Friday, September 30, 2016

Characters on the Path to Sainthood – by Christine

he Triumph of Saint Augustine by Claudio Coelloc. 1664

The first five novels I wrote were in the Christian Fiction genre. While my current novel is not in that genre, I am still a firm believer that all my fictional characters are on the path to sainthood. 

Even my villains have a chance to become a saint, but sadly will eventually choose the other fork in the road.

But then, what is Sainthood?

There are different answers depending on whom you ask. The word “Saint” comes from the Greek word hagios and means “consecrated to God”. Various Biblical texts in the New Testament refer to saints as those who have consecrated their life to Christ. No halos around their heads, only simple folk who seriously want to love others as Jesus commands us to love. This is the view I prefer.

So in my first book Shadowed in Silk when Abby first puts her faith in Christ, she becomes a saint—a baby saint, one who has a lot to learn, one who still has a lot of bad habits, but still that divinely consecrated individual on the road to the highest of character traits.  

Still though, I have written other characters that portray that type of sainthood similar to what people envision when they think of Mother Theresa—who was a true and recently modern-day saint, but not the only one of our time for sure.

While doing research for my British Raj trilogy especially, I came across a number of modern-day saints that I am sure Mother Theresa would have affirmed for their saintliness.

Dr. Ida Scudder with Gandhi
Dr. Ida Scudder an American missionary (1870 – 1960) who changed the face of medicine in India. To this day, her private hospital in Vellore India is famous for treating the poor. Dr. Ida was born in India to missionary parents, educated in the States, and spent the rest of her life caring for the sick and developing a vast teaching hospital.  

Pandita Ramabai A high-cast Hindu woman of India (1858 – 1922) who became a Christian. She accomplished much for social reform, education, and the emancipation of Indian women (especially Hindu widows). Her mission is still going strong in Pune India, close to Mumbai.

These two historical individuals (who have been heroes of mine for decades) are the templates for the fictional saints in my trilogy: Eshana and Miriam (who administer the fictional mission I created that cares for widows and orphans.

Characteristics of these two historical figures:
  • Ability to always put others first. This continually results in putting their life on the line. This self-less attitude is one that has been purified through the fires of suffering over the years.
  • Sense of justice undeterred by obstacles. This creates heroes/heroines that build hospitals, create social reforms for an entire country, and yet will stop by the roadside to care for the poorest of the poor.
  • Unceasing Mercy. No matter how tired they may be, they will always rise to show mercy.
  • Humility, that has nothing to do with poor self-esteem, but the strong sense of who they are as a follower of Christ. They will recognize the strengths and gifts God gave them and use it to better the lives of others. They will also acknowledge they are not perfect, only God is.
  • Simple Trust in God, that acknowledges the mysteries of God are unfathomable, that his ways are beyond our human comprehension, and yet continue to trusts in God like a child trusts in their mother.
  • Sweetness of Spirit, that shows up in theirs smiles and laughter over the simplest of human joys—a garden, a child, nature.
  • A Lion’s Roar. The saint will bellow over the injustice they see, and while they do their part to correct those injustices, they will loudly insist others do their part.
In writing my trilogy the issue of sainthood became such an interesting topic. I never intended to create a saint, but it was my partner Rachel who commented on Eshana and Miriam. These two fictional characters wove their paths to sainthood (in my opinion) as nothing more than the normal arc of any character. It is the journey of love that God invites us all on. 


Friday, September 23, 2016

Engaging Characters: Writing Characters who Live on in the Reader's Imagination -- by Rachel

Othello and Iago
Characters readers latch on to, causing them to compulsively follow the trail of pages and then come back for a re-read – that’s who we want to write. But how do we get there?

Make the reader worry
People are social, and on the whole, want to help others in danger. Develop a character who is at risk in some way, and the reader will need to see them to safety. This can be outright danger – someone who is being stalked or in battle. But it can be understated too. A misunderstood hero or a neglected child, for example, makes the reader root for them all the more.

Develop characters who respond
As much as we as a species, want to be helpful, we don’t have patience for cry-babies and screamers. Even if tears seem appropriate for the circumstance, readers won’t stick around long for that kind of thing. They want to see constructive action, not passivity. Characters who respond with creativity, courage, determination or off-beat reactions, will have the reader flipping the pages, not only remembering the character, but perhaps even drawing on the character's resourcefulness in their own dilemmas.

