Monday, November 23, 2009

Dental Records in Character Development

Since many of us would rather be dropped out of a plane without a parachute rather than go to a dentist, it is amazing that good authors make such good use of dentistry particularly in spy movies and mysteries.

If you have any questions about the importance of dentistry in a book, read Faye Kellerman’s Sacred and Profane a mystery based on forensic dentistry. It is a fascinating look at what teeth can tell about a long deceased person. Good writers often include some reference to teeth or dentistry at some point in their stories. “A pretty girl with bad teeth…” Empire of the Sun shows the disintegration of the main character’s teeth in a Japanese Concentration Camp. It’s subtle but interesting. Transformers 2 has a lovely little comedic bit about teeth. Or, if you really want the chills, check out Marathon Man. That is if you can stand seeing your worst nightmares of a dental office made manifest in torture.

There are all kinds of ways to include dentistry in a story. What is the character’s attitude toward his or her teeth? (i.e. believes he has soft teeth, believes he has ugly teeth or weak teeth). How is that played out? Is there a specific problem involving teeth that defines this character for the reader? What is the background of dentistry for this character (had good care, spent a lot of money on his teeth, never had a cavity filled). Include how he has been treated in dental offices, early traumas in dental offices, etc. How do others see the character’s teeth, if teeth are an issue? How would dental history or teeth in general advance the plot (i.e. Russian stainless steel teeth in a spy story)? Teeth are very much like overweight. People who are aware of their bad teeth don’t smile, or cover their smile with their hands.

Create a full history of fillings, braces, abscesses, root canal, how diseases like syphilis affect teeth, work that has needed to be done but which wasn’t done because of money.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Birth Order in Character Development

Birth order takes on numerous shadings of meaning in character development. These shadings are often very explicit. First children are often hyper-responsible and “good”. Second children may spend their lives being second. Even second in their graduating class at Harvard. Middle children can go in several directions and are often regarded as “mysterious.” If a first child owns the “good little girl” slot, then the other children will find a different slots to own. It’s rare that children raised together share the same character traits. Bad child, brilliant child, lucky child, psychotherapist child, independent child, each child comes with a whole set of beliefs and characterizations.

It is not necessary for any child in a household to take on negative characteristics simply because one or more of the “good” slots are already occupied. Good, brilliant, fun, lucky, sweet, kind are all characteristics that children can notably own.

If you start developing a character and you notice certain characteristics developing (because characters do tend to emerge on their own accord), check those characteristics against his birth order and personality and discover what additional personality traits you can give him. Then, as you develop him in his family setting, figure out his relationship in terms of birth order to the rest of the family.

If your character doesn’t act the way that fits his birth order, figure out the exceptions and make note of them. Some people act exactly the way the experts predict. Some people might have acted that way but something came along that interfered with that line of development. It can be fascinating to figure out what happened, how and why it had the effects it did on the character. Unpredictability, like conflict, makes for good story telling.

How does your character interact with his family from the dynamics of birth order? What role does your character play? What roles do the other members of his family play? Are there exceptions to the birth order rules? How did life change the rules? How does birth order impact the plot?

If you were going to use birth order in a term paper, figure out the birth order, either by the characteristics the author gave the character or because the author told you, discuss how the character you have chosen has character traits that prove his birth order. Or take a few traits that you didn’t find in the story and explain why you would have chosen to add these traits to the character and how that would have benefitted the story.

To find out the rules of birth order and personality go to:

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Amusements in Character Development

Amusements take many forms. The term can refer to way in which character amuses himself (playing solitaire in his room, always seeking the company of other people). Or, the term can refer to the choices characters make in types of amusement they select (playing sports, participation in local theater groups, buying stocks, tormenting cats). Amusements can be very telling in character development because it is an area where the character has made visible choices. Amusements are not something you are born with.

