Posted On December 6, 2013 by Print This Post

Handsome Hansel – Be A Parent To Your Characters

Help me welcome Handsome Hansel from the Dance of Romance. Are your characters like your children? Is it time to throw them into the deep end of the pool?


Maybe it’s the afterglow of all the Turkey I consumed this Thanksgiving or perhaps it’s the two-fingers of Gentleman Jack I just polished off after reluctantly participating amongst the Black Friday crowds, but earlier this evening I emailed Carrie with the title of this post. When I did it, I knew what I meant to write about.

Like any writer, I have moments of epiphanies. I have sparks of brilliance. I even have sentences I’ve written that make me proud of myself. I used to write these moments on my forearm with a black Sharpie so I wouldn’t forget them later. But…this afternoon I didn’t have a Sharpie on me. So right now…I’m dead in the water.

(Exactly 43 minutes later.) Made up of a trip to the kitchen to pour another drink, a bathroom break, then staring at my iMac for the remaining 35 minutes.

Ok, I think I remember now.

I am in the fortunate position of being in the middle of cleaning up my manuscript with the help of an outside content editor and my publisher, who is also a line editor. (A position I didn’t know existed until she informed me it did.) Needless to say, between the two of them, I’ve been humbled as I’m sure all authors are once they let go of their work and have others take over.

One of the things I’ve had to do is “add depth” to my characters. Not that they’re shallow per se. They just prefer playing in the kiddy-pool of character development and haven’t seen the need to at least dog paddle in the deep end.

Like any parent (author), I’m hesitant to force my babies (characters) into the deep end. I’ve watched as other parents throw their newborn infants into the deep end of the pool and I’ve stood, stunned in amazement. After a couple breathless moments, the baby begins swimming. Underwater to boot! Fearless. Comfortable within its circumstances. Able to adapt and survive.

I’ll observe as the parent pulls its baby out of the water, dries it off, and returns the smile their baby is giving them. I’m jealous. I wish I had a baby who was happy I’d feigned their drowning under the premise of teaching it to swim.

Instead, I’ve been standing on the edge of the pool watching as my characters frolic in the shallow end. Occasionally they’ll shoot me smiles of appreciation because I brought them to the pool at all.

I’ve been working on my manuscript for awhile; as is the norm in the writing world I’ve come to learn. Which means my characters aren’t babies anymore. They are difficult, rebellious, pain-in-my-ass teenagers now. It’s my fault they won’t venture past the “4-foot” markings of the pool I’ve put them in. They’re afraid only because I’m afraid for them. They feel it in the hesitancy of my fingers on the keyboard. I can tell them it’s ok to head into deeper waters but they feel the uncertainty I have with my own encouragement of them. So they’re not going anywhere. Even with water-wings.

If I have any chance of getting my babies into the deep end of the pool, I have to push me first. I have to get over my fear of the possible dangers they’d face and reassure myself I’ll be there to save them no matter what happens. After-all, I have the help of the pools lifeguards: my editors and publisher.

So I have to suck it up and not ask my characters to expand their horizons and become a well rounded character but demand they do. No matter their age, I have to pull them from the shallow end, throw ‘em into the deep end and hope they swim. They’ll gasp, sputter, and call me everything but a white man while it’s happening, but they’ll thank me in the long run.

Even if they struggle at first, I can get in the water and guide them along, giving advice as to how to dog paddle when they can’t actually swim. Teaching them the various strokes of swimming until they are comfortable. More importantly, I’ll have learned there is nothing to fear by having done it. Turns out it’s ok to sub-textually drown your own characters for their betterment. Who knew?

It’s a scary, scary place for us as authors to push our characters. Push them to places we didn’t even know they could go. Making them do things we didn’t know they could do. We are our characters catalysts. They answer to us, not us to them. Just because they don’t want to grow doesn’t mean we have to be ok with it.

