The Heart You Write From

Thank you, Melissa Mead, for the title of this blog post!

On February 15, 2018, Writeforfun wrote, I’ve been struggling with this for the past few weeks (actually, I’ve always struggled with it but only realized what I’ve been doing about two weeks ago!). Have you ever noticed your own personality flaws showing up too much in all of your characters?

The blog had lots to say.

Christie V Powell: I’m a little worried about that right now, too. I’ve recently branched out to two WIPs with different characters than my main series, and I worry about them being too much alike (all four girl names even end in -a).

One thing that I hope will help is their character arcs: each one is working on a different trait that drives the story. Keita struggles with motivation to make a difference, prejudice against another clan, and to give up her wants/needs for what is really best for her kingdom (different books in the series). Kenna from DreamRovers struggles with a desire to escape reality, while Norma tries to live her dreams but gets overwhelmed when she takes on too much responsibility. Mira from Mira’s Griffin struggles with over-independence. According to KM Wieland, character flaws are just symptoms of the Lie that they believe about the world, which the story will disprove. So Kenna’s Lie is that dreams are better than reality, and her flaws are not noticing when people need her, being absent-minded, giving up too quickly, and so on. Mira’s over-independence does sometimes make her not notice other people, but it has a different root.

I also gave them a few superficial things: Mira hates goats, while Norma loves them. Keita never wears shoes, while Mira loves her boots.

Melissa Mead: Not just the flaws! I have to be careful to make sure they’re not too much like me, period. And my male heroes tend to be a certain type. 

Back to Writeforfun: Interesting! I’m glad at least that it’s not just me! My problem, as I now realize, is that all of my characters – and even my favorite characters from movies and other books! – are all plagued by some deep-seated insecurity/self-consciousness (specifically, insecurity based in some unchangeable physical trait or condition that makes them different from everybody else). I can’t believe I never noticed how much I do this before! And yes, the embarrassing thing is that I realize now this is a direct reflection of myself. I’ve always been careful, of course, to make each character’s personality unique, with a variety of flaws and virtues (I’ve got a ditzy optimist and a stoic realist and everyone in between!), but invariably, they still end up with some deep-seated insecurity. It’s almost as though I can’t relate to them if they are completely comfortable with who they are. I just can’t figure out how to overcome this!

Back to Melissa Mead: That doesn’t sound like a problem to me. It just sounds like that’s the heart you write from. I realized recently that I do a similar thing. All my books so far are, on some level, about outcasts finding home.

On a related note, does anybody else have just plain odd STUFF that keeps turning up? For instance, in 3 totally different books, I have characters who eat mice, or at least threaten to. My characters tend to go hungry a lot, even though I never have, and there’s usually some sort of “city on a hill…”

Fascinating, the Lie about the world that the character believes and the story will disprove! Thinking back on my books, that paradigm doesn’t fit them all, but it sure fits some, and it’s another useful way to look at our plot and find our way through it. As an early prompt, try seeing the MC in your WIP as living a Lie that your story will disprove. Consider how you can use that notion.

I agree with Melissa Mead that much of these worries don’t seem like problems, and I love the idea that they’re the heart we write from. Many writers spend their careers spinning stories around a single problem; others take decades working through an issue before moving onto something else. Of my work, not only Ella Enchanted is about obedience. In one way or another, so are Ever, The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre, and even my picture book, Betsy Who Cried Wolf, is, too. What’s up with that?

Best not inquire! I mean that! Our subterranean lives power our stories. If we fish them up and turn them over and over in our hands, even gut them for the golden ring in their bellies, the gold is likely to lose its glitter.

Also, we can’t tell what readers will find in our stories. I may think I’m writing about obedience, and a reader may decide my theme is following your star.

I keep thinking of the sentimental saying, “Turn that frown upside down.” It could be said about me that I’m a worrier. I would say it! I hate how I worry about things large and small, in the near future and years off. A supportive friend, however, might turn my major personality disorder upside down and say that I anticipate, rather than worry, that I give myself time to plan. Nice friend!

