If you’d like to see spring in all its glory at our house, just click on my husband’s website on the right. And scroll down to see the latest (two) photos of Reggie. The second one shows his maniacal glee in a play fight with his BFF Demi.

On to the post. On February 11, 2013, Kenzi Anne wrote, I have trouble finishing stories because I get my characters into pickles and I’ll think “wow! this is great!…snap, now how do they get out of it?” In other words…I’m not clever enough to get my characters out of their pit. If I’d been in most of my characters’ situations, I wouldn’t have a clue what to do, and probably would have just thrown up the white flag–not a very interesting story! So I guess my question is, how do I write a character that’s cleverer than I am?

And writeforfun replied, I tend to have that problem, too! My current story is a spy novel, so I have to get my characters in and out of pickles all the time, and it gets tricky! Lucky for me, I have a genius brother who can usually think of a way out when I can’t. So, although this may not be an option for you, my first piece of advice would be to find someone you can trust (that won’t tell you “forget it – this is terrible!”) who could help you brainstorm a way out. Another method I’ve found is to give the characters objects in advance that will help them out of the tricky situation. I have one character who always carries a file with him (long story), and when he was put into an old jail, he used the file to break out. It would have been weird if he had been in the jail and said, “Oh, well would you look at that? I have a file in my pocket!” but he’s been carrying around a file since he first showed up in my last book. Since it was already there, it doesn’t make you think, “Seriously? A file?” but rather something like, “Wow, who would have thought that would actually come in handy?” It seems that if you mention the thing (or person, or animal, or whatever) that will help them out BEFORE they actually need it, it seems clever instead of cheesy. And, if all else fails, I usually alter the situation a tad so that my impossible situation has one little escape hole in it to work with. I know, all of these suggestions might not necessarily help – maybe even none of them will – but I hope this gives you some ideas. Good luck!

I’m entirely with writeforfun. I don’t have a brother, genius or otherwise, but I do use her other two ideas: arm my MC in advance with something that will get her out of trouble, and build an escape hatch into any pickle I put her in.

You don’t have to see ahead to do either one. If she doesn’t already have a file in her pocket, you can go back fifty pages and give her one. The file in writeforfun’s example works especially well because it was planted in an earlier book, so it’s really well established.

It’s particularly nice if the instrument comes as a surprise, if it’s not obviously a weapon or a means of escape. For example, suppose our MC, Rona, is wearing a ceremonial sash that has to be tied in a particular way, and it’s very long because it has to go over her shoulder, around her waist three times, and over the other shoulder and then hang behind her almost to the ground. The reader has seen the tying-of-the-sash ceremony and worried with Rona that it will slip off her shoulder and trail through something disgusting. There may even be taboos about this. In the next chapter, she’s imprisoned. Despondent, she thinks of hanging herself with the scarf until her own thoughts frighten her, and it occurs to her to use the sash as the means of her escape. There’s a grate overhead and one in the floor, and the window is barred. Plus, the guard comes in once a day to bring her bread and water and remove the chamberpot, and he has a neck the scarf could wind around and – mnah hah hah – tighten.

This scarf has more charming possibilities. Suppose Rona, in preparation for her ceremony, whatever it is, has learned The Dance of the Sash, which involves snapping it, making it ripple in the air. She could even have mastered tricks that cause the sash to tie itself into knots in the air, potentially weaponizing it.

Or maybe she’s even been taught how to turn it into a python!

But we don’t want to make things too easy for her, either. The snake may do that, unless the reader knows that it’s just at likely to strike Rona as her enemies.

Or the escape hatch. Rona is imprisoned in a cell with a tin roof, solid wooden door, solid plaster walls, and windows too high to reach. No scarf. Nothing that could be a weapon, not even a spoon. Through the high-up windows, she sees the sky darken. Rain starts, and the cell ceiling leaks a lot. She realizes this has happened many times before, and it occurs to her that the floorboards may be rotten. She takes it from there.

We writers have one advantage that enables us to write characters who are cleverer than we are. It’s time. Our characters can snap out sharp comebacks in an instant – because we’ve taken hours to think them up. They’re definitely smarter. In real life we could never answer so fast.

I bump into this constantly with my dragon detective, Masteress Meenore, who is totally brilliant, which makes IT great fun to write. I’m always figuring out ways to make IT shine. IT’s teaching my MC Elodie to deduce and induce and use her common sense, and when IT questions her, she often gets a headache.