I took a leap of faith early on and emailed a chapter to a friend of mine for her thoughts. The first time she gave her opinion on a scene with one of my characters I truly felt like a parent listening as another parent badgered my kid. I listened, I electronically nodded in all the right places, and I felt like a loser as a parent to my babies. I’d let them down.

What was lost in my thinking is that all is not lost. There is hope. I can save my children from being ridiculed. They don’t have to become 20-somethings still creepily occupying the kiddy end of the pool. I had it in me to guide them to where they should be. Where they deserved to be.

As authors we have to go first though. It is up to us to show our characters there is nothing to fear. If they see we are comfortable…completely comfortable…in the deep end, they’ll follow. And it will make a hell of a story.

HH

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RU Writers, how do you make your characters fully developed?

Join us on Monday for Blog Tour Tips for the Busy Writer with Dani Collins

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Bio: Like most of us, I’ve been around the block a time or two (or three) in the relationship world. I like to think of myself as having a pretty thick skin, however, that skin doesn’t surround the heart.

I’ve been in love; I’ve been in lust. I’ve been hurt and got up to do it all again, each time having learned more of myself as well as “wants” and “don’t wants” for my next relationship. Amazingly enough, I never gave up on that one true love wrapped in Romance. You can visit me here, at http://thedanceofromanceonline.com

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39 Responses to “Handsome Hansel – Be A Parent To Your Characters”

  1. Brilliant metaphor, HH. One question, though – how do you punish them when they misbehave? ;)

    Posted by Lori Schafer | December 6, 2013, 8:31 am
  2. Thank you for this. As new writers I think we all have moments where we can throw our baby in, but are afraid that we can’t sustain it through the whole book.

    Is that letting the reader down by having a vivid moment of depth and then returning to status quo? Yes, but it takes a lot of work to keep it up. We need to try harder.

    Posted by Barb H | December 6, 2013, 9:34 am
    • Barb,

      Thanks for taking the time to comment. Having our characters grow throughout our book is the equivalent of raising children. All the way up until you have to let them go. :)

      HH

      Posted by HH | December 6, 2013, 5:01 pm
  3. Hi HH,

    I recently wrote an article about being my heroine’s mom, best friend, and nemesis. I need all three sides when I write.

    Mary Jo

    Posted by Mary Jo Burke | December 6, 2013, 9:53 am
  4. Morning HH!

    Having just finished nano, I can honestly say my characters never stepped out of the kiddie pool. They’re still wearing their rubber duckie inflatable. Looking back with a clear (ok, clearer) mind, I can see all sorts of missed opportunities for them to grow, to change, to be endangered, and I missed a LOT of them.

    Great post! Now I just need to kick those kids off the diving board! mwahahahahaha

    =)

    carrie

    Posted by Carrie Spencer | December 6, 2013, 10:14 am
  5. Great article. Love the image of throwing the “kids” into the deep end. It matches up perfectly with my own philosophy, though it’s a much more poetic way of putting it. I always try to “write my characters into corners.” Truly test them whenever I get the chance, and see what happens, how they react, what actions they take to get out of seemingly insurmountable situations. A trial by fire, as it were!

    I ascribe to the belief that it’s characters, first and foremost, that make ANY story. Plot, I feel, is secondary; it’s emergent FROM character. That’s why I agree with you so wholeheartedly; we must take risks with our characters if we want our stories to go anywhere! Whenever I’m given a chance to make my characters suffer, I go for it. Whenever I can make things go wrong for them, I do it. And when I discover how my characters can continue on, keep struggling forward, despite this, that’s when I know I’m on to something grand.

    Thanks for the article, HH!

    Best,
    Dan Levinson

    Posted by Dan Levinson | December 6, 2013, 10:30 am
    • Dan,

      Thanks for a great perspective! No matter if our character is “good” or “bad”, we still have to throw obstacles at them in order for the story to develop. We, as authors, benefit from the suffering of the ones we’ve come to love, our characters.