My MCs are generally worriers, too, and for that, I’m grateful. Their worries help maintain the tension and make fine chapter endings when no cliffhangers are handy. The worries also remind me to include their thoughts, and they clue the reader into what to watch out for. Just as good, if my MC doesn’t see something coming, the reader probably won’t either, and I can deliver a fine surprise whammy.

Let’s apply this method to a deep-seated insecurity. How can it work for us? Well, for starters, it will put the reader on the character’s side, since not a few people on the planet feel deeply insecure about something. And, like worrying, it can heighten tension. The reader will be on the lookout for triggers for this beloved character’s insecurity, will think, Uh oh! Is this going to set her off?

What would my supportive friend say about a deep-seated insecurity? She’d say, “You’re self-aware, not blind to your imperfections.” My friend hates oblivious, self-satisfied people. Self-awareness can help a character overcome obstacles, including the internal ones. Self-aware people can suss out the insecurities in others, even the buried insecurity in a villain, and use them.

If we’re writers, our instincts are likely to be good about what makes story fodder–like an insecurity. Alas, we’re also people and maybe a tad self-critical, so we turn this advantage that nature gave us into a source of alarm.

When we’re aware that we’ve put our own characteristics into our fiction, we can muse about more than one way to use the attribute. Okay, we think, this character is insecure about his weak chin, so how can this insecurity work in our plot? We can make a list!

∙ He grows a beard. What can I do with a beard? As you know, I’m researching late medieval Spain, where Christians were clean-shaven and male Jews had to wear beards, so I could do something along those lines. His beard could identify him as a member of some group he doesn’t really belong to.

∙ His insecurity makes him sensitive to insecurities in others, and he has a protective streak, which gets him involved with all kinds of people, some wonderful, and some who take advantage of him.

∙ He way overestimates other people’s awareness of his chin, which leads him to overcompensate. (His Lie about the world!) He develops strategies to distract from himself, becomes charming, a great talker, a reliable friend, but he never feels truly seen–because he doesn’t let anyone truly see him. Our plot needs to get him out of his isolation.

Each of these has the same root: insecurity, but they all go in wildly different directions, and I’m sure you can think of more.

As for Melissa Mead’s characters’ mice-eating propensities–cool! However, once it’s noticed, options open up: badgers, baby bats, dust bunnies. Just so they’re eating, since they all seem to be starving, too! The city-on-the-hill seems another example of the heart one writes from.

I doubt that we can write characters that are entirely different from us, since they come from us and we have to be able to understand them. The triumph is that we manage to splinter ourselves and create multi-dimensional characters out of the fragments. People we know, people we read about, bits of characters in other books and TV and movies turn up in our stories, but they all have to go through our brains and our guts to come out fully realized on the page.

For three prompts, go with my weak-chin-insecurity plot directions and write a scene or a story based on one or two or all of them. And for a fourth, fifth, and sixth prompt, think of three more ways to use this insecurity, and put them in a story or stories.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. Aria Memori says:

    Yeah, all of my characters are like that somehow.
    On the same lines, I need to make an MC with a different character than mine for a WIP. Although I can imagine her in my head, she keeps doing what I would be doing, instead of what she should be doing. Any tips?

    • Thanks for using it!

      Malak (My half serpent-demon hero) is the only one who actually does eat mice as a normal thing. For the others, it’s a thing they’ve done in the past, or are considering doing, out of sheer desperation. II was just saying on Facebook that the sad thing about Malak, for me, is that since he only eats raw meat I don’t get to write any lavish food scenes for him. Those are fun.)

      • Gail Carson Levine says:

        Raw or live? If raw, sashimi, ceviche, and steak tartare and other foods I haven’t thought of can make a feast. If live, it’s hard to keep the meal on the plate!

        • This just got me thinking about what my characters eat, I really hadn’t thought about it before. I have elves, dwarves, faeries, ogres, goblins, and more. I never thought about what the different races might eat (or not eat).

