Revisiting Characters

Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations. ― Ray Bradbury

I was absent from my blog during May and most of June while I buckled down and continued preparations for the new and updated books I have planned for my Amazon KDP library. Part of those preparations is making sure my characters come across as people.

My stories happen in a place called Ridgewood, loosely based on places I have lived. Overall, the place is a straightforward small town in America where odd things happen to a select few. There is a plethora of history and information about Ridgewood at this blog, so go ahead and browse the archives.

I enjoy writing my own kind of fantasy fiction. My ensemble of characters is wholly my own creation loosely based on archetypes that attracted me as a reader. Again, there is a plethora of history and information about them at this blog, but there have been three significant changes I want to address.

  1. I have renamed Owen to Lenny and given the name to his kid brother. Lenny has taken on his old role and has the old persona of teenager Dave. He has a twin sister, Gaylene, who is Amy with a different name and family.
  2. Vree’s hometown is New Cambridge. She lives in Ridgewood when she stays with her paternal grandparents. Her parents are archeologists at New Cambridge University and are away from home often. Vree has no interest in archeology. Her paternal grandparents have the names Dave and Amy now and are not retired and living in Florida.
  3. Amy’s grandparents are Ben and Vera, the couple killed by a witch named Margga who has become Gianna. Ben and Vera’s last name is Russell, and Myers Ridge is now Russell Ridge.

My renamed cast has been a joy to place on stage and see them rehearse while I put them through the rigors of developing plot. As always, I let my characters develop the plot while I pay attention to the three main factors of characterization: the physical, sociological, and psychological. That’s all any writer needs to know to create characters that have personalities. Once you have that, then you understand how your characters approach and resolve conflict. And that means living with your characters, observing them while you put them through mock scenarios, and noting the results.

Vree is one of my star characters. She has been with me since I was fourteen years old. She has always been a shy, humble teenager.

vree-13-pencil-9x12-v6
Vree

No matter how much I try to change her personality, it stays relatively the same. I suppose this flies in the face of teachers of fiction who say that our characters must be different people after departing Act 1 and arriving at the conclusion of Act 3. How much change is rarely specified, but I cannot see her becoming an entirely different character when she rides her story’s denouement. I think any person whose personality changes that much during their story should be under psychiatric observation by the time it ends. That was a problem I had with many horror novels. The characters we got to know did not ring true when they became monsters.

Realism is an important aspect of good fiction. And just as in life, a person’s mode of thinking can change dramatically under the right circumstances. But a person with a healthy brain is not going to become someone with a different personality just because a book publisher wants it for mass market appeal and sensationalism. Abrupt change of character isn’t normal.

Every good story I have ever read has one major real aspect: Desire. The goal is to acquire something. The more unreachable it is, the difficult the task. The comedian George Carlin described acquisition as a football game. The goal is to acquire yardage to the end zone and score points to be ahead of the opponent when time runs out. Smart players achieve this by fooling their opponent, making them second guess their game plan, getting them to trip over their weaknesses. Everyone has desires/goals and we all have flaws to overcome in our efforts to get what we want.

All in all, a deep understanding of character is the key to creating better plots.

Thanks for reading.

Peace and love, everyone.

Vree’s Birthday [character development]

Vree

My character, Vree Erikson, was born April 30 in Ridgewood PA (a town I call Ravenwood in my early stories) on Walpurgis Night, aka Witches Night.

Her nickname Vree comes from her initials VRE from Verawenda Renee Erikson (also spelled Erickson in some of my stories).

At the time of this writing, she is and always has been 15 years old, born on the Eve of Beltane.

Her Earth Sign is Taurus (April 20–May 20).

Beltane, or Bealtaine, was a Celtic festival marking the arrival of summer in ancient times, celebrating Blodeuwedd (Goddess of Flowers) and Llew (Oak King, God of the Waxing Sun).

May 1st marked the beginning of summer—the season of growth and life for crops, animals, and people.

People continue to light great bonfires on the Eve of Beltane, April 30, in order to welcome the Earth Goddess. Participants hope to gain favor with this goddess so she will bless their families with procreative fertility.

In a different historical slant, the Eve of Beltane is Walpurgis Night, an abbreviation of Saint Walpurgis Night, also known as Saint Walpurga’s Eve (alternatively spelled Saint Walburga’s Eve). It is the eve of the Christian feast day of Saint Walpurga, an 8th-century abbess in Francia, and is celebrated on the night of April 30 and the day of May 1. This feast commemorates the canonization of Saint Walpurga and the movement of her relics to Eichstätt, both of which occurred on May 1, 870. Christians prayed to God through the intercession of Saint Walpurga in order to protect themselves from witchcraft, as Saint Walpurga was successful in converting the local populace to Christianity.

In parts of Christendom, people continue to light bonfires on Saint Walpurga’s Eve in order to ward off evil spirits and witches.

In Ridgewood/Ravenwood, however, it is a birthday for a girl who discovers she has magic abilities.

Let the fun begin.

Introducing Owen [character development]

I think all young writers began telling their stories in first-person point of view.

I did, fifty years ago. I wrote many of my stories at school, but I did it at a different level than my classmates by making myself a character in my stories. A few teachers suggested I replace “me, Steve Campbell, the I character” with a narrator that had a different name to prevent confusing my readers. So, I reluctantly created Owen Burkhart to be my narrator.

