Defined by decisions

Before the post, this is a call for questions. My long list is running down. I know I don’t add every question that comes in to my list. Some I don’t have a lot to say about, or I may have answered something similar recently. But if there’s anything about writing that plagues or confuses you or that you’ve always wondered about, this is a good time to ask. Poetry questions also welcome.

On April 5, 2014, Farina wrote, If you have a character’s, well, characteristics down in a description of him, can you give some advice for then writing that person in their own character, showing off their characteristics and personal traits? So often I feel like my characters are all blandly similar in my writing even though in my own ‘Character Bible’ I have varying personalities and flaws for them all! 

In response, Bibliophile wrote, Putting them in situations where their values are challenged would be a good idea. That way, you can see how true they are to what they say they believe, and everyone is going to react differently. Use the (it doesn’t have to be in your story) ‘A house is burning down and you can only save one of these two things: a priceless painting or a murderer.’ Then have a conversation with your characters and ask them why they chose what they did. Keep in mind, there is no true right and wrong answer to this question, it’s just a great way see where your characters’ priorities are. (The question is borrowed from Shannon Hale’s Princess Academy: Palace of Stone.)

Interesting suggestion. We can move the idea behind Bibliophile’s suggestion into our story, that is, we can look at the moments in our plot when our character faces a choice.

Let’s go with the choice Bibliophile and Shannon Hale suggest. Let’s imagine a strange combination of events that might present our MC, Tania, with this exact dilemma. A civil war is raging in her country, where she works as a prison guard. Because a high-security prison was bombed, the provisional government has moved the surviving prisoners into the only structure still standing that’s big enough to house them, the fine arts museum, which holds the cultural legacy of the land. Unfortunately, one of its new inmates is an arsonist. The museum is burning. Tania guards the wing where both the murderers are penned and the masterpieces of the golden age of portraiture are displayed. She can save a murderer’s life or a cultural legacy. She may even be able to rescue more than one painting but only one person. What does she do?

We can consult our character bible to see what she cares about, how she reacts in a crisis, what her life has been up to this point. With that, we may be able to decide what this particular character will choose.

Suppose we know, for example, that she’s judgmental. Right and wrong are clearly defined in her mind, which is one reason she became a guard. Even so, this particular choice may move her into unknown territory. She believes in preserving life although she thinks murderers are the lowest of the low. She’s not much of an art lover, but she’s a patriot and she regards the museum’s holdings as a national treasure. Her values are in conflict.


The choice will be brought into sharper relief if we write the scene as it unfolds. The writing itself is likely to reveal Tania to us and will help us help her choose.

Which particular murderer is in danger of incineration? Does Tania know the details of his crime? Did he poison his own mother? Or did he kill the man who killed his sister, who got off on a technicality? What’s he like? What’s he saying to Tania while the flames lick the walls? How frightened is she? How clearly is she thinking?

Her choice will give the reader an idea of her. She can take the painting or the murderer, or she can be a ditherer and try to take both: advance five yards with the murderer, run back for the painting, and so on, possibly too slowly to get out alive with either. A tragedy. But whatever action she takes, her character will be much clearer if we write her thoughts as well, and if there’s an opportunity for dialogue, too, so much the better.

Thoughts first. We can make a list of possibilities, like this:

• I wish they’d given us fire training. Am I supposed to close the door or leave it open? Do I take the stairs or the elevator? Which is worse, first degree burns or third? I don’t want those puckery scars on my face.

• He looks a lot like Mr. Pollack. If I leave him, I’ll have to live with killing Mr. Pollack. He’s whimpering. Mr. Pollack would probably whimper, too, if he were here. This painting looks like Maria when we were in the third grade.

• Aaa! It’s so hot! We’re both going to die. I can hardly see. I’ll take whatever I touch first, the prisoner or a painting. We’ll die together.

Our characters’ thoughts help define them. We find out something about each version of Tania from what’s going through her mind. The first Tania may be a tad vain. The second Tania is more sympathetic, if no more competent. The third tends to panic, although she has a good reason in this case. Your turn. Write three more stream of consciousness moments for Tania.

On to dialogue. She can have a cell phone and a walkie-talkie. There may be other guards in the building, and she may be shouting to them. She may be talking to the murderer. In her frightened state, she can also be talking to the painting. Here are some possibilities:

• To her best friend on the cell phone: “Tell me you’ll take Susie if I don’t come out of here. I don’t want to die worrying about her. Tell her every day that I loved her, and remember to mix wet food in with the dry. She won’t eat otherwise.”

• To the murderer: “One move I don’t like and I will leave you and take the picture. Hands in the air. High. Keep them up.”

• Another possibility to the murderer: “Don’t kill the lady who’s saving your life. Don’t be like the scorpion in that story. We’re in this together.”

Your turn again. Write three more bits of dialogue for Tania. See how they define her.

I find character bibles most helpful once I start writing, and I don’t use them for every character. It’s only when my character has to do or think or say something and I can’t figure out what that should be that I create a character bible. And usually I leave it unfinished the minute I know what to put in my story. I may go back to it, though, if I get stuck again.

