Creating Compelling Characters

Plot happens outside, but story happens inside

Donald Maass, The Emotional Craft of Fiction
Caution Magnetic Magnet

For people to love your story, they need to love (or love to hate) your character.

The most beautiful writing in the world, the most exciting action sequence in history, neither of these will make people love your story.

But a compelling character will steal their heart, sneak into their memory, and make them come back to your writing over and over again.

Wouldn’t it be great to have raving fans?

How do you make your character compelling without spending too many words tracing their inner thoughts? How do you balance character growth with action?

Step 1: Know Your Character

None of us step out into the world in the morning as a fresh new creation.

We walk out of the door with hang ups and passions and prejudices and ingrained behaviors, all of which come from a lifetime of having experiences and reacting to them.

Lisa Cron, in her excellent book Story Genius, talks about this brilliantly:

You have to know your character’s childhood damage, she says, and the protective behaviors they created. If you can set your story at a point in their life when those behaviors no longer serve your character, you have automatic conflict built into your story (and conflict makes stuff happen!)

Top Tip: do some ‘discovery writing’ about your character before you ever try to write the actual story. It will make your first draft go soooo much faster.

Resources:

Step 2: Nobody’s Perfect

In our quest to make readers love our protagonist, we can forget to give them flaws.

But how do you give them a flaw, without making them unlikeable?

The best resource I’ve come across came from the podcast Writing Excuses, where they talk about playing with three different characteristics as if they were sliders on a mixing board. Your character can be competent, proactive, and sympathetic, but they can’t be 100% (or 0%) of all three at the same time.

Contractors say, “You have have a job done well, fast, or cheap. Pick two.”

At any one moment in a story, a character can be extremely competent, extremely proactive, or extremely sympathetic. Pick two.

And then play with those levels throughout the story. (Think about how Hermoine Grainger changes over the course of the first Harry Potter book. At the start she is the most competent and proactive of the three friends, but nobody likes her. By the end, she has given up some of that proactivity and learned to lean on her friends. She acknowledges that Ron is more competent at wizard chess, and lets Harry be the one to face the last big challenge…and we like her a lot more, for it.)

Top Tip: Playing with character competencies is a great way to make them more or less sympathetic without having to give them a ‘tragic flaw’.

Resources:

Step 3: Show Their Inner Conflict In Action

In critique groups I usually hear two opposing critiques of character, depending on the writer’s natural tendencies:

  • The writing’s beautiful but it’s a little…slow (translation: nothing happens!!) OR
  • It was very exciting…but I’m not sure why I’m supposed to care (translation: explosions and chases are great, but your character has no inner depth)

Whether you naturally write lots of action, or spend a lot of time dwelling on inner feelings, a good writer needs to be able to balance action and inner conflict, to create compelling characters.

One of the best ways to do this is to turn off the inner dialogue and show your character taking actions or interacting with physical objects that

  • Are symbolic of their inner struggle
  • Matter to this character for a specific reason (which you know, and can reveal to the reader)
  • Remind the reader of the stakes, without you having to spell it out.

For example, in the beginning of the movie Die Hard, a watch-word for action-based storytelling, John McClane picks up a picture of his happy family from a desk in his wife’s office…and winces.

In that moment (right before he gets embroiled in the explosions and flying bullets) the viewer remembers that this is not just a wise-cracking action hero. He’s a man who is losing his family and isn’t sure how far he’s willing to go, to put it back together.

That’s the question the rest of the film answers.

And it’s the reason we, as viewers, care.

Top Tip: Turn off the inner dialogue and give us a moment, filled with all five senses, where your character demonstrates their emotions, on the outside.

Resources

Big Final Caveat

All of this kind of craft-based instruction is useful for developing your writing…but only if it doesn’t slow you down while you’re creating first drafts.

If you’re writing the first version of a story do not stop to worry about ‘showing not telling’ or whether your character is sufficiently proactive in this moment.

All of this can be fixed in the rewrite.

And one of the best ways to figure out what’s working and what still needs work in your story, is to show it to other readers.

Perhaps the idea of a critique group terrifies you. Or maybe you’ve been in groups in the past that were frustrating, or just ‘meh’.