Amusements can be great points of conflict between characters. Characters who find watching hours of television amusing can easily conflict with characters who can’t stand television as a medium. Characters who are ardent followers of sports frequently clash with significant others who call themselves football or baseball widows. A fine example of that conflict could be found in the Broadway musical “Damn Yankees” and the song “Six Months Out Of Every Year” in which the wives complained that six months out of every year they might as well be dead.

Amusements can be great unifiers as well. In the Harry Potter series Ron and Harry are unified by their love of Quidditch, which continually separates them from Hermione who hasn’t a clue about how they feel toward that game. One of the marvelous things about J.K. Rowling is her skillful use of things that are familiar to us as readers and their application to a completely different and very parallel world.

The darker amusements – arson, tormenting and torturing, sexual deviations – are very useful in plots. They can help in the creation of villains and, if blackmail is involved, make other characters very vulnerable to discovery.

Questions about amusements might include: How does this character amuse himself? Is this character capable of amusing himself? Does he constantly require outside stimulation? Does the character want people to know about the things that amuse him? Are his amusements his darkest secrets? What does this tell you about the character? Does the character simply watch other people playing what amuses him, or does he participate himself and if he participates how? Is he a star? Is he always picked last? Does he help facilitate the pay of others? How do the character’s amusements advance the plot? How do the character’s amusements contribute to your understanding of the character?

If you are writing a term paper you might use amusements that you think the character might enjoy that the author didn’t include and justify your choice. If you are writing about historical characters you might write about what amusements a character like Hamlet would enjoy if he were alive today and why.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Lower Back in Character Development

Over the past 10 years, my writing partner Suzy Prudden and I have developed a whole program called Body-Life Therapy. We developed a certification course, wrote a small book and developed body-life cards. What we discovered was that when someone has an issue with their life, they very often have pain, discomfort or other problems in their body. The body problems consistently correspond to the life challenges.

As we were working on this book, Suzy was doing “Energy Breaks” at Carolyn Myss conferences. We had a product table and we put the cards in a basket at the front of the table beside the book. It never failed, if someone pulled a card it would relate to a life and body issue. If someone looked up a body issue in the book, there would be a corresponding life issue.

When I decided to write my book “The Character Book,” which I am using to write this blog in bits and pieces and will eventually post as an e-book, I decided to add body parts as part of character development. If a character has life issues, it expands the character significantly if they have a corresponding body issue.

For example, the lower back:

The lower back symbolizes support of all kinds. In this contemporary American culture money, real property and emotion are the greatest areas of “support” or lack of support that corresponds to lower back pain.

Pain or injury in the lower back occurs when there is a deep fear that there is “not enough.” Not enough money, not enough love, not enough emotional support, not enough work. “Not enough,” covers a broad spectrum.

Don’t let appearances fool you. A very wealthy person can feel that there is not enough money as easily as a poor person. A happily married person can suffer from doubts that love will last as easily as a person who is visibly unhappy within a relationship. Jealousy is unreasonable. Lower back issues are fear based. Fear and trust cannot exist in the same place.

If I were writing or acting a character like Ebenezer Scrooge in Dicken’s A Christmas Carol, I would give him a backache. I would actually have him twisted with pain. Characters like Scrooge live in terror of not enough, they are rigid in their lives and their bodies. Most actors will act him with a curved back, his back curving around to protect what he has – to hold onto what he has – which would probably also give him arthritis in his hands. He hoards, he is frugal in the extreme, he is selfish, mean, meager and barren, all antonyms of generous. He could be called “tight” which you can act because you can be both tight in your life and tight in your body. If you are tight in your body you are apt to court injury because of inflexibility.

Within the context of his transformation can come the surprising release of pain and tension in the lower back.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Art in Character Development

Art, choices

A great many good international spy stories take place in museums or galleries in front of specific pictures that often have meaning to the story. You have only to look at Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code to see how art choices can be used effectively in a story. In the Harry Potter stories the pictures move, talk and interact with the students. There is great significance to the portraits and from time to time they play integral parts in the advancement of the plot. They also have that are clearly defined personalities and add great dimension to the story.

