Friday, March 22, 2013

Guest Post: Gwen Jones


Welcome to the Pearls of Wisdom Author Tour! 

Today's guest is my client Professor Gwen Jones. She is the author of Wanted: Wife (June 2013 HarperCollins), among other titles.  Gwen teaches creative writing in a masters program and is nominated for a Pushcart Award for Hawks. Her post today about character development is loaded with great tips. Read on! 

No Boring Characters Ever!
By Gwen Jones

Who is this: ...a pale, skinny young woman who had hair as short as a fuse, and a pierced nose and eyebrows. She had a wasp tattoo about two centimeters on her neck, a tattooed loop around the bicep of her left arm, another loop around her left ankle, a Chinese symbol on her hip and a rose on her left calf. On those occasions when she had been wearing a tank top, a dragon tattoo can be seen on her left shoulder blade.

This one I'm giving to you: Sam Spade's jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting V under the more flexible V of his mouth. His nostrils curved back to make another, smaller, V. His yellow-gray eyes were horizontal. The V motif was picked up again by thickish brows rising outward from twin creases above a hooked nose, and his pale brown hair grew down--from high flat temples--in a point on his forehead. He looked rather pleasantly like a blond satan.

Or this: Just because Laura Rider had no children didn't mean her husband was a homosexual, but the people of Hartley, Wisconsin, believed he was, and no babies seemed to them proof. They also could tell by his heavy-lidded eyes that were sweetly tapered, his thick dark lashes, his corkscrew curls, his skinny legs and the springy walk, and the fact that he often looked dreamily off in thought, as if he were trying to see over the rainbow.

Or finally this exquisite piece of writing: He was tall, six-foot-two at least, his black hair swept back to just nick his collar, his skin tanned, his cheekbones high, his shoulders as wide as his waist was lean. He wore dark trousers, a white shirt, a tie and a vest, but I could tell immediately he was used to more freedom. His body looked sculpted by hard and frequent use, his biceps nearly bursting from their cotton casing, and even in that un-air conditioned room, he looked as cool and collected as if encased in ice. Putting it all together, he was quite the package, but that wasn’t what took my breath away. As I came toward the table, as he moved around it to meet me, it was his eyes that nearly nailed me to the floor, two sharp, liquid arrows so regally blue they looked cut from some empirical standard, and infused with an intelligence so far above any preconceived notions, I genuinely felt embarrassed. To put it simply: he was not what I expected.

If you haven't guessed, the first one is Lisbeth Salander from The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson, next Sam Spade from Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon, Charlie Rider from Laura Rider's Masterpiece by Jane Hamilton, and Andy Devine from...from...er, some inconsequential book by someone equally inconsequential and whose name escapes me at the moment (Could it be Gwen Jones from Wanted: Wife, releasing June 4, 2013 from HarperCollins Avon? Nah, that would be a shameless self-promotion!) In any event, what we've seen here are some clear physical insights to the main characters of their respective books. From those bits of first impression we could glean that a) Salanader's tastes tend to run to the avant-garde, b) Sam Spade's numerous 'V' attributes no doubt much make his name eponymous, c) Charlie Rider's one pretty man, and d) Andy Devine’s creator is undoubtedly a literary genius.

But beyond what physical descriptions tell us about the characters, what can you do to make them alive and breathing, especially considering some modern schools of thought decry physical descriptions at all? Let's take a look at this “Checklist on Creating Characters,” taken from DavidStarkey's Creative Writing - Four Genresin Brief  (Bedford/St. Martin's, 2009), a terrific textbook I’ve used in my Creative Writing classes:

1. Do you know your main characters and their desires well? You should have a strong sense of who your characters are, where they live, where they've been, and the driving forces that make them act. They should know what they want and what they're prepared to do to get it.

2. Does your story show us only the essential aspect of your characters? While it's important that you know your characters thoroughly, you will be revealing only a tiny sliver of that info on the page. Show your characters being themselves, only more so. Whatever conflict they are involved in  should bring out a heightened sense of who they really are.

3. Is your description of each character appropriate to, and necessary for, that character's function in the story? You, the author, should always have a clear mental picture of your characters, but you should ask yourself if a complete physical, psychological, ethical, etc., description is really necessary for all characters. Unless some physical or emotional aspect of your character is necessary to the storyline, leave it out.

4. Are the characters' names appropriate? Obviously Sam Spade's was, but are yours? Try not to have too many Sams, Steves, Saras or Susies, as so many of the same letter can be confusing. And if that 1840s character from the remotest region of cloistered China is named O'Brien, you better have a reason why.

5. Should that character be named at all?  He's a doorman the protagonist breezes past on the way out. Who cares. Unless, of course, later on he comes after him with a shotgun.

6. Are your main characters different at the end of the story than they were in the beginning? The most convincing fictional characters are both consistent and surprising. Reread the opening and concluding sections of your story. Do you see a difference in how your protagonist began and how he or she ends up? If there's no growth--or considerable decline--then you have a static character, and your readers will feel cheated.

7. And at the end, will they leave your readers wanting more? Essential if you want to continue your story in a series. Like breadcrumbs through the woods, leave a trail of intriguing tidbits about the characters you'd like your readers to follow into the next book. And the next, and the next, and beyond.
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Gwen Jones, MFA, is an Assistant Professor of English at Mercer County College, in West Windsor, NJ and a mentor in Graduate Studies at Western Connecticut State University’s Master of Fine Arts in Creative and Professional Writing program. Her work has appeared in The Connecticut River Review and The Kelsey Review, from which  her short story, “Hawks” was recently nominated for a Pushcart Prize. A writer of women’s fiction and romance, her novel Wanted: Wife, is due for release by HarperCollins Avon in June, 2013. She lives with her husband, Frank, near Trenton, New Jersey.

I'd like to give a special thank you to Gwen for sharing her pearls of wisdom with all of us. To see more, visit her site at www.gwenjoneswrites.com.

Happy writing my friends!
~Marisa