The Problem With Writing About People You Know

A few weeks ago when I was having lunch with friends from my exercise class, someone suggested that I write a book about the class. One lovely woman even volunteered to be a murder victim, and the teacher offered to be the murderer (or rather, she offered a motive for the crime that indicated she was the one who did the dire deed).

I thought it would be fun — write a chapter now and again, print it out, and let everyone read it. If they had suggestions about what they wanted their character to do, I could incorporate their ideas in subsequent chapters.

The more I got to thinking about it, though, the more impossible it seemed. The idiosyncrasies that make people unique, interesting, lovable are not necessarily traits they are proud of. In fact, they might not know they have the traits or if they do know, they might not realize that others see those traits. We always hope people see us as better than we see ourselves, and we certainly don’t want to know that someone might see what we wish no one saw. And even when we do know our floozyshortcomings, such as being overweight, I’m not sure we would take kindly to being immortalized in such a way. (Not that my books are immortal, but you know what I mean.)

Although the characters would be written without judgment, just a simple swish of a literary brush, these women might feel hurt, and I am not interested in hurting anyone, especially not people I’ve grown fond of. Now, if one of them had done me wrong, I would gladly put her in a book and kill her off, but so far the worst offense was . . . hmmm. Can’t think of anything except for perhaps a brief touch of cattiness.

Yesterday one of the women asked me about the project, and when I told her my dilemma, she suggested writing the book but using a different setting for the group. A rowing crew, for example. That way I could write the people as I saw them, and no one would be the wiser. “Except me, of course,” she said, “but you wouldn’t say anything bad about me.” The problem with her scenario is that I know nothing about rowing, and anyway, what is a rowing crew of no-longer-young women doing in the middle of the desert? (Though that could be a story in itself!)

I suppose I could hand out a questionnaire, asking the women if they would like to be part of the project, if I could use their real name and if not what name they would like me to use, and most importantly, how they would like to be described. I’d end up with a cast of wonderfully graceful, talented, brilliant, and beautiful characters of course, but there is truth in that. Despite their idiosyncrasies (or maybe because of them), despite their aging bodies and physical limitations, they are all in their own way, wonderfully graceful, talented, brilliant, and beautiful.

One problem is that each of these wonderfully graceful, talented, brilliant, and beautiful women would have to have larceny in her heart since each would be a suspect with a dark secret she is trying to hide, and that could lead to confusion about how I actually perceived each of them.

The main problem, of course, is that if I figure a way around all the other problems, I might actually have to write the dang thing.


Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

Writing Discussion: Beverages

I know that everyone prefers general discussions about writing, but I like to mix things up at times and get specific. So today we’re going to be talking about beverages. What your characters drink, how they drink, how the drink personifies them, how it propels the plot forward, how it helps create atmosphere and setting.

An obvious use for a beverage is the poisoned drink. That certainly propels a plot! Another use of beverage (which I hope you’re all staying away from because it’s been done to death) is the cop with a drinking problem. As soon as I see that in a book now, I don’t even bother to read it. Unless of course, the drinking problem is more along the lines of Robert Hays’ drinking problem in the movie Airplane!. But even that has become stale.

Think of the feelings, the characterizations, the mood these drinks invoke:

Hot buttered rum
Mulled cider
Hot chocolate
Ice cold beer
Herb tea
Fruit punch
Well water
Orange juice

I could list hundreds of drinks, and every one would remind you of something. Like every other element in a story, what your characters drink (or don’t drink — mine seldom drink coffee) needs to be more than simple window dressing.

Here’s an example of how a drink becomes significant. It’s a 100-word story called “Colorized”:

The drab little man in the gray suit entered the bar at five o’clock as usual, huddled on the same bar stool he always did, and waited to order his usual martini.

An almost pretty woman perched on the next stool smiled at him as if they were going to be good friends. Then a fellow wearing a loud shirt approached and handed her a rose. As she got up to follow him, a single petal fluttered to the floor.

“Your usual?” the bartender asked.

The man glanced at the rose petal, straightened his shoulders. “I’ll have red wine today.”

