Posts Tagged how to write characters
Getting to the truth about strong women and troubled teenhood – novelist, playwright, essayist, writing coach Martha Engber @MarthaEngber
Martha Engber is a wordsmith in multiple ways. You’ve met her briefly – when she asked me to write a piece about my horse. Her most recent release is a YA novel, Winter Light, but that’s just one aspect of Martha’s art and work. So here she is in full – editor, playwright, poet, novelist, essayist, writing coach, journalist.
Roz What’s the core Martha, your recurring themes, the character types you’re most interested in? And where did they come from?
Martha I grew up in a nuclear family of two older sisters, a mom and a dad. My mom strongly believed women should be independent financially and in action, a sentiment with which my dad agreed. As such, my sisters and I mowed lawns, played to win, stood our ground in arguments and otherwise always believed females can do almost everything males can, other than pee standing up, which I’ve since learned females more talented than myself can actually do.
Roz I can see this will be a fun conversation. Sorry, you were saying…
Martha So running through all of my stories are girls and women such as 15-year-old Mary Donahue in Winter Light, i.e., strong in the way of strong females.
Throughout life I’ve been annoyed, no end, by cliched women characters who act like men with boobs. They talk tough, they fight like ninja, they’re brought into stories to be tortured or killed as a means of providing male characters with that final burst of motivation to win the day.
Roz Give me the better version…
Martha Women are awesome at working together. They’re flexible both emotionally and creatively. They’re willing to help one another and ready to try, and try harder, and try harder once again using all available resources and every ounce of passion and intelligence. And no, they don’t hate men. Quite the contrary: they work with males, while at the same time always angling to create new paths for moving forward.
My next book, for which I’m seeking a publisher, is about two young Native American women warriors of opposing tribes. How they challenge one another can only be described as very female.
Roz Tell me about Winter Light.
Martha It’s a story about what I witnessed in high school during the blizzard year of 1978-79. The characters are dealing with alcoholism and addiction.
Martha I used my yearbooks and memories about fashion and music, and research to refresh myself regarding the politics and cultural events of the time.
Martha Actually I had no intention of writing a YA novel. I wrote a literary story.
I grew up when there was no “YA.” My favorite books were those that didn’t pull any punches: To Kill a Mockingbird, Jane Eyre, The Outsiders, Lord of the Flies. Such stories left me with lots to think about and opened my eyes to the strife others suffer.
Both as a teenage reader and as a writer, I hated the idea of an author dumbing down a story for me in order to make parents feel less vulnerable to problems that take place somewhere within all families.
While I didn’t witness alcoholism and abuse in my nuclear family, I heard and could see those harsh stories taking place almost right next to me. Stories that weren’t cute or cliched or focused on a sweet teen romance. Instead, they involved brutal truths about our species, that if we’re abused and unhappy, we pass on that misery and ugliness. Only those who are strong, smart and get a helping hand rise to overcome their lot in life.
Initially I was disconcerted to learn my story would be categorized as YA, just because of Mary’s age. But I’ve since been encouraged by two facts: 50% of YA readers are adults, and many contemporary YA books take on tough topics, such as The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas.
Roz You describe your work as literary. There must be a hundred definitions. What’s yours?
Martha Thank you so much for asking! Over the years, I’ve honed this definition: a story for readers who like to puzzle over human nature.
Roz You have another novel, The Wind Thief.
Martha The story literally arose from the fact I love winds of all kinds: breezes, gusts, headwinds, tailwinds, etc. I began to imagine winds as sentient, with different personalities and motives. I gave that belief to the main character, Medina, who allows that fantasy to envelop her in an emotional cocoon to protect her from a tragedy she suffered when she was a girl.
The research was fascinating, which is one of the reasons the book took me 10 years to write, though honestly, I seem unable to sufficiently plumb the depths of any story in a shorter time period. I typically work on a story until I don’t see even one more connection I make or one more angle from which I can view the characters’ actions.
Roz I love this. I’m also a long-haul writer. You’ve also been a journalist, with hundreds of credits in the Chicago Tribune. Any specialities?
Martha I enjoyed writing medical stories, since science is so fascinating. I also enjoyed the features that took me on one adventure after another. I’ve toured a haunted hotel; spent time talking to ice fishermen in sub-zero weather; met Imelda Marcos, the infamous Filipino First Lady who accumulated a vast shoe collection; and witnessed amazing dance and music troupes that include the Kodo Drummers from Japan.
Roz I’m envious of those experiences. What rich ore for your work. Speaking of rich ore, you’ve distilled your editing knowledge into a book on character development. Why characters?
Martha Characters are the story!
If writers develop their characters properly and let those characters lead, those protagonists will write an exciting plot.
Most readers only know if they like your book or not. If you were to question them closely, though, they’ll comment first and foremost about whether they love your characters, meaning they find them consistent, believable and admirable.
Like most writers, I failed at most of my initial characters. Then I realized throwing readers a lot of details about characters tells a lot about them, but doesn’t give readers what they need most, the one detail that explains how a character ticks. And that’s the concept of Growing Great Characters From The Ground Up.