Define your character
Characters who stick around in a reader’s imagination do so because they are real people – colorful, defined and interesting. They don’t just do things. They are someone. Find their traits and then play them up. As with a play where actors need to increase their mannerisms to be seen and appreciated by the crowd, if you turn up the notch on your character’s traits, the character will be more visible to the reader and more appreciated. As we remember famous people because they are risk-takers, charismatic leaders, beautiful, talented or vividly compassionate, we will remember your character for the same kinds of reasons.

Give context to your character
Put your character among relief characters to show who they are. Rosamunde Pilcher in Coming Home, shows off Judith’s pragmatic character most clearly by using the very colorful, dysfunctional Carey-Lewis family as her backdrop. In the same way, force a shy character to give public speeches, drop a methodical character into chaos or a saint into political intrigue to show who they really are.

Grow your character
This might be the most important characteristic that keeps readers coming back. Characters who are forced against the wall and become braver, wiser or just fit into their own skins a little more surely are memorable. Adversity and growth are the stuff of real life. A character's successful navigation through the labyrinth of maturity gives us hope about our own journeys.

Make them real
Last, while readers remember and are drawn to characters who are dramatic, they want them to feel like real people too. Your characters may be more courageous or more talented than your average Joe. Hopefully, they are. But even great generals have been known to doubt themselves and brilliant singers have lost their voices mid-concert. You don’t need to show every blemish, but add enough that your reader will feel like this is someone who might actually live, if not in their neighborhood, in a real neighborhood somewhere.

Friday, September 16, 2016

The Flawed Character – by Christine

Caravaggio's painting of St. Thomas when Christ reveals his wounds.
Ah, my favorite! I love flawed characters the best, even more than the saints. Who else can your reader relate to?

Think of the apostle Thomas and how we all love him for his doubts.

Then take the average man or woman you know who could be a hero or heroine if only they didn’t have those one or two bad character traits. I’m not talking about your villain, although I personally love villains who could have been heroes if they’d only taken the right fork at the crossroads of life.

I’m talking about the Flawed Hero—that great person that perhaps lies beneath the skin of all of us. That greatness we all long to attain, but that so often doesn’t surface because of those personality traits that hold us back.

Your most interesting hero should have a flaw or two that is not easy for him or her to shake off.  Think of those you know—or even yourself—how wonderful you could be if only you didn’t have one or two of the following examples.

  • Quick Draw Temper who explodes before she or he has a chance to think things through and show their true wisdom.
  • Little Old Me with their poor self-esteem which shows up in all that nasty envy of others so that the character is never happy for other’s success.
  • The “I Did it My Way-ers” those who bore everyone with their piety, fail to show compassion and humility to others, and who live only to point out the failures of others.
  • Oh Poor Me who feels life owes them something or life has treated them badly. They either retreat from the world, shutting others out, or blatantly expect everyone around them to provide their needs.  
  • The Smart One who makes witty remarks that border on sarcasm or are downright mean.
  • The Slave who strives to please everyone all of the time.  
  • The Family Disgrace who is flagrantly flawed in a moral sense. 

Above are some of the most common character flaws in human nature. If you look at yourself and those around you, you may come up with a few more. These flaws can be slight or extreme depending on how flawed you want your character at the start of the novel. But your hero or heroine needs to struggle with at least one or two of these flaws and to overcome them by the end of the story to reach that greatness we all desire.

Below are the Character Flaws from some of my heroes.

Major Geoff Richards in Shadowed in Silk: A bit of an “I Did it My Way-er.” Geoff had to learn humility when as a very godly man he fell in love with another man’s wife.  

Abby Fraser in Shadowed in Silk: She was an “Oh Poor Me” in that her self-esteem had not been allowed to flower in her youth and she went through life feeling invisible.

Laine Harkness in Captured by Moonlight: The Smart One who constantly made people laugh with her witty remarks that often slipped into catty sarcasm. In Laine’s case this was to hide her own broken heart and the crust that protected her from emotional pain.

Adam in Capturedby Moonlight: Is another “Oh Poor Me,” a man deeply wounded by the war who literally and figuratively shuts himself away from the world and especially from the woman he loves.