So, what do your characters drink? How does the drink aid in characterization? Does the drink have a greater significance in the story than simply something for the characters to do? Where do your characters drink? Most stories, especially those with a mythic twist, make use of the “watering hole,” a place where the characters gather to drink, talk, plan. Does this place have any significance to your story?

Grab your drink of choice and join the group No Whine, Just Champagne on Thursday, February 12 at 9:00pm ET for a live chat about beverages. Hope to see you there, but if you can’t make it, we can discuss beverages here.

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Immigration of Characters

I was sitting here trying to figure out what to write — I’ve had so many guest bloggers lately, I’m out of the habit of writing my own bloggeries — when I received an email from a friend with an attached article that she wanted me to check over. It was so clever and true it made me smile. We all have characters who deserve to immigrate to a better place than in our heads or on our computers. More to the point, she’s letting me post her article, saving me the trauma of having to think of something to write. Here’s what my friend Sylvia McKye say sabout the immigration of characters:

I write, as do many writers, because I enjoy writing.  I take pleasure in telling stories and taking people on adventures via my stories.  I have voices and ideas in my head.  It gets crowded in there; I need these clamoring characters to immigrate.  Onto my computer screen is the perfect new world for them. Rarely are they happy there, though.  They want a larger world.  They want to travel; they want to see and be seen.  These characters are determined; they have visions of the wide world of places like Barnes and Noble in which to sow their wild oats.  A few are truly ambitious and, having a high opinion of themselves, dream of traveling to New York and make the rounds socially-on the ‘A’ list, of course.  One or two have even mentioned being on the ‘A’ list will help them realize another dream, living on the silver screen.  Once they’ve done that, then they want to settle down on a nice little cozy bookshelf somewhere. 

So what’s a beleaguered writer to do?  Help them immigrate, of course. 

As a writer, I’ve in effect given birth to them and I’m emotionally attached to them.  I’ve raised them to be tough and strong, to set goals and dream.  I applaud their ambition.  I love my characters, so I start the paper trail to help them realize their dreams and ambitions.  However, immigration laws for characters have become tough in the past ten years.  There’s so much red tape involved.  Character immigration is a tough business all around. Getting through to the Character Immigration Officers is daunting.  

I get frustrated because some of these CIO’s reject my characters without even giving them a chance.  I polish them, provide my characters with a new wardrobe, take care with accessories-because appearances are everything in this world-and try again.  I provide them with the right background and setting and still they get rejected.  Some of these CIO’s want clear-cut categories to pigeonhole them.  A certain background.  Some of my characters don’t fit into a particular category-they are people after all-much less a set background.  Some of my characters do, but still aren’t accepted.  My characters are upset and I’m frustrated.  Because I’m attached to them, it bothers me when they’re rejected.  Meanwhile, I have a small town of characters living on my computer, and more in my head.  Will I stop creating?  No.  Will I stop trying to help my characters to immigrate?  No, again.  

I have invested in some tough Rhino skin for my characters and myself.  It’s survival.  I have no intention in giving up on finding homes for my characters.  But rejections hurt you as an author.  They can’t help but hurt us because we have created these characters and invested time and emotion in them.  Rejections are a normal process of the querying your novels and stories.  Some published authors say they’ve received enough rejection letters they could’ve papered their bathroom walls.  That’s a lot of rejections. 

Some of these published authors made it through the red tape of Agents and Editors and gotten their stories published with traditional publishing houses, others investigated smaller publishers and went that route, and still others have settled in nicely with POD publishers.  They did this because they believed in their abilities to tell an entertaining story and a desire to take readers on an adventure.  They enjoy writing. 

The point is, these are published authors and they didn’t give up. They obviously invested in some tough Rhino skin as well so as not to be discouraged to the point of not writing or querying their stories.  Persistence has its rewards.   They’ve networked and marketed aggressively. Even after getting a contract, they continue working on building and keeping a strong reader base by perfecting their skills as a storyteller. 

For these published authors, their characters have emigrated from the world in their heads and their computers to New York and hit the ‘A’ list-the Best Sellers list.   Some of the authors have had their books optioned and have seen their characters make it to the movies. Some of their characters have starred in TV movies or series. Their characters have happily found homes in Borders and Barnes and Noble.  Others are happily ensconced on a nice cozy bookshelf in someone’s home.  

