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Great Characters, Great Beginnings

PART ONE: Building Characters
by Matthew R. Sypniewski, B.A., M.A. (English Communications)


Both example (A) and example (B) say the same thing, but which one makes you want to read more? Which one gives a better picture of the characters involved? If you said example B, then you have the idea.

The reason for this is characterization. In creative writing this is needed to give the reader a clear picture of what's happening in the story. (A) only tells you that two people are nervous. It doesn't tell anything about these men. (B) gives a sinister picture that (A) can't paint, because it is much too general. (B) is from the gothic tale, Red Rain, written by yours truly, and has all the scary and suspense elements you would expect. (A), on the other hand, isn't scary. In all creative writing, it's necessary to make the characters seem alive. In a novel, characters live, die, and make love. I you understand them, you'll feel emotions of fear, sadness, happiness, or hatred. Now we will move on to how you can make this work for you.

GETTING IT DONE:

Everyone has a picture of their characters in their head. The hard part is showing it on paper. We've all heard our parents or grandparents say this or that "builds character," or "He's such a character." What does that mean? Character is what makes people do what they do. If someone is funny, it's because of their "character." In real life, and on paper, "character" is the result of someone's experience. Let's say that someone is afraid of snakes.

    YOU COULD SAY:

  • (A) Lester is afraid of snakes.

    Not very exciting and you have no idea why or what about snakes scares him.

    OR

  • (B) Lester hated snakes, he hated the way their beady little eyes looked at him as if they knew something about him. It was as if they found something funny about him, and when they flicked out their tongues it just proved to him that they were mocking him. He could visualize them huddled together with their little snake friends, looking at each other with cold, yet glinting eyes, hissing:

    ....."It'sss Lessster let'sss get him!"

Obviously, Lester needs help, since he's a few fries short of a "Happy Meal." In this example, there's no doubting it, Lester's a "wacko." Here Lester is being characterized by how he describes (or characterizes) the snakes. Even the dialogue of the snakes reeks of their reptilian lisps. It's one thing to say they hissed, but to write out their dialogue can give the writing a humorous touch. This gives us our first way to characterize, by description. Characterization should match the kind of character you're writing about. In our first example, with Lester it's obviously more humorous.

    SO LET'S REPEAT SOME OF THE REASONS FOR CHARACTERIZATION:

  1. It brings you closer to the Character.
  2. It reflects experiences of the character.
  3. It matches the mood of the character.

DIFFERENT WAYS TO SHOW IT:

Characterization isn't just using descriptive words, but how they are organized. The disposition of your various creations should remain consistent. If another character sees Lester in the pet show with snakes, she should notice that he's acting bizarre, yet not know why (which keeps her in character). Terri noticed Lester seemed to be acting nervous. For some reason, he seemed to arch away from one of the aisles, cursing under his breathe.

....."Men!" Terri sighed, as she walked down the aisle past the reptile cages, and picked up a bag of kitty litter.

At a later time, you get Lester's point of view:

.....Lester started to walk down the aisle when he heard, "Lessster, Lessster come play with usss." Then his eyes met theirs ... those cold eyes. Lester hurried past.

....."What idiot put Kitty Litter next to reptiles?" Lester looked away as he grabbed his Kitty Litter brand trying not to make eye contact with the serpents. He ran nervously to the cashier.

    THIS SHOWS TWO BASIC WAYS YOU CAN CONVEY THIS SCENE IN THE PET SHOP:

  1. Through other observers.
  2. Through the thoughts of the character himself.

OTHER CHARACTERIZATIONS:

Besides humans, objects can have character:

The fog swirled around the tower, like a disembodied serpent, trying to clutch its prey Shifting and twisting, it moved with an almost mesmerizing effect ...

This is another example from the novel Red Rain. An inanimate object can "come alive" by the use of simile and metaphors.

So, what have we learned?

    FIRST, WE HAVE THREE REASONS WE USE CHARACTERIZATION:

  1. It brings you closer to the character.
  2. It reflects the experiences of the character.
  3. It matches the mood of the character.

    WE ALSO HAVE THREE BASIC WAYS TO MAKE CHARACTERIZATIONS:

  1. Through description.
  2. Through other characters.
  3. Through the character's themselves.

******

    Do's and Don'ts

  1. Do: To nurture a writing mood, try listening to music that interests you. Make a story based on the images it brings to mind.