If that’s you, I have a gift for you: a free guide to critique groups, including:

  • All the personality types you’ll encounter in a group
  • How best to interact with each
  • What you need to know to to give and receive great feedback

Don’t waste time being afraid of feedback, any longer. It’s the single most important thing you can do to get your writing closer to the point where you can really begin to delight readers and build a raving fanbase.

Download the Critique Primer Now

Writers: Burn Your Business Cards

‘Creative’ is not a noun…Lots of people want to be the noun without doing the verb. They want the job title, not the work.”

Austin Kleon, Keep Going

I read Chapter 3 of Kleon’s latest book this morning and it stopped me in my tracks.

Not because I didn’t know and understand what he said.

I have, after all, made a name for myself as the person who entices writers to actually write during May & September every year.

But because it made me wonder: am I actually doing the verb?

diary writing

What Do You Do All Day?

Continue reading “Writers: Burn Your Business Cards”

What I Do When The Writing Stalls

I’ve been stalling on writing this blog post for about two weeks. 

Don’t worry, it’s not bad news or anything. I just couldn’t write it.

You know the feeling, right? You want to work on a project, but every time you sit down, something is wrong. You can’t find your way into the story, or you are seized with a sudden urge to research the perfect lamp for your desk…

My Favorite Productivity Hack

To get this post going, I used one of my favorite, sure-fire tricks:

Continue reading “What I Do When The Writing Stalls”

Write A Short Story in Three Easy Steps – Windy Lynn Harris

Short stories are fun to write, fast to compose (well, faster than books), and they get published every single day.

Today my guest is Windy Lynn Harris, author of Writing & Selling Short Stories & Personal Essays: The Essential Guide To Getting Your Work Published (Writer’s Digest Books, 2017)

Writing a short story is a worthy mission. Short stories are fun to write, fast to compose (well, faster than books), and they get published every single day. Here’s a quick guide to help you craft short stories like a pro.

Before we get started, let’s put ourselves in short story mode. Your goal when writing a short story is to deliver a satisfying narrative in a very small package. Short stories aren’t tiny novels. They rarely have any subplots at all. Instead, the action revolves around one main conflict. The theme is revealed through a character and his or her obstacles. Tension keeps the reader invested in the stakes all the way through to the resonant ending.

That might sound like a lot to manage all at once, but if you break the artistic process down to three steps, you’ll find your way to a satisfying story without wandering off the map. Continue reading “Write A Short Story in Three Easy Steps – Windy Lynn Harris”

Why Can’t You Write That Story?

dyslexia
Sometimes its hard to write.

Even when you want to.

Even when you’ve started a story.

Maybe your story wanders off the point and you get lost in the mushy middle. Or maybe your story immediately wants to become a novel. Perhaps you get interrupted and lose your mojo.

I’d love to hear from you. What happened last time you started a story and didn’t finish? What stalled you last time you sat down to write and couldn’t.

Leave a comment here and let’s get a discussion going about what goes wrong and what we can do about that.

 

Making February Flash – A Round Up

Here’s all my best advice on writing flash fiction…

This month has been all about Flash Fiction. It’s a fabulous way to:

  • Tighten up your writing in longer projects
  • Practice writing quick stories, for StoryADay May
  • Rediscover the joy of finishing stories

Here’s everything you might have missed at the blog this month: Continue reading “Making February Flash – A Round Up”

When The Student Is Ready…

2015 Battle of the Books @ Mt. Hebron HS

When I started StoryADay May back in 2010, some of 100 or so people who took part really stuck with me. One was Gabriela Pereira, who had just finished up an MFA and was transitioning from student to working writer. We shared an enthusiasm both for writing and for the hair-brained scheme.

Back then, I was a couple of years ahead of her in the online, community-building, content-marketing , writing-for-pay experience. Now she has soared into the writing world as a leader, a teacher, an inspirer and, in her own words, Chief Instigator at her project:  DIY MFA.

This afternoon I tuned in to her latest webinar, sort of as a favor. I’ve heard the talk before, live and in person, and was really just showing in case no one else did. Of course, there were tons of people on the call, loads of questions from attendees, and Gabriela fired people up and sent them away with tools and techniques to make their writing better, as always.

