WILR – The A-Z Characters course

Here’s another “WILR” (What I Learned Reading…”) review. And, as usual, I’m going to include a bunch of resource links, as well.

This is about creating characters, and the course is The A-Z to Creating Believable Characters. (I like it. A lot.)

As I mentioned in my previous post, I’ve realized that I’m kind of terrible when it comes to crafting characters.

Sure, for walk-on characters that may not even have a name, the charts at 350 Character Traits can be useful.

But, ask me to craft a character that’s truly authentic…? Err. Umm. It’s been a struggle.

Oh, I own some great books about characters. I should read these (and then use them) more often.

On My Bookshelf

45 Master Characters is a good, all-purpose reference for pre-constructed characters. They’re based on classic and mythic archetypes. (Athena is subtitled: The Father’s Daughter and the Backstabber. It fits.) Everything is explained, nicely. This book is especially good for “red shirts.”

One reason you’ll rarely see inexpensive used copies of this book at Amazon, is because anyone who owns this book is likely to hold onto it, forever.

Bullies, Bastards, and Bitches is a title that embarrasses me to write. (I’m like that. LOL)

I had to buy a copy because I’m utterly worthless when it comes to staring evil in the face… and turning it into a character I’ll have to live with (in my head) for any length of time.

I’m so uncomfortable making a character evil, I either make them “too nice” to seem like genuine villains, or I refuse to think about them much, and write them as two-dimensional stereotypes. Either way, they’re boring and not-very-credible.

This book not only describes each kind of villain (or monster), it also explains what motivates most in that category, how to write them, and a lot more.

I have no idea why this book is available, used, for under $2 (as I’m writing this), because I think it’s a great book.

Writer’s Guide to Character Traits is strictly for people who want to delve into the clinical, psychological aspects of good guys, bad guys, and everyone in-between. If you’re going to have to be “in the mind” of your character and don’t know exactly how to write him (or her), convincingly, this book might be helpful.

(I rarely use it, but keep it on my bookshelf anyway. At some point, I expect that I’ll be glad I did. Meanwhile, I default to Angela Ackerman’s Negative Trait Thesaurus. I own all of her thesauruses — or is that thesauri? — as printed books, and keep them within arm’s reach of my keyboard.)

Less often, I refer to What Every Body is Saying: An Ex-FBI Agent’s Guide to Speed-Reading People. If you’re writing mysteries or thrillers, and your protagonist needs to evaluate people, visually, this book provides good insights. Personally, I’ve learned a lot from the photos in it, and tend to flip through the book when I need a quick, revealing gesture, movement, or pose.

Fiction is Folks (published in 1983) is kind of fun if you like old-school approaches to writing, or if you’re writing something with a strong “literature” style. I read this book for entertainment, because the author (Robert Newton Peck, perhaps best known for A Day No Pigs Would Die) really gets YA characters, and he also throws in some juicy writing advice.

For example:

One word can save a sentence.

The sentence you just read, obviously, has not been saved at all. It is boring and dies a horrible death at the hands of this writer. It’s dull. But let’s give it another go.

One word can gussy up a sentence.

Sometimes, all a sentence needs to brighten it is just one little buzz word. That one unexpected blast is the pothole in fiction’s road. An awkward word to hopscotch a reader’s eye. And thus, tickle a fancy.

A buzz word is matter out of place. It doesn’t belong there. Yet, without it, the entire sentence is about as exciting as opening night at the You-Scrub-It Car Wash.

(After that, he goes on to explain how to come up with buzz words that will make your sentences interesting, and hold your readers’ interest.)

While you can still find a used copy of this book for under $20, I recommend it. If you’re planning a writing career, it’ll come in handy at some point.

And Now, WILR…

At first glance, “The A-Z…” report about characters may look good but not great.

Don’t be deceived. Take a second look. It might change your mind, and — if you’re like me — be a very worthy use of your time.

A-Z Characters(Also, I’m saying “report” because I think I bought it for $7, when it was just a 20-something page report. Now, it’s around $10 and includes a video and audio that I haven’t seen. They may give even more important, extra depths to the course.)

It’s true: Initially, I wasn’t impressed by this report. The letters-of-the-alphabet approach seemed like a gimmick. Also, I’ve read much of this before, in other courses and reports.

I kept reading it, anyway. (Okay, being honest: I just skimmed it.)

Then… I’m not sure how much was that quirky letters-of-the-alphabet thing, or his actual information, but — suddenly — I saw what I’d been overlooking in my characters (and character interviews).

That was a major discovery.

Very simply, I didn’t take them deep enough.

Sure, I knew my character’s name. The name even felt like the character.

I’m a bit of a synesthete. (So is Cassandra, a character in The Librarians TV series. I watch it on Hulu.)

If I name a character “Greg,” he has medium-brown hair, his gaze is clear and intense when he actually looks at you, and he probably has slightly flat feet. He also likes mac & cheese for lunch, and whistles when he works.

Yes, for me, that’s a “Greg.” (It’s not all people named Greg. It’s just what my “Greg” would be, in my story… at this very moment. Next week, he might be tall, blond, and gorgeous, with a smile that’d take your breath away.)

Most often, I choose names that will seem “right” (familiar) to my target audience. (For that, I select the decade-or-so when they were born, and choose a moderately popular name from that era. For the US — which is home to about 50% of my readers — I use Top 5 Names…)

Sometimes, I know the meaning of the person’s name. (I use Behind the Name for the name’s roots, though Meaning-of-Names can be better for actual meanings.)

And, I track all of my characters’ names using a worksheet I designed.

But a dimensional character my readers will care about…? Something just didn’t click with how I think… until I read The A-Z report.

A Rose By Any Other Name…? No, A Name Can Be A Door

Suddenly, reading just one part of this report, some essential mental lights turned on. At that moment, I realized: The character’s name can be a key to understanding far more about her (or him).

That tip in that report — one of many useful ideas — asked why her parents named her that.

  • What did it mean about her parents?
  • Who was she named after?
  • If it was an ancestor, what was that person like?
  • Did my character’s parents hope she’d have similar qualities, and how did that affect her upbringing?

In other words, the name led me to a better understanding of where my character came from, her family’s traditions (good or bad), their values, and how her parents’ expectations (and hopes) may have affected her.

For me, it was kind of a door to realizing, “Ah-HA! This is how to craft characters!”

Will I do that with every character’s name…? Maybe, but probably not.

And, that’s just one of several useful ideas in this report — yes, it contains one idea for every letter of the alphabet — that made a significant difference to how I’m writing and editing my books.

If characters aren’t your strong suit, and that kind of tip intrigues you, this course might be a big time-saver when you’re writing future books. (If you’re disappointed by it, he offers a 30-day money back guarantee.)

The A-Z to Creating Believable Characters* may not be pure gold from start to finish, but — for the price (under $10) — it was a worthwhile purchase for me. All I needed was one good spark to get me un-stuck with my characters This report delivered much more than that.

So, if you’re struggling with characters and the usual advice isn’t working, I recommend this course. It’s not just what Barry McDonald says in it, but how he presents it. For me, that’s where the magic is: Something in how he explained the character crafting process… it made more sense to me than all the previous resources I’d used, put together. (And made the latter more useful, as well.)

[As usual: If you’re not actually working on a book, do not collect yet another “ooh, shiny!” object. Place your posterior in the chair and write! <– Advice I need to follow more, myself. LOL]


*If you’re new to my reviews, the only affiliate links at this site are my Amazon links. In other words, I don’t earn a cent if you buy this course… or any other course I recommend. The only reason I write these reviews is to be helpful to other writers.

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