The Writer's Life

Jody Lebel
Published on: February 2012
(Characters and Setting by Jody Lebel, Author) So, you've decided to write a book and you have now chosen the genre. What is it? Mystery? Romance? Thriller? Whatever you have decided to write, keep reading books by successful authors to see how they put their novels together. There is a pacing, acts if you will, much like a movie. We will discuss pacing at a later date.

I promised we would talk about characters and setting. Characters and setting go hand in hand. You can't write a southern belle mystery without a southern belle, or a Western without cowboys. That's not to say you can't throw in an alien or a vampire if that's the way you're leaning.

All stories have settings, in other words where the story plays out. Every piece of your setting has to be created by you, planned down to the last detail. There has to be a time and a place. The time can be today, yesterday or some time in the future. Whatever your choice be sure to keep your actions and props true. For example there were no cell phones in the 60s, so don't have your protagonist using one. Nothing brings a reader out of a story faster than mistakes. And once a reader is pulled out of a story, they often put the book down.
the writers life,author
The setting can be a town, a few houses on a street, or an entire planet depending on your story. Will it take place in the United States or in Iran? Be sure your characters act right if they're in a foreign country. Research the clothes, the accents, and the customs of the area. If you throw in a few for-eign words, do them sparingly. The reader doesn't want a language lesson. A setting is more than a backdrop though; it's one of the things that pulls the reader into the story. Make sure your setting is rich with the five senses. Let us smell the clothes the old woman is hanging on the line, and see the riot of roses falling out of the window boxes on the street.

As you move through your story you need to keep the reader grounded as to where we are and when we are. If you're going to jump ahead a few weeks, be sure everyone is 'on the same page' so to speak. Your reader needs to be anchored with the setting so they can focus on what is important to your characters as scenes unfold in your story.

Some settings are so popular they become as important as one of the characters. The ship Serenity in the series Firefly was considered a tenth character. Remember the hotel in The Shining? If you decide your background is going to play a more prominent role in your story than mere location it is probably best to decide before you start writing.

It is very important that the reader falls in love with your hero/heroine. A reader must worry and care what happens to them. Without that, your story will be flat. All good books are character driven. You can have the best, most wonderful story in the world, but if the reader doesn't care if your hero dies or not, they won't read the book. The hero drives the story. (And I use the word hero, but it could be a man or a woman.) He has to have a visible goal, which is his outer motivation for what he does, and an inner goal, which is some-thing in his past that is holding him back. The inner turmoil could be a longing or need, a deeply held desire that he is afraid to go after; or an old wound from the past that your hero suppressed but is still affecting his life; or a strong belief such as if I love I will be hurt; or a fear of experiencing the pain he has felt before. You must have him conquer this inner torment by the end. The hero has to grow in order for you to reach a satisfying ending to your outer story.

Let's say our hero was hired to blow up a building. In this version we don't know anything about him, his background, why he even took this type of job. We don't like him very much. If he sets the bomb and completes the job, that's not a very interesting read. But what if he falls in love with the lady who works in the coffee shop on the first floor, and finds out there's a day care center on the 10th floor with 42 little kids in it? Now, he's conflicted. He saw kids being hurt in the war and he wants no part of this. He tries to back out, but the bad guys are pushing him to complete the job or else they're going to hurt his own daughter. Now we have a good story going - and the reader's attention.

There are five ways to initially draw your reader to the hero. Chose two to work with and be sure to include them in the first few pages of your book. Hook the reader right away. 1) Create sympathy, make him the victim of something or some undeserved misfortune. 2) Put him in jeopardy, make us worry about him. 3) Make him likable or liked by others. 4) Make him funny. 5) Make him powerful in some good way.

In order to create a memorable character, you, as the writer,
must know him inside and out. Know what makes him tick, what makes him mad, what makes him act out. Then you will know how he will react when you put him in danger, or threaten to ruin his business, or have his lovers leave him. Create a background story for him. There are lots of character check lists you can find on the Internet, but don't spend too much time on it. His favorite color is prob-ably not all that important to the story. Focus on the items on the list that carved out his personality and/or made him the man he is today.

Think out your characters. Did they have a crappy childhood? Were they rich? Poor? Mom was a drunk? Dad was in jail? Did they have a privileged life? Were they in the military and saw despicable be-havior? Did they take part in it? All these things will shape who they are and how they deal with the situations you're going to put them into, and how they will react to others, especially the love interest. Make them interesting and not clichéd. They can be tough but remember we have to like them, so don't make them too cold. Give them a soft side. A hero always does the right thing, even if his behavior is not always perfect. Make sure your character cares passionately about what is happen-ing. Give him emotions. If he doesn't care, why should the reader? Also give him a flaw. Nobody is perfect and we hate reading about perfect people. We want to relate to the character; we want to become them. And we want him to solve his problem.
Just a quick note on naming your characters. Don't use a name so difficult the reader can pronounce it. Don't have a John and a Jake and a Jerry. Too confusing! Use names that fit the personality and the time you are writing in. For example very few young girls are named Gertrude today but that was a popular name in the 20s.

Next month, we will talk about plotting. Happy reading and writing.
On a scale of 1-10, how inspiring did you find this article?