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:~: Tuesday, November 13, 2007 :~:

Character Driven Fiction

Welcome to our guest blogger: Bonnie Hearn Hill

Author, teacher and public speaker Bonnie Hearn Hill worked as a newspaper editor for 22 years, a job that, along with her natural nosiness, increased her interest in contemporary culture. Her 2003 novel, Intern was called “a page-turner” by Publishers Weekly. Killer Body (February 2004), a thriller about our weight-obsessed culture, was a Cosmopolitan magazine “pick.” In September 2006, Bonnie’s series of newspaper thrillers from MIRA Books featuring hearing-impaired reporter Geri LaRue, debuted. She has also written nonfiction, including a co-authored book on the Scott Peterson murder trial and articles for Publishers Weekly, Writer’s Digest and The Writer magazines.

A national conference speaker, contest judge and co-founder/faculty member for the Yosemite Writers Conference, Bonnie leads a very successful writers' workshop in Fresno. She is proud to have mentored some of the San Joaquin Valley’s most successful authors, including Hazel Dixon-Cooper, now the Cosmopolitan magazine Bedside Astrologer, mystery novelist Sheree Petree, Woman’s Day magazine essayist Wendy Revell, cowboy poet Bob Brown (Story Line Press), Hackney Literary Award winner Gary Hill (no relation), humor writer (Redneck Haiku, Santa Monica Press) Mary Witte and multi-published quilting pioneer Jean Ray Laury.
If you visit her Web site, http://www.bonniehearnhill.com/, you can see a photograph of Parker (adopted in Sacramento on a 2004 book tour), one of her three wonderful cats.

We are thrilled to have her here today to discuss character-driven fiction.


Let the characters drive it

Almost every time a writer I mentor tells me that she has a plot problem, I discover that the problem is really not plot but character. We all know that the right character can sell your book, and that a ho-hum character can ruin the best plot.

When I speak at conferences, I’m often approached by a beginning writer who believes she has a great idea for a story.

“So this woman from Earth marries a Martian. What do you think?”

The problem is – when I start asking about this Martian-marrying woman, I realize that the author doesn’t know anything about her – how she looks, her past history, not even her birthday.

When you decide to write a book, you might try asking yourself these two questions. 1. Whose story is this? 2. What does this person want? (external plot)

Character-driven fiction can be reduced (but is not limited) to a basic formula: C+C=C. Character plus Conflict equals Change.

Take a character and put him or her into conflict, and what happens? Just like real life, the character changes, whether or not he or she realizes it.

The external conflict is the second C. The internal conflict is the hole in the character’s life. We all have a hole in our lives, a tragedy, a regret, a guilt that still gnaws at us. Your character should have one too.

Getting to know them

In addition to my Writer’s Digest and Authorlink online classes, I lead a Tuesday night workshop in Fresno, and a small critique group (The Fridays) that meets in my home. My good friend Hazel Dixon-Cooper, the Cosmopolitan magazine Bedside Astrologer, always has the same question when one of us introduces a new character. “What is her sign?” And if we don’t know, Hazel will grill us about our characters, right down to body type and hairstyle. I use her nonfiction book, Born on A Rotten Day to give me character insights from an astrological perspective.

The late Jack Bickham said that he actually interviewed his characters. He’d sit in one chair as Jack, ask the question, then move to the other chair to answer it as the character. I tell you this if only so you won’t think that what I’m going to confess next is weird.

I have my characters write letters to me. “Dear Bonnie, My name is...and I was born...” Usually by the third page, the character says something like, “My problem now is...” These letters help me hear the character’s voice. I learn back story and information that doesn’t need to go into the book verbatim but is essential to my story.

People in real life have secrets. What’s yours? What’s your character’s? I try to make sure that most of my characters have secrets, and because I write thrillers, I try to give most of the main characters a motive for whatever crime has taken place. Both secrets and motives show up in character letters.

Character traits

What traits should your protagonist have in order to engage your reader’s heart? SJ Rozan’s Bill Smith drinks, smokes, and lives above a bar. He’s a private investigator who’s lost a daughter. He broods. Somehow, he’s very sexy. Jonathan Lethem’s protagonist in Motherless Brooklyn has Tourette’s, spews obscenities and is on a quest to find the killer of the small-time hoodlum who adopted him. Totally engaging. I was in love by the end of the first paragraph. How can you create characters who will grab a reader in a similar fashion?

Although you can come up with any number of character traits, I believe your protagonist must have two important characteristics in addition to the ones you choose.

S/he should be:
  • Sympathetic. Flawed, vulnerable characters are more appealing than perfect ones. This is where the hole in the life comes in.

  • Proactive. No one roots for a victim. The protagonist must protag.

I’d love to hear your thoughts and questions on character-driven fiction.



Blogger Joan Swan said...

Hi Bonnie!

Thanks so much for coming.

I have done many of the methods you've described to get to know my characters--interviews, worksheets...I haven't tried letters. Very intriguing.

I've always struggled with villains. I can give them GMC, I can give them sufficient backstory, I can give them some psychological disorder...but I still find it hard to get inside their skin.


3:36 PM  
Blogger Elisabeth Naughton said...

Thanks for joining us, Bonnie.

Wonderful character post. I find it hard to interview characters, but they live inside me for a long time before they even get a single sentence in their story. I love your formula of C+C=C. Stories without strong central characters fall flat in my book no matter how fabulous the external plots may be.

What suggestions do you have for fleshing out a character (this is often a secondary character) that doesn't want to come out and play?

3:58 PM  
Blogger Bonnie said...

Do the character charts work for you? I always feel I am taking a multiple choice test.

8:25 AM  
Blogger Bonnie said...

As for villains, you probably don't want to get too close. Remember the villain doesn't think he's a villain. He's a character just like your protag--a character who wants something. Try the letter approach and see if that helps you get inside this person's head. Character starts with voice, which is why the letter works for me.

8:27 AM  
Blogger Bonnie said...

Hi, Elisabeth,

Aw, those shy secondary characters. First of all, I wait until I need them. I don't have to know everyone on page 1. At some point, I have the character write to me, and I try to focus on character goal and character secret. And because Hazel Dixon-Cooper is in my critique group, of course, I have to figure out the character's sign. All that does is give me some what-if possibilities. I think secondary characters are difficult because we are so focused on the strong central character. We have to be careful to give the secondary characters distinct voices, flaws and goals. In one of my books, I had a central character and three secondary characters, all women, all involved with body-issue/weight issues. Before I started, I did serious character work/letters with all four to keep them different.

8:32 AM  
Blogger Joan Swan said...


Only certain types of charts work for me. I agree that when we're talking about hair color, weight, favorite ice cream, it's a multiple choice test that offers little to nothing fresh.

The charts I use identify their biggest flaw, their strongest attribute, their archetype and elements of that archetype that will affect their personality, props that character would employ to meet his/her goals.

Those charts do help me hone in.

11:01 AM  
Blogger Bonnie said...

Joan: I can see what you mean. They give you areas to explore just as the astrology books do. If you decide to try the letter, e-mail me and let me know how it goes. I'd be interested to hear. It's:bonniehearnhill@comcast.net

12:25 PM  
Blogger Joan Swan said...

I will definitely try a letter! Thanks for the suggestion!

2:01 PM  
Blogger Linda Winfree said...

Thanks, Bonnie! Interesting info. I tend to use a "story bones" sheet which lets me delve into character background, GMC, etc.

I've never thought of using astrology before! That's a neat idea.

4:54 PM  

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