[Write On Wednesday] Your Character’s Voice

Today we’re going to play with making your characters sound distinctive.

Voiceover Microphone

The Prompt

Write A Story With Lots Of Dialogue That Teachers Us About Your Characters

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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

[Write On Wednesday] Secondary & Background Characters

Short stories don’t have a lot of space for non-main characters, but if you’re going to include a best friend or comic relief, make sure they earn their word count!

1-2-3 Chick-A-Dees! by JD Hancock

The Prompt

Write A Story That Gives Your Secondary Characters Something To Do

Continue reading “[Write On Wednesday] Secondary & Background Characters”

[Write On Wednesday] What A Character Wants

For today’s Write on Wednesday writing prompt, I’m digging into the archives.

This writing prompt, from 2012, talks about how to use your character’s desires to power a story and contains important tips on how to keep your short story from become a barely-begun novel.

La mela del desiderio

The Prompt

Write a Story In Which Your Character WAAAAAAANTS something

Read more

If you share you story somewhere (and here’s why you might not want to) post a link here so we can come and read it.

How is your writing going, now that StoryADay May 2019 is over? Are you ready to write a story today? Leave a comment!

2019 Day 10 – Character Action

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!

The Prompt

Write A story about yesterday’s character, all grown up

Today’s exercise owes a lot to Donald Mass’s book The Emotional Craft of Fiction.

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!

2019 Day 9 – Character Damage

How did you get on yesterday? Did you write a story?

Remember, set your own rules, and stick to them. If you miss a day, don’t try to catch up. Just keep moving forward!

The Prompt

Write A story about the childhood damage of a character you’ll write about tomorrow

Today’s story owes a lot to Lisa Cron’s book Story Genius, in which she talks about how childhood beliefs can become problems for adult characters.

Behaviors that protected your character as a child (for example, an abandoned child’s tendency to keep people at a distance, or conversely to be too clingy, doesn’t serve them well as an adult.)

Every character needs an inner conflict, to make them interesting.

Today write a vivid story about something that happened early in life to a character you’ll come back to, tomorrow.

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!

[Write On Wednesday] A Gargoyle’s-Eye View

Missed out on StoryADay May? Don’t worry, the next challenge is just around the corner. Sign up now.

I’ll send you a prompt like this, every day during the next challenge.

This week we all watched in horror as Notre Dame burned. It was a great loss for human cultural heritage and a personal wrench for many.

And it made me wonder about other stories we might tell.

Image: A Gargoyle's Point of View by Sharon Mollerus

The Prompt

Write a story from the perspective of a non-human character

Tips

Continue reading “[Write On Wednesday] A Gargoyle’s-Eye View”

[Write On Wednesday] Your Character’s Damage

This month I’m giving you prompts that work in different ways to support your long-form fiction/novel writing. Today’s prompt digs deep into your protagonist’s past.

Nightmare

Photo credit: GôDiNô

The Prompt

Write the story of the childhood event that scarred your character

Tips

  • 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.

Go!

Photo credit: GôDiNô

What did you write about? Leave a comment!

[Write on Wednesday] Different Selves

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.

The Prompt

Write a story that shows you character in three different scenes, interacting with people who bring out different sides of their character.

Tips

  • 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.

Leave a comment and let us know how it went

 

 

 

[Writing Prompt] Day 9 – Character Desires Are Key

Knowing what a character wants, tells us what’s at stake in the story. Conflict between the character’s desire and their circumstances will keep your reader hooked.

The Prompt

Establish, within the first couple of sentences, your character’s desire. Put them in a situation that conflicts with that desire. Tell us how it works out.

Tips

It’s important for a reader to know what your character wants.

Once they know what your character wants, is afraid of, would never do, or desperately wants to do, the reader knows WHY they’re reading this story. That will keep them reading.

Keep it simple. In a short story, you can only examine one of your character’s desire.