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32: How do you build characters?

This week, authors J Thorn and Crys Cain discuss how they build characters now, how they used to build characters, and what tools have helped them along the way.

Transcript

Crys: Welcome to the TASM Podcast. I’m Crys Cain with my cohost J thorn. What’s happening J?  

J: Not much. Chris, what are you up to?  

Crys: Delightfully, working. Which has not been something that I could say very often this summer.  

J: And you are stationary for a bit, right?  

Crys: Yes, for at least a week, wonders of wonders, unintentionally.  

We are in Kentucky which is not bad. It’s just not the plan. But Summer of Chaos continues into the autumn. And some family members of mine got ill with COVID and that has delayed our intended stay in New York hopefully has not off put it completely, but we’re still waiting to see but the nice thing about settling down with family support here in Kentucky is that I actually get to work without going crazy.  

How about yourself?  

J: Yeah. I’m settled in. I’m definitely into routine. I want to start a new serial project that’s going to be slated for next year, but I’ve been very strict with myself and said, “I am not allowed to touch that until I shipped some of these other things.” Because I know how I get. 

So I’ve been knocking out some low level stuff and some high level stuff that needs to get done before I start something new. And so that always feels good when you kinda like can ship things or be like, yep, that’s done and don’t have to worry about that anymore.  

Crys: Yeah, I’ve been making the big list of things that I wanted to do that were spurred up a lot by the Career Author Summit and the conversations that came out of that as well as all of the things I left hanging for the last two or three months. 

And so I’ve just got a running list, just to refresh them in my brain as to what they are. Sometimes I’m like, okay, I’m having trouble thinking and I’ll just look on the list for a very quick thing to check off, just to keep that momentum going forward.  

And I’ve been doing some like longer-term planning stuff as well. Which is delightful. We talked about this in our platinum mastermind on Saturday, maybe this, I can’t remember it was this past Saturday or the Saturday before. For me, I have not been able to see more than just a couple months out for a really long time. Thanks to COVID and other things. 

And now I can gauge what the rhythm of life might look like for six months, a year, two years, which allows me to actually plan ideas for that timeframe.  

J: Yeah. Yep. That’s good to get that clarity and to get just to know where you’re going, just to have that.  

I don’t use sticky notes very often, but I put some sticky notes on my corkboard to my left, which are those big projects. And I’m like, all right, I’m going to take those off whenever they’re done. Whenever I check them off. So I’m right with you. I get that.  

We have that same energy. Maybe it has something to do that we’re in we’re heading into the last stretch of the calendar year and we’re focused on finishing energy as opposed to starting. 

Crys: And so much for both of us has been in a holding pattern while we were waiting for housing things to settle out and these big life projects that took so much of our attention away from our work.  

J: True. So true.  

Crys: We do have one comment about our episode on. What makes a career, a professional author, and Kim says she agrees that the label professional doesn’t matter. If professional means making income to live on, then I’m not a professional, anything.  

She said she only started calling herself a writer last year, even though she’s been writing a long time. It wasn’t until she began to take us seriously when she started writing nearly every day, but it became a part of her routine and she made regular progress that she could call herself a writer. 

J: Lovely. And I agree. I think that’s the big takeaway and even thinking back on it yeah, I don’t think the label even matters all that much  

anymore.  

Crys: As often as I can I try and take like the emotional connection to the term writer and say, okay, what would I have to do to call myself a martial artist? What would I have to do to call myself an accountant now apply that to writing there. Is it similar?  

J: Yeah, I liked that.  

Crys: All right. This week I have a craft question for us. And this came out of talking with your partner in crime, Zach Bohannon, about the Three Story Method, we interviewed him over on the Write Away Podcast and one of the things he said that you guys have talked quite a bit about was how you build characters. That’s changed quite a lot in a year and a half since a Three Story Method came out, because you guys are both intense learners, therefore, always developing new things. 

So I wanted to talk about how you build characters now, cause it’s grown vastly.  

J: Yes. Yes. I first I want to say that I’m somewhat hurt that you and JP got the record in Zach’s office. Whenever I’m there, we record at the kitchen table. So clearly there’s a hierarchy. 

Crys: He wanted for us to record at the kitchen table, but I dunno what the specialness is about that. 

J: No, it was a great conversation and yeah, Zach’s right.  

So at the time, and I think it’s important to remember too, it’s really two and a half years out. Because the project started about a year before it published and it went through some Drama before it became Three Story Methods. 

That sort of book documents where I was maybe almost three years ago. 

And I recently got an email from a good friend. Or a writer who I, whose opinion I value. And he was giving me some critiques on the book and I was like, I’m not rewriting it. I hear what you’re saying. I appreciate it. But that was me three years ago.  

We’ve talked about this growth mindset a lot. It doesn’t matter if it’s fiction or nonfiction. If you have a growth mindset, you’re constantly learning. You’re evolving, changing.  

That’s not to say, I don’t think the book. Is good. I still stand by it. But there were parts of it that are different, that would be different if I rewrote it now and I’m not. And I know Zach mentioned the second edition. He can write that. I’m not writing the second edition of that book.  

But character is definitely, that was a place and Zack intentionally Zach kind of took the lead on that section because I wanted him to have that input. And even with our co-written projects, he would take the lead on some of the character development.  

