the real meat of her question was, “Why the hell are you people writing?”

Is it to win approval, like she suspected? High praise from Publishers Weekly or Booklist? Is it to tell people you’ve landed a top literary agent with the kind of heady bragging rush that could only be experienced by junior high girls telling everyone about their cute, popular boyfriends. Maybe you secretly believe you’ll win the publishing lottery and be the next JK Rowling and garner a near billion dollars from your work. Sure, she said it was creepy when people started going through her trash to learn about her. But seriously, could fame be that bad? Or perhaps you’ve been to a beloved author’s book signing and fantasized about fans feeling ecstatic at accidentally bumping into you in the bathroom of a Tattered Cover bookstore like the time my tiny bladder gifted me with a chance encounter with Diana Gabaldon. Do you write dreaming of the day your expensive pen glides across the title page of your published novel as you dole out the autographs to a l-o-o-o-ng line of readers?

Well, yes, all those things would be wonderful. (Except people going through my trash and discovering I’m the opposite of a wine snob) But those aren’t the only reasons most of us writers write. Some people like to stand up and though they may not literally do this, I know on the inside they are, put their hand on heart, lift their chin, and declare in a loud and sure voice, “I write because I must. Because I can’t not write.”

Huh? I hate double negatives. And there’s also a whole disorder (hypergraphia) about compulsive writing so be sensitive, okay? Joking aside, it sounds very noble to say such a thing, but it drives me crazy because it’s like circular logic. It still leaves us with the question, “WHY must you write?”

And possibly there’s as many answers to that question as there are writers.

I know why I write. I write to bring the world in my mind into the mind of my readers. I write because I must–in order to get closer to that wish fulfillment. It’s my lottery ticket at a chance to be a JK Rowling or a George Lucas. How real is the wizarding world of Harry Potter to you? How much is Star Wars a part of your personal history? How flipping amazing to have been walking around with Harry Potter and Luke Skywalker in your head and your head alone–and now most of the planet knows who they are!! (Yeah, I needed two exclamation points because that thought gets me so excited!) Will I really reach millions of people? Doubtful, but not impossible. (Whoohoo!) And that’s why I keep writing and wishing and hoping and expecting to reach people.  Maybe my readers will only ever be my husband, my kids, my critique group, and a few close friends. But man, I just made a world in their heads that never existed. And that is nothing short of a miracle.

More on that in my next post about Stephen King, telepathy, and trusting your readers.