Choices like art and literature can be great class signifiers not only for your characters but for you as a writer. They signify background, education, involvement in pop culture and culture in general. You can write to an exclusive audience by making reference to art without explaining it and assuming that your audience will understand your references with out explanation. Or you can help to educate your readers without being condescending to an area of culture that interests you and that you think will be interesting to others. Name dropping of artists, particularly if you pronounce their names wrote can be a delightful put down of a social climbing character. All of Dan Brown’s work explains place, art and symbols so that they expand the knowledge of the reader. Examine the way art is used to define Hannibal Lecter in “Silence of the Lambs.”

As a useful exercise, make a separate page for art choices.

• Cut out pictures of what each character would hang on his walls and come to some conclusions about why he chose those particular pictures.
• Select the art as a madman, a stalker, a poor person who loves art and cuts pictures from magazines or calendars, a fan, a criminal, a thief.
• If you were decorating this character’s home describe what art would he select for his walls?
• Does this character go to museums, to galleries, to sales of classic reproductions in street sales, to Sears? Does art play no part in his life at all and why? I have heard a blind teacher say that the visual arts are unimportant, but after Degas, the famous artist of ballet dancers, went blind he turned to making sculptures.
• Which art and medium would your character choose and why?
• Do particular pictures or artists play a defining role in this character’s life? If so, how?

You can have lots of fun with art and artists in writing. In the movie, based on the book, “Lust for Life” there is great contrast drawn between the artists Vincent Van Gogh – wild, messy, passionate and Paul Gauguin – disciplined, neat, critical. It’s a point of conflict and in fiction conflict is good.

You can also use art to describe scenes that will immediately elicit an understanding of what you are describing in only a few words. The sky over El Greco’s “Toledo” is an instant recall of a certain dark gray, stormy sky, in late afternoon. You don’t have to describe the violent clouds of many shades of gray, set with white, roiling over the city and surrounding fields.

How the writer uses art in a work of fiction is a great term paper subject if the writer utilizes that medium to advance the plot or the understanding of character. What the writer would have chosen as art, if he had described art in his work of fiction, would be of particular interest. For example Hamlet’s house would probably have featured numerous tapestries which were not only used as wall decorations, but to keep down drafts in the uninsulated castles.


If an artist is identified with a certain style of portrait, it is sometimes very easy to describe a character by naming the artist. Heavy-set female characters are often called Rubinesque. You have only to read the “Man Wanted” column in the Newspaper to see how many women describe themselves in those terms. A body like a Greek statue immediately tells you a great deal about that beautifully muscled, well proportioned body of an athlete.

• What artist’s work would you use to describe this character? Why?
• Would the character agree or disagree with that description?
• Would the character be pleased or displeased with that description?

Monday, November 16, 2009

Achievements in Character

Achievement is a point of view because not everyone agrees on whether achievements are actually achievements or whether they have actually been met. Take George Bush and the War in Iraq as an example. Some people will argue that the objectives of the war were met. Some would argue there were no objectives. Some would argue that the objectives weren’t met at all. Still others would argue that the wrong achievements were met.

Achievements can definitely be points of conflict. Going back to Harry Potter, J.K. Rowling made achievements a point of conflict between Ron and Harry. When Ron became Prefect, Harry experienced a jealousy that could have torn the friendship apart. Instead of sticking to this overpowering emotion, he took himself to task for wanting to deny Ron his moment of happiness and served as a role model for readers who are faced with their own loss within a competition. Had Harry become Prefect, as everyone expected, the jealousy, the soul searching, the rising to the moment would have been lost. One of the magical things about Harry Potter is that he’s so very human, so very vulnerable, and so prone to experiencing what we all experience in spite of his heroics.

