Every writer experiences a block on occasion, a point in your writing where you just aren't sure where to go next. I've written before about how to unblock a creative stall. Sometimes it's about the plot, but sometimes it's about the character.
Unstick your writing with a little drawing.
If you've distanced yourself from your character, you might need time to see her more clearly.
Sketching characters, making maps of settings, and practicing dialogue out loud are not new tricks for writers. You simply need to find the one that works best for you.
Try it. Grab a sketchpad or sheet of paper, pencil or pen, and sketch your character. Try to capture her root emotions, her angst, her concern, her hopes, fears, and dreams. Draw her high school graduation picture or her face in the mirror when she wakes up. Create a series of portraits.
Once you've got her, ask a friend or stranger to tell you what they see. What emotions does the image evoke? If they see things you didn't intend, consider why they're visible in what you drew. If you meant her to appear scared, but the stranger sees anger, maybe that's her root emotion. Work from there. Why might she be angry?
Drawing your character brings her to life. Set her next to you as you write and see what else she has to say about her journey through your story.
Share your drawings and thoughts with us.
If you've ever been part of an office, faculty, or team, you've participated in energizers. These are quick activities that motivate or bond members of group. Funny thing is, many of them can be used to help you build your characters.
Consider: Two Truths and a Lie.
In this activity, members write down three facts about themselves. One is a lie. During the course of a meeting, day, or term, members get to know each other. After time, they might be able to pick out each other's lies. It's also a way to bond. You learn about things you have in common, or you learn things you simply didn't know about each other.
In your story, you can play this with your characters. Every character has a lie he believes about himself.
I'm incapable of love.
I am not a good friend.
I am perfect.
I cause trouble wherever I go.
As you develop your characters, think about what are the truths and what are the lies. Give life to each. See where they take the story and character. Who believes the lies? Who can't believe the truths? This will help develop other characters.
Know your characters before the story begins. What kind of lies would this type of person need to believe in order for the plot to develop the way you want it to? This helps build a real arc that develops naturally alongside the plot.
Study other novels. What lies did your favorite characters believe until they learned their lesson? FIGHT CLUB is probably one of the best stories where a character carries his lie deep into the story.
Share your thoughts. What are you working on now, and what lie does your character believe?
This past week, I've been taking a fine tooth comb to my current manuscript, sorting through the fodder to uncover the gold. It is a tedious task.
It reminds me of something author Shannon Hale said: Working on a first draft is like "shoveling sand into a box so that later I can build sandcastles."
I believe at the end of this process, I will need a stronger eyeglass prescription. However, my pain is your gain. Each go through of the manuscript brings me closer to the story I want. I hope these tips are useful.
Here are five important items on my editing checklist.
1. Three or more read-throughs to flesh out the story. You don't really know your story until you get to the end. Sometimes the REAL story doesn't show for several read-throughs. The plot is not the story. Listen to Martin Scorsese explain this.
2. Pluck out filter words (see, watch, look, seem, like, feel, just, that, so, then, etc.). I go through my manuscript once for each of these. I might seek out more than a dozen filter words. Utilize your software's find/replace. (I keep a list of filter words on Scrivener's Scratch Pad.)
3. Review each character for consistency in tone, physical features, word choice, background, and history. That's a read-through for each. This might be another ten or twelve reads of the story, depending on the number of characters. Each time I read with that character in mind, I consider her arc and backstory; I view her as the hero of her own story. This will strengthen the entire novel.
4. Observe the settings for consistency in descriptions, distance irregularities, and vivid portrayals. Consider Hemingway and Steinbeck. Their settings become characters in their stories.
5. Review use of language. Look for: overuse of idioms, use of clichés (yikes!), inappropriate synonyms, repeated words, useless words. (This might take three times, but this is the heart of your writing. If you can master use of language in your manuscripts, you will write prose that flows like silk.)
One more: Read your story as someone else. First, you'll need to put your manuscript away for a week or two (more if you can bear it). Next, consider your readers; who are they? what do they look like? Embody that reader, and enjoy your story for the first time. The best way to do this is by downloading a word document and emailing it to your Kindle App. Reading your story on an eReader highlights things you might never notice on your laptop or desktop. (Beta readers and critique partners are great here, too.)
If you've been counting, you'll see I read through my manuscript up to thirty or more times. I never get bored. If I do, I need to go back and fix that.
I would love to hear what you have on your editing checklist. Please share below.
This week, I await agent responses to queries of my YA contemporary, ON THE ROAD TO MARTY MCFLY, and fixes from my editor for my WIP, STARS IN MY POCKET. So, of course, I'm plotting a new YA series. Not only have I decided to tackle a series, but I'm jumping genres into Mysteries. I find this very exciting but extremely intimidating.