      It’s an odd relationship, isn’t it? (And I wouldn’t trade it for the world. :)

      HH

      Posted by HH | December 6, 2013, 5:07 pm
  6. Wow, what a thought-provoking post, HH. You really hit the nail on the head. So many authors will keep their characters in the safe end of the pool and the fact is, a book thrives on conflict. No matter the genre – romance, mystery, fantasy, etc – there has to come a time when the reader just doesn’t know what’s going to happen next. And it’s because the character – and many times, the author – didn’t know when writing that scene, either. Can’t wait to read your book when it is released. I bet it’s going to be terrific. Thanks for sharing the journey!

    Posted by p.m.terrell | December 6, 2013, 10:47 am
    • Trish,

      “…a book thrives on conflict.” After-all isn’t that why we read them? Why not write them that way?

      Thanks for taking the time to stop by, Trish. Means a lot.

      HH

      Posted by HH | December 6, 2013, 5:09 pm
  7. Hi Handsome,

    This is timely, considering I’m wrestling with my characters at the moment (and they’re winning). I agree that pushing them into the deep end starts with the writer.

    I have a particularly emotional scene to write and I know I have to “go there” in order to write it. I’m the one resisting.

    Thanks for the motivation. I’ll stuff cotton in my ears so I can’t hear them screaming and rip their hearts out. LOL.

    Posted by Tamara | December 6, 2013, 11:16 am
    • Tamara,

      Don’t let them win! Sometimes in order to really get to the heart of a scene we have to get our hands dirty and go there with them.

      Best of luck with your writing! Keep me posted, ok?

      HH

      Posted by HH | December 6, 2013, 5:10 pm
  8. Thanks for the analogy. I’ll remember this one!

    Posted by Carol Baldwin | December 6, 2013, 11:20 am
  9. Nice blog post Handsome. I don’t have problems w/throwing the kiddies into danger. :)That’s half the fun of writing for me.

    Posted by Maryann | December 6, 2013, 12:55 pm
  10. HH,

    This is also one of my biggest challenges. I want my heroes and heroines to be flawless – pure as the driven snow. It is so hard for me to allow them to be human, to make mistakes, and to venture out of the proverbial kiddie pool.

    I think producing well rounded characters is something we all struggle with. I actually produce character worksheets for each character that cover flaws, fears, loves and secrets. Crazy as it may sound I also interview each of my fictional characters. Strange add it might seem, the answers sometimes surprise me and I always learn something new about my characters. Those interviews and worksheets are the only reason I can create a well rounded character, because otherwise they would all be Superman andb Wonder Woman but with no weakness tokryotonite or anything else. It’s my way to teach them how to swim. Might be worth a try.

    Posted by Tracy Riva | December 6, 2013, 12:59 pm
    • Please forgive all the typos. “add” should be “as” and it should be kryptonite. Sorry.

      Posted by Tracy Riva | December 6, 2013, 1:01 pm
    • Tracy,

      You’ve been drinking again, haven’t you? :)

      Don’t worry about the typos, we’re all guilty. (Everyone bow to the spellcheck gods now.)

      I love the idea of interviewing your characters. I’d never thought of that. My only hesitation would be it would turn out like it would if I played chess against myself. I already know what my other self is planning to do so I counter. Then I know why I’m countering against myself so I change it up. (Now I have a headache.) :)

      I’d be interested in learning how you get the answers from your characters. DM or email me.

      HH

      Posted by HH | December 6, 2013, 5:19 pm
  11. Your children(characters) and your writing are a very big part of you. So it comes as no surprise that you are protective over them.
    Jumping into the deep end with them is taking you where you want to be as an author and as an individual.
    Although, jumping into the deep can be pretty scary and most definitely hard at times no matter how good of a swimmer we may be I truly believe it is there that we find out who we really are.
    We grow, become stronger, and wiser every time we jump in.
    Life is lived best by the risks we are willing to take.

    Posted by Terressa Cortez | December 6, 2013, 1:24 pm
  12. Hi, Hansel!

    Great metaphor. I completely agree. Lately I’ve been thinking about this a lot. And I realized that for me, it takes a bit of pushing. But once I’ve jumped off that cliff, or giant diving board, and I discover that the water is fine, I can do the same to my characters. And as scary as it seems to push them, the amount of good it does them is phenomenal.