Achievements can include awards, successes, or something as backward as being a successful failure. The character’s achievement can be negative or positive depending on your point of view. Achievements can include a gamut from things like achieves success as a playboy, president of a large corporation, a bank robber, girl scout, boy with a paper route, soldier, sailor, Indian Chief.

When Achievements overlap, they can create great conflict between characters as in politics or war. In the Harry Potter stories the person with the greatest achievements is Voldemort. He is the world’s greatest villain and because of that achievement he is that much more formidable as an adversary. If Harry’s heroism had been limited to dealing with Dudley Dursley, the Harry Potter series would have joined the ranks of other children’s stories – interesting, well written, and forgettable, instead of become an instant classic.

When I filled out the questionnaire from my publishing company concerning “Tranquillity Initiative,” (my soon to be released novel) they asked me how I felt when I finished the book, an achievement. I felt let down, as I felt when my writing partner Suzy Prudden and I finished our best selling “MetaFitness: Your Thoughts Taking Shape.” There is something wonderful about a writing project. You get to think and discuss ideas and hang out with interesting people. When the book is finished, those wonderful people disappear and all the discussion stops. So the achievement, while a landmark, is also a bit of a let down. The book goes to editing. Two years later you’re trying to remember what the book was about as you discuss it in the media because in two years you’ve written at least two more books. This is a way of showing that achievement can be bitter sweet. Indeed, in many cases the less black and white an achievement, the more interesting it is.

Let’s examine that. If you say, “How did you feel when you finished your book?” And I say, “GREAT!” That’s the end of that conversation. If I say, “It was a let down,” your response has to be, “Why?” Then I get to tell you why, and you get to ask me about what was so wonderful about those characters, or what did you discuss that you found so fascinating. The last thing you want your characters to do when it comes to their achievements is to give a conversation-stopping answer, or have a boring easily anticipated response.

What are this character’s achievements? How does the character view his achievements? How do they help define his personality? How do other characters view his achievements? Be specific. How does the character’s achievement advance the plot? How do achievements conflict with the ambitions or achievements of other characters? How does the character grow or change as a result of his achievements?

Before I actually was a writer I wondered about writing. I remember asking my writing partner – who was then just my sister - whether she thought writers looked at every single word to see if it was the right word. The answer I find is yes and no. Some words just fit and others should be examined to see of another word might have a bigger impact or more meaning, or simply make the reading more interesting. An example is the word “said.” Should it be said, whispered, shouted, ranted, moaned, exclaimed, cried? There are so many words that are more descriptive than the word “said.” By the same token, character should be examined with a fine tooth comb because of the effects your choices have on the impact of your book.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Shopping Patterns in Character Development

Almost anything you can think of can be used in character development. And almost anything can be used to advance ambition or conflict in a story. Shopping patterns are marvelous definers for both men and women, and although shopping is often used to define young women in chic flicks, it is definitely not limited to the young and feckless. People, whether consciously or not, generally use what they buy as statements of who they are. They same holds true for how they buy.


• shop ‘til they drop
• can’t think of anything they like less than shopping
• shop in department stores
• haunt boutiques
• hire professional shoppers
• frequent designers
• only buy from thrift stores (remember “Second Hand Rose?”)
• shop by catalog
• use the Internet.
• spend their weekends at the Mall and it is their social life as well as their source for things
• buy material but make their own clothes, so shop for patterns
• always ask for a discount
• are generally rude to shop personnel
• shop in ethnic stores and neighborhoods
• refuse to shop for people who criticize their taste
• love antiques
• are attracted only to the ultra modern
• are hugely educated about what they shop for

People have shopping patterns that they developed and those that were taught to them by significant people in their lives. This can be a great area for memories that contribute to our understanding of the character’s history. Generally, if you’re going to focus on something like shopping as a focal point, your character’s shopping tendencies have already been established as an important part of the character group you are describing and will quickly serve to expand the audience understanding of the character much like landmarks define geography.

