Tag Archives: characterization

What Orson Scott Card taught me about The Lord of the Rings

Orson Scott Card, Ender's GameToday’s post is my third inspired by Orson Scott Card’s book Characters & ViewpointAs I’ve said in my other two posts, this is a fantastic book. Highly recommended for fiction writers.

In chapter five Card asks the question, “What kind of story are you telling?” He then categorizes various stories with what he calls “The MICE quotient.” Here’s a quote from Card:

“It is a mistake to think that “good characterization” is the same thing in every work of fiction. Different kinds of stories require different kinds of characters.

But what are the different kinds of stories? Forget about publishing genres… Instead we’ll look at four basic factors that are present in every story, with varying degrees of emphasis. It is the balance among these factors that determines what sort of characterization a story must have, should have, or can have.”

The four factors make up the acronym MICE.

M – Milieu stories
I – Idea stories
C – Character stories
E – Event stories

Card then contends that usually a given story will feature one of these elements more heavily than others, and that Character stories are the dominant type of story in our culture today.

I’m not going to explain all four factors here (you really should read the book!), but rather I’ll focus on one factor: Milieu.

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Help me pick a Six Word Story

Have you ever tried to write a six word story? I learned about a website called Six Word Stories.net via my friend and flash fiction aficionado, Josh Mosey. The editors of this site post a new six word story every day. Readers can submit their own. I decided to take a stab at it tonight. It’s a good exercise. Tell me which story you think I should submit to the site.

  1. New library book. Strange story. Returned.
  2. Didn’t exercise last weekend. Behind again.
  3. He said “love.” She said “like.”
  4. Almost a winner. Trying to smile.
  5. Grabbed the gun. “You’ll regret that.”
  6. At home again. She wept gratefully.


Writing six word stories forces you to be extremely picky about your word choice. You don’t have the space to be even remotely verbose. (For example, there are no room for adverbs like “extremely” or “remotely.”) As I wrote the above stories I found myself contemplating every word, especially the pronouns. Because the pronoun might be the only descriptor given of the character in the story I wanted to be careful about which ones I used. I tried to give every sentence as much resonance with as large an audience as possible.

For example, on my first draft of #5 I wrote “Grabbed his gun. ‘You’ll regret that.”’ I took out “his” so as not to limit the reader. Perhaps it will be more powerful for some to imagine a woman saying “you’ll regret that”. Who knows.

In #6 I left in “she” because I think the image of a woman weeping gratefully might have more power than a man weeping gratefully. First of all, it’s likely more easy for most people to visualize a woman weeping than a man. And it also begs the question, why is she weeping? Was she kidnapped? Did one of her kids go missing? Was her baby taken? Did she escape from horrible evil? I think all of those questions are more likely to come to readers’ minds if the character is a “she” rather than a “he.” (Note: I’m not trying to make any sort of statement about gender roles with these comments. I’m just trying to play off of what I think most readers’ likely response to the story will be.)

I left the pronouns in #3 for obvious reasons. Every reader understands the age-old uncertainties between men and women in romantic relationships.

So is there a story here that stands out among the others? Let me know and I’ll submit it to Six Word Stories.net. Give this exercise a try. It’s a fun way to stretch your writing muscles.


What is a Character? Insights from Orson Scott Card

Orson Scott Card, Ender's GameThis week I started reading Characters and Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card.  After thumbing through it in a Barnes and Noble for twenty minutes, and then later reading reviews on Amazon about it, and then again going back to Barnes and Noble to do more thumbing I finally decided to invest. It looks like a fantastic book that will challenge me to think deeply about the characters I’m creating. I plan to read this book slowly. I want all of Card’s wisdom to seep in deeply.

Chapter 1 contains a quote on the first page that made me excited to be a fiction writer:

“That part of what fiction is for – to give better understanding of human nature and human behavior than anyone can ever get in life.”

The rest of chapter 1 answers the question: What is a character? I didn’t even finish reading the whole chapter before I put the book down and started jotting notes about the protagonists in two stories I’m working on know. Here’s Card’s list from chapter 1, along with some quotes from the book to help explain the idea.