Using the choice between the murderer and the art is useful if our story includes that very decision. Otherwise, it’s just an exercise. When we get back to our story we may find that whatever we came up with in our hypothetical situation doesn’t fit.

One more thought: The more detail we include in our scenes, the easier it will be to make Tania come to life as a lively personality.

Naturally the prompt is to write the scene in the burning museum/prison. When you’re finished, if you’ve gotten fascinated by Tania, continue with the rest of the story, which may start with the lead-up to the burning building and go on to include her role in the civil war. If the murderer interests you, too, keep him in. Tania may not save him, but he may manage to survive anyway.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. Really? You're running out of questions? Never thought I'd see the day… 😉
    I do have a question, actually. This last week I've been reading over a novel I wrote three years ago. It's book two in a series, and when I wrote it, I thought it was fabulous. Not anymore! The thing is chock full of inconsistencies, plot holes, convenient solutions, and leaps of logic (all of which I plan to fix).
    But one problem that's bugging me is how passive my two MCs are. In book one, they take charge and go on a quest to save a nation. They're independent and make their own decisions. Circumstances in book two, however, find these teens in the company of several adults. Because my MCs are respectful of authority, they wind up playing follow the leader a lot of the time. And as much as the adults in the group deserve that respect, I don't want my heroes just tagging along for the ride. Any advice?

  2. Thanks for putting together such a wonderful blog! This post has some great thoughts. As a young adult writer, I have appreciated your input, not to mention your published work. Thanks for that!
    Here's a question for you: I am having a hard time entering into a scene I know will be difficult for my characters. I'm shying away from it because it is what needs to happen, but I'm afraid to do it to my characters. Any thoughts? How do you prepare yourself to write the hard stuff?

    • I don't know of a way to prepare necessarily, but there's a chapter about it called "Suffer!" in Mrs. Levine's book Writing Magic. In it she talks about how if you're cruel to your characters, your readers will care more about them and how it's going to end. I tend to be a pretty mean writer (I'm sure that if my characters were real people they'd punch me in the face for all the stuff I put them through) but I still have the same problem sometimes. Try finding something about your characters that can make them as annoying as any real person. If you focus on that, it might not be as hard to make them suffer.

  3. Great post. It helped me a lot!!
    I've been having a really hard time with my endings. I'm doing a redo of a fairy tale and I'm split on the ending. What I originally had was perfect, I thought. So unbelievably perfect. The element of surprise, the setting, the MC's heroism, everything. It was a Happily Ever After, for sure.
    But now I'm realizing that it just won't do. It makes everything too easy. I'm thinking of changing it only because it ends too quickly and makes everything too simple.
    So here's my dilemma: Should I mold the story to my satisfying but easy ending? Or should I go with the less appealing alternative which is probably better, but a little anti-climactic?

  4. Does anyone else ever cringe when looking at stuff the wrote ages ago?

    I was rereading the one 'book' I ever finished writing and just started to die inside. The heroine gives in to the hero too easily, there is no real main conflict and the magic I use is not only cliche, but has no rules. The romance in the book is stilted, as is the dialogue. The main characters literally have zero relationships with any of the other characters and since this isn't a post-apocalyptic novel, that is unacceptable and just plain weird.

    The worst part is, I can't bear to take the time and actually rewrite/reread it all of the way through. I seem to have lost my love for this book, which is a shame because like I said it is the only one I have ever 'finished'. I have tried rewriting dozens of times; I have had conversations with the main character, reimagined the beginning, how they meet, totally reworked the plot. But every time I restart I get lost and annoyed. Is there any way to learn to re-love this story?

    • Yes, I have certainly cringed – numerous times – when rereading old stuff! (I mentioned earlier the book I'm returning to. It's a mess.) The good thing about cringing is that it just goes to show how much you've grown as a writer since then.

      Dig deep into the heart of that story. Look past the weaknesses, stiltedness, and clichés, and search for the core. That's probably what inspired you to write it in the first place, and it's what can inspire you again. Remember what you loved about it. There's got to be something that kept you going back when you first drafted it, and even if it's not as sparkly now as it was then, it's something! Try to draw it out. Reimagine what you can do with the story's potential. Maybe that will help you see the problems with the eye of an artist, seeing more than what's there, but what could be.

      Hope this helps, and good luck with that book!

  5. Okay, I also have a question: What do you do with parents? I mean, I write from the perspective of children and teens–for the most part–and the the things the children/teens do in books these days (you know, saving the world etc.) are not even remotely possible, most of the time. Kids don't do that sort of stuff. Plus, since technically our brains haven't fully developed yet, we wouldn't have the wisdom to deal with such situations and would need a wise and generally smart, fairly all-knowing adult with us to deal with such things. (Because, from the kid's perspective, grown-ups know EVERYTHING! Seriously, until I was eleven, I REALLY thought my parents knew basically everything!) So, what to do with the parents, or even grown ups in general? I know lots of kids in books are orphans, but that's really cliche, and don't even get me started on having the kids save the parents, nuh-uh, not even gonna go there, it's WAY too twisted. I want my parents to be good parents while, at the same time, their kids can do some fairly cool stuff. I can only have them be invalids so often. How do I keep them involved, and not interfering too much, while being really solidly good (also smart, I hate it when the kid is brilliant but the parents are idiots, in real life, the kid would probably be pretty dumb too, you learn from your parents after all) parents?