Each person thinks their way of shopping is the way shopping should be done. They may even be totally unaware that there is another way to shop. Friendships are developed through shopping. Feelings can be hurt through shopping. Ethnicity can be defined by the outlets groups of similar background congregate. Shopping in ethnic stores can present dangers. For example illegal immigrants shopping in stores that cater to largely Hispanic shopping traditions run the risk of being raided and arrested by ICE.

What are the character's shopping patterns? What are his favorite stores, favorite departments or favorite neighborhoods? Do shopping patterns contribute to our understanding of the character? Does shopping advance the plot? Does shopping contribute to the conflict between characters or groups of characters?

As a term paper idea, you can approach shopping from the point of view of how the person you have read about would have shopped in his or her day and why that would be important. Or you can make up how that person would have shopped today and justify your choice. You can develop how the author used shopping to set the period, character or groups of characters in the story.

If you’re looking for history there are links to antique catalogs. Here’s one that goes back to 1933 You use these links to find out what was for sale, what the prices were, what was sold and what was made. Newspaper archives are also useful to get a line on what stores were advertising, what they were advertising, what costs were, what people were looking for. Through this link you can brows through the New York Times back to 1858 . I cannot figure out how to make this big enough to read and if someone can – please let us know.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Addictions in Character Development

Addiction –noun
The state of being enslaved to a habit or practice or to something that is psychologically or physically habit-forming, as narcotics, to such an extent that its cessation causes severe trauma.

Books have been written about addictions. Addictions are wide ranging and don’t always stay within common definitions. You can use addictions to sex, alcohol, wealth, cigarettes, chocolate, drugs, drama, adrenaline, work, danger, power, failure, victimization, adulation almost anything you can think of as a negative habit can become an affective character trait. My teacher Stella Adler used to say, “In your choice is your talent.” So, selecting addictions can be a very good choice.

The following are some questions you might ask if you are analyzing or creating an addicted character:

What is the character addicted to?
How does that addiction play out in the story?
How does it affect people around the character?
How does it sabotage the character?
Like certain medications, how does in interact with other character traits?
Most of all, how does it advance the plot?

One clue that is good to be aware of is that usually people, who are addicted to one thing, are addicted to other things. There is such a thing as an Addictive Personality.

So, if you were examining a character like Rush Limbaugh, for example, knowing that he has an addiction for Oxycotin, what other things do you think he might be addicted to: Food (hence the overweight), chocolate, power, sex (hence the Viagra), nicotine (hence the cigars), rage. Indeed, the character who is addicted is often defined by his addictions. You could say, the addictions predict the character.

Interaction with other character traits can go far beyond the obvious (like narcotics negatively enhancing the effects of alcohol). If a character is addicted to power there has to be a negative connotation to the power. So, in order to gain his power this character has to go on the attack. He has to assure dominance. And the things this character selects over which to assert dominance can be hugely interesting. Limbaugh chooses to assert dominance over the Republican Party among other things. He also plays fast and loose with the truth because the truth is less interesting than the power he gains by playing to the worst fears or most negative beliefs of his audience. So who is his audience and how do they partner him in his dance of power?

Interactions with other addicted characters can also be interesting: the sadist and the masochist, the victim and the victimizer, the successful parent and the failure child, all enter an intricate dance of addictions with one another. The key to addictions is that they always have a negative aspect to them. They sometimes have a positive aspect and they are most interesting when you can see the fallacy in the positive interpretation, or when you can see both sides of the coin.

The same addiction can wear many hats. In a well constructed story, there is generally a turning point (or inciting incident) at which the main character makes a decision that takes him into the body of the story. Generally, he makes a decision that seems to be taking him out of a bad situation but which actually leads him into a worse situation: the pot head who gives up smoking for drinking alcohol and becomes a raging alcoholic. The woman who attracts abusive men into her life (and yes, being abused is an addiction for many people) leaves one man for a worse abuser. Spousal abuse and alcohol abuse are evil twins and complimentary addictions.