There are many success stories out there.  The question is, will you stay the course and help your characters immigrate?  Where will your characters end up?  Will they immigrate or end up spending their life with you?

As for me, I’m determined to help my characters immigrate.

Would You Like Me to Interview Your Characters?

I am starting a new blog, Pat Bertram Introduces . . .  where I will be posting interviews with fictional characters. The first interview has been posted: Pat Bertram Introduces Siegfried Marggrander, close friend and brother-in-law of Gus LeGarde, of the LeGarde Mystery series, written by Aaron Lazar.

If you wish a character to be interviewed by Pat Bertram, please answer fifteen to twenty questions from the Character Questionaire Page and submit them in the comment section along with whatever links you’d like included. Be sure to answer in your character’s voice, and be sure you mention the title of the book and who wrote it. If an answer to a question is yes or no, please explain why. (Example: Do you run away from conflict? Yes. Why? I don’t like fighting. See, there was this time in third grade where I got in a fight and . . .) Feel free to include your own questions. The character interviewed does not have to be the hero. Even if you don’t want your character interviewed, you can ask your characters these questions to help you profile them.

  1. What is your story?
  2. Who are you?
  3. Where do you live?
  4. Are you the hero of your own story?
  5. What is your problem in the story?
  6. Do you have a problem the wasn’t mentioned in the story?
  7. Do you embrace conflict?
  8. Do you run from conflict?
  9. How do you see yourself?
  10. How do your friends see you?
  11. How do your enemies see you?
  12. How does the author see you?
  13. Do you think the author portrayed you accurately?
  14. What do you think of yourself?
  15. Do you have a hero?
  16. Do you have a goal?
  17. What are your achievements?
  18. Do you talk about your achievements?
  19. Do you keep your achievements to yourself?
  20. Do you have any special strengths?
  21. Do you have any special weaknesses?
  22. Do you have any skills?
  23. Do you have money troubles?
  24. What do you want?
  25. What do you need?
  26. What do you want to be?
  27. What do you believe?
  28. What makes you happy?
  29. What are you afraid of?
  30. What makes you angry?
  31. What makes you sad?
  32. What do you regret?
  33. What is your biggest disappointment?
  34. What, if anything, haunts you?
  35. Are you lucky?
  36. Have you ever failed at anything?
  37. Has anyone ever failed you?
  38. Has anyone ever betrayed you?
  39. Have you ever failed anyone?
  40. Have you ever betrayed anyone?
  41. Do you keep your promises?
  42. Are you honorable?
  43. Are you healthy?
  44. Do you have any handicaps?
  45. Do you have any distinguishing marks?
  46. What was your childhood like?
  47. Do you like remembering your childhood?
  48. Did anything newsworthy happen on the day you were born?
  49. Did you get along with your parents?
  50. What in your past had the most profound effect on you?
  51. What in your past would you like to forget?
  52. What in your past would you like others to forget?
  53. Who was your first love?
  54. Who is your true love?
  55. Have you ever had an adventure?
  56. What is the most important thing that ever happened to you? Why?
  57. Was there a major turning point in your life?
  58. Was there ever a defining moment of your life?
  59. Is there anything else about your background you’d like to discuss?
  60. What is your most closely guarded secret?
  61. What is your most prized possession? Why?
  62. Do you have any hobbies?
  63. What is your favorite scent? Why?
  64. What is your favorite color? Why?
  65. What is your favorite food? Why?
  66. What is your favorite beverage? Why?
  67. What is your favorite music? Why?”
  68. What is your favorite item of clothing? Why?
  69. Name five items in your purse, briefcase, or pockets.
  70. What are the last five entries in your check registry?
  71. What are the last three books you read?
  72. If you were at a store now, what ten items would be in your shopping cart?
  73. If you had the power to change one thing in the world that didn’t affect you personally, what would it be?
  74. What makes you think that change would be for the better?
  75. If you were stranded on a desert island, would you rather be stranded with, a man or a woman?
  76. How do you envision your future?