Here’s an example from Stolen Magic. The background is that this item, the Replica, has been stolen from within the Oase, which is like a museum, with many rooms of shelves and cupboards. If the Replica isn’t found the consequences will be terrible. I won’t say what they are. This little bit includes Masteress Meenore, Elodie, and another character her age (twelve), Master Robbie. The three are in a stable outside the Oase. Masteress Meenore is the first speaker:

“When you return, do not waste your energy searching shelves, although there are many and a month could be spent combing them. Let others do it, because it must be done, but the thief, who is no fool, will not have hidden the Replica there, not even in the most shadowy corner of a cupboard in the most distant chamber. Why is that?”

Can you think of the answer? Close your eyes to think, think, think.

You may have come up with something else, but this is my solution:

The two were silent. Master Robbie’s face wore a strained look, which Elodie recognized.
“Think, Lodie, Master Robbie!”
She wanted to be the one to realize. Think! she thought. Prove I have an original mind!
Ah. “Because, Masteress, the thief couldn’t guess where the searchers would look first. Anyone might stumble on the Replica in an unlikely spot just by luck.”

We’re forever giving our characters powers we don’t have. Ella in Ella Enchanted has an amazing talent for languages. I don’t. Areida in Fairest can throw her voice beyond the ability of any ventriloquist. Why not intelligence?

Here are four prompts:

• You were expecting this. Imprison Rona and get her out using nothing but her sash.

• Try an underwater rescue. Your MC, who doesn’t know how to swim, is tied up in the trunk of a car that goes off a bridge into a river. Write a preceding scene or two to set up what will make her able to survive, the escape hatch or her special ability. Then get her out of there by her own efforts and have her save herself. I mean, she can get an octopus on her side, who can open the trunk and untie the knots, but she has to persuade the octopus.

• This one is sad. Write an argument between two characters, maybe they’re romantically involved, maybe they’re siblings, whatever. One of them feels betrayed; the other feels falsely accused. Make them both brilliant, much smarter than any of us. The fight never gets physical, but have them wound each other emotionally, because neither holds back. Depending on where you want to take it, you can bring them to reconciliation, or they can wind up estranged.

• Too bad Easter is over. This is an armchair Easter egg hunt. You have rivals or two teams of rivals. Twelve eggs have been hidden. The challenge for the contestants is to write down – without going to look – where each egg is hidden. The winner is the one (or the team) who predicts the location of more eggs than the loser. You can make the stakes high even though they’re just eggs. A life may hang in the balance. You probably should use a setting you know very well, either a fictional setting you’ve been writing about or a real place. The place will help your characters guess and so will the nature of whoever is doing the hiding, but the contestants will have to be very clever.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. Thanks for the post… though i think that sometimes another way to solve this problem is to outline. Now, how do you bring about the reformation of a character? Not necessarily from evil to good or vice versa, but one of my characters is very proud, and hates humans, (she's a mermaid. Unfortunately she has GOT to fall for Prince Coram, or the story is worthless. In fact, the whole story rotates around the fact that she and he got engaged at a ball after her dad transforms her into a human for punishment… long story there. But anyway, in my first draft, she and he just click. All of her hate justs melts away for no reason at all. And not because he's particularly handsome or anything like that; it just fades inexplicably. The reason she hates the humans is that one of them killed her mother long ago on her 6th birthday. Also I am debating about whether or not she can speak on land, or have so that she can speak, but no one understands her. (the curse of the illustrious Disney!!!!) But she will probably be able to talk, or communicate in writing.

    • To reform a character, there has to be the seeds of what the character will be like after the reformation already there. One of my characters is proud high-born lady, who is, in the beginning, a snob. She's cold, and sometimes downright ruthless. But she is also lonely. She is afraid of having relationships because her family all died of plague when she was young, and she is afraid to get close to someone for fear of losing them. Her seeds of reformation are her love for children and her appreciation for beauty (She loves flowers) and her random acts of kindness. You see that she's not really all that bad, just cautious and somewhat insecure. You need to sew the seeds for your character. Maybe make her like the different types of plants up on the earth. Or have her bond with an animal. This is generally a good way to help show a good side in a character. Though, it should probably be a land animal, seeing as she was once a sea creature. Or have her grudgingly help a little girl, and then get fond of her, which will slowly melt down her hatred of other humans as well. Then have something terrible happen to the little girl, (Kidnapped, terrible illness?) and your Sea Maiden will have to rescue her. Maybe have her band up with several people, in the caser of kidnapping, or, in the case of illness, maybe make the cure be something from the depths of the sea, where she is forbidden to go, but she loves the little girl so much that she will save her no matter what, so, she goes back. Maybe have the prince help her somehow. You have to build up her affection for him someway, so having them work together might be a good idea. Have her save his life maybe, or him save her. Or both. Hope this helped.