Cam in Veiledat Midnight: The Family Disgrace who inherited his father’s gene for alcoholism, and struggles for sobriety to bring back to him all his drunkenness stole from him, especially the woman he loves.

Dassah in Veiled at Midnight: Starts out as The Slave. Due to feelings of inferiority as an Indian Christian orphan, Dassah needs the entire story to stop feeling like she needs to please everyone especially the man she loves her let her down.

I’ve used the main heroes and heroines of my trilogy “Twilight of the British Raj” to demonstrate that these common-place character failures are universal and that plotlines can be strung along these basic flaws.
The only difference from storybook heroes and us in real life is that your characters will overcome these thorns in their life, and by the end of the story attain that greatness that befits a good novel.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Building Complex Characters -- by Rachel

You start with a shadow – your character’s appearance and a few personality traits. You give them a goal and a story problem. But they lack dimension, flesh and blood . It's only as you write that you begin to layer motives, back story, complexities and so on until they’re as real to you (and your reader) as family. How do you find those layers?

First, take your time.
As you live with your characters, write them, daydream about them they become more real to you, and thus more real to your readers. This is why, in my not so humble opinion, the most memorable characters belong to books that took a few years to write. Six months isn’t enough time to become true friends. Over two or three years though you can really get to know someone.

Put yourself into their skin.
Imagine yourself in your character’s place. How would you feel going into battle or giving birth? What would you do? Of course, you may not be the shy son of a Revolutionary era Boston merchant or a take-charge executive trapped in a snowbound cabin. If you were though, how would you feel about going into battle or giving birth? Raise the stakes, add in complications and then how would you feel?

Ask questions.
What is your character’s past, even if you won’t be writing about it? What are their hobbies, favorite books and songs? What angers them or brings them joy? The more questions you ask, the more the character will take shape.

Find a role model.
Donald Maass advises finding a famous person who exemplifies a central trait of your character. I’ve found though that it’s only after I finish a story that I can see I’ve unconsciously given my main characters elements of people I’ve known – childhood buddies, grandparents or ex-boyfriends. Once I see that connection, it’s helpful to think about the real person. What motivated them? How did they make me feel? What were their mannerisms? What was left unsaid between us? Even if you’ve unconsciously channeled your college roommate, Susan, your character isn’t going to be Susan. Your character will have a number of other traits and a different story. But thinking about Susan will give your character depth.  

Find an opposite trait.
Is your character generous? Find a selfish action or motivation for them. Are they brilliant? Find gaps in their knowledge or put them in a situation where they feel stupid. No real person is always true to one trait. So developing a heroic character’s cowardice will make him multi-dimensional

Look for surprises.
Real people do unexpected things, and certainly people we want to read about do. Brainstorm your character’s next action, motivation or spoken line. Keep brainstorming until you’re out of ideas and then come back later when you’re ready to look for more ideas. Chances are the more interesting ideas will be at the bottom of your list.

Intensify your character.
Interesting people are also extraordinary in some way. Even a mousy accountant can become interesting if you can find one quirk and magnify it. When I wrote my character, Sierra, she was a brilliant polyglot. But to make her more interesting, I intensified that characteristic to the point she struggled to function in ordinary life. I inserted all-nighters as she drove herself to learning new languages. I made the sensations she felt as she tried new words on her tongue tangible for the reader, and had her skipping and failing at school in her single-minded pursuit of fluency.

Find a critique group.

A good critique or two can really help, as you write and I suggest giving it another go-round before you submit to your agent/editor. My critique partner points out where the emotion or motivation is muddy and she frequently suggests tweaks to make those places a little clearer. This not only helps me strengthen the character in my own mind, it also helps me get the character in my mind to take shape for the reader. 

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Character’s Backstory (or the Elephant in the Room) — by Christine

This image was originally posted to Flickr by Mister-E at It was reviewed on 10 November 2012 by FlickreviewR and was confirmed to be licensed under the terms of the cc-by-2.0.

I’m quickly bored with novels that have little backstory. I need to know the depths of a character in order to care about them. It's true, however, that books from previous generations weighed the beginning down by unloading the character’s previous life in one huge heap so that it became the “elephant in the room”.