Writing Dialogue

Dialogue is not conversation. It is an artificial construct that gives the impression of spontaneous and realistic speech without the ums and ers and repetition and stuttering and sidetracks into inanity that characterizes normal conversation. Dialogue shows the relationship between characters, and ideally should be so effective that any analysis of the relationship is unnecessary. 

Elizabeth Bowen, a British author, writes: “What are the realistic qualities to be imitated (or faked) in novel dialogue? Spontaneity. Artless or hit-or-miss arrival at words used. Ambiguity (speaker not sure, himself, what he means.) Irrelevance. Allusiveness. Erraticness, unpredictable course. Repercussion. 

“What must novel dialogue, behind mask of these fake rrealistic qualities, really be and do? It must be pointed, intentional, relevant. It must crystallize situation. It must express character. It must advance plot. During dialogue, the characters confront one another. The confrontation is in itself an occasion. Each one of these occasions, throughout the novel, is unique. Since the last confrontation, something has changed, advanced. What is being said is the effect of something that happened; at the same time, what is being said is in itself something happening, which will, in turn, leave its effect.” 

Dialogue also characterizes the speaker; we can tell who a character is by what that character says and how he or she says it. Each character the main character interacts with should bring our a different facet of the character. You generally don’t speak the same way to your boss and your best friend, your mother and your spouse. 

Sometimes when people talk to others, especially when they accuse the other person of doing or behaving in a certain way, they are talking to themselves. So, in effect, what a character says to another or about another reveals the character’s inner thoughts. Like dreams. Didn’t Freud say that all characters in a dream are facets of the dreamer? 

So how do you write good dialogue? 

Make speeches short.
Have speakers cut in on one another.
Answer a question with a question.
Ignore questions, or answer it after another exchange of words.
Instead of a character answering a question directly, have him tell why it was done: “Did you eat the cookie?” “They looked so good.”
Have characters play tug-of-war with words, each trying to get something from the other.
When editing, review every snippet of speech and ask yourself, “Is this the best, the wittiest, the most dramatic thing the character can say?” Dialogue is not life. In life, most of us can’t think of the perfect response until it is way too late. But in writing you can take your time and make each bit of dialogue a jewel. 

A perfect bit of dialogue from the seventh century: 

A foreign conquerors sent the Laconians a message: “If I come to Laconia, not one brick will stand on another.” 

The laconic reply? “If”.

On Writing: Food

Sex and violence are visceral activites, but so is eating. Food is at once primitive and sophisticated, animalistic and human. We need to eat, but to a great extent we get to choose what we eat. And we get to choose for our characters. In fact, the characters of our characters lie in that choice. Are they vegan, omnivore, or something in between? Do they binge out or are they ascetic? When alone, do they take the time to cook a meal for themselves, or do they eat it standing over the sink? For me, a big question is what characters do with leftovers. Whenever characters in books throw away perfectly good food, I lose all sympathy for them and start rooting for the villains. Even in a world of abundance, food is precious. Or should be.

Wasted food gripes the heck out of me; I despise real and fictional food fights. Shows disrespect for life, a total lack of sensitivity, and people who never knew want. Another movie/book scene I absolutely hate is when a guy proposes to a woman by putting a ring in her drink, in a desert, or any other comestible. All I can think of is broken teeth when she bites into it or a punctured gut when she swallows it. Very romantic!

Besides describing character, food can be used as a theme, a plot point, a symbol. Food can be used to define the emotion of a scene or to delay the action and add suspense. Food helps create a setting in historical novels. The way a person eats tells a lot about character. You don’t need to describe food. Everyone knows what hamburger tastes like, or ice cream or jello. The whole ambience of food is much more important. I have one character who chews each mouthful of food exactly twenty-five times. His fiance finds herself counting his jaw movements, and by that you can tell that there relationship is doomed.

Just think of all the conflict attached to a family feast, such as a Thanksgiving dinner. The drama of several women competing to make their own favorite dressing, the trauma of a burnt pumpkin pie, the complication of children running underfoot, the conflicts of . . . You know the story. You’ve been there.
Movies and television shows are filled with great food scenes. The best Golden Girls shows were the ones where they sat at the kitchen table eating everything in sight, and talking about their lives. And who can forget the breakfast scene in My Stepmother Was an Alien, where she cooked up an entire menu. Or the breakfast scene in Uncle Buck when John Candy made pancakes as big as a table and used a snow shovel as a turner. All great food visuals, but also much going on beneath the scene.  

