Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Tutorial Tuesday - Building Characters (Repost)

My schedule has gone crazy as of late what with prepping Alien Interludes to go out in 10 days.  So I'm reposting an earlier tutorial this week.  Next week's tutorial will be canceled entirely as will many of my regular posts.  Instead, I'll be serving up excerpts from the new book.  On to the tutorial, which first appeared late June, 2011.

When I get an idea for a story I'll jot that idea down.  However, before I write the first sentence of the story itself, I create the main characters.  For me, the greatest plot cannot survive poorly realized heroes and villains.  Well-developed, multi-faceted people will bring your book to life as nothing else can.

It's not as simple as giving your hero blond hair, blue eyes, and a love for pizza.  I get to know my characters better than I know myself.   Getting acquainted with them inside and out gives them depth, turning them into fully realized characters that sometimes write the story for me.  In fact, they've been known to hijack my work.  And in every case, they have turned it into something better than what I originally planned.
Using examples from a book I'm currently working on, I'll show you how I build a hero from the ground up.  Allow me to introduce Bacoj, an alien male from the planet Kalquor.

Physical attributes are easiest to start with, so that's where I go first.  Height, weight, body frame, and face get me started.  I frequently use the appearance of a celebrity  or someone I personally know as a guideline to help me get a good visual of the character.  I'll even reference a stranger in the coffee shop if he fits the character vibe I'm going for.

Here are Bacoj's vital stats:
Height:      6’10”
Weight:    255, all muscle
Age:           35  (Note:  this alien's life expectancy is 250 years, so he is still EXTREMELY young by his people's standards)
Hair:          Wavy blue-black to mid-back, soft-textured, sweeps back from his face
Eyes:         Blue-purple with slitted pupils like a cat
Face:         Chiseled features, heavy brow, handsome, unlined (slightly modeled on Hugh Jackman)
Mouth:     Sensual lips, easy smile
Body:        Thick shouldered, deep chested, sculpted frame, thick heavy thighs

Next, I take a peek in the character's closet and list what's in there, including accessories and shoes.  A character's style can tell you a lot about them.  In Bacoj's case, he's on assignment on a planet not his own, and he doesn't have a lot of closet space.  He keeps it simple with his blue-trimmed black uniforms and heavy gray boots that reach to just below his knee.  Off-duty in his quarters, he prefers to be nude. This simple, completely utilitarian wardrobe also tells me Bacoj is not a vain man who is overly concerned with his appearance.  He prefers to be noticed for his actions and abilities.

Now we move on to mental and emotional makeup.  I find picking out imperfections first and foremost is an excellent jumping off point to getting to know my new friend.  Yes, your hero must absolutely have imperfections.  He's a cardboard cutout of a person without them.  Everyone is flawed and watching your hero struggle to overcome his flaws is a huge chunk of the entertainment for your readers. 

Bacoj's imperfections:  Young and inexperienced.  He is the leader of his clan but not comfortable with this role yet.  He clanned Nobek Japohn recently, a forceful warrior who is a few years older.  Bacoj lets Japohn make many of the decisions because of the man's strong personality.  He sometimes regrets clanning his Nobek.

See?  We already have a conflict brewing outside of the plot line, spicing your story nicely.  Now you can get into the character's strengths.  Bacoj is also smart, protective, brave, loyal, and puts others' wellbeing ahead of his own.  He has an excellent sense of humor and works hard.

Also illuminating a character are his habits and hobbies.  Bacoj likes to pull his clothes off and bathe as soon as he gets home from work.  It helps him relax and transition from duty to clan life.  Bacoj's favorite hobby is building miniature motorized models.  He also studies mechanical engineering in his free time, which is the career he was pursuing when war interrupted his life.

Next I want to know about this man's home and living conditions.  Think about how you would view a character living in a singlewide trailer furnished with thrift store items.  This opens up new insights.  Why does he live this way?  Is he hiding his wealth from greedy family members?  Showing everyone else how money doesn't really affect him?  Ridiculously frugal because he fears not having enough in the future?