        • They prefer to catch something and eat it right then (But they possess/hypnotize it first so it doesn’t feel fear or pain, because only animals and demon-hunters eat meat that’s still aware. Sometimes, though, Malak and other outcasts have to resort to sharing someone else’s kill or eating :gasp: cooked meat.
          (And in a moment of true desperation, Malak discovers that he can also eat eggs. Later on, someone makes him a fancy “cake” out of hard-boiled eggs, with unsweetened merangue “frosting.”)
          What makes it doubly tricky (and more fun for plot purposes) is that the angelic Aureni he finds himself living with don’t even like to have meat in their houses.

          And it’s a lot of fun in the WIP, when Malak tries to pass as an Auiren and his breakfast almost gives him away:

          “Malak was well into his own breakfast before he noticed that Benjamin was staring at him, looking nauseated.
          “What’s the matter? Are you not feeling well again?”
          “No! I’m fine. Really. But-you’re eating bacon.”
          Neri looked at Malak in alarm. He dropped the bacon and tried to sound horrified as he said “Is THAT what this is?”
          “I’m pretty sure. Do you feel all right?”
          Actually, Malak felt bitterly disappointed at having to give up his treat, but he said. “Yes. So that’s bacon. You won’t catch me eating that again!”
          He pushed it away as far as possible, but the aroma still teased him. Benjamin eyed the plate with horrified fascination and whispered, “What did it taste like?”

    • Sage Koldew says:

      The only thing I can think of at the moment is to decide on one factor that determines her actions.
      Some examples could be:
      -She is very level headed and and always chooses the practical course of action
      -She wants mom/dad/someone to be proud of her
      -She feels like she needs to prove herself
      -Goes out of her way to help people-which could become a flaw (I guess they all could)
      -She wants to fit in
      -She wants to be remembered

      I’m sure there are many more that would fit your story better, but I hope this could give you some ideas. If your character is based off yourself, it might not even be an issue. As long as her decisions are not formed by the author, it’s okay to have her take the same path you would if you were in her place. Not my favorite piece of advice, but they do say ‘write what you know’ for a reason!

    • What works for me is taking personality tests for my characters. I take the 16Personalities test or just look through the personality types and see what fits my character. There’s a lot of information about each type, so once I review my MC’s type’s page, it makes it easier to know what they would do in a scene or situation. It works really well because you have to know your MC to take the test in the first place, and the pages for each type are very detailed! If a character has your personality type, which happened to me in my last story, you can look at their page, and there ought to be some aspects of that type that don’t apply to you, like assertive vs turbulent.

      • Sage Koldew says:

        Yes! I use this strategy too! Most of my characters are similar types to me (campaigner I think) so I know what to look out for. I try to have at least one of each personality type in each novel because it balances out the characters. That way each character adds something unique to the plot. It is also better for couples if you have a romantic subplot. A hotheaded warrior might do well with a level headed healer, if you know what I mean.

  2. I’ll sometimes do a “Pizza Test.” I pretend that all my characters are in a room with a telephone, and they have to order a pizza and agree among themselves on the toppings. And decide who calls in the order. This is particularly fun if your world doesn’t have pizza or telephones. (If they all agree easily, somebody probably needs a dose of hot temper, stubbornness, righteous indignation, etc.)

      • Aria Memori says:

        Well, food is a love language for so many people.

        Thanks a lot for your help. I should’ve clarified more:
        She’s a very quiet girl who likes to read mythology. Very wise but shy. Now, I can say the good things, but I’m not very good at defining a shy character like her. Still, thanks for the help. A lot.

