How real are the characters you write?
This summer, I read a great story about a man trapped in a spiraling depression after learning that his teenage daughter had been killed in a car crash. He learns of her death while floating thousands of miles up in space. Back home, he struggles with guilt, loneliness and the will to move forward. He's a bit pitiful and annoying at first. He sleeps with his neighbor's wife. He doesn't take care of himself. He cuts his own adulteress wife off from their joint bank account. Then comes a moment in the story where he starts to show his true self, his possible self, and you really want him to be okay. This is the moment the character became real. ( I encourage you to read THIS book.)
People aren't one-dimensional. Possibly not even two-dimensional. We are multi-faceted. We are not equal parts good, bad and ugly. We are imperfect. Characters need to be the same.
This is not an easy task for the writer. Here are some starter tips to create real characters.
1. The Woody Allen Recipe. If your protagonist is insecure and lonely, add a likable quality. Sense of humor, compassion, trustworthiness.
2. The Martha Stewart Recipe. If your antagonist must be despised in the end, start her off being clever, kind and helpful. Then put her helpfulness to the test where she helps herself in spite of others. Let her get caught. Readers can pity her without rooting for her.
3. The OJ Simpson Recipe. If your antagonist must get what they deserve in the end, let it not be enough. Start them off as very popular and lovable. Put them in a situation where they hurt the protagonist (not physically, perhaps mentally or emotionally). They lose their popularity but maybe gain a sick notoriety. (This is a good recipe for a bully or mean girl.)
4. The Ebenezer Scrooge Recipe. If your protagonist is pretty despicable in the beginning but must transform into a lovable person in the end, reveal his Achilles heel early on. He's impatient and rude, but he has a niece he adores. He's cheap and critical, but he can't pass up a stray dog on the street.
You get the picture. Creating real characters is a lot like baking that delicious chocolate cake. Start with a good recipe then add some surprises. Not too much. And always find someone to take a small taste before you share it with a large group.
What are your real character recipes? Share them with us.
Inside the collective virtual writing world, we like to help one another out. We read each other's writing, blogs, and books. We connect on Twitter, Facebook, and other social media platforms. We engage in chats, discussions, and debates. We invite one another to book give-aways, TwitterChats, webinars and maybe a live author event somewhere in the real world.
In my opinion, this virtual community offers tremendous support for emerging and veteran writers. If you create (writing, art, photography, other), you want to be part of this collective. There's no admission, no initiation, no dues. You can be a voyeur, or you can dive write in and share your ideas, ask questions, or promote events. I do, and my writing is changed for the better.
The other day, CJ tossed me this "One Lovely Blog Award" and asked me to share 7 things about me. I've shared me. So I'd rather share with you 7 things about writing. I trust no one will ring my doorbell and rip this badge from my website.
7 things about writing.
1. Writing is work. Bruce Jenner didn't win the Decathlon sitting on the couch binge-watching OITNB. He rose everyday and followed a strict routine to be in top shape. I write everyday but not enough to win a Decathlon. I have been caught red-eyed in front of more than one binge-watching session. Like my writing, I am a work in progress.
2. Writing is cathartic. Diving inside your depressed character's darkness can be a cheap way of relieving your own frustrations with the world. Use your past to develop your characters. It might save you on the therapy bills.
3. Writing is joyful. When my day begins with writing, I feel grounded, happy and ready for the world.
4. Writing is measured. Besides the joy in creating, I find a certain pleasure in seeing those word counts rise. Setting a daily or weekly goal keeps me on track and makes me feel accomplished.
5. Writing is a partnership. Yes, there is the relationship built with other writers, but I'm talking about the relationship between you and that screen (notepad, sheet of paper, post-it pile). Whether I'm using a software program to organize or reading writing advice beforehand, what I produce requires a team effort.
6. Writing is magic. There's magic at work before the words that jumble about in my head fall onto the screen before me. When I tune in to my internal workings, connect with the world around me, I create a place that doesn't exist. That's the magical world of a story.
7. Writing is peace. To expand on point 3, writing can bring you not only a sense of wonder but a quiet. Once I empty out the inner chatter onto the screen or my journal, my mind can rest. Writing is my ohm.
Please visit these lovely blogs for more fun with writing:
Lisa Reiter - practical tips and delightful conversations.
Morgen Bailey - fun poetry and story starters and more.
Heather Jackson and Others - tips and advice written with empathy and humor.
Katharine Grubb - warm and kind mom with tons of energy and lots of ideas to help writers promote and publish.
Gabriela Pereira - Do it Yourself MFA. Great articles and tips for writers at all stages.
Now, let's get back to writing.
As some of you know, I recently fell in love. With Scrivener. We met, married, and are enjoying a passionate honeymoon. Scrivener saved my writing life.
If you don't use it, and have no interest in using it, I suggest this: take a sheet of paper and scratch out some notes before you write. Create a mind map, a word web, anything.