    Posted by L.S. Taylor | December 6, 2013, 2:31 pm
    • L.S.

      I agree…the pushing is the hardest part. If they don’t swim we can jump in and save them. However, more likely than not, they’ll swim like fishes after a few awkward tries. :)

      Have a great weekend!
      HH

      Posted by HH | December 6, 2013, 5:22 pm
  13. Apt analogy. :) One of my “tricks” is to take a character aside while they are still new and trust me, and ask them ‘what is the worst thing than can happen?’ By the time they figure out why I asked, the worst is upon them, and it’s sink or swim time. It’s especially fun with the antagonist and/or the sidekick, too. :)

    Posted by Robyn LaRue | December 6, 2013, 4:07 pm
    • Robyn,

      Thanks for your comment!

      Wow! You sucker punch your characters?! I have to admire that. LOL.

      Just like Tracy above it seems you “talk” to your characters. Something I need to do more of. A lot more of.

      Thanks again!
      HH

      Posted by HH | December 6, 2013, 5:25 pm
  14. I tell myself, Let go. They were never mine to begin with.

    As they show me who they are, I begin to write. Those words are far better than what I could’ve come up with myself.

    Big smile.

    Warmly,
    Alexandra

    Posted by Alexandra Folz | December 6, 2013, 5:01 pm
    • Alexandra,

      I’m envious. I’m not sure why I have a hard time letting go. I have a story about a boy named Davie. I’m only four chapters into writing it but I know that one will be a hard one to let go of.

      Oh well, I’ll have to learn, huh?

      Hugs back.

      HH

      Posted by HH | December 6, 2013, 5:28 pm
  15. I think it’s hard to let go because our ego thinks our books are part of our identity.
    Daily, I remind myself, the scribe in me creates pieces of art to release into the world. Knowing they are meant to live beyond me makes it easier to let. It’s like I’m leaving a message I heard for someone else out there to read too. If I hold on tight to all the pieces of it, no one else will truly get it the way I do.

    Still learning with ya…everyday.

    Posted by Alexandra Folz | December 6, 2013, 5:53 pm
  16. Something I hadn’t considered at all. I based one of my characters on myself. And I’ve never liked the deep end. Guess it’s time to learn to swim.

    Posted by Kayla Lords | December 6, 2013, 5:56 pm
  17. When I first started writing, I went to a workshop with the message “torture your characters.” The instructor mentioned how even small problems like getting caught in the rain without an umbrella can challenge a character. Unfortunately, for some time those two concepts were melded together in my brain: torture character with crappy weather. In real life, yeah, a blizzard can seriously ruin my mood. But in fiction it takes more than bad weather to make readers care. It took awhile to learn it – I still hesitate to throw them in the deep end, but I’m getting there.

    Thanks for a provocative post!

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | December 6, 2013, 9:31 pm
  18. I think my problem is that when we go to the deep end, – it gets deep; and i stand on the side, suddenly paralyzed, watching. Or, almost like i hold them under, and watch, while they suffer, and the deep end turns into a tar pit from which there is no escape.
    I guess I’m not helping the parental fear factor; lol~ sorry.

    Posted by ~Zeal | December 6, 2013, 10:18 pm
  19. In my writing days…

    When it came to writing fanfictions, it’s easy, most characters are already established.

    When it came to writing non-fiction and semi-autobiographical it’s a lot more difficult. You have a vision. You know who those characters are, yet, you want them to be safe, to be kept safe. You have a story ready, but you still see them as babies and treat them as such. So, what happens? They don’t grow up. They have no depth. They are not flawed like the actual humans they’re based on.

    However when it came to writing fictional stories, somehow I found that a lot more easier to do because they’re not real. They’re not based on actual people. They’re just characters who you can strip naked and build up and if needed brutally murder for their actions.

    Posted by Soraya | December 9, 2013, 4:14 pm

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