Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Character Building with Guest Blogger Cate Masters

Win a print copy of Surfacing from author Cate Masters today at the Book Boost!

Here's what she had to say about character building...

Building a Character from the Inside Out

Did you ever watch the Bravo series,
Inside the Actor’s Studio? Before the major network bought the station and ruined it, that is? I used to love to listen to actors describe how they built their characters from the inside out, getting to know every little quirk and nuance, building a complex backstory so they could throw it all away once they stepped inside that character’s skin. In this way, the actor knew instinctively how that character would react in any given situation and would, in effect, become the character.
That’s also the most effective way to write from a character’s point of view. Build your character’s history, know the habits and traits and make up the person inside, the quirks that set the character apart from the norm. Then step inside that character’s skin and write.

A workshop at the Greater Lehigh Valley Writer’s Conference a few years ago, a session leader advised attendees to close our eyes, sit in a darkened room, if necessary, to get into the moment with the character. Block out reality and visualize the scene in every detail. Have your protagonist enter the room and voila, a scene emerges. A jumping-off point.

To make your character authentic, you must know not only who s/he is, but how s/he would react in any given situation. The true character of the person as exhibited by his/her actions. And thoughts, because for the reader to be invested in your story – truly engaged – the reader must know the character’s feelings. Not by telling the reader how the character feels, but by revealing small, telling details. Slowly, through character filters designed to allow readers to come to conclusions about the character without the author flagrantly pointing it out. By making your readers think about the hero or heroine, you’re engaging them more closely in your story, and ultimately, writing a better one.

Whatever you do, avoid writing a stereotype. The past few years, I’ve learned about two major character types who will turn readers off, and maybe cause them to set your book down. Yep, maybe for good.
First is Mary Sue. Sure, we all know not to make our heroines too perfect, so good and warm and model gorgeous and loving and… unrealistic. Who can possibly relate to such a goody two-shoes? Make her relatable. Give her flaws. If you think she’s still a little too wonderful, run her through the Mary Sue Litmus Test – Google it to find several different versions. After the test, make whatever adjustments are necessary.

The second is TSTL, or Too Stupid to Live. You know those old horror movies where the character’s alone in her house, wearing a teensy nightie, hears a suspicious noise and then wanders through the house, maybe even outside, asking, “Hello? Is anyone there?” Well, yes, Stupid, it’s the Monster/Serial Killer/Psychopath! Oops, too late, he’s chain-sawed your head off.

Find ways to build suspense, put your damsel in distress without making the reader want to kill her off themselves.

Life is complex. Make your characters the same. Dig deep, and it will pay off for your readers. And yourself as a writer.

Keep it real.

A Note from the Book Boost: Nice post, Cate. Thanks for sharing your character building methods with us. Won't you tell us more about your book?


AJ Dillon is trouble. The former lead singer of an indie band has no home, no money and no future. His grandfather is the only relative willing to take another chance on him. AJ arrives in Weeki Wachee, Florida, with his guitar, a few clothes and a bad attitude. The only good thing about Weeki Wachee is the ocean -- the one place AJ feels at home.

Grandpa lines up a job for AJ at Weeki Wachee Springs, where beautiful women perform as mermaids. Grandpa says real mermaids exist, but AJ doesn’t believe – until he meets Cassiopeia. She helps his passion for music resurfaces. But greedy Chaz finds out about her, and threatens to kill them if AJ doesn't go along with his plan to make a fortune with a real mermaid show. Can AJ save Cassie, even if it means losing her?


“Look out!” a woman screamed as the gator closed in.

Something slammed into his stomach and whooshed him beneath the water. A second slam, more like a thud, and he thought it was all over. For both of them. The thing gripped him without hurting him somehow, but moved so fast, AJ thought his body might break from the pressure of the speed. It felt like hurtling through the canal on an underwater express train, rolling as they went.

As his lungs felt near to bursting, they slowed and surfaced. Whatever held him released him by propelling him face-down onto a grassy bank.

Gasping for air, he scrambled up the side to escape it, but his arms and legs flailed, more spectacle than anything.

"What were you doing?” a girl’s rich, full voice asked.

He glanced over his shoulder, still grasping at the bank for leverage. He fell to the grass, stunned.

Instead of the ugly head of an alligator leering at him in a crocodile smile, the girl, even more gorgeous up close, leaned her hands on the bank and lifted herself up. Her wet hair clung to her chest and waist.

Too many questions flew through his head at once. “What?” he managed.

"You could have been killed. Why did you do that?” Her green eyes sparkled like emeralds flecked with onyx. Her long dark hair framed her porcelain face and rosebud lips.

His chest heaved. “You’re kidding, right? I saved you.”

She burst into laughter. Like bells tinkling, like music.

Fascination turned to irritation. He risked his life for her. “What? That alligator would’ve killed you.”

This made her laugh all the harder, her laughter like a melody he couldn’t quite place, though familiar.

The alligator drifted toward them on its side, like a log. Unmoving. Unconscious.

She giggled. “It won’t hurt you now.”