I won't say more about the premise or potential plots as I'm in the early planning stages. However, I have had tons of fun developing my characters. In a series, you need characters waiting in the wings for the next book. Think of popular YA series books like HARRY POTTER, PERCY JACKSON, THE HUNGER GAMES, or DIVERGENT. It's clear the authors planned longer plot lines out before the first novel sat on bookshelves.
Plots don't run on their own. You need characters. My writing style seeks character before plot. So I'm busy crafting these people who will soon walk and talk about the pages of my stories.
Making up a character is harder than it sounds. Making up a believable and relatable one is even trickier. Fortunately, there are many resources available to writers. I'd like to share my favorites with you.
THE POSITIVE and NEGATIVE TRAITS THESAURUSES by Angela Ackerman & Becca Puglisi
These books are invaluable as are the two authors. Angela and Becca run the WritersHelpingWriters website, which features numerous useful articles on the craft.
Each thesaurus features dozens of personality traits to mix and match, including detailed analyses of root causes, associated behaviors, ideas for overcoming the flaw or other traits that might cause conflict. Couple these books with THE EMOTIONAL THESAURUS, and you will have the necessary tools to create real characters.
SAVE THE CAT by Blake Snyder
To me, the penultimate outliner for new writers. Snyder offers a simple set of "beats" to create a forward-moving plot. He does not ignore character, and that's why I include his book here. Some blame him for oversimplifying the storywriting process. To that, I say, "thank you!".
Read this "beatsheet" breakdown of the movie/book GONE GIRL for an idea of how character development and plot are intertwined.
Although Snyder died in 2009, his ideas continue to be shared. Peruse the site, buy his books, Google related articles. You will not be disappointed.
Here's one article on the site:
In "Character Pitfalls," Author Kristen Higgins reminds us "The story is the vehicle for the character."
I will share more another time on how "Save the Cat" saved my writing. What are your go-to resources for character development? What questions do you have? Let's talk. Share your comments or insights below.
Starting a story is easy, you've got an idea, and you start to tell it. In the middle, you begin to have some real fun, unveiling new characters, butting up against obstacles, adding twists and turns to your character's journey. Then comes time to finish.
Sccrrrcchhh! Hit the brakes, Alice, we're coming in for a landing.
The end is where the trouble begins.
For the last two weeks, I've been at the end of my current manuscript. I've two chapters and one half to go. I've written less than five hundred words in the last seven days.
Part of me is stalling - How should it end? What will the readers expect? Shall I surprise them?
My daughter recently read (struggled through?) Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. It wasn't until the very last line that she shouted with glee, "I get it! I get it!" You don't want your reader to struggle to the end.
Which brings me to the other 'part of me', the writer who's struggling, who doesn't want it all to end. After all, the main character (MC) and I have been head buddies for months. I'm gonna miss him when he goes. I know, I know, it's time to end it all.
In Blake Snyder's book on the writing craft, Save the Cat, he suggests that the final image match the opening image - as an opposite. If you opened with your MC in a pile of garbage after his girlfriend threw out him and the trash, your final image should showcase him clean and engaging in a scene that reflects he's learned his lesson. Nice and tidy, that's how Blake liked his scripts.
But life isn't a script, so you'll need to uncover other ways to end your story. Blake's is good and plausible, but readers enjoy variety. You don't want every book to end 'happily ever after'.
Here are other ways to close out your MC's tale.
1. Surprise! Life is full of surprises. You scrimp and save for college, study hard, receive several acceptance letters then your grandfather dies and you need to take over the family business. It puts a twist in your original plans, but it might work out for the better. You may save the restaurant that old granddad had run into the ground. Try a surprise ending, but lay out a few breadcrumbs before you draw back the curtain.
2. End Sooner than Later. Readers sometimes appreciate knowing twenty pages before the book finishes exactly why Aunt Betty set fire to the family letters. Now you have several dozen pages to tie up loose ends and explain several of the confusions you carefully plotted along the way. Click here for ideas to create loose ends?
3. Goal! The most logical ending occurs when your MC has solved his initial problem. If the conflict revolved around locating a missing child thought abducted by a crazy relative or the neighbor, once the child's been located, you can bring your story to a close. Catch the bad guy, and all is well.
or is it?
4. Gotcha! Taking #3 and twist it. The kid's home, but it wasn't either the neighbor or whacky Uncle Lew. The kid knows this, but he can only identify a few traits of his napper. This might take another thirty or more pages, or it might be the opening to a sequel.
Don't forget, once you've finished your story, it's time to revise. Let the fun begin again! (Besides, no matter how you end your fabulous story, someone will tell you how you should have ended it. Even if your Stephen King.)