  3. What do you guys do when ending a chapter on a cliffhanger/good ending place means leaving that chapter an awkward length? (Either too long or too short). I try to keep my chapters around 3000 words with a 500-word margin of error on either side, but sometimes breaking up chapters where I really want to gives me either too-short (under 2000 words) or too long (over 4000 words) chapters. I don’t want to pad any chapters simply for the sake of wordcount, and I can’t cut any either. (I already have to cut 40% of my book just to meet standard publishing wordcount guidelines, so cutting even more than that on a scene level is almost impossible). The problem is that I have a mixture of long (2000-3000) and short (500-1500) scenes, and they don’t always fit together into perfect 3000-word chapters. Should I break my chapters where it serves the story and not worry about eveness, or should I end my chapters at places that might not be as impactful for the sake of having all the lengths more or less match up?

    • I think a mix of long and short is fine. Look at Eragon. Some chapters are long, some are only a couple pages. The Life of Pi includes a chapter that is only two words long. I’d say serve the story.

      I have to admit, though, I’ve been trying to keep mine even-ish in my WIP, as a tool to help pacing. I think I’m a little unhealthily OCD about my chapters though. In “Keita’s Wings”, my YA series, each book so far has exactly 24 chapters. I also manipulate the chapter a little so that the next chapter starts on an odd page. So, do as I say, not as I do 🙂

      • Gail Carson Levine says:

        I’ve written two posts on chapter length, which you may want to check out. You can find them under “Categories” on the right.

      • All the books in A Series Of Unfortunate Events have 13 chapters, except the last one which has 14. I honestly don’t care about chapter length when I’m reading.

  4. Hey, everybody! I want to thank everyone here for how supportive and helpful this blog is, because today I finished the first draft of the book I’m writing!!! It’s my first complete first draft ever, and honestly I couldn’t have done it without this blog, because there’s so much great advice on here!

  5. I have a question (similar to Melissa’s from last week). I’m working on a fantasy that’s borderline middle-grade/young adult. My main character is being a field medic, transporting the wounded to a healer. Any tips on making battles and their wounds realistic without getting too gory for a younger audience?

  6. Kamikazelyssa says:

    Start out by not making it too graphic, of course.
    Maybe you could make her focus more on how the wounded are feeling, not how the wounds spread over them. Focus on the face, how it goes white and pale….
    Does she know any of the soldiers personally out there? If so, she could look carefully out for them.
    Overall, it would probably have to do with your character’s personality. But I’m getting off topic here.
    She could flinch, looking away at the horrible sight. I can’t think of much else right now.

  7. Christie V Powell:

    What kind of weapons are the characters using?
    I’ve noticed that books and movies with old-fashioned weapons, such as guns, swords, and arrows tend to be more gory than fantasy or sci-fi books and movies, which use weapons such as lightsabers, wands, and supernatural powers.

  8. If you were reading a book with 2 POV protagonists, how important would it be to you for them to alternate in strict rotation (A, B, A, B, rather than A, B, A, A, B)
    How jarring would it be to you if there were a scene or chapter, clearly set apart, from a POV that wasn’t used anywhere else in the book? (Probably an objective “Camera’s eye view.”)

    • Just one would be jarring, but I’d be fine with an occasional objective scene. Reminds me of the historical novel “The Work in the Glory” by Gerald N. Lund. He uses a variety of POVs, including a few objective/historical lessons sprinkled in. They stay the same from scene to scene.

      Strict rotation wouldn’t bother me as long as they were somewhat consistent. My back-burner WIP has three POVs. I decided that each one would get 1 or 2 scenes per chapter (there are a couple times I break the rule, where a character disappears for a chapter or gets an extra scene, but there’s always a reason for it–for instance, one character looses her journal for a chapter, so her entries can’t appear there, or one character goes missing and the other characters are worried about her). None are back-to-back, but besides that, I just used the order that made sense for the story.

    • Song4myKing says:

      As a reader, I like variety in perspective. I like seeing how other people are thinking. I grew up reading Gordan Korman’s books, especially his earlier ones which are grand and ridiculous adventures fun of laughs the whole way through. In those, he jumps from one character to the next, simply choosing the character for each scene that would have the most interesting or humorous view. Sometimes it’s the MC kids, sometimes their teachers/counselors/bosses, sometimes the antagonist, occasionally a news report or beaver, or some other random observer. In his later books, which are more serious toned, he’s a bit more methodical about POV. He’s more likely to give a chapter to each of the main character’s closest friends in an orderly way.

