By Kathy Eaton
On Tuesday, June 3, 2014, Portland author Jessica P. Morrell spoke at the Willamette Writers meeting about “Risky Business: How to create compelling, larger-than-life surrogate warriors, bad ass anti-heroes, believable antagonists and quirky, memorable cast members for your story.”
“Writers need to up their game with stories that are clear and come to life. Good characters haunt us and won’t let go,” said Morrell.
She advised writers to take more risks in writing fictional characters as they are the lifeblood of storytelling. Morrell said characters need trouble to come to life and create reader empathy. She gave these traits to characters: they are vulnerable, complicated and multi-faceted. All major characters have an agenda: the protagonist or villain’s single most important job is to stimulate reader’s emotions. “Characters don’t have to be nice; they just have to be fascinating,” Morrell said.
Morrell provided her recipe for characters with ingredients that work in any format:
- Create an intriguing back story that carries a lot of weight.
- Create a mysterious back story.
- Tie characters to central dramatic questions.
- Stir in primary character traits (what they are good at or stand for). Create a foundation for characters (smart, ambitious) that will be showcased throughout the story. Include risky traits for characters that are ruthless.
- Ensure main traits are put to work and revealed as the storyline progresses. Never stray from the character’s main traits.
- Know your character’s morality. You must know the character’s emotional bandwidth to gauge how they’ll react and what they’ll do under pressure. Will they take risks?
- Know your character’s emotional needs (based on their back story) as well as physical needs (safety, food, shelter, sleep, money, etc.).
- Character’s motivations lead to goals and ultimately to taking action.
According to Morrell, the more you know about your character and the story’s ending, the easier and faster it becomes to write it.
Morrell used popular movies such as Rain Main to illustrate her point about how a main character evolves over a powerful story arc in a positive way compared to The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo, which portrays a bad ass anti-hero whose primary character traits don’t alter.
She advised writers to send their characters into new physical and emotional territory. “Make it harrowing,” Morrell said. Keep up the tension as your antihero goes through twists and reversals.
In a hand-out she provided, Morrell lists traits of anti-heroes as:
- Often a maverick or screw-up
- Might flaunt laws to act contrary to society’s standards
- Will always have the reader’s sympathies
- Will be made understandable by the story events.
- Little man
Morrell has published six books and has two more coming out in fall 2014. For more information: jessicamorrell.com.
Kathy Eaton is a writer whose work has been published in The Oregonian, The Hollywood Star News, The Bee, Oregon Humane Society Magazine, Northwest Passage Magazine and Working Border Collie Magazine.