    • Interesting ideas from Elisa. And here's one more: what if the first time she sees him he's swimming, and thereafter there always seems to her to be something wet about him.

      It's a good question, about reformation. I'm adding it to my list.

    • Well, in my original, the first time they come into contact with each other she is trying to sink his ship to join a virgin cult so that she can dump her arranged marriage with a total loser. So you can see that she is very selfish and self-absorbed. At this point her father curses her. I'm either toying with the idea like in the Little Mermaid, which i am NOT trying to emulate it just turned out that way, that he finds her and has her taken care of etc. Or he saves her from a watery grave, which she promptly tries to get back to having become suicidal. So that leads to the unfortunate circumstance for him believing that she's crazy soo… maybe I should avoid that scenario altogether. Of course it can also lead to pity, and since she is knock-out gorgeous, and knows it, that can lead to love on his side… But if he rescued her then she might be resentful… URGH!!!! I had no idea that this was so complicated until now!!!

    • I like what Elisa said about sowing seeds for redemption. Maybe you could show how her original loser-of-a-fiance is cruel, lazy, or unkind jerk (or all three), and contrast him with the prince, who is the total opposite–for example, maybe your MC hates that her original fiance dislikes and is mean to children, but the prince helps a crying little girl on the street. Your MC may want to hate him so badly, but can't help being a little touched with his kindness, nor can she help thinking that he's so much better than her fiance below the sea. The seeds for redemption have been sown! Just an example–hope this helped! 🙂

    • When I said loser I meant like a total dork. But that can be changed. It might be hard to show though because the only info you get is from her really, and this really short conversation that they have. Which, in my first draft, goes along the lines of "I feel bad about getting engaged to you without asking YOUR permission' and she's like, 'that's okay, go along and study your books like a good apprentice.' That's why I said it showed how selfish she is. But that is a good suggestion.

  2. This came in from Jaina on Goodreads:

    I have a problem – I'm writing a sad book about an orphan who was separated from her only surviving family member (her brother). She just moved back to her hometown and no one recognizes her. I'm having a lot of fun writing it, but I'm worried all my scenes are sad, depressed, etc, and I don't have any varying emotions. Her foster brother is a terrible cook, but that's all I've got.

    Comments, anyone?

    • I generally don't like reading sad stories. They depress me. But, if you add enough varying emotions, it's not so depressing. So, my advice to you would be, add quirks to your characters. So, we know about the foster brother. Write in a scene where he forgets there is a roast in the oven, and the smoke alarm goes off and black smoke billows from the oven, MC opens the windows, and runs to help her foster brother put out the small fire that was caused, meanwhile, across the street, a neighbor (The one who's always sticking her nose into other people's business, calls the fire department. Make it funny maybe, or have your MC be killingly sarcastic about it. Then have one of the firemen funny, who laughs about it, and tells them about how his aunt burned their kitchen to the ground when he was a little boy. For me, when I get into the "no variety" places in my books, I write a funny, somewhat strange scene. Like when my great great great great grandpa and uncles got drunk (They were soldiers in the American Civil War) and started pulling up southern railroad tracks. It is a comical scene, that cuts through the brutal reality of war.

    • I completely agree with Gail. And, while I personally don't like super sad stories that much, I know lots of people who do. Have fun writing it, and there are sure to be people who will enjoy reading it! And, like Elsabet said, sometimes throwing something that is a little lighter can help add a little variety. But only if it seems natural to you.