      Anyway, I enjoy the variety, and go along for the ride, whether it’s a strict rotation or not. If the author has done their job right, I’m happy where ever they take me. And I don’t think I’d be bothered by a single “camera’s eye view” scene, if it was placed well – say at a significant point where there’s that sense of “Something’s happening. Things are gonna be different from here out.” Or the actions of multiple parties need to be shown and are of utmost importance – more important at the moment than what an individual is thinking.

        • Gail Carson Levine says:

          I’m a little worried that if this omniscient voice crops up only once and only to report on a significant event, the reader may see the plot wheels turning. Can you introduce this voice at the beginning, maybe for the first chapter, maybe using direct address to set up the tale that will follow? Then the reader will be prepared when the voice comes back.And then, possibly, it can close the book in a wrapping-up way.

          • Hmm… so is there a way that you can report this from the point of view of one of the characters so that they don’t understand but the audience does?
            Throwing out some ideas here: Maybe the main character eavesdrops on something but doesn’t understand what they hear. Maybe the people they are eavesdropping on use big words that the character doesn’t know but the audience might. Maybe the main character sees body language or gestures but doesn’t know what they mean. Maybe the eavesdropees are being sarcastic but the main character doesn’t realize it. Maybe the main character makes a wrong assumption about the information that throws him off track. Maybe the one main character wouldn’t understand, but the audience would because of background information they’ve gotten from the second character.

    • This is funny, because in the story my friend and I write together, we do this. We have two alternating first-person POVs and an omniscient that pops up to narrate important events when the two POVs are out of commission.
      In Book One, for example, we have 28 chapters of varying length, depending on what needs to be put in them and where a good ending/transition point is. Five are from the omniscient POV, including the very first chapter to set the scene/story/situation and to establish that this POV exists in the first place. The rest of the chapters alternate between the two first-person POVs (except for a few places where we’ll have two chapters from the same POV in a row because that’s the way the story flows better). None of the people who have read our current draft have mentioned being jarred by it at all by the switching. (Not that a lot of people have read it… so perhaps that’s not the best indicator…)
      Our omniscient narrator has its own voice, though, and inserts small, often sarcastic commentary about the characters and includes interesting similes and the occasional direct address as part of the narration style, so I’m not sure that’s precisely what you would want out of your camera’s-eye-view.
      In my personal opinion, I don’t need a strict A-B-A-B rotation for POVs. Sometimes it might even be better not to have such a pattern if nothing interesting or important is going on with one of the POVs and the purpose of a chapter is solely to maintain the pattern and not to further the plot.

  9. Song4myKing says:

    About book 2 being different from book 1 – Megan Whalen Turner does it in The Queen’s Thief series. Book one, The Thief, is in first person. Book two, The Queen of Attolia, is in multiple third. Book three, The King of Attolia, is also third, but following a different character (Eugenides, the MC from the first books, is still the real Main Character; we just see his actions through someone else’s eyes and opinions). Book four, A Conspiracy of Kings, is back to first person (with another character; Eugenides is still definately involved, but it is the other character’s story) for parts one and three, and third person for part two. I haven’t read book five yet.

    When I started the series, it was a bit startling to find the different POVs in the different books, but it worked.

    And for the series, I can see why the author chose it that way. The first book has a very narrow focus. Almost all the action happens right where Gen (Eugenides) is. And he’s an unreliable narrator, hiding some rather important information from his traveling companions and from the readers. So first person was a good choice. In the second book, the focus is much wider. There’s a war. Eugenides isn’t everywhere at once, and isn’t always aware of what’s happening. So multiple third worked best. And so on.

    I can’t say how well it would work in your case. But perhaps something like what Gail suggested would work and not be too different from the first.

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