About henrymclaughlin

Henry McLaughlin’s debut novel, Journey to Riverbend, won the Christian Writers Guild Operation First Novel Award. He brings a love of history and a background of social services and ministry into his writing. Henry enjoys working with other writers to sharpen his craft and to teach, coach and mentor. Besides writing, he also enjoys reading and traveling. Born in Rhode Island, he now lives in Saginaw, Texas, with his wife of forty-three years. Four of their five children and grandson are scattered across New England, New Jersey, and Missouri. Their eldest is in heaven. WordServe client since 2011 Member: ACFW, CWG, NTCW (North Texas Christian Writers) Website: www.henrymclaughlin.org

Bringing Characters to Life

 A story without people is not a story. I’m not sure what it is but it’s not a story.

You can have a great plot and beautiful settings, but if your characters are not alive, you just have words on a page.

There are numerous tools available to help us create characters. Meyer-Briggs, Gary writer's block 2Chapman’s Five Love Languages, character interview forms, character description sheets, family history templates, etc. They all have some value in identifying your characters.

I believe your character doesn’t come alive until he or she is in the story, interacting with other characters, striving to achieve goals. This striving creates conflict. This conflict brings both your character and your story alive.

When your character comes to life in the story, be prepared for most of the preliminary work to go out the window. And be prepared, if you’re an outliner, for your carefully-crafted story to go in new directions. The story, the conflicts, the setbacks, will change your character and reveal more of what’s beneath her surface.

Believable characters have dark secrets, hidden ambitions, fears, dreams, hopes, and desires. In my current work, I didn’t know my heroine was claustrophobic until it came out in a scene. None of my prep work revealed this. Why? Because it wasn’t important in the prep work. It wasn’t until I had her in a scene, in action, that the fear of being closed in manifested itself. Her fear of heights wasn’t revealed until she had to climb a tree to escape a hungry tiger.

People have needs for relationship, significance, and security. These need to be revealed in the story.

Randy Ingermanson teaches that to create a believable character, try to give her at least two core values. And somewhere in the story, have them conflict. In my novel, Journey to Riverbend, Michael Archer is the protagonist. His core values are: One, nothing is more important than keeping his word; and, two, nothing is more important than protecting human life. At the climax, these values conflict. To keep his promise to a condemned man, Michael faces having to kill someone.

James Scott Bell, in Conflict & Suspense, suggests giving your character a yearning, something they want but don’t have, “something without which a person feels life will be incomplete.” It can be something the hero brings into the story so he already has trouble when the story opens. This yearning will give him a store of actions that are unpredictable, creating potential conflict in every scene, and creating interest in the reader from the outset.

Businessman with Cell Phone JumpingThe more we let our characters express and reveal themselves in the story, the more vibrant, complex, and fascinating they will be, and the more they will keep the reader hooked and turning pages.

Being Equipped

God has a will, or a plan for each of us. Psalm 139:16 (NLT) tells us You saw me before I was born. Every day of my life was recorded in your book. Every moment was laid out before a single day had passed.

Each of us is on this earth for a specific reason. We may not know it completely right now. We may be in a season of preparation to enter that calling. But God has a plan for each of us.

Some are called to be pastors and teachers, some doctors, lawyers. Some to be auto mechanics, electricians, and plumbers.

Some, like myself, are called to be writers.

In Jeremiah 29:11 (NLT), God tells us “For I know the plans I have for you,” says the Lord. Writing“They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope.”

Whatever our calling, God will not just throw us into it, like throwing a toddler into the pool so it has to learn to swim. He prepares us.

What makes the preparation fun, and at times frustrating, is that it’s uniquely different for each of us. One person may go through an entirely different set of life experiences than me, yet end up as a writer. I think this is another example of how God cares for us as individuals. He has a unique and personal relationship with each of us. We are all His favorite child.

And he equips us.

Hebrews 13:21 (NLT) may he equip you with all you need for doing his will. May he produce in you, through the power of Jesus Christ, every good thing that is pleasing to him. All glory to him forever and ever! Amen.

From childhood, I’ve had a love for words and books, for reading, for stories. In my career, each job has called for me to read more, to read better, and to write: case records, personnel reports, court documents, training curriculum, and policy and procedure.

?????????????Then the glimmer of writing fiction stirred in my heart. And the equipping continued. Books on writing, writing conferences and classes, critique groups, critique partners, mentors, coaches, developing a learning heart and a thick skin. All designed to teach me the craft and the business of writing, to humble myself before Him, to submit to His plan and will for my life.

And it’s been worth every step. It goes beyond being published. I’ve become a better person and a better Christian. My relationship with Him is closer than ever. He’s rewarded me with insights into myself and with precious friendships I would never have experienced if I had not made the choice to follow what He called me to do.

Everybody’s Talking at Me

While preparing a class on dialogue recently, I came across a concept I hadn’t noticed or considered before: our character’s voice may change based on the situation they’re in.

Consider our own daily lives and the various situations we find ourselves in. If we have a day job, we speak in a different manner to our boss than we do our co-workers. If we’re in customer service, we often react differently with different customers. Some we can be playful and joke with. Others are strictly business and we maintain the professional decorum they demand, even if only non-verbally.

We take our cues from the situation and the person we’re talking to. Notice how polite and differential we are when a police officer pulls us over for speeding. And then how we complain to our friend about how unfair the cop was to give us a ticket.

Our attitude when speaking with our pastor is different from our attitude when working on an outreach with fellow church members.

If you’re a parent, your voice changes depending on the situation and the child. If we have several children and they span age groups from pre-school to adolescent, our kids start thinking we must have multiple personalities. We go from the loving parent taking care of bumps and scrapes to the red-faced tyrant wanting the bedroom cleaned to the strict disciplinarian who dares expect our teens adhere to a curfew. If the kids get into a dispute, they quickly learn that, as Bill Cosby said, “We don’t want justice, we want quiet!” And we frequently don’t care how we get it.