Roz What writing craft question are you most commonly asked?
Martha At the beginning of workshops I ask participants what questions they’d like to have answered, and this is almost always on the list:
How do I find my protagonist’s motivation?
That leads directly into character development, which ends up looking like this:
character’s defining detail —> what they’re most afraid of —> what they’re motivated to do (run away from that fear!)
The plot consists of pushing them toward that greatest fear by placing ever bigger obstacles in front of them until they run straight into their worst fear. Boom!
Roz The arts are something we never truly master. There’s always more to learn. Even if we’re also teachers. Where do you do your learning?
Martha I think creative brains are like bottom-feeding fish: we’re constantly sweeping up every morsel for possible nutrients.
Biggest problem-solving moment: in semi-sleep just before I wake up. Most significant moments of enlightenment: while deep into editing a scene in which the characters are only inches away and I can see and hear and feel them.
Greatest generation of ideas: art museums –
Martha … and the journeys of other creatives, especially podcasts like Hidden Brain and documentaries like My Octopus Teacher that explore how humans think.
Roz So what’s your writing process at the moment? Does it change from book to book?
Martha I continue working until the story gets less terrible.
Seriously, every story begins as a huge pile of dung. Then it’s a matter of using my shovel to find that stupid, irritating, tiny, brilliant gem within.
My writing life would be a lot simpler if I stuck with one style and genre. Instead, I write poetry, experimental short stories, journalistic/opinion/personal essays, historical fiction, etc. But I like that variety, and understand each story deserves its own shape.
Roz What are you working on at the moment?
Martha A memoir. Only within the last few months have I managed to wrestle the damn thing to the ground. What’s emerging is a poetry-prose hybrid that captures my personal upheaval. While not perfect, the story now has its own quirky, appropriate dwelling.
Secondly, I’ve started a book for writers based on my workshop regarding show vs. tell, and what a misconstrued piece of advice that is.
Roz Oh, it is. I explained it in one of my books and an author wrote to me and said: thank goodness, I’ve never understood it before.
With editing, journalism, workshops and running an author career, how do you find time for your own creative writing?
Martha Juggling time commitments is so tough! I want to do everything before I croak, which makes me busy, indeed.
I most likely have undiagnosed Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), which means I have a high need to move. I do so every day: hiking, biking, running, surfing, etc. Energy expended, I can then sit down to think in an orderly manner. I’ve followed that behaviour pattern since I was a kid: dance around, then write.
Creative writing is my zen, meaning the deep place I go to meditate on life. Once I’ve taken in information about the world through my other activities, that writing time is when I get to chew on the ideas and pull out every possible nutrient, whether for a poem, short story, book or other project.
In a good day, I’ll get two hours of creative writing, one-and-a-half hours of marketing and one hour of writing planning (workshops, new story ideas, submissions). That allows me the other hours to work out and train my clients. I’m also a fitness instructor and personal trainer.
Roz Tell me about that. I’m also a gym fiend. (And guys, you can find Martha’s fitness blog here.)
Roz Body Pump, running, dance, horse riding…
Martha It sounds like you and I need to work out together sometime! After this pandemic, come visit.
Roz I used to suffer from RSI but discovered that the more exercise I do, the fewer problems I have with shoulder, wrist and back pain. Also, it’s an utterly necessary complement to the world of imagination and words. Of course, I think about work while exercising. Nothing stops me thinking. But the thoughts come differently when my blood’s up. If I’m chewing on a story problem, I take it for a run and I find a solution that’s more aggressive and daring than if I sat at a desk… I found the midpoint of my last novel that way. (Here I wrote about writing and exercise.)
How about you? How does fitness professional Martha merge with writer-journalist-editor Martha and how are they different?
Martha The beauty of a creative brain type is that creativity sweeps across every moment of my day. Every choice I make, whether going for a run, making chocolate cake or mapping out a story, are all just variations on the need to squeeze out every possible moment of enlightenment.
The trick to accomplishing that goal is to daily move amongst a healthy swirl of activities, because each feeds the other.
The body is very much a chemical lab, and each body represents a unique mix of chemicals. No matter your capacity for movement — people are different in what they can do — some type of movement is necessary to circulate blood and oxygen to the brain so we think better and have the energy to create.
And when we create, we make the world a better place.
Roz We do. Thank you, Martha.
If you’d like more concentrated writing advice, my Nail Your Novel books are full of tips. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. If you’d like to support bricks-and-mortar bookstores use Bookshop.org. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, find my latest newsletter here and subscribe to future updates here.
What’s going to happen in your story? That might seem to be the key question. But there’s a question that’s even more important – who does it happen to?
In today’s episode, we talk about how to devise characters for a novel. Characters who’ll create the most interesting story for your plot situation, characters who’ll surprise the reader, characters who aren’t necessarily based on your own experience… it’s a huge subject.
Asking the questions is independent bookseller Peter Snell. Answering them is me!
Stream from the widget below or go to our Mixcloud page and binge the whole lot.