Today’s readers want:

  • To be plunked into the story action immediately.
  • At the same time, to immediately and intensely care for the character.
  • After the reader cares about the character, to avoid long flashback scenes to get them caught up. 
The only way I’ve learned to do this is to drop hints from the backstory from the very first page and weave the past--one slender thread at a time--into the narrative.

Backstory seen through the eyes of another character.

In the following excerpt from the classic Shane, we see the first hint of the hero as seen from the POV of the narrator.

‘He rode easily, relaxed in the saddle, leaning his weight lazily into the stirrups. Yet even in this easiness was a suggestion of tension. It was the easiness of a coiled spring, of a trap set.

The stranger nodded again. “Call me Shane,” he said. Then to me: “Bob it is. You were watching me for quite a spell coming up the road.”

It was not a questions. It was a simple statement. “Yes…”

I stammered, “Yes. I was.”

“Right,” he said. “I like that. A man who watches what’s going on around him will make his mark.”

What backstory do we gain from the narrator’s POV?

  • The hero Shane is no ordinary man.
  • He’s seen danger, and a lot of it.
  • He has courage, but is friendly.
  • He has scruples.

Weaving backstory in through inner dialogue.

In the books I’ve written, I’ve predominately used the intimate 2nd person POV. Here in the first few paragraphs of Captured by Moonlight (winner of The Grace Award, and Canada's The Word Guild Award) I weave my heroine’s backstory with action and inner dialogue.  

‘Amritsar, Northern India, Late October, 1921

If the head woman from the temple looked in her direction, Laine Harkness wouldn’t give two squashed mangoes for her life, or Eshana’s. Laine could never be confused for an Indian, but with the tail end of this cotton sari covering half her face, and her brown eyes peeking over, she simply had to blend in.

Still, any minute now that hatchet-faced female standing guard to the girls’ quarters could let out a pulse-freezing yell.

A sudden blare of a conch shell from within the Hindu temple stretched Laine’s nerves. She and Eshana must be mad to risk this exploit again. The principal matron at Laine’s hospital would give her a severe reprimand if she ever found out. More likely sack her. If either she or Eshana had any sense at all, they’d turn around, go back to the mission, and mind their own business.

But a line from Wordsworth, one of Adam’s favorites, ran through her mind...little, nameless, unremembered acts of kindness and of love...

Blast! She wouldn’t call what she and Eshana were about to do little, but please let it be unremembered. Unnoticed would be better still.’

From this excerpt we gain the following backstory:

  • Heroine’s full name
  • Some of her physical characteristics.
  • Her occupation.
  • She’s gutsy.
  • Someone called Adam is, or was, important to her.

Corralling and blatantly displaying the "elephant in the room" for shock contrast.

Sometimes however, it is effective to show the “elephant in the room” right away. The following excerpt is from my non-fiction book Finding Sarah Finding Me. I front-loaded a bit of backstory to contrast the emotional dilemma of the first chapter.

‘The clandestine nature of my trip paints a picture of me I don’t want to look at too closely. As I drive from Maple Ridge to Abbotsford twenty miles away, I wonder if I am one heartbeat away from being a stalker.

I find the high school after several wrong turns. Squelching down the fear of getting caught, I park in the school lot and drum up the nerve to walk in the front doors. I repeat under my breath, “It’s no different than walking into Lana’s high school at home in Maple Ridge. It’s no different at all.”

I’m an ordinary person just like any ordinary parent in the Fraser Valley, the Bible Belt of British Columbia. I’m a Sunday school teacher, a bonded bank teller, a woman of forty-one, hair lightened blond, dressed like any nice mom in jeans, casual shirt, running shoes, my bag slung over my shoulder. I am David’s wife, mom to seventeen-year-old Lana, fifteen-year-old Kyle, and ten-year-old Robert.

I am also the woman who wrote in her journal last night, “For twenty years I’ve comforted myself that this time would come, that my birth-daughter and I could legally be reunited. And now I am afraid of her.”

From this excerpt we learn the following backstory:

  • The narrator is experiencing an emotional crisis.
  • The narrator isn’t sure who she is.
  • The narrator is shocked by this self-revelation.
  • The reader might be able to relate to the narrator from similar emotional crisis in our own lives.

Backstory is as important to the story as is the ending. One shows the reasons for the need, and the ending shows how eventually the need is met. The middle of the book brings these two together.

Just avoid the elephant, and think more along the lines of weaving with silk thread.


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