  3. As some of you know, from previous comments, I am writing a book on the twelve dancing princesses. I've figured some things out, but not others, or, I have things partway worked out. I know that forcing the girls to dance for some magical reason is clichéd, but they'd have to be pretty cruel to keep a secret just for fun when guys are dying, literally, to find out. But my real problem isn't with clichés, it's the romance. I have a terrible time with romance, because, mainly, I am only fourteen and have never fallen in love etc. etc. I've worked it out pretty well, I mean, like, I have it all planned out why they fall in love and stuff, (He saved her life once, in a fire, a few years before the story happens, [which makes it a little more believable that they would fall in love] he is one of her and her sisters guards [giving them almost daily contact so that it's not "meet once or twice and then be head over heels in love"] They both have pretty nice personality's [Michael is downright awesome, if I do say so myself] and plus, two or three of the sisters are playing matchmaking) so, it makes sense that they would fall in love, no problem there, but I have a problem with actually making it happen. Dialogue is one problem (I don't write well from male POV, not even to get started with making him fall realistically in love). And for the story to work, both Michael and Sapphire have to have separate POVs. Another problem with it is my writing style. My writing style clashes completely with romance. (I think I mentioned before that my "voice" sounds really sarcastic and funny.) What am I going to do? If anyone can unscramble this comment, any help AT ALL will be appreciated. I'm barely keeping my had over water. I've had to delete the story back to the first chapter SIX TIMES!!! I'm kind of desperate. Thanks in advance.

    • I really like the sound of your story! It sounds like it could be really good! (I know that doesn't answer your questions, but I thought I'd let you know, anyway, that I like it!)

      Definitely read Gail's posts on writing romance – they really helped me when I was writing a romance for my book!

      Also (and this will sound like a "no, duh" comment, but just to remind you) just do what feels right to you. If it seems to you at the moment like Michael would come right out and say, "Sapphire, I love you so much!" then just go ahead and make him say it. Later on you'll revise and you can change that part or throw it out entirely. Think of your first draft as practice – you're just trying your story out. Later on, you can read your book and say, "That is so unrealistic! I should have just mentioned that he noticed her hair being even more beautiful than usual that day." But right now, Your book can be as unrealistic as you want, as long as you get something written!

      And, this is way out there – just something that popped into my head. It may not work, and I know it would involve changing a lot, but it might help (and make it a little different than your ordinary fairytale) if you went from the POV of one of the younger sisters who is not falling in love. This younger sister, perhaps with a little rearranging of your events, could be the actual heroine of the book and the two lovebirds could just be important secondary characters. Then you could make the younger sister as sarcastic and funny as you want, and keep the romance, simply changing it to a subplot. Just a thought!

    • So, this may totally be different than what you want, Elisa, but I'd just like to point out that a romance can be humorous. Not overly so, but a little humor and sarcasm is fine (at least in my opinion). Obviously, at the very dramatic parts, you don't need to have a witty comment, but at other times, I think it's okay.
      Your story sounds interesting, though. I love that fairy tale, even though, like most fairy tales, it has extremely large gaping holes in the middle. I think it's amazing that you are knitting together all the holes. Good luck! Sorry, this probably didn't help much.

    • Thanks, Bug, it actually did help. While both of my ,main MCs are pretty serous, but it could work. Of the two, Sapphire is the more sarcastic (If you had twelve little sisters, wouldn't you be too?) And Michael is more funny. So, yeah, it could work out to have them be a witty (Or just plain strange) couple. Thanks! I hadn't really thought of that, seeing as how my story is pretty serious. I mean, Sapphire is being forced to spy on her father's top secret war plans to keep her sisters from dancing themselves to death. (LONG story.) Thanks again!

    • I have five younger siblings myself, and that's annoying enough. (How does she manage to NOT be insane? I don't know if I could.:) Your story sounds so fun!

  4. Maybe your take on the story can be that this version is NOT romantic- you can make it into a farce or a comedy where the hero and the eldest princess don't fall in love, but do something else together instead, like go into business selling magic treasure-leafed trees or something.

  5. Hah, that's a good idea, write for fun, though, I doubt I'll use it. It sort of has to be Sapphire, though, the book has several different POVs, so maybe I can throw in a few of the little sisters POVs. Though, I already have three (Sapphire, Michael and Michael's Magician sister, Althea). I'll definitely take a look at Gail's posts. Carpelibris, my plot wouldn't work if Sapphire and Michael didn't get together, sadly, (quite personally, I think writing romance at my age absolutely ridiculous, but, as I said, plot requirements. I'm changing my "Voice a little, still sarcastic, (It's hard to break that habit) but not quite so funny (The story is sort of serious,). Thanks all!