What role does food plays in your novels, in novels you have read, or in movies you have seen?

Fun food related websites:

The Food Time Line

History and Legends of Favorite Foods

History of Food and Food Products

Food History Resources

Food and Drink in Regency England

Medieval Recipes

Writing to the Extremes

It is not necessarily true that a picture is worth a thousand words. It takes only a few words, if they are the right words, to create vivid portraits. The secret is to choose significant details — details that mean something, that promote the story, that evoke emotion — rather than to write long passages of trivia. By writing to the extremes (the extremities, I mean) we can bring our characters to life in a new way.

In The Blue Nowhere, Jeffery Deaver tells us about Wyatt Gillette, a computer wizard, by focusing our attention on Gillette’s hands. Gillette has thick yellow calluses on the tips of his muscular fingers, and even when Gillette is not at a computer, his fingers move constantly as if typing on an invisible keyboard. I know somewhere in the novel Deaver described Gillette, but did he really need to? Don’t we get a feeling for the character from those two significant details?

By describing a character’s hands, we can describe the character. A man with manicured and buffed fingernails is different from one with grime permanently etched into his cuticles. A woman with bitten fingernails is different from one with dirty, broken nails, and both are different from a woman wearing designer acrylic nails. The color of nail polish a woman chooses tells us about her character. And clear nail polish on a man would tell us about his character.

We can describe hands in many ways: claw-like, thin, scrawny, big-knuckled, blue-veined, plump, fat, chubby, arthritic. Characters can have tattooed hands. They can wear gloves, a simple wedding band, or multiple rings on each finger.

Hands also do things. They wave, point, gesture, touch chins or noses, and each of these gestures and mannerisms tells us about the character.

And don’t forget fingers and toes. What is there to say about toes? Think about a woman who wears severe suits and a severe hairstyle but paints her toenails crimson. That contradiction makes us want to know more about her. Or think about a man with a mincing walk stemming from shoes so small they pinch his toes.

Do you remember to use the extremities in your novels? How do you use them? What ways can you use them, but don’t? Can you think of ways to describe characters by their extremities alone? What gestures or mannerisms can define characters? What gestures or mannerisms can characters use that may be fresh and not trite? (For example, restless feet can denote lying, or a desire to be somewhere else, or boredom.) What other example can you think of (or have already written) where a character’s extremities play a significant role? Is it better for the extremities to match the character or contradict it? Shoes are a significant fact of life; how do shoes figure into your novel?

On Writing: More About Character

Creating characters is one of the challenges and satisfactions of writing. We need to devise lifelike personalities for our story people, and we need to figure out why they act the way they do. Characters’ motivations for their actions are more important than their personality type. That WHY takes the character out of the ordinary.

In Practical Tips For Writing Popular Fiction, Robyn Carr states, “Some of the most common failures in motivating characters or plots occur from the following:

1. Foolish and or spontaneous actions.

2. Arbitrary decisions and/or behavior (making the behavior purposeful instead of arbitrary makes the motivation believable.)

3. Actions prompted by passive needs or emotions.”

We learn much about characters from their actions, but what the character does is not the defining element. Like with personality, the defining element is WHY the character does what he does. Characters can do anything, though they must be psychologically true and consistent. A character who is cowardly but does not hesitant to rescue someone from danger without any reference to fear or a believable reason for the action is not a well-written character.

Characters do change, of course, but the motivation for that change must be shown. Some basic personality traits do not change under ordinary conditions, so if a smart character becomes stupid or slow, he has to suffer some sort of trauma, as in Regarding Henry. Nor can a slow character suddenly become smart without intervention. The movie Phenomenon is a good example of how that can happen.

When it comes to storytelling, character is all. The plot and the character should be so intertwined that we never see them as separate. Character motivation, in many instances, is the plot — what the characters do and why.