  2. Don't: When writing a tender scene try to avoid similes like "...he could feel her slipping away like wet liver..." Not a pretty picture is it? Be careful of your choices ... they can make or break a story, and may not set the mood you had in mind.

  3. Do: Use your own experiences. Writing about things you know about, gives the reader a sense of reality.

  4. Don't: Try to copy someone else's writing style. It is much better to develop your own unique style.

  5. Do: Research facts.

In the end, you will have to draw from your own life's experiences and acquaintences. Good writers record events (either in your memory or a journal) from their past and incorporate them into their stories. This lends more feasibility and realism to your novel or short story.

*****

PART TWO: Great Beginnings
by Matthew R. Sypniewski, B.A., M.A. (Written Communications)


WRITING TIPS:

Beginnings are the hook that pulls your readers into your novel or short story. Beginnings make your readers want to journey past the first few pages and learn more. After the plot is in place, you should carefully search for the perfect first pages that will make all your ideas and hard work bear fruit. The right beginning will make your readers thirst to know more. On the other hand, a bad or weak beginning will make them balk and run. They might not wish to devote hours and hours of reading time to what they perceive as unappealing. For the writer, writing begins with your first ideas. You jot these ideas down as you think of them for later reference. Obviously, not all you put to page will end up in your story. After you have a collection of thoughts, you will start the transition of placing your ideas in some sort of order, of your own choosing.

You must decide how the story will progress. Will it begin in the beginning, the middle or at the end and reflect back on the past? After this is outlined, then you think about the opening. It must touch your reader on some plane, be it loud, soft, action, dreamy, or pensive.

YOU MIGHT BEGIN:

....."When Augustus came out on the porch the blue pigs were eating a rattlesnake - not a very big one. It had probably just been crawling around looking for shade when it ran into the pigs. They were having a fine tug-of-war with it, and its rattling days were over. The sow had it by the neck, and the shoat had the tail."

Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry-1985.

*****

From this paragraph we get the idea that the scene must be a farm, the day is hot, and they have snakes.


OR THIS:

....."The tropical rain fell in drenching sheets, hammering the corrugated roof of the clinic building, roaring down the metal gutters, splashing on the ground in a torrent. Roberta Carter sighed and stared out the window. From the clinic, she could hardly see the beach or the ocean beyond, cloaked in low fog. This wasn't what she had expected when she had come to the fishing village of Bahia Anasco, on the west coat of Costa Rica, to spend two months as a visiting physician. Bobbie Carter had expected sun and relaxation, after two grueling years of residency in emergency medicine at Michael Reese in Chicago."

Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park.

*****

This paragraph tells us a lot about the character and where she is. She is a doctor from Chicago, on her job-related assignment in the tropics. It is raining and her assignment is not ideal. We get the idea that this is not a luxury hotel and it is in Costa Rica.


AND ANOTHER:

"Monday, August 8. Arthur Howe was the killer's first victim, but since he was old and crotchety and suffered from cataracts, it raised no eyebrows when he tumbled from his balcony. As a matter of fact, his doctor expressed the opinion that it, or something like it, had been bound to happen sooner or later."

Edith Pinero Green - Rotten Apples, 1977.

*****

From this brief account, we learn that Arthur Howe is a victim of a crime, but because of his age, no one seems to care. An indictment of society's view of the aged.


These show three different author's beginnings. These beginning all tell us what the novels are about. The last one is obviously a mystery/crime novel. For people who love this kind of genre this is enough. Jurassic Park and Lonesome Dove are not as obvious.

All these novels are bestsellers, so there must be a common thread between them. The first line or lines are often a catalyst for the entire story.

FORESIGHT

An ideal beginning should pique ones interest, and start the mind wondering about what will happen further down the line. It is, after all, the first step to unfolding the mystery or the tale. It is a mystery because the reader does NOT the know what will happen next. We don't reveal the whole plot in the first paragraph. Even though the plot or theme of the story is simple, it does not negate the chance for there to be a mysterious air about it. Simplicity is not a sin.

Obviously a BAD beginning can turn the reader off. Why read further?

Like in many human relationships, the symbiosis between the reader and the writer should exist on some plane. Openings should have an air of mystery, spontaneity, freshness, and a touch of the unpredictable. As a writer you must find the correct ingredients.

Beginnings are also the first glimpse of certain characters or scenes in a story. The cliché about making a good first impression holds true.

