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.
Write the story of the childhood event that scarred your character
If you haven’t already, get hold of a copy of Lisa Cron’s Story Genius and read all about character misbeliefs. Re-read it, if you own a copy!
Every character has to have a flaw. Maybe you decided that yours was commitment-phobic, or that she was overly-honest, or that she couldn’t hold down a job. There are lots of ways that could be fun in a novel, but a deeper question is: Why?
What happened to your main character at an earlier point in their life, that caused them to begin acting this way?
Once you know that, the subtle ways she reacts will change. She won’t just be commitment-phobic, she’ll get unreasonably angry when anyone promises to take her on vacation, because when she was nine her dad promised to take her on vacation but instead blew the money taking his new girlfriend to Vegas, and your main character never had a real relationship with him again after that.
In Story Genius Lisa Cron asserts that harmful adult behaviors originate in behaviors that were actually protective, at some point. So, by not trusting her Dad again, your main character protected herself from getting hurt by him. But that pattern of behavior stopped serving her at some point (probably right around the time your novel starts) and she has to learn to overcome it. Knowing what caused her to begin acting that way is extremely useful.
Digging into your character’s past gives you news ways to show their flaws in your novel.
When I was 12 years old and living in Scotland, I had a friend whose parents were English. We walked home from the bus stop together every night, chattering away in colorful local accents and colloquialisms. But as soon as my friend reached her front door, she would call out, “Hallo, Mummy, I’m home!” in the most pukka English accent you could ever hope to hear.
She didn’t even know she was doing it.
Maybe it’s because I have my parents staying with me at the moment, but I’ve been thinking about the ways our characters change, depending on who we’re with. My McCarroll tendencies come out while they’re visiting. I become more laid-back (or as my husband calls it ‘late’), and more spontaneous (or ‘disorganized and indecisive’). Even my accent gets more Scottish (see last week’s podcast).
I’m sure my parents are equally bemused by my ‘sudden’ need to know what everyone’s plans are for the day, since nobody in our family ever really had plans until the last minute (see? Spontaneous!).
So today I want you to explore that, with your character.
Write a story that shows you character in three different scenes, interacting with people who bring out different sides of their character.
Families are great for this. How we act around our parents and/or siblings is almost certainly different from how we act around our best friends. How we act with our spouse is probably different again.
How we act with a truly terrible lover who is all wrong for us, is a whole other category of behavior, especially when contrasted with interactions with people who really love us.
Stress is another great way to reveal a different side of a character. Some people are great under pressure. Some get angry. Some whine. Some cower. Some people turn into unexpected leaders in a crisis, while others who you’d expect to lead, become indecisive or cowardly.
Think about using cultural differences. For example, think about my friend who was Scottish on the street and English in the house. Think about how Barack Obama’s rhetorical style slipped along a spectrum from Harvard Intellectual to Southern Baptist Preacher depending on the crowd he was talking to (not that those two things are mutually exclusive, of course!). Think about how a hideously prejudiced old man can be genuinely sweet and generous to his own grandchild.