  6. Hi! I've never commented before, but I've been reading the blog for quite a long time. Usually, when I'm about to ask a question, the next post is pretty much exactly what I need to read.
    But I have a couple questions now:
    First, have any of you read the 39 clues? My friend and I are doing something sort of like that-she wrote the first book, and I write the second book. What I'm wondering is, how much freedom do I have with this story? I'm nervous that, since she originally came up with the characters and all that, I'll have the main character reading a book or something, and she'll read it and go, "Oh, she doesn't like to read books. You should change that." Or maybe the whole plot is something she doesn't like, and she'll get offended about that. Does that make any sense?
    The second thing is, I do NaNoWriMo, and I wrote this really great story, but I kind of messed up on it, so I'm going to redo it this year. I've changed a LOT of stuff. But is it okay to do two stories at once? Well, not exactly two stories at the same time, but to be writing one and planning the other?
    I'd also like to point out that, despite my name, I'm not a grasshopper. Don't worry. 🙂

    • Well, I don't know your friend, but maybe it would be best
      to get your facts straight with each other ahead of time. Character profiles would probably be a lot of help. And it maybe best to agree on what your both comfortable with, (Like, you maybe fine with human murder, your friend isn't comfortable with it.) I would recommend that you both agree to put your friendship ahead of the story. If one or the other is getting offended and testy on a regular basis, then call it off.

      Secondly, I think it would be fine to write more then one story at once. I am a terrible role model in this department though. A gazillion stories, and it's a red letter day when I reach the fifth chapter. Still, if you limit yourself and take on what you think you can handle, I don't think you'll have a problem.

  7. Could you use a secondary (Or, better yet, thirdary) character from the first book that wouldn't be so constricted by your friends views. I mean, writing books with friends is great, but if her views kill your creativity and create a story that isn't the best you have, then, I'm not so sure you should. If you can write about a character that wasn't mentioned much in the first book, maybe it wouldn't be so bad. This is just my opinion, feel free to disregard it, (Cause I write by myself. I tried the joint-authors thing once, it didn't work well, but I was only eleven, so its probably different in your case [But don't get bossed around too much, if you force yourself into your friend's views it can really kill a story] so just pay me no heed if you like. What ever you do, I hope your story comes out really well.

  8. This s a sort of random question, but what do you all think about heroes with facial hair. This might sound odd, but these days you NEVER find a guy with a beard!!!!! Unless he's a villain. What's with all the clean-shaven guys? I mean, seriously, the hero can escape into the wilderness with nothing but the clothes on his back, survive two winters and a bear attack and STILL be completely smooth, without even stubble. What's with that? I don't think he remembered to stuff a razor in his pocket, and if he did, after EIGHTEEN MONTHS wouldn't it be a little dull? I would like other people's opinions on this though, So please, would you tell me where you all stand on facial hair.

  9. I don't really like young main characters to have facial hair, but I'm good with secondaries and adults. Sometimes it makes them more awesome. (Like Dumbledore.) You know, I never really thought about that, guys not growing beards when they obviously should. You're right! There are like, two books I can think of that the survivor or whatever actually growing facial hair.

    • Well, I'm okay with it. Since I write a lot of historical fiction, a lot of my characters have beards and mustaches. You're absolutely right though, there definitely aren't enough heroes with beards. It really doesn't make sense that so few MCs don't have beards. Its even comical, if you think about it.

    • Ugh, I deleted my comment. Oh well. What I was going to say was: Bug, thanks! He isn't exactly a MC, so, I dunno, I'm still debating the whole him-with-a-beard thing. I mean, I, personally think he'd look pretty good with a beard, but it might be weird to some people. I'm not sure whether to do it or not. Like I said, he's not exactly a MC, but he does have quite a bit of "show" time. Elsabet, thank you as well. I'm doing a fantasy world, set sort-of in the 1700's (I guess) so, beards actually might fit the fashion of the time, though, still…I mean, I sort-of want him to have a beard, but several people have told me it was strange, so, I'm not decided. If anyone else has anything to say on the subject, I'd be very grateful. Thanks again. 🙂

    • I love characters with beards. Beards are cool. If you want your character to have a beard, give him a beard. If it feels right to you, odds are it is what will work best with your story, right?

    • You know, I honestly have never noticed! I don't remember if any of the characters in books that I've read had facial hair. I guess I don't pay much attention to it! Come to think of it, I have five adult guys in one part of my book who have been imprisoned for a week, and none of them have any facial hair by the end of the week. Oops! Thanks for pointing that out – I guess I just never think about it since I'm a girl!

    • I do agree with the fact that each character is different-even if it is a young MC. Sorry if my comment didn't sound like that; it's just my personal preference.

  10. By the way, I LOVED the pictures! Your yard must look gorgeous this time of year! Such beautiful flowers! And I love Reggie's pictures, too. He's such a cutie! You can tell your husband that he did a very nice job!

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