*****


Description Prescriptions

You mustn't describe the opening scene or the main character too completely. You have the rest of the page, chapter, or novel to do that. Description isn't the main importance. it is only secondary to the main focus of a story at this stage. This focus is action. The action will bring about the events in the story. This must be a mixture of showing the obvious, in a scene, with clues to something deeper. When describing, it would be best to describe the things that are not only unique and apparent, but the ones that will relate later. Don't give a character physical markings, like a scar, in the first paragraph, unless you intend to give at least some clues, later on, telling how that scar got there. Don't mention too much for the future. Write for the moment and try to capture it. Of course this is dependent on what you are writing. But nevertheless, you may find less is more. Good description in a beginning is not so much the quanity used but the quality. You may even wish to use words that could have more than one meaning, so you can hold the readers interest later.

THE BEGINNING ISN'T ALWAYS THE START:

Strangely enough, you don't even have to start at the beginning of your story. The first page of a novel for instance may be, (plotwise) near the middle or end of your story. Detective stories in novel or movie form many times start narration near the end and retell the happenings of how the antagonist got in such a mess, this is known as the "flashback." So, in some cases, the motion or action in the beginning may flash backward, not forward, as expected. In short, it is the movement that is important in a beginning where it goes is still up to you.

Motion on All Levels

The motion of the plot is not all that is needed in a beginning. Even your descriptions or first scene in your story should move. Usually it is good advice to have something happening from the opening. This applies even if nothing is happening. For example, if the beginning of a tale deals with the main character sitting on the porch on a lazy Sunday afternoon, something should be happening. As odd as this sounds, it is not unusual. Even when we do nothing our senses are alive with activity. We take for granted the fact that the bee in the garden is extracting pollen or the smell of the flowers he has perched on. The sounds of the wind and the bee's wings are so mundane we forget about it if we are not conscious to to them. In writing though nothing should be taken for granted. The reader is not there so you must be his eyes and ears, and your decision of what to show can decide how the reader will react. You don't describe all the senses perceptions in a scene at any one time, just the ones that evoke a response, an understanding. You can see how this makes it difficult to balance out how much is too much. The only advice I can give is to follow your instincts, or those of someone you trust.

SO WHEN DOES A STORY BEGIN?

When does your story begin? It really depends on what the story is about. But it should feel natural. It should be consistent with the plot and style you use. In general you shouldn't start with the climax of the plot. But a starting point, a little before or a little after, a climax, can be acceptable. So starting in the middle or end of a story puts the reader in the middle of a conflict the character is involved in. The whole hook is that you want to read more because you want to knowmore about how this character got here. This is the use of mystery to the extreme and its not surprising that mystery novels use this convention often.

With this in mind, the beginning of the main story can start with the ending of a smaller lesser story. An example of what I'm talking about would be historical fiction. These tales usually revolve around how your character acts when put into a famous battle in history etc.. Many times the story can begin with a smaller battle or the aftermath. (Even the play Macbeth begins in the aftermath of a rebellion.)

Overall, it is best not to try too hard with a beginning, even though it's important to have a hook. Do not search, to exhaustion, for perfection in those first few lines, chances are you can keep it simple. After all it is only the beginning, and should not prevent you from writing further.

*****

Bad Beginnings

    Here's a few humorous examples of what can go wrong, compliments of The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest:

  • "What is the meaning of life?" asked Phil to no one in particular as he watched the last strands of the frayed control cable of his hang glider disinigrate into a fine brown dust that matched the parched desert floor a mile below.

    ....

  • The jungle drums throbbed wildly in the distance, warning him away with the brief but dire message: "The broccili casserole is burnt!"

    .....

  • The November snow was thin and slushy-almost as if the angels in Heaven were brushing their teeth and dribbling toothpaste over the earth.

    .....

    ......Harvey tightened the belt of his trench coat, eyed the whirling prop of the ceiling fan, settled deeper into the cobra-backed chair situated among the dusty palms in the ratty Mediterranean hotel lobby, and spat out a large swig of his drink he had just taken when it proved that the sliver of ice sliding across his tongue had legs.

    .....

    Some real classics!!!


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    This page is updated and designed by MR Sypniewski, BA/MA and MJ Sypniewski, BFA
    Last updated on March 2, 2002

    E-mail:RhysMatt@aol.com