But — it shouldn’t surprise me, but it did — what I hadn’t expected to happen was that I had a breakthrough about my own novel-in-progress, while listening to Gabriela talk. Suddenly, I knew exactly what the turning point at the mid-point of my novel needed to be. More than knowing it, I could *picture* it.

I rushed off to my office and scrawled three pages of notes, opened up Scrivener and started adding scene cards to the second half of my novel’s file. I got super excited, and then realized how much writing I had to do…then chose to see that as exciting too!

Did I mention I’ve heard this talk at least twice before?

Lesson learned: when you find a teacher/mentor/friend whose words you really connect to, stick to them. Revisit their lessons. Re-read their books. Get on webinars and conference calls with them. Ask questions. Go over and over their lessons at different stages of your development and the development of each of your projects.

When the student is ready, the teacher appears, as my old mate the Buddha apparently never said.

If you want to get in on the remaining webinars in Gabriela’s current series, here’s some info:

Perfect Your Plot, Structure Your Story – December 14

Rock Your Revisions – December 21

 

(Some links on this page—the webinars and the one to Scrivener—are affiliate links, but I never recommend anything I don’t believe in 100%.)

Learning To Make Choices In Writing And Life

Opposites Attract
Choices: which story would you write?
Photo credit: Wayne S. Grazio


There is still time left this year to meet some of your goals. The question is which ones?

You probably had a list of projects you wanted to write this year, and there are only two possibilities now:

  1. You haven’t made the progress on the projects that you would have liked, or
  2. You blew through your projects and generated a new, longer list.

Either way you have a choice to make:where do you focus your time and creative energy for the rest of the year?

Learning To Choose

 

“Successful people make decisions quickly and change their minds slowly”

-Napoleon Hill

This certainly seem to be a trait in many of the successful people I know.

“The only bad choice, is making no choice”

-Jeff Walker

I’ve been writing long enough now that I’ve seen people come along who were just starting out when I’d been doing this for a few years, who have overtaken me. Whether it’s the success of their website, or their book publishing, they seem much further along on one or other of the paths I want to take.

I’m sure you’ve had similar experiences. But why does it happen?

Partly, it’s to do with making choices.

Like many writers I tend to over think things. I tend to get stalled by the idea that there is a perfect choice.

We could beat ourselves up about that, but the reality is, as writers we make choices all the time. We need to get comfortable with that, so that our perceptions don’t hold us back.

Everything About Writing Contains Choices

You choose

  • to sit down and write today
  • when to work
  • what project to work on
  • What decisions you character’s going to make
  • The best words to convey their actions, their feelings, their surroundings.

Every choice you make is a rejection of every other choice.

Scary!

Does The Thought of Closing Down Options Paralyze You?

As a reforming over-thinker and reluctant-decision-maker, I’m here to tell you that, the more you make choices in your writing, the better you become at it.

And in fiction, making choices is always reversible.

 

Decision + Course Correction = Win

Here’s the really important part about choices: you aren’t locked into your choices, but you must review them and adjust your course.

For example, if you decide to kill off a character in your short story, but then find they would have been useful to have around later, you have some choices to make: must you correct the mistake or can you make some other character carry the weight that would have been taken up by the character you killed?

And in your writing life: you decide you’re going to write for two hours before bed every night, but find yourself tired and depleted and unable to create anything worthwhile. Should you continue to do what you think ought to work, or should you review the results of the experiment, decide you’ve learned something useful, and try writing at another time of day?

(Hint: it’s Answer B)

We’re not sculptors, lopping off pieces of marble that ought to have been a nose or an arm. If we accidentally chop off a story arm, we just go back in and add more words!

With words, we can fix everything.

Making choices in your fiction is fantastic practice for making choices on bigger issues.

TASK: Go back to your writing today with a sense of appreciation and gratitude for the fact that your medium is the insubstantial one of words and fiction; and that by making choice in your fiction you get to become better at it.

Don’t Be Too Capricious

The art of iteration (i.e. trying things, adjusting and trying the next, tweaked version) is in trying a new thing for long enough to really tell if it’s working, before you analyze and make changes.