Addictions can look like ways to manage your life or manage another addiction. Bulimia and anorexia for example appear to be solutions for women worrying about eating too much or getting fat.

As an exercise: What would you choose as an addiction for a character and how would that play out in your story? How has an author you are looking at used addictions in his story? How would you expand on the way an author has used addictions in a story? Addictions by their very nature have negative consequences. Work is a great ethic, but a workaholic neglects his life and family. Coping with danger as a soldier is good, becoming addicted to danger so that you have to keep going back into dangerous situations, or even generate dangerous situations, in order to feel alive is negative. Describing the dance of addiction is a great way to develop character or examine the way an author has developed character.

Monday, November 2, 2009

The Set Ups and Pay Offs Of Character

Good pay offs are like that example that people use – if you can only see the toe nail on an elephant’s foot, how can you tell it’s an elephant? You probably can’t, but when the reader looks back from the full picture, the toe nail is there in full view – obviously a missed clue. For me there is nothing more wonderful than a really good pay off in either the characters or plots of a book.

So often the endings of books kind of drizzle off into after thoughts, almost as if the writer couldn’t think of anything more to say and just stopped writing. Once in awhile, good authors have endings with twisted and marvelous pay offs. Those endings stick with me for years. I was so inspired by the pay off at the end of “The Boys From Brazil” by Ira Levin that I actually shouted when I read it. I used it as a model for the end of my own book “Tranquility Initiative,” which will soon be released. It’s one of those wonderful, totally unexpected endings that leave you with a sense of dread. Indeed the whole book in “The Boys From Brazil” is the set up. It’s a marvelous read and I won’t spoil the pay off for you.

Elizabeth George, is a complete treat of a writer from a great many directions not only her great and many startling pay offs but her use of the English language make reading her mysteries something to look forward to. Many writers are quite simple in their English, not Elizabeth George. I would say that her gorgeous use of language is wasted on a mystery, but it’s not wasted at all. It makes the reading wonderful. Beside the pure joy of the read, she sets up all kinds of clues like bread crumbs throughout her books and the pay offs are amazing.

J.K. Rowling is the quintessential pay off queen. Elephant toes that constantly mislead Harry and the reader litter her landscape. Like Hermione catching and stopping Snape in his perceived attempts to curse Harry off his broomstick in book one, which is constantly used by Harry as a reason to mistrust Snape, gets paid off in Snape’s memory in book seven which we hear Dumbledore ask him to keep an eye on Quirrell – who it turns out was the one making the curse. Indeed book seven is replete with pay offs. It is an amazing example of how, when you only have some of the information, you can jump to erroneous conclusions. In Harry Potter there are long term – full-series pay offs, book-length pay offs and chapter-length pay offs.

Set ups and pay offs are marvelous conversation pieces for term papers. Did the writer confuse the reader with a set up? Was the set up noticeable at the time or only in retrospect? What had to happen for the reader to understand the pay off? Did the writer set it up and hide it well? Did the pay off use a play on words so that it was not only exciting and informative, but clever?

J. K. Rowling’s use of Rita Skeeter as an animagus (a witch or wizard that can turn into an animal or in this case a bug) gave “bugging” new meaning when Hermione finally figured out she was turning into a beetle in order to gather information at Hogwarts. Despite the many clues, including Harry talking about the possibility Skeeter bugging Hogwarts, and Hermione insisting that electronic devices would never work in the castle – which actually gave her the clue she needed – the beetle-bugging solution to how Skeeter could possibly have access to some of the information she wrote about came as a complete surprise to this reader.

Set ups and pay offs are a good reason for outlining. It’s easier to write good set ups and pay offs in the planning stage than to have to search back through a 300 page book to find the places to insert set ups when you come up with a wonderful pay off at the end of the book. And of course it can be done – it’s even been done by me from time to time.