Because Bacoj is on his way to his assignment on a planet far from his own, his home is currently a government-owned space shuttle, which he shares with his two clanmates.  The quarters are cramped with space at a premium.  There are no superfluous items because of this, allowing few opportunities for personal expression.  Bacoj is the shuttle pilot, so the cockpit is where he spends most of his time.  Because I already determined he likes to build motorized models, he probably has an example of his work somewhere in the cockpit; perhaps even a small work in progress when the ship is on automatic pilot and he has time to indulge himself.

Birthplace and date are also important to note.  Region and cultures vary widely as do the mindsets of certain decades.  A character born to hippies in the sixties is going to have a vastly different outlook on life from one born in the technologically booming decade of the eighties.

Bacoj is an alien born on a technologically superior planet at a time when his species is on the brink of extinction.  Outside of his mother and the mothers of his clanmates, he has never met a woman of his own people because females were hardest hit by the virus that decimated his race.  Because of this rarity of women, Bacoj, like other Kalquorian males, is bisexual, though his DNA predisposes him to being heterosexual.

What I want to know most about my characters are their motives.  What is it that drives them?  What do they desire most?  In Bacoj's case, he wants to become an engineer building state-of-the-art space vehicles, have the confidence to assume leadership of his clan, and find a female mate for his clan.

So in a nutshell, here are the main points I use when building a character:

What's in the closet:
Home and living conditions:

Now that I have the basics of my hero, I next devise a timeline of his life from birth to the point where the story begins.  This is where I discover the lifechanging events that shaped him into the man he is now.


Year 0:    Born on Kalquor, has one mother and three fathers--a Dramok (leader), Nobek (warrior/protector) and Imdiko (nurturer)
Year 2:    Dramok father dies
Year 5:    Identified as a Dramok - leader personality.  He has no example of this personality at home because of his Dramok father's death.  This will impact his confidence as clan leader in the future.
Year 10:  Interest in flying, pursues as hobby with parents' support, above average intelligence noted, strength especially in engineering
Year 12:  First sexual experience with fellow Kalquorian male his age.
Year 13:  Starts building small motors and models that run under own power
Year 15:  Builds own mini-shuttle out of spare parts, placed in special program to capitalize on his strengths
Year 17:  Engineering apprenticeship
Year 23:  Becomes journeyman engineer, meets Imdiko Vax who will eventually become his clanmate.  Vax is easygoing and supportive; he does not challenge Bacoj's tendency to lead.  Vax takes Bacoj to planet Dantovon for first sexual experience with a female (of another species).  They will continue to vacation on Dantovon from time to time.
Year 28:  Enters advanced engineering program two years ahead of schedule because of his aptitude for the work
Year 31:  Clans with Vax as their careers begin to offer stability.
Year 33:   Meets Nobek Japohn.  Pursued by Japohn who wishes to join Bacoj's clan.
                War breaks out between Kalquor and Earth.  Bacoj, Vax and Japohn are drafted into the military;  Bacoj becomes med-evac pilot.
                Pressured to clan with Japohn so they can be kept together in duty assignments.                                          Clans Japohn, discovers Japohn has a habit of doing what he wants instead of following Bacoj's orders
Year 35:  War with Earth ends, assigned to fallout containment detail.
                  Crashes in Fort Lauderdale, Florida; story opens

So here's the thumbnail on Bacoj:  He's a big, muscular, altogether yummy alien.  He's smart, principled, and able to handle himself.  He's also newly clanned to a very dominant man he doesn't know terribly well who has a habit of overruling him on important decisions.  Because of his inexperience and youth, Bacoj doesn't always feel up to his responsibilities and fears making bad decisions.

This may seem a huge amount of work, and it can be.  Will I use all the information I've gathered about Bacoj in my book?  No.  Some of it will never show up in the story at all.  But I now know every nuance of Bacoj's personality and how he'll act in any situation I throw at him.   

This in-depth method of discovery means I have never been at a loss when writing from any character's point of view, nor do my characters do anything at odds with their personalities.  Taking the time to thoroughly develop them makes writing easier for me in the long run.

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