And what he said on the Write Away Podcast is true. It’s bare bones, but the reason we did that is because we didn’t want to put too much emphasis on character because we know, and I know from working with clients, that it’s easy to go down that rabbit hole of resistance in building out these massive profiles. Which, you know are great, but like they’re not writing and they’re not words. And if they’re keeping you from getting your story written, that’s a problem.  

So I think we were intentionally light on character development with more of focus on plot.  

That being said, I think especially for me working with both Jeff Elkins, the Dialogue Doctor, and with JD Barker is I have a new… it’s not, it’s not new. It’s an evolved way of looking at character. And I’ve definitely spent more time on it.  

The way that J D explained it to me is he needs to know that character, like a friend. That’s the work that he does. And for me, what that meant was coming up with a sort of a basic history, like where’d this person come from? What’s their family situation. What’s their occupation? What do they do? And then tying that into, to Jeff’s work is then, he talks about the Daisy, right? It’s that backstory is not the voice. So I used that backstory to then develop the voice. 

All of that is how I approach character now. It doesn’t change the Three Cs or it doesn’t change the methodology, but it would be an enhancement to the character piece of it. So that’s where I am now.  

I don’t know if character has changed for you over, over time or if you still approach it the same way  

Crys: It absolutely has, yeah. Cause I I’m just thinking of an author that. Matt after I started publishing. So this wasn’t my first books. My first books were very pantsy, even if they were outlined. And a lot of my characters were very similar. I would try, especially with the romance to make the main two characters, very opposite because that’s what readers often want. 

But I remember an author saying “All of my books are thinly veiled, avengers fan fiction.” And that they would use those characters as the starting base for their characters in their books. And they would write completely different genre, completely different setups. They were writing romance. 

And so you would never look at them and go, aha, that’s clearly a stand in for the Hulk or whatever. You would never look at their books and think that, but I thought that was interesting.  

I took that and ran with it for. The first series I wrote under my solo romance pen name, cause my first pen name was a shared co-written pen name. 

And so that was absolutely a very good, quick start way to write a story fast. Once you get the characters going, they completely evolve from whatever your basis is when you do something like that.  

But now I really like. I’m probably going to get this wrong, but I think it’s K. M. Weiland, that talks about the lie, your characters believe?  

J: I think you’re right. 

Crys: And linking that in with the emotional wound idea of Angela Ackerman and Becca Pugalasi,, I need to figure out how to actually say her name, I recommend that book off enough.  

That is, if not where I start, it’s the point I’m trying to get to when I am starting a book and learning about my characters. And I do a lot of character work upfront before I start writing prose or much of an outline, because that is where my joy and my fun comes in is the characters and how they play against each other. 

The fantasy serial that I started earlier this year, and that’s my main focus on fiction right now is probably the thing I’ve put the most character work into. And I have several pages of antagonists that I can pull in and plop out as well, because with a serial, it’s going to be very long running. 

So I did some archetype work and looked at like different types of antagonists and thought, okay, which ones would play really well in this story? Pulling those in gave me new plot points that I could chase down.  

I don’t think I did any architect work for like my main core cast, but that’s another way I could enhance it. 

But that lie my characters believe, both my main group and my big antagonists, those are the points I’m driving to. Once I know those, then I can start to write the story, even if I don’t really know a whole lot of what else is going on.  

J: Yeah, I really like the archetypal approach I used a different book with a different archetypes for different reason. But it worked really well.  

What I like about archetypes is that when you put the archetype in the situation, then they do what they’re supposed to do, and it takes the burden off of you as the creator of the story to come up with these clever situations or gags.  

It’s no, that’s your archetype. That’s the point. They function within those sets of rules for that archetype. So I really liked that idea. I think if I were thinking of, this is not the book I would write, but if I were thinking of a Three Story Method, a book that someone would be interested in, I could see it like an archetype style book maybe. 

Crys: And, I think that for a long time, the idea of archetypes in my stories was further than I could grasp as an author. I had to write a few more stories before they started to make sense for me, cause I could see where my characters were lacking, where archetypes really fit in and helped me. And I could see, what bits of the archetypes I could change because it supported whatever motivations I have to tell in my story.  

It took me a lot of practice for me to just be able to comprehend them.  

And I think that’s normal for a lot of people. You’re more of the architect style learning, and I think that folks who are like you might pick up on that faster. Might pick up on archetype usage faster, ’cause you see puzzle pieces really well.  

But I’ve been writing since I was a kid and writing nonstop for… math… almost five years. So for four and a half years now, and I feel like only in the last three months has it really started to click for me. 

J: Yeah. And I think that’s the journey we’re all on. That’s what’s encouraging, hopefully what people will hear is yeah, there, there are things that doesn’t matter how accomplished you are, how many words you’ve written, you’re always learning stuff. You’re always getting better. 

You’re always striving to be better. That’s what this whole thing’s about.  

Crys: Absolutely.  

What question would you like to offer to our listeners?  

J: This one might require a bit more explanation, but I would love to know what their approach to character development is. Do you have a system? Do you have a process? 

Do you do it at all? What do you do?  

Crys: Excellent.

Thank you so much for joining us this week. If you would like to join this conversation in real time, we’d love for you to pop over and check out what The Author Success Mastermind is all about.

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