In a world where one news story, no matter how wrenching, risks being eclipsed quickly by another tragic event, the story of Parkland, Florida has stayed with me. Like, every day. It grabs my heart even more than Columbine, Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech, or dozens of other school killings. It’s hard emotionally to get beyond the slaughter of innocents, or the mental illness of their killers, but the survivors of Parkland found a collective voice to challenge a dark pattern of history, proclaiming “#Never Again.” They have an ambitious agenda now of lobbying legislatures, pursuing social media, and broadening their coalition. I’m rooting for them with every step.
Down deep is another remarkable thing about Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. In the weeks following the tragedy, I listened to Cameron Kasky, Emma Gonzales, Alex Wind, David Hogg and other student leaders speak for sensible gun legislation and the responsibility of adults to protect minors. My take-away was maybe it’s high school students who need to protect and keep honest the adults. Their outspokenness was perhaps unprecedented coming from an American high school. Watching how poised, articulate and impactful a sixteen, seventeen or eighteen-year old could be, I was struck by their cohesiveness in rallying behind one of our century’s major issues: how to make us safer in an age of deepening insecurity, uncertainty and anxiety.
I have come to view students, in public and private high schools, as inescapably important members of society. For all the painful stories of kids marginalized by bullying and shaming, or who turn to drugs or guns or suicide to escape because they see no tunnel with a light, look again at Marjory Stoneman High School. Students are proving there is a light to follow—speaking their convictions with dispassionate eloquence—and to move toward that light means self-esteem and self-empowerment. High schools across the country now have a precedent for being heard on crucial issues because a tired Congress, overworked media, churches, and political non-profits can’t get the job done alone. I hope more students give themselves permission to be taken seriously. They should insist on it, and ignore critics who view high school as a mere launch to college or adulthood.
I was in college in the golden age of President Kennedy’s dictum “don’t ask what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” Responding, my generation threw itself into the civil rights movement, the Peace Corp, local and national politics, and a search for a deeper identity for ourselves and our country. In the category of social activism. high schools might be the new colleges. As our political culture grows jarringly complicated, and I feel repression in the air, I long for the strength of new voices.
Try to have one of your characters do or say something in the course of the narrative that’s totally original…something that’s never been done in another movie or film. This is not easy to achieve, but if you have an imagination, have some fun with it. You’ll go down a lot of dead ends, but if you’re lucky, you’ll end up on a mountain peak. Remember that the event has to be plausible, but originality is usually memorable. No matter how many crime stories we read, for example, the great ones take our thoughts and emotions to unexplored places. It’s what readers talk about in reviews and blogs.
Building a character arc should be done over the span of the novel. Just like it’s a writing sin to have an information plot dump in the first chapter of your book, likewise your characters shouldn’t reveal themselves right away. One aspect at a time—brought out by action rather than exposition—keeps the reader engaged.
Most writers are more comfortable delineating one sex (or gender) over another, which often dictates their main characters and the genre a writer chooses. You can still be a male and write fantasy romances, or a female skilled at describing war scenes, but whatever your strength, play to it.
Very few writers do everything well. The best write about what they know, and their characters evoke passion, empathy or curiosity in a reader.
It’s great to surprise a reader with the unexpected, helping give a twist to the plot and the character, but whatever transpires, it must have credibility. Unless she’s a prodigy, a twelve year old girl is not going to solve the murder of her parents that happened ten years earlier. A surgeon who graduated from Harvard is not likely to leave a sponge behind in his patient’s abdomen. If you go for low probability events, or extreme twists, you have to back them up with plausible explanations. The “willing suspension of disbelief” only goes so far. Once a reader becomes skeptical that the writer doesn’t know what he or she is talking about, it’s tough to win them back.
Great characters, to enhance their arc, should have a fourth or fifth gear that seems to come out of nowhere. For example, villains can turn into heroes with an act of kindness that we would never have anticipated, yet when we read the novel closely, we realize that the seed of kindness was planted by the writer from the beginning. Similarly, characters we start off admiring suddenly disappoint us when they hurt someone they love. If they don’t realize what they’ve done, figuring out the “why” makes them even more interesting. Well-conceived characters can help with plot troubles, too, if the writer wakes one morning and isn’t sure where his or her story is going (happens to most of us). Instead of robbing a bank, for example, your destitute character decides to give away his last fifty dollars to a stranger. The wife who has been cheated on, instead of taking revenge on her husband, is filled with insights about her father. A deeply-felt, richly-imagined character is your writing buddy, your co-conspirator, and their importance to the final product can’t be overstated.
There may be a thousand and one books on how to write a novel, filled with sound observations, but when it comes to creating and developing characters, many emphasize the mechanical over the intuitive. Over decades, here’s what I’ve painstakingly learned about making your characters authentic, original and memorable.
Stay tuned for the next post!
Most writers begin the writing process by working on plot. While plot is obviously important, I also like to know everything possible about my main characters, even if I never use many of their details in the novels. Whether you take voluminous notes about them, or talk out loud to them (and they talk back to you), it’s rarely enough. You need to imagine what they would do off the page, i.e., if they had to attend your Uncle George’s July fourth barbecue, or somehow landed in another novel altogether. Make them your best friends or worst enemies. Whether they come from your imagination or real life (or a combination thereof), you should be inside your characters a few hours every day—before you write a single word. Think of method acting. Characters aren’t simply pawns in a plot—they transcend it. They are what you remember long after the plot is often forgotten.
On the eve of your inauguration to the highest office in the land, I wanted to pass along the thoughts of someone you’ll likely never know or meet. I don’t mean to be a scolding parent. I’m just Joe Citizen, living in a great country.
If you want me to like you, I hope you can start by being more civil. Be respectful of people whose politics you don’t agree with or whose words have hurt you. Show that open mindedness is preferable to reflex partisanship. Erase “loser,” “garbage” and other name-calling from your vocabulary. Think of all of us Joe Citizens as your extended family. We don’t expect to be invited to Thanksgiving or Christmas at the White House, but look us in the eye and tell us the truth whenever possible.
If you want me to respect you, study and read the appropriate material before you speak on any serious subject. Shooting from the hip is for people who don’t know the importance of consequences. Refrain from thinking of world leaders as a battle of the superheroes or clash of the titans, but if you must, know that winning is not a zero-sum game. Don’t keep secrets that you wouldn’t abide in others. Refrain from rumors. To paraphrase a song of your generation and mine, love and tolerance are a temple, love and tolerance are the highest thing.
If you want me to have faith in your presidency, never do anything that I’d be ashamed of if I did it, because sooner or later the word gets out. Everything you’ve done in the past, I forgive you. Everything you do in the future, our lives depend on it. So do our children’s and grandchildren’s. Trust the judgment and wisdom of people around you who do their jobs well. That’s about it.
Michael R. French
Santa Fe, New Mexico
Readers Become 'Friends' with Main Characters of Michael French's Latest Book
Michael sits down to chat with host Dan Mayfield about his characters social media. You can "friend" Alex Baten and Jaleel Robeson here:
Michael R. French
Michael French is a graduate of Stanford University and Northwestern University. He is a businessman and author who divides his time between Santa Barbara, California, and Santa Fe, New Mexico.