I was never a fan of outlines. Until now. Fellow tweeps agree. Try K.M Weiland and Gabriela Pereira. Between their helpful tips and my dear Scriv, I'm in writing heaven.
Before you go on, let me make one thing clear. By outline, I don't mean grade-school roman numerals and capital letters. By outline, I mean a sketch, a map, a skeleton of your story; I mean the major plot points, the central message, the potential obstacles. (Remember: what happens in your head, stays in your head. Unless you open your mouth.)
Here are my 5 take-aways on the importance of outlining your story:
1. Outlines build a frame - you can always change plot structure and other details during the writing process, but beginning with that initial skeleton clears a path and marks a destination.
2. Stories need an outline - a natural outline will grow from your writing even if you don't begin with it. Why not start with it? It's your skeleton. Without it, your story will be an amorphous blob inching across a barren slab of pavement.
3. Outlines make you a better writer - fleshing out details like character traits, scenes, conflicts, obstacles, etc., beforehand prepare you for the deeper context that will organically unfold as you write.
4. Outlines save you time - ninety percent of my writer's block cleared up when I began taking outlining seriously. Just scratching out those 8 arcs gave me visible landmarks and stopping points.
5. Not everyone agrees - I could add five more reasons I think outlines make you a better writer, and you could find just as many that counter me.
I'm not your mom or your best friend. You won't offend me or hurt my feelings if you leave me a comment below that says I'm wrong. I welcome debate. I began my writing life on the other side of this argument - "outlining is for pretentious writers; I'm organic; let it flow". I've changed my mind.
I might change it again, but for now, creating an outline (loose or tight) gives my stories strength and frees my thinking to create.
What do you think?
This isn't new advice. You've heard it before, but did you listen?
The first story I wrote in college was about a sculptor who created a bust of her blind brother so he could feel his face like she did.
I'm not a sculptor. I don't have a blind brother. My professor guessed as much. He said the story lacked luster; it was missing authenticity.
He was right.
It's not that I can't write a story with a blind character, but the heart of the story needs to be mine.
My first YA, "This Girl Climbs Trees", was described by Publisher's Weekly as a "semi-autobiographical narrative with literary leanings". Well, maybe. When I think about my college prof's comments. Yes. The nuggets aren't really my life, but the essence, the themes are. Growing up, I questioned everything - life, death, boys, myself. (PW also said it wouldn't hold readers' attentions. My readers say they are wrong.)
My second novel, "Birds on a Wire", follows three teen boys and their struggles with their own identities. One comes out, one loses his temper, the other struggles with love and friendship. Not quite tales from my adolescence, but the underlying themes - yes. In high school, I worked hard balancing friendships and boys; I sought to understand the value of my family v. my friends.
I am writing what I live. Don't expect the plots are me; do expect the central messages are.
My third YA, "Clothed in Flames" (currently in the loving hands of editor Jane MacKay), drops us into the crowded mind of a girl who hears voices and thinks a fictional character can help her find the dad she's never met. (Not my story - not even close. Well, okay, all writers hear voices, yes?) However, the message about love, family, believing in yourself - that's me. That's what I live.
So, yes, Professor Boyle, you were correct. Yes, Neil Gaiman, you, too, are spot on! We must write what we live. Where we live is in our hearts.
What's important to you? Make a list. Write one of those stories. The plot is the vehicle that carries your message. Write what you live.
Share your thoughts here.
Whether you're a writer, artist, bus driver or parent, you have some kind of rhythm in your life. However, you might not be totally aware of it.
Saturday morning, my daughter sat down for her usual piano lesson. Despite the rising summer heat, her teacher sat on the couch in his typical attire, a three-piece suit and tie. Beads of sweat pooled on his forehead, but he was as jovial as ever. Daniel had a rhythm in his life, and he knew it.
He enjoys connecting with his students. It's evident in the laughter and banter exchanged with the eye-rolling youth who sit before him plucking away at black and white keys. Daniel either does not notice their indignance, or he ignores it. Maybe, he's just too busy sharing his own stories.
Daniel loves to tell stories almost as much as he loves teaching piano.
In between errant notes, he shares tales of "when I was your age". I sit upstairs, my ear tilted toward the doorway. I love Daniel's stories. At first, I thought, why is he wasting my daughter's time with his silly memories. Then I realized his stories had a purpose. His stories connect him to his students. They make him real, fallible, and vulnerable.
Deep down, my daughter adores her piano teacher. I don't know if she'll remember his stories; I do know that she'll take his passion and joy with her.
Piano teaching is his passion, but the stories that connect him to his students are his rhythm.
If writing is my passion, what's my rhythm?
It could be the joy I receive from writing, the connections I make to the reader, to myself. Writing can be a solitary task; you need to connect to those you write for. Otherwise, you lose the passion, the joy, the rhythm.
Whether it's a contemporary piece or genre specific like a horror or fantasy, you need to find that connection to your readers' lives. People love stories, but they want them to mean something.
How do you connect to your readers? What's your passion in life? What's your rhythm?