“Already a social outcast because of his father’s alleged betrayal, young Joshua finds himself trapped outside the mining colony on the planet of Cypress Grove. He faces a murky rainforest infested with a creature so deadly, it has kept all humans confined inside their only settlement for decades. If he can manage to escape these alien wilds, he must then brave the even darker dangers of the colony’s underworld…” (Full summary here.)
Part I: CHARACTERIZATION
I used to think of novels as being driven either by character or plot. Now I tend to think of character and plot as two interdependent cogs—interlocking gears in a whole. Characters drive plot via decision, where the choices they make are an extension of who they are. Likewise, plot affects characters: The best plots are personalized, designed (by their authors) to challenge the protagonist to their core.
I truly believe character is the lifeblood of every good story. So…
What makes a good character?
I don’t know about you, but I find characterization to be one of the most difficult challenges of writing fiction, at least in terms of trying to describe how to do it well. Invent a world – check. Make stuff happen – check. Create a nuanced-but-not-inconsistent character with built-in experiences, fears, desires, and wounds, with whom readers can immediately sympathize – cheh—er—hmmm.
As The Deepest Cut’s back cover summary states: “Debut author D G Lamb, a clinical neuropsychologist, uses his understanding of posttraumatic stress symptoms to inject psychological authenticity and complexity into Joshua’s personality, creating a wounded, but endearing central character.”
If that description doesn’t make you want to read this book, I suspect you might be the exception… But do we all need a degree in psychology to create good characters? Given the plethora of fantastic personalities living between the pages of a myriad of different books—and the simple fact that not all successful authors are psychologists—I’d venture to say, “No.”
Still, we can certainly learn from this author. Have a look at the excerpts below and see if you can quantify what exactly makes the characters so compelling:
Rachel turned to her son as their household computer paused the morning playlist. His eyes spread open again, not with feigned innocence, but in apprehension. Her heart twisted at what she saw. He’s still-…so young. His eleven-year-old face was open and vulnerable, miraculously not showing the scars from all that life had already put him through. And yet, …he’s not my little boy anymore. His upright posture and tendency to meet people’s gazes with his green-grey eyes combined with an above average height and athletic build to create the impression of a 13-or 14-year-old. His short hair was mostly her auburn, but had red highlights from his father. David.
It hit her in a flash: powerful arms encompassing her from behind, gently squeezing away her self-doubt, his warm breath flowing against her neck-
A little later in the same scene:
[Pondering her son’s deceit, Rachel] had decided on an educational approach, as was so often her way.
“Lying is still wrong even if you think something valuable will come from it. You obviously thought it was acceptable to break a rule and lie to me because doing so allowed you to get me a very nice gift. That’s called… using the ends to justify the means.” She tightened her lips to prevent a smile as her son frowned in concentration and silently mouthed the phrase to himself, committing it to memory. He obviously knew what came next.
Rachel’s head tilted forward and she looked up through her eyebrows. “Instead of having free time this afternoon, you will research and write a paper on the concept of the ‘ends justify the means,’ to include its origins and ramifications for moral philosophy. Hank, you may cue Joshua with the name Machiavelli later today if he asks, but nothing else.”
“Yes ma’am, provide the name Machiavelli if requested, but otherwise render no assistance on the topic of ‘the ends justify the means.’ ”
Her son held a very neutral expression. He thinks he is getting off light. …And maybe he’s right. -But I still need to get breakfast done and not be late for my first day of work at the Silver Lining Diner. She raised an eyebrow. “We shall see what else comes of this after I read your essay and see what you’ve learned.”
Rachel distributed half of the omelet to each of the plates Joshua had already set on the counter. He carried them to the table top that slid out from the cabinet between their Vertabed couches. As had become typical for them, they both paused to savor the first bite, taking a long moment to slowly chew with half closed eyes. After swallowing, they shared a contented smile. The ritual reminded her of how much closer they had become since David’s death. Rachel was again overtaken by the sudden fear that her son was growing up and would soon be leaving her…
She had almost finished eating when the missing puzzle piece unexpectedly clicked into place. Rachel looked up at Joshua as he speared his last bite, “So, just how big was this discount The Avenue merchant gave you?”
Joshua looked up, blinked in confusion, and frowned, “Fort-no, ah… 60 percent off.”
“Wow. 60 percent off! That’s a really good deal.”
His face relaxed, “Yep. -I thought so too.”
“Hmmm, let’s see, 60 percent off of 16, that -would… be… six UDs and -hmm -40 cents, right?”
Joshua’s eyes began darting around the room like a cornered animal, “Would it? -I… ah -16? -That sounds like a lot. I don’t think… I’m n-”
“I know how much the SlipStone pans cost, Joshua, and I know how much spending money I give you. –Where did you get the extra money?”
His face contorted in anger. “Why can’t we just eat breakfast without you giving me the fifth degree?”
“It’s the third degree and I still need to know how you made the extra money.”
“OH. -Okay, –so do I need to write something about that, too? -Hank, remind me to write an essay on the third degree.”