If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, find my latest newsletter here and subscribe to future updates here.
Dave has recently been developing a sitcom, which has led to interesting conversations about the characteristics of the form. To get a feel for it, we have been watching Seinfeld – and especially the season where they write a TV show ‘about nothing’.
At the risk of sounding precious, this phrase ‘A show about nothing’ seems to be the key to the entire sitcom form. Not just Seinfeld, but sitcoms generally. And more widely – which is why I’m bothering you with it here – I think some of its principles could be used to make all fictional characters a little more lifelike.
So – in a sitcom we generally watch characters in everyday life, doing their thing. There aren’t any big changes in the status quo (and if there are any coming in Seinfeld, please don’t tell me as we’re only on Season 4). The pleasure and entertainment comes from watching the characters deal with endless small stories and challenges, which are mainly caused by their personalities. (Yes, even in Red Dwarf.) It’s essential that the characters become pretty exasperated with each other, but only up to a point – no matter what happens, they continue to rub along together.
The mad neighbour Kramer isn’t going to move to a different block (or if he is, he’ll be back by the end of the episode). George louses up the TV deal with NBC with some agonisingly inept negotiating, but Jerry continues to work and hang out with him.
Equilibrium of irritation
In Seinfeld, as in most sitcoms, an abiding principle is that life goes on, relationships go on (think of the 1970s BBC sitcoms like The Good Life). Sitcoms are about people being themselves and accommodating each other in an equilibrium of irritation.
Of course, certain characteristics are exaggerated for comedy, but even so, the sitcom is very true to life, and it struck me that we can use the ‘equilibrium of irritation’ to add richness to characters in a story that has a bigger dramatic arc.
Obviously your main characters will go through a big change, but there will be other aspects of life in the story that don’t. These are sometimes underdeveloped – usually because we’ve been looking at the big picture. But instead, they could cause strife that is colourful, charming, exasperating and human. This could give plausible complexity to characters, and depth to the ordinary grift of their lives.
Again, Seinfeld is deliberately amplified for comedy – the neighbour is madder than most neighbours the rest of us have. George is a walking disaster. Seinfeld world isn’t intended to be 100% realistic. But there’s one aspect that I find very realistic – the way the characters rub along day to day.
The magazine episode
Here’s an example. On a magazine I worked on, I had a boss who I’ll call Jim. Jim was often alarmed at my zeal for rewriting articles to make them zap. He warned me gently that if I did that, the reporters might become slapdash because they knew I’d do a final polish.
I’d get in a huff, saying ‘I can’t leave the article in that state – look at all that dull repetition’.
Jim would say: ‘Just skim it to check it’s usable. We have a 120-page issue to get out, we don’t have time for fine editing and we need to leave the writing to the reporters’.
Fuming cloud over Roz’s head.
Jim’s other sub-editor, who I’ll call Wendy, had worked there for 10 years, knew all the routines, and worked according to Jim’s system. She skimmed the copy for obvious bloopers but didn’t wield the scalpel. But Wendy sometimes missed important mistakes and indeed Jim would often be exasperated at this.
And here we have the Sitcom of Jim. Life would never run smoothly. It had these two opposite characters, who created low-level strife on a weekly basis, and who he probably beefed about to his friends – Roz who was going to upset the system and make the well-trained reporters think they could hand in rougher copy. And Wendy who knew all the systems but was slow and unreliable. And Jim just had to get along with us as well as he could.
The Sitcom of Jim had no arc or end. It was a set of personalities and values that aligned in some ways and clashed in others, and was utterly intrinsic to who we were.
The Sitcom of You
Life is full of dynamics like this, with families, friends, colleagues… All these people in our lives need certain amounts of circumvention and handling. There’s the close friend you can’t tell about your work troubles because they’ll simply tell you to get a different job. There are the old friends who can’t be invited to dinner with certain others because they irritate the bejesus out of them, or have politically incompatible views even though you love them dearly, or whose dietary preferences are too bizarrely restrictive to inflict on anyone else. (I note there’s a Seinfeld episode called The Dinner Party but I haven’t seen it yet – no spoilers, please.)
We are all playing the balancing acts of sitcoms in many areas of our lives, and these relationships will keep ticking along in the same constant way. This push-pull accommodation is the stuff of life. And in books, it’s often missing, especially with supporting characters – and so relationships might read as bland and undercooked.
Of course, you have to tailor this kind of material to fit with the tone. I’m not suggesting you add comedy willy-nilly, or deluge the reader with distracting trivialities. You may only need a very small amount of this kind of material. Indeed you might just keep it as developmental notes that let you write the characters with more knowledge, and keep it 90% under cover. Adjust to taste and the needs of your genre.
But this kind of material can create characters that live and breathe on their own, with independent life – instead of plot zombies.
And you never know – as with all developmental work, the sitcom jottings might blossom into something significant.
Thanks for the Seinfeld apartment pic Tony Hoffarth on Flickr
There’s a lot more about character development in the Nail Your Novel characters book.