Actually, I already had a character named Owen Burkhart. He was a 9-year-old boy who lived across the street from an old woman whom he thought was a witch. I had written his story (not very well) in third-person point of view, so I changed it to first-person and he became my new narrator.

He went through a few more name changes over the years, but he was always Vree’s confidant. His story has always been about her, which is why I want to tell her story from his viewpoint.

I have not decided on how to tell his story about Vree. I have a problem with first-person point of view, so this project may end up in my Unfinished Projects drawer.

Whichever the outcome, their story begins with a mystery.

Vree is interested in photography, so she snaps a photo of her new, remodeled home with her new digital camera. Owen watches her from his front yard. She seems bewildered, so he goes to her. She shows him the digital image and thinks something is wrong with her camera. The image shows the house, sky, and parts of the property washed out of their color. Owen takes a picture of the house with her camera and the same thing happens. Vree is convinced her camera is damaged until Owen photographs the house with a different camera. Those pictures look fine.

Vree’s photo compared to how the house, sky, and yard look to the naked eye

Something is wrong with the house!

Owen tells her that a witch used to live in the house until she died. (See my last post, “Searching for Gems in Backstory.”) This sets in motion the idea that Vree lives in a haunted house. Her parents cannot explain the odd photos other than either mechanical or battery failure caused it, and they promise her that the last owner was not a witch and the house is not haunted.

Feeling alone, she turns to Owen. And so begins their friendship through the thick and thin phenomena of my favorite subject to write about: Fantasy, with many of its sub-genres, including magic, the paranormal, and the supernatural at its forefront.

Finding Gems in Backstory [character development]

Before Ravenwood became a place in my stories, there was Myers Lake, named after Alice Myers, an old woman who lived alone in an ancient Victorian mansion at the lake. She had no living relatives and was always alone—well, she had several cats to keep her company and there was the local pastor who mowed her lawn and trimmed her hedges in the summer, but no other person ever visited. And so, rumors and stories sprang up among the kids in the neighborhood that her house was haunted and that she kept to herself because she was a witch. One of those kids was 9-year-old Owen Burkhart who lived across the street from the “witch’s house.” He had heard about missing pets ending up as stews in Old Lady Myers’s kitchen, so he was cautious not to let Max, his Toy Fox Terrier, off its leash. Every day he had to deal with the suspicion that his neighbor was evil and to trespass on her property was a serious omen that something terrible would happen to him, which is why he played in the backyard behind his house out of sight of Old Lady Myers and her evil house.

It was the last day of school when he came running home, excited to start summer vacation, and saw the coroner’s hearse leaving the driveway at the witch’s house. Old Lady Myers had died. But the bad omen he felt about the property never left him. Someone threw a rock and broke a front window at the old house. The lawn grew into brambles and weeds. By the time Fourth of July came, the place looked spookier than ever before, and rumors had started that Old Lady Myers’s ghost now haunted the place.

Owen wanted to move far away from that creepy house. But a pretty girl changed his mind when she and her family moved into the place and fixed it up.

Over the years, Owen’s story grew in breadth and depth. A town sprang up from my imagination and surrounded Myers Lake—first called White Raven, then Ravenwood, and eventually Ridgewood. Myers Lake became Alice Lake. The pretty girl became Vree Erikson. And Owen Burkhart became Kenny Douglas for a while, then Liam Burkhart, and then Lenny Stevens—same boy, different names. Those versions of Owen have him 15 years old and living on Myers Ridge when Vree and her family move into that haunted house and he comes to her aid. You can read a published version of that story idea, which features Lenny, still available to download free at Smashwords in a stand-alone book called Margga’s Curse.

A gem in that story is two strangers—boy and girl—bonding and working toward a common goal. When I was nine, this was easy for me to do. I saw a boy or girl around my age, I talked to them and made their acquaintance unless the other kid was super shy. But I don’t recall any 9-year-old being shy. That came later, especially at age 15 when hormones had kicked in and we knew without sitting through those tortuous Human Health classes that we had sexual organs for the sole purpose of reproducing our species. At 15, it wasn’t easy anymore for boys to make the acquaintance of the new girl next door. And I know it wasn’t easy for girls to be comfortable around boys, either. Every day, we fought the Call of the Wild to talk to each other. Honesty went out the window and we pretended nothing was amiss.

I wrote earlier this month that I have grown weary of writing about teens. A more accurate statement would have been, “I have grown weary of publishers wanting me to give my teen characters positive sexual relationships.”

I know today’s teenagers live differently than when I was a teen. Even their parents lived differently. I was 18 when Judy Blume’s controversial young adult book Forever was published. The main character, Katherine, has a positive sexual relationship described in detail. Since then, sexual descriptions in YA books is relatively commonplace these days. And some books focus squarely on sex as a theme.

But I don’t want sex to promote the sales of my books. And it shouldn’t be used to sell anything else, either.

When I write a story, I may touch on that teenage angst and awkwardness that I mentioned earlier, but I’m not going to have scenes with my characters copulating. And that includes my adult characters.

The gems of my stories are how well people get along and work together for a common goal. For Owen and Vree (and Kenny, Liam, and Lenny) when they are 9, 15, or any age, that common goal is having each other’s back through the thick and thin of it.

And if they have sex, let it happen offstage.