A character is:

  • What he/she does – “People become, in our minds, what we see them do.”
  • Someone with motive – “Motive is what gives moral value to a character’s acts….A character is what he does, ye – but even more, a character is what he means to do.”
  • Someone with a past – “People are what they have done, and what has been done to them.”
  • Someone with a reputation – “Whether his reputation is deserved or not, however, it must be taken into account. Part of a character’s identity is what others say about him.”
  • Someone who is stereotyped by others, and someone who may themselves have stereotypes of others – “As storytellers we can’t stop our readers from making stereotype judgments. In fact, we count on them. … That’s part of the poser of stereotypes – they set up expectations so you can surprise your reader.”
  • Someone who has a network of relationships (i.e. our characters will talk to their spouses differently than they talk to their co-workers, or the cashier at the bank) – “One of the most startling and effective devices in fiction [is] to take characters out of one setting and put them in another, where different facets of their personality come to the fore.”
  • Someone with habits and patterns – “Habits not only make the character more realistic, but also open up story possibilities.”
  • Someone with talents and abilities – “Your readers will also perk up when a fictional character turns out to be unusually good at something.”
  • Someone with tastes and preferences – “Real people have preferences, and so should fictional characters. Not only do such tastes help the reader feel like he knows the character better, they also open up possibilities within the story.”
  • Someone with a unique physical description – “A person’s body is certainly an important part of who he is … [but] … Far too many writers – especially beginners – think that a physical description of a character is characterization.”

Case Study: Rose Miersma

Rose is the main character in a short story I’m working on currently. I call her a “main character” because I’m not sure yet if she’s a hero or a villain and calling her a “protagonist” seems to heroic. I’ve decided to take the above bullet points and try to define each one of them for Rose.

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A quick list of those who have walked into fear

In yesterday’s post I talked about how I got to hear Donald Miller speak at an event, and specifically, about how he mentioned the idea that protagonists always need to be “walking into fear” in order for stories to be compelling. Just as an exercise, I’ve generated a list of some of my favorite heroes and protagonists. Alongside each name is the object of fear they were walking into. I didn’t limit myself to just characters found in books, and I didn’t limit myself to just “serious” stories either. Protagonists of comedies walk towards fear just as much heroes from dramas.

Luke Skywalker – Faced the most evil and powerful force in the galaxy as well as secrets from his family’s past

Harry Potter – Faced the most evil and powerful force in the world and tracked down his parents’ killer

Frodo Baggins – Walked directly into the heart of the most evil and powerful force in his world and carried with him an object his enemy desperately wanted

Shawn Spencer and Burton Guster from “Psych” – routinely tracked down killers with the local police and always put themselves in harm’s way

Richard Castle and Kate Becket from “Castle” – routinely tracked down killers and put themselves in harm’s way

Guy Montag from Fahrenheit 451 – breaks the law and risks his life when he starts to question societal norms

Will FerrellWill Ferrell’s character, “Harold Click,” in “Stranger than Fiction” – when he falls in love he leaves the safety of his calm, ordered, predictable life to chase the girl and to discover the mystery voice inside his head

Tom Hanks’ character, “Joe Fox,” in “You’ve Got Mail” – he’s an uber-successful businessman who could have whatever he wants, but in order to win the love of his life he has to do two things he’s never done before: 1) swallow his pride, 2) ask for forgiveness

This is just a list from off the top of my head. If I was standing in front of my bookshelf I could probably think of many more. I’m sure you can too.

Writers, here’s the question to ask yourself: Is my protagonist walking into fear? If not, why not? (Because I’m sensing you’ll need a really good reason…)

Write strong!


Walking into Fear with Donald Miller

Last night I attended a fundraising event for an anti-trafficking group, Women at Risk International. NYT Bestselling author, Donald Miller, was the keynote speaker.

Blue Like JazzAt the beginning of his presentation he introduced himself as a storyteller. Throughout the rest of his address he spoke in story and writing terms. He talked about “protagonists,” “good turns,” “bad turns,” and used other storytelling phrases. Something he said in passing got the cogs in my head turning. I was not taking notes, so this is not a direct quote. But he said something along the lines of:

Happiness isn’t a very good story. When you’re writing a story you need to make sure your protagonist is walking into fear. Then, once they’ve faced the fear, you’ll have joy, which is a much better way to end a story than just happiness. 

That phrase, “walking into fear,” really popped out at me. I immediately thought of Luke Skywalker walking into the cave on Dagobah. Then I started thinking about the goblin project and the short stories I’ve been working on lately. Are my protagonists walking into fear? If they’re not, should they be?

I’m just starting to write a new scene for the goblin project that takes my protagonist and his companions on a life-threatening mini-adventure right in the middle of their quest. I was planning to use it as a time to not only grow the characters, but also to reveal some new information about the mysterious place they are headed. Now I’m thinking it might also be a good time to put a little fear into their hearts.