In my first novel, Journey to Riverbend, my female lead, Rachel, used different voices depending on her situation. I didn’t discover this until I was struggling to develop a stronger character arc for her and she revealed her voices to me during an interview I had with her. This sweet (I thought) young lady told me, in no uncertain terms, to go back and read the story. Rachel is a former prostitute trying to establish a dressmaking business while seeking to put her past behind her. At the same time, she’s finding her way as a new Christian and struggling with whether to let a man into her life.

As a businesswoman, her voice is polite and deferential, even as she steers customers away from choices that make her cringe inside. But her old way of speaking comes out when the mayor tries to get too friendly and take advantage of her. She whispers to him, “Remember, I’m making dresses for your wife. I can make her look like a clown and convince her she looks like Queen Victoria.” It’s the voice of a woman who won’t be messed with.

How do your characters speak when you put them in different conversations, especially with someone in a higher social status?

Knowing My Characters

The more I explore this writing stuff, the more I learn how much I don’t know, or can do better.

I’ve recently come across two techniques that help me probe deeper into my main character and discover new things about her, new insights that add rich texture to her, to her relationships, and to the story.

In his new book, Conflict & Suspense, James Scott Bell writes, “The stakes in an emotionally satisfying novel have to be death.” These include physical, professional, and psychological.

My current work is about a female attorney, Emily Peyton, in the 1880s. In the main conflict in the book, her first trial, she defends a man accused of murder. She faces both professional and psychological death. A conviction would mean she failed as an attorney and would damage, if not destroy, her confidence in her ability to practice the profession she loves. In her professional career, Emily must overcome the prejudices of a male-dominated world. To lose the trial would give credence to all those who say the law is no profession for a woman. A conviction also adds a burden of guilt over having her client face the gallows for a crime she believes he didn’t commit.

Randy Ingermanson teaches the importance of our characters having internal conflicts. Such conflicts follow the character throughout the story and present emotional dilemmas she must overcome. These internal conflicts are identified through value statements, core beliefs that drive her. These beliefs are best identified through “Nothing is more important than…” sentences, such as:

Nothing is more important to Emily than being accepted as an attorney.

Nothing is more important to Emily than seeing justice prevail.

The internal conflict arises when these value statements collide. Emily’s value of being accepted as an attorney conflicts with her value to see justice prevail when she risks her career to do all she can to have her client acquitted.

The keys to the value statements are they must be equally strong and, at some point in the story, they must come into conflict, forcing the character to make a choice.

What techniques have you found helpful in developing your characters?

Making Dialogue Work

Dialogue is one of the hardest working tools we have because we ask it to do so much. It has to convey information, develop and move the plot, increase tension and conflict all while sounding natural.

Perhaps most importantly, dialogue must engage the reader through revealing our characters. It brings them to life and shows their personalities, their quirks, their goals, and their fears.

The most effective and real dialogue comes when we know our characters as intimately as possible. Whether our story is plot-driven or character-driven, we have to invest the time in writing biographies, character analyses, Meyers-Briggs assessment, journals, interviewing them, and experimenting with how they speak, act, think, and feel. And they’ll still surprise us.

In my first novel, Journey to Riverbend, I had a problem with the story arc of my female protagonist, Rachel. She was a former prostitute who received Jesus. She was also striving to open a dress-making business in a town where many were hostile to her because of her past. It wasn’t until I interviewed her that I learned Rachel was a feisty, determined young woman with numerous questions about her new-found faith, anxieties about her future, and wondering if love could ever be part of her life.

And I discovered her voice changed depending on her situation. She had a business voice she used with customers and an almost child-like awe when she talked about her faith. At times her prostitute “don’t mess with me” voice came into play. When the mayor attempted to get too familiar, Rachel stopped him cold with the whispered line, “I’m making dresses for your wife. I can make her look like a laughing stock while convincing her she looks like Queen Victoria.”

With these new insights, Rachel’s dialogue became stronger, more connected to her emotions at the moment, more realistic. It revealed more of her personality, her dreams, her fears.

Rachel came to life through her dialogue.

Make the time to know your characters. They’ll reward you with stronger personalities and become people that readers will keep turning pages for.

How has dialogue allowed you to develop your characters even further? What have you learned about your characters through dialogue that surprised you?

Fit For The Master’s Use

One of my test readers recently sent me an email that both blessed me and reminded me of what we’re all about as writers. At the end of her email, she included a prayer: “God, I pray you give Henry wisdom, knowledge, creativity, patience and energy to finish Your book. Amen and Amen.”

It’s not my book. It’s His. I’m His instrument, His tool to get the message out that He wants shared.

At one level, I knew this. I’d like to think everything I do is for Him. But there are times when the ego gets in the way, and I lose sight of Him. It becomes my book, my project.

But that’s not true. He inspires us to write the words. In obedience to Him, we do and the writing flows. It’s not perfect the first time because I’m not perfect. But the refining, pruning process applies to our writing as much as it does to our spirits. My role is to have my heart in the place where my words can be grafted onto His vine and not lopped off as unfit for the Master’s use.

I’m His vessel, the clay in His hands. But it only works if I’m humble and obedient enough to put me aside and let Him shape and mold. And sometimes it hurts because I love my words, but He has better ones. And sometimes it hurts because the words He wants me to write in fiction reveal an area in me that needs work, work that must be done if I am to go forward with Him.

Has Father asked you to participate with Him in your writing in a way that is uncomfortable? How have His words and His plan for your writing grown and encouraged you? Your readers?