What's your favorite story ending? What do you avoid at all costs? Share your thoughts with us.
If you are like most writers, you read everything about writing that falls into your field of vision. Perhaps not everything you read makes sense. Or is that just me? When I first started out, I trolled the net for blogs and columns and articles and theses about what makes a good story. I quickly schooled myself in elements of the modern novel - something I didn't learn from my few college level creative writing classes.
Everything made sense. Focus on plot or character. Paint a vivid world. Speak like normal people speak (whatever that is). Write what you know - sibling rivalry, demonic perfectionistic zombies, love, broken hearts, etc.
Everything made sense except for one thing. The character arc. The character arc meeting another character's arc. Matching or paralleling or crossing your character's arc to or with your plot's rise, fall and resolution.
During my studies, I've narrowed character arcs into three categories. Let's take a look at them.
1. Transformative Journey. Called many things, namely The Hero's Journey, this character arc sees your MC move from a bit of a mess at the start to pretty much on her feet at the end. Think of Julia Robert's character in "Pretty Woman". At the start, she's selling herself on the street, lacking social graces, living in a rundown apartment. At the end, she's cleaned up, thinking of moving out and changing her profession (of course, handsome Richard Gere "saves" her - that was too obvious), but more importantly she's transformed from street girl to sophisticate. In this arc, your character needs to learn something about herself or the world that rocks her so much, she's forced to embody a whole new persona by story's end. This is more of a straight up arrow - the arc is in the middle where your character must examine her flaws that keep her from moving forward in life. (Of course, one can argue that it's Gere's character that truly transforms from self-important loveless power chaser to empathetic love chaser.)
2. Imperfect or Flawed Journey. When I read Donna Tartt's Pulitzer Prize winning "The Goldfinch", I kept thinking that Theo, the MC, wasn't so much on that traditional Hero's Journey. He had many bumps on his road to redemption. In fact, he travelled much further down in his person than up. His was an imperfect journey. Your character can learn much more about himself if he's forced to confront deeper issues in his life (envy, hatred, self-hate).
3. Spiral to Darkness. Sometimes, you read a story and think, "Wow, I really don't like this character. He's more of a jerk now than at the start." Hopefully (usually) that was the author's intention. Think of Gillian Flynn's "Gone Girl". We don't much have anyone to root for when the story shifts in the middle. By the end, we feel cheated out of that arc. Who transformed? Who's learned the most about themselves and used it for the better good of the world? Uh, no one? This is a difficult arc to pull off because you want the reader to feel something has changed, that perhaps the world has shifted for them. In "Gone Girl", most readers come away thinking "you can't trust anyone" or "some people are nuts" or "be careful who you get into a relationship with". What happened was they went on a somewhat inverted arc journey - essentially, they transformed into more negative shadows of themselves. However you see it, taking a character deeper into their own darkness can be an amazing story.
Where is your current protagonist headed in your work in progress? Is it a transformative arc, imperfect or a spiral into darkness? Share your thoughts below.
Just when Dorothy discovers the yellow brick road and her purpose to find the wizard, she stumbles upon three pathetic characters in search of their own miracles.
When Alice is looking for the white rabbit, two silly characters send her off in opposite directions. She must choose a path.
Few stories follow one road. Skilled writers find creative ways to take their characters off the beaten path and into the figurative (and literal) woods. Characters must make critical choices to move the plot along, that force them to deal with story's central conflict. (Here's a great article on Nigel Watts' "8-Point Story ARC".)
If your main character is going to transform and grow, he needs a challenge. He needs his worth and values tested. In order to succeed at this, as the author, you must invent some forks in their road. They need to make choices to turn left or right, bring friends along or go it alone, eat the cake or drink the bottle.
Here are some sample critical choices where your character can make a change in direction and perhaps discover a world or information about himself that otherwise might have gone unnoticed.
1. meets a girl or boy - a love interest
2. receives an invitation
3. forgets something and must turn back or veer off course
4. doesn't do something that's a main part of his routine
5. gets injured
6. loses something
7. breaks something
8. loses someone - a death
9. has to deal with a sudden change in weather - natural disaster
10. gets kicked off a team, fired from a job
11. gets on a team, hired for a new job
12. gets a good or bad grade
13. encounters a stranger
14. must move to a new town (someone gets a job, loses a job, starts college...)
You can see this list could go on and on. Forks in the road can appear out of nowhere. You don't need to warn the reader that an earthquake is coming and the family must prepare. It simply hits, and whole worlds are shaken.
Consider your story, the plot, theme, your main character.What critical choice might they need to make that could take their path in a whole new direction?
Please share your ideas for more 'forks in the road'.
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.