“OK Joshua, I’ll remind you to write an essay on ‘the third degree’ later this afternoon.”
They sat frozen, Rachel in disbelief and Joshua glaring, with the tension mounting in the expanding silence. Finally, Joshua looked at the speared bite of omelet and eased his fork back to the plate. With hands in his lap, he looked up, but said nothing. That, of course, would not stand. Rachel’s mouth set into a thin determined line.
It was her turn to be thrown by a change in topic.
“Mom. My Orson 150 is… really …old. -…The clock rate on the processor –Ok -It’s just really slow, right? …So… that’s making it harder and harder for me to compete.”
Her jaw dropped in disbelief. “Joshua, –please, –don’t tell me you’ve been gambling with stickball again.”
His face told her before his words, “I just want to help with the Café Fund, Mom.”
“We both know that has definitely not worked out well before.” Rachel felt the flush of anger on her face. “I do not–want to come home and find you like… that—ever again!”
“Mom. -I’m a lot more careful now. -I never bet so much that someone would want to fight after losin-”
The flat of her palm hit the table with a smack. “Joshua! I -will -not -have this!” Rachel pushed herself up and bent closer, “You will not bet on stickball! –Ever again, Son!”
Joshua also rose in frustration, his eyes glistening and his words loud, “This is… so unfair! -You are always telling me that I have to be more grown up, to be… responsible! -And I am! -I always try to do like you say, to act like the ‘man of the house.’ ”
Rachel’s mouth went slack, her shoulders sagged, and she thumped back into her chair. “I… I have never said that, Son. -It was something your father always said when he went on deployments.” A hollow pain filled her eyes, her words were sad and wistful, “Actually, …it was one of the few things we disagreed on.”
Joshua’s eyes opened wide in rage and defiance. His words came out hot,
“Yeah? –Well, Dad was right and I wish he was here…”
Rachel stared at the unspoken words that almost shimmered in the air between them and silently finished the sentence… instead of me.
The gut punch had driven the air out of her lungs. Rachel blinked rapidly, trying to understand what had just happened, surprised when a hot tear dropped onto her cheek. Through watery eyes, she saw awareness spread across Joshua’s face and he dropped his head in shame. She forced herself to breathe and searched for something to say, something to repair the rift, praying that this would not stand between them. What came to mind did not feel adequate, but it was what she felt at that moment. She hoped it would be enough, even while she feared it would not.
“Joshua, there is no amount of money -anywhere -that is worth the risk of losing you.”
What can we learn?
First of all, the characters don’t exist in a vacuum. Even though readers never get to meet Joshua’s dad, we see the ripples of emotion he still casts across his family. In her son’s face, Rachel sees her dead husband. Even David’s parenting style lingers, adding conflict to the scene. We feel Rachel’s loss while also understanding her marriage wasn’t perfect—which adds to the realism. The lesson is this: If you want to write believable characters, you need to give the impression of a fully-realized past.
One of the other reasons this scene works so well is that it’s not a generic interaction that could take place between any mother-son pair—it’s specific. And that, my friends, is another key to good characterization. Rachel isn’t a cardboard cut-out of the average mom. She’s a former teacher. A colonist in a harsh environment. A widow struggling through her grief. A dedicated mom. And all those attributes are reflected in the way she interacts with her world and with Joshua. She’s not simply a pawn planted in the story with the sole purpose of serving the plot. Rather, who she is (character) determines where this scene can go (plot).
Another key to characterization is likeability. While not every character in your novel needs to be well-loved, it sure doesn’t hurt if readers form a favorable bond with the main character, in this case Joshua. In my opinion, he’s a sympathetic character for the following reasons:
- He cares about others → He wants to help with the Café Fund. → Likeable characters won’t be completely selfish.
- He’s not perfect → He has real struggles that make him seem like a real person. Still, even in the face of an almost-cruel mistake (wishing his Dad were there), we see his regret. → We all have flaws, so perfect characters are unrelatable. But make sure readers can see their redeemability as well.
- He’s experienced loss → Because this is something we can all relate to in one form or another, we sympathize.→ Give your character a universal wound and the bond with readers is almost guaranteed.
- Others care about him → His mother is desperate not to lose him. That makes me care too. → Demonstrating the protagonist’s value through another character’s eyes is an effective way of inviting readers to care.
- The protagonist is proactive—resolute → He’s not just a boy sitting around and doing what he’s told. He’s actively trying to help his mom pursue her dream while also pursuing his own.→ Characters without agency are harder to invest in.
- He has interests and talents that make him unique → Read the free sample at Amazon for more about Joshua’s stickball skills. → (a) Don’t settle for generic and (b) give your protagonist a skill.
- His reactions are human → He dodges questions, he shows emotion, he blurts unkind words then shows regret. Sooo human. I can’t tell you how much I love this kid. Seriously… read the book.
In this same excerpt, we get a hint as to the theme, but that’s a topic for another day. And how about that emotion? Did you pick up on any universals? Be sure to come back next week for more writing lessons from Driven to the Hilt: The Deepest Cut: SETTING, WORLD BUILDING, & TENSION
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