AJ glanced downriver to where the boat should have been. “What happened? Where’s the boat?” He held a hand to his head. He wished she’d stop laughing. The sound got inside his brain, jumbled his already knotted thoughts. And every time she looked at him, her eyes hypnotized him—their whites so clear and bright, the green shone like gemstones. Like no other eyes he’d ever seen.

Glancing upstream, she smiled. “Right where you left it.”

“No. I left it right there.” He still couldn’t catch his breath. Or his mind.

She twisted up and sat on the bank. “No, you left it around the bend. Remember?” As she turned her head, her hair shifted, revealing the curve of a breast.

AJ blinked, thinking his eyesight might have been affected by the impact. But he could see as clear as ever. The old biddy was right. “You’re not wearing clamshells.”

Her glittering eyes snapped to his. “What?”

His mind raced. If this girl was what he thought she was, he wanted to get closer. He slumped on the bank, letting his feet slide closer to her. “What are you doing out here? You’re not with the show.”

She tossed her head, and her hair swirled across her like a glossy curtain, tantalizing him. She edged toward the water. “No.”

The end of her tail rose, then swished beneath the canal. For a moment, he’d caught sight of it, the colors exactly as Grandpa had described: iridescent, ever-changing, like rich silk. He shifted closer for a better view. The transformation from skin to tail was seamless. Undetectable.

It was no costume.

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Arlene said...

Great post, Cate. Even in the realm of fantasy and sci-fi, Keep it real, is excellent advise. I hate getting jarred out of the story by shallow, unbelievable characters.
Now, off to check out more about a mermaid. What a great stroy premise.

Unknown said...

My books and characters are nothing but real, but I make sure they live a life a little more exciting than mine. Great post, Cate. Girl, I can't keep up with you.

Unknown said...

I could not have said it any better. I remember my beta reader asking when I was going to kill a particular female character off. That made me go back an rewrite that character completely!

Cate Masters said...

Hey Arlene! Yes, it's a bad sign when you're yelling at a character as you read. :)

Hi Ginger! I know your characters are great! I love to live vicariously through mine too.

Thank goodness for beta readers, huh Christopher! My critique partners keep me on my toes too.

Thanks for stopping by, everyone!

Margaret West said...

In one of my books I am guilty of all the sin's lol In my defence, it was seven years ago..if that can be called a defence! I'm off to do the Mary sue test. Just in case I have another sin threatening to loom.

Cate Masters said...

That reminds me of a Mae West quote, Margaret, something like if I have to choose between two sins, I always choose the one I haven't tried before. Guess that doesn't work in writing! But I do love to experiment. I have to try the link you posted today too!

Fran Orenstein said...

Great ideas in your character development blog. I do workshops for kids on the topic and I love the quiet dark room concept. Talking about idiot characters, some of the women in romantic mysteries put themselves in such jeopardy, particularly the ones who refuse any help and don't think before they plunge into the fray, usually armed with a emory board or something equally benign, barefoot and coatless in freezing weather. They make me crazy. There's brave and then there's stupidity.
I remember an editor at a workshop stressing multi-dimensional characters as something she looks for.
Thanks for the blog.

Amy Talbot said...

Great information - I want more, please :)

Creating realistic, believable characters, who 'jump' off the page and grab the reader's attention from the get-go, is at the heart of any novel.

Chaeya said...

I do a whole psychological write up of my characters. I'm thinking about sharing it on my blog so that if people want to read what I came up for each character they can. I like different women, not the average stereotype of a female. I like women who are a bit quirky. I had one critique who said my character didn't act her age and my response to her was, neither do I. Ha ha.

Cate Masters said...

I think that's why I can't listen to music while I write, Fran. I'd just block it out anyway, because I need to concentrate. A quiet space is more conducive to that. Thanks for stopping by!

I post writing tips on my blog too, Amy - enter those keywords (writing tips) in the search box, and many posts will come up!

I love quirky women too, Chaeya! And quirky stories. If characters are too predictable, I don't want to read about them.

misskallie2000 said...

I loved your advise about keeping your writing real. No miss goody goody, or same old some old.. Great advice.

I love mermaids and can't wait to read your book Surfacing.

misskallie2000 at yahoo dot com

Unknown said...

Great post as usual. Keeping characters real is something I am still working on.
I'm going to try the "dark room" method and hope it helps to see my characters more clearly.
Thanks for the hint and the info.

Cate Masters said...

Thanks Kallie and Lorrie!

Kelly A. Harmon said...

Hi Cate! Great tips on character creation. I've tried to skip "building a history" of my characters and jump right into the writing, but more often than not, I've got to stop and give careful thought to those character's pasts. Even if you never mention it in the story, the history affects the way your characters think and act. It gives your characters depth. Great post!

Cate Masters said...

Hi Kelly! I've found that too - most of the character building work never actually shows up in the story, but it still affects how the character reacts in situations, so it's invaluable.

Cate Masters said...

Thanks again to everyone who commented! I tossed everyone's name into a bowl, and my daughter drew out (drum roll please....) Arlene! Congrats Arlene, I will be in touch.