Think about three different characters going into a situation who need three different things to happen in it. Now, all of these things will conflict with the other needs. Think about how they will ally with each other and thwart each other in conversation and subtly trying to influence each other. But only one character can get what they want. Now… go!
Born in the Caribbean, Tobias S. Buckell is a New York Times Bestselling author. His novels and over 50 short stories have been translated into 17 languages and he has been nominated for the Hugo, Nebula, Prometheus and John W. Campbell Award for Best New Science Fiction Author. He has a fabulous Patreon campaign where you get original stories once a month. He is also the author of one of my favorite new writing guides, It’s All Just A Draft, which I talked about in this podcast episode.
Read A Book, Support An Indie
This year’s StoryADay May official bookseller is Reads & Company, a privately-owned indie bookseller in Pennsylvania. Any purchase from the site this month supports Reads & Co.
We are one month away from StoryADay May, people! This is not a drill.
Actually, yes, it kind of is.
This is THE PERFECT TIME TO WARM UP your writing (take it from someone who didn’t, the very first year I ran this thing. I thought it would be smart to save all my ideas until May. Um, wrong!)
One of the easiest ways to get into the flow of writing is to minimize the amount of stuff you have to invent. So today I have two prompts for you, from the archives, which help you take that ‘write what you know’ thing and have a little more fun with it than if you were simply journaling.
Read through these two prompts from the archives and decide which one is most interesting to you.
How did you get on yesterday? Did you write a story?
This is when the challenge gets really tough: the novelty has worn off and the end of the month seems a long time away. But keep going! If you keep writing through this week, you’ll still be writing at the end of the month and that is going to feel really good.
Lean on the support in the comments, to spur you on!
Write A story about yesterday’s character, all grown up
Yesterday I challenged you to write about an incident earlier in the life of a character you’d come back to, today.
Today I want you to bear in mind the inner struggle of that character, once they’ve had time to create some damaging behaviors based on the incident in yesterday’s story.
Now, pick an action, a physical act, that they can perform in this story. Make it significant to the character.
My example: in Die Hard, when John McClane picks up a photo of his family (back when they were a happy family), he winces, and it shows us everything we need to know about what this character wants, and what’s standing in his way (hint: it’s his own behavior).
Add a moment like that to your story today. No inner-monologue. No telling the reader why it’s significant. Just use all our senses to pull us into the moment.
Check back every day for more prompts, and don’t forget to come back and leave a comment to celebrate your writing successes, every day!
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.
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’.
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.
Die Hard (watch how the film makers slip in little actions that remind you of the inner journey of the main character, even as the bullets fly)
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.