In Story Robert McKee writes: “The revelation of true character in contradiction to characterization (the sum of all observable qualities) is fundamental to all fine storytelling. What seems is not what is. People are not what they appear to be. A hidden nature waits concealed behind the facade of traits.” And often, in that hidden nature, we find our character’s motivation.

Making a Character Come Alive

Even though I never planned to enter another writing contest, I did. It’s a local one, nothing major, but the concept intrigued me: the first 650 words of a novel. I could have submitted something I’d already started, but I liked the idea of baiting a hook without having to figure out what comes next.

To my surprise, that character in that hook really came alive for me, which is more than the hero in my work-in-progress has done. The character in the contest entry is a bumbler, an artist who barely knows the difference between a brush and a broom, and this disparity between reality and the character’s self-concept has made her real.

According to psychologist Prescott Lecky (1892-1941), people can only be true to themselves. Individuals will behave in a way that is consistent with their self-concept, even if this behavior is unrewarding to them or inconsistent with reality, and people will do anything to preserve this self-concept.

And that is why the hero of my work-in-progress is not coming alive to me: he is not alive to himself. He has no self-concept. A novel is filtered through the senses, emotions, and point of view of a major character. And it is filtered through the character’s concept of himself. For example, a character who sees himself as a loner will not, perhaps, accept a proffered helping hand when needed, where a character who sees himself as part of a community might feel entitled to that same help.

So how does my hero see himself? He identifies more with animals than humans, so he probably sees himself as a lone wolf who is self-sufficient and needs no one. This would fit with his need for freedom, his defining characteristic. It would also explain why, when he meets his mentor, he watches the man leave without any thought of accompanying him, and why, when he meets the crone, he doesn’t recognize the subconscious need for family she raises in him.

I haven’t yet read the finished chapters with this in mind, but there’s a chance I won’t need to make any revisions. It could be that this change — knowing the character’s self-concept — is merely for me, a new way of seeing him, a new way of making him come alive.

And now, because the character in the contest entry is also alive, I have two books that I’m not writing.

Creating a Character — Part VI

The second half of a book is easy for me to write — I know the characters, their backstories and motivations — but I have trouble with the front part. My poor hero, Chip, has been running from a volcano for the past month while I’ve been trying to figure out who he is, what I need him to be, and what he needs to become.

According to Robert McKee in Story, “The most fascinating characters have a conscious desire and a contradictory unconscious desire. What he believes he wants is the antithesis of what he actually but unwittingly wants. (Although the protagonist is unaware of their subconscious need, the audience senses it, perceiving in them an inner contradiction.)”

After the volcano incident, Chip is going to meet an archetypal crone who was supposed to get him to thinking that now he wants a family (this after I’ve killed off almost everyone in the world and despite his need to be free) but it’s too soon in the book for him to want that. It would change the way he interacts with his mate when he finally meets her, which means it has to be a subconscious desire the old woman invokes in him, which changes my perception of the story, which means my WIP comes to a crashing halt while I rethink Chip’s wants and needs. And there he is, running from the volcano, waiting for me to figure him out so he can move on to the next disaster.

If a character wants something he himself doesn’t know he wants, it brings out different facets of personality than if he does know what he truly wants. The secret is to give character hints for the reader to pick up on without the author (or an authoritative character) explaining it. Much of reading is subconscious. We notice things without realizing we are noticing them.

Robert McKee also wrote: “The revelation of true character in contradiction to characterization (the sum of all observable qualities) is fundamental to all fine storytelling. What seems is not what is. People are not what they appear to be. A hidden nature waits concealed behind the facade of traits.”

If Chip doesn’t know what he truly wants until he gets it, it also will add a different dimension to the theme, which is freedom vs. safety. He first chooses freedom, next he chooses incarceration and saftey, then he chooses the excitement and danger of freedom over the boredom of safety, finally he chooses responsibility, a different facet of freedom.

By giving Chip an inner character in contradiction to his outer one, he should become a richer character which in turn will allow the story to explore all the facets of the theme rather than the rather simplistic one of freedom vs. safety.

Now all I have to do is get the poor guy away from that volcano or else there will be no story.

Creating a Character — Part I

Creating a Character — Part II

Creating a Character — Part III

Creating a Character — Part IV

Creating a Character — Part V