  • If you’re trying to write at night, commit to trying it every day for two weeks (or the equivalent thereof) and only then, make changes.
  • If you change a plot thread or a character, write a good chunk of the story after that decision point, evaluate it, and only then make decisions.

Do not make decision on the fly. Do not change your routine or your decisions every day. Give every experiment time to run, then examine it, and change one little thing, and go again.

Think of these experiments as first drafts. My first-draft version of ‘write first’ allow me to check  email before I started writing. After I had tried the experiment for a while, I got stuck. The experiment (the first draft) had run its course. The outcome: checking email derailed my fiction writing.

So I edited out ‘check email’, and gave the process another try. It went much better.

Limiting Choices

The fact that we commit to writing a story every single day in May, means there is no bargaining. There is no question of ‘am I going to write today?” No mental energy is lost on that decision. Instead we StoryADay-ers leap out of bed in a panic, thinking “WHAT am I going to write today?”

With the writing part assumed, we skip straight to making creative choices, and scanning the world for inspiration.

I advocate taking away as many choices as possible from your writing practice.

Making choices saps your willpower. If you spend your day making choices about your writing practice, by the time you sit down at the keyboard, you’re going to be pretty depleted.

Does your day go like this:

  • Get Up
  • Decide if I’ll write today
  • Decide when I’ll write today
  • Check email — to ‘clear the decks so I can write’
  • Tidy up/run a load of laundry– to ‘earn the right to write’
  • Make dinner
  • Push back my writing time for any of 1001 reasons
  • MAYBE get around to writing, and send the first half of the time allotted, trying to quiet my mind and get back into the story.

I would argue that if your day looks like this, you have depleted your will power so much that it is going to be really hard for you to make all the choices that you need to make in your story world.

Think about Mark Zuckerberg and his omnipresent grey hoodies, or Obama wearing the same blue suit (or multiples thereof) almost every day of his presidency. These people have so many choices to make in the day, the last thing they want to do is waste energy on choosing an outfit.

You have so many choices to make in your story world, the last thing you want to do is worry about reinventing your writing routine every day.

Protect Your Bubble

Now, I know not everyone can write first thing in the morning (it’s extremely rare day when I can truly sit down to write without having to deal with other people’s needs first).

But what you can do, is create a protected bubble of time that is for writing. In order to do that, make a deal with yourself that you will write at a specific time every day (or plan ahead for a weeks’ worth of writing days if your schedule is unpredictable).

And then stick to it.

This removes the self-talk about whether you’ll write today, wether you deserve your writing time, and all the bargaining we do with ourselves to ‘buy’ writing time.

My Current Practice

I have tried to make it, recently, an absolute that I write fiction first thing in the morning. I’ve tried to make it an absolute that I don’t look at email, Twitter, Facebook, or talk to any more people than absolutely necessary, before meet my fiction word count.

The more that has become a habit, the more my fiction output has grown, and the more my output has grown, the more creative breakthroughs I’ve had and, the better my writing has become.

Find Your Routine

You may find that you can write best at the end of the day, when everyone has gone to bed and you will have no choices except the ones in your story world.

Just decide when you’ll write, and stick to it for a couple of weeks. Decide if it’s working. Tweak. Try again. Keep writing!

DON’T BE AFRAID OF ROUTINE

I know we creative types often resist routine and commitment and structure because we’ve been sold this vision of the crazy creative.

We’ve come to believe that routine and structure stifle creativity and innovation, but in fact, routine in your working practices can actually free you up to be more creative in your work.

“Clarity and decisiveness come from the willingness to slow down, to listen to and to look at what’s happening.”

-Pema Chodron

We can’t build the creative space we need if we’re cramming our writing time into the space between all the will-I/won’t-I choices we put in front of our commitment to our writing.

Learning to get better at making choices and sticking with them is a powerful tool both in your stories, in your writing life, and in your life in general.

(Lesson #357 in how writing makes us better people!)

HOW TO GET BETTER AT MAKING CHOICES

Make your choices boldly. Stick to your commitments for a period of time. But remember that, as in writing, you can edit your choices later.

What will you choose to work on between now and the end of the year in your writing life? Something in your writing practice? A particular written project? Leave a comment