I don’t think I’ve made the quest scary enough. My protagonist is dogged about where he’s going and what he’s doing. He’s on a mission to save the other goblins that live on the mountain. Period. I’ve written him to be a brave, relentless hero. I’ve inserted a little bit of self-doubt, and I’ve had one of his companions question the legitimacy of the quest, but I don’t think I’ve actually made my protagonist fearful of where they’re going.

My thanks goes out to Donald Miller for getting me to think this way. A comment he made in passing during an address that wasn’t specifically about writing will (hopefully) help me to craft much stronger stories.

Help needed: Mulling over one line in a short story

I’m still working on my short story submission for the Write Michigan contest. I have a month until it is due. I mentioned in a previous post that an editor friend of mine graciously agreed to read it. He returned a printed version of the manuscript to me with his corrections and comments on it. I’m mulling over one of his suggested changes and I could use some help.

My story has a protagonist, two supporting characters, and two other characters that are only mentioned once or twice. I’m trying to keep the character descriptions to a minimum. As I heard at a writers conference recently, I’m trying to give impressions of characters rather than detailed descriptions.

At one point in the story I describe one of the supporting characters this way:

She had short, ferret-like gray hair and her nose curled upward into a point. She was filing her nails as if she was engaged in battle with her fingers. 

My friend circled the line about filing her nails and wrote in the margin, “I’m not sure this description is working.”

I had already re-written this line a few times before my friend ever saw it. I’m not sure where to go with it. Do you have any ideas?

I’m trying to capture in one sentence that this woman is an angry person. She’s upset about something and liable to unleash her anger if you cross her. She is not to be trifled with and does not want to talk about it. Know what I mean?

I’ve read many short stories in which just one line of description, or just one unique action captures the essence of a character. That’s what I’m trying to do here. I’m trying to craft something that will make readers thing, “I know exactly who this person is” upon the first reading.

I’m open to suggestions. How would you improve these sentences?

Telling Details: Some Examples

I’ve been thinking more about “telling details” this week and I thought that it might be helpful to post a few here for all of us to read. I’ve looked through various books on my shelf to find these. If you know of any other great examples off-hand please leave them in the comments section below.

Here’s the passage from chapter 2 of Facing the Hunchback of Notre Dame that got me thinking about this in the first place:

“And we’ll need you to dress fifteenth-century French. I have just the items,” said Augustus as he joined them, arranging his poplin suit just so. He rearranged his silverware to perfection, then picked up the fork.

This excerpt from chapter 1 of Cakes and Ale by W. Somerset Maugham is a great example of “the telling detail” at work. Maugham not only inserts telling details about the housekeeper, Miss Fellows, but the narrator references them for the reader. Here’s the conversation between the narrator and Miss Fellows about a phone call that he neither wants to take, nor return:

“Is that the writer?” she asked me.
“It is.”
She gave the telephone a friendly glance.
“Shall I get him?”
“No, thank you.”
“What shall I say if he rings again?”
“Ask him to leave a message.”
“Very good, sir.”
She pursed her lips. She took the empty siphon, swept the room with a look to see that it was tidy, and went out. Miss Fellows was a great novel reader. I was sure that she had read all of Roy’s books. Her disapproval of my casualness suggested that she had read them with admiration.

Here’s an excerpt from chapter 1 of Fahrenheit 451. It’s easy to see that Guy Montag is confident in his work as a fireman:

He hung up his black beetle-colored and shined it; he hung his flameproof jacket neatly; he showered luxuriously, and then, whistling, hands in pockets, walked across the upper floor of the fire station and fell down the hole. At the last moment, when disaster seemed positive, he pulled his hands from his pockets and broke his fall by grasping the golden pole. He slid to a squeaking halt, the heels one inch from the concrete floor downstairs.

Here’s an interesting example from chapter 1 of Goblin Quest by Jim C. Hines. In this scene a large mean goblin captain (Porak) is bullying and tricking a younger weaker goblin to join his patrol that night. Notice how the telling detail is use and then interpreted for the reader. I think this is similar to how Maugham explained Miss Fellows’ above:

“Glory, fighting, and bloodshed.” The goblins puffed up like rock lizards competing for a mate. Porak smiled, a warning sign if ever there was one. “We want you to come along on patrol.”

As I’ve worked on my manuscript for the goblin project this week I’ve been focusing on inserting telling details along the way. I’m not trying to overdo it, of course, but I am finding that my manuscript lacks in this area. My plan now is to go into every major dialogue sequence in my story and see where I can re-write a sentence or two and insert telling details if they are needed.

Happy writing.