    • Parents in children's stories are like the police in mystery novels. Every mystery I've read with a non-cop MC has this conversation:
      "Why don't we call the police?"
      "Because they'd never believe us/get here in time."
      If the police solved the problem, this would be their story, and it would be an interesting story. But it wouldn't be the MC's story. It's important for the MC to acknowledge that the police would be better at this, maybe try and fail to get their help, but they are the hero and they need to solve things themselves. For some reason, the MC is better equipped to handle this particular problem than adults. The villains are fairies, which only children can see. The villain is a land developer, and only children care about saving their forest playground. The villain is a kingdom away and can only be killed on the Summer Solstice, which is in six days, and if the children turn back to get their parents' help they'll never reach him in time. You don't need to make the parents incompetent in a kid's story any more than a feminist story needs to make all male characters incompetent. Yes, that method works, but it's not always necessary. Just put the girl in the driver's seat. It's her quest.

  6. From the website:
    What is the right kind of details? I remember in one of your past posts, you said that details and which ones you write are important. So which details are important and which not so much.

  7. So here's a question that's been stewing in my mind for a while–I've noticed that while I'm usually a very goofy, lighthearted person, my stories always end up being dark and fairly heavy. I know I need some humor and comedy in there, but it always sounds forced and unnatural. How do I lighten my stories but still keep them serious?

  8. Elisa: thanks for the advice! I've tried this method before, but I'm having more of a problem actually making the story lighter rather than just a character. But I was totally thinking of Razo when I tried that method!!! I looooove those books and just reread them a few days ago 🙂

  9. Thanks again for the great advice! I have a question that pertains both to dialogue and relationship development. I have two taciturn characters who have to spend quite a bit of time together, and are untrusting of each other for awhile. The result is that they are both pretty tight-lipped, which makes the scenes feel boring to me. I am hoping to develop their relationship to the point where they want to confide in one another, but am struggling with making that leap, and with creating some natural, interesting dialogue in the meantime. How do you make characters talk when they simply aren't inclined to do so?

    • Thoughtses, thoughtses, use thoughtses! Seriously though, when no one talks, make them THINK. I like it when people have these super sarcastic thoughts about each other without saying anything, its funny. And then one of them can accidentally say a super-sarcastic remark out-loud, and they start a bit of a fight, and then end up laughing (This happens to me and my sister ALL THE TIME!). That breaks the ice pretty well, at least, for me (and my sister).

  10. HI Gail! I just wanted to tell you that this year in Speech and Debate for Humorous Interpretation I performed Ella Enchanted! I don't know how familiar you are with Speech and Debate events, but in humorous interpretation, you have ten minutes to perform a published work (usually a play, seldom a book). Every character you choose to perform has to have different body language and voices because you are the only performer. So I cut Ella Enchanted into ten minutes, which was pretty heartbreaking having to cut some of my favorite moments, but it was all worth it! I finally played Ella ( a dream of mine since watching Anne Hathaway do it and nine year old me said "I could do it better"), I got to interpret all the other characters the way I had always imagined them, and I got to share my favorite novel with all different people! I just wanted to thank you because without your amazing story and the inspiration you have always given me, I could never have fulfilled my dream of making it to state my senior year! So thank you!!!

  11. From the website:
    Writing the first draft usually comes easily to me, but I have a hard time revising. I have an 80,000 word draft that I love but I can't do anything with it because it's filled with gaping plot holes I don't know how to fill. I'm over halfway through my second novel and am worried that it will meet the same fate. Many writers say that revising is their favorite part of writing, so I feel I must be approaching it from the wrong angle. Any advice?

  12. Also from the website:
    What are you supposed to do when all of your story seem to repeat? Like, I've had this GREAT idea for a girl going on quest, but all of my other stories seem to copy this idea. What do you do in situations like this?
    Writer At Heart

    • Write it anyway!

      What makes a story different from others is that it has a unique and imaginative setting, characters, and objectives. So just write it up and see if it is different from your other quest stories. After all, when you think about it, all stories are a type of quest. Romance novels quest for love, Adventures are normally flat out quest, and so on.

  13. My question is actually for anybody who cares to comment and has anything they want to say. I've been having lots of trouble lately with characters. Actually, through my entire writing history, I think characters have been a problem for me. I can make them up, write their dialogue, plot amazing stories (amazing too me at least), create imaginary worlds with lots of detail, and do just about everything else well enough to try and soldier through a first draft. Except characters. I have the hardest time getting into them and figuring out what makes my characters tick – and because the actual writing of a story depends so heavily on the characters, how they act, react, and speak, etc., I have not gotten past the first half of the first chapter of any of my personal WIP (I cowrite with friends a lot) in about two or three years. Any ideas or help anyone can offer would be extremely appreciated.

    • Here are some questions that you might find useful.

      A. Analysis
      This work should be thorough, typed and in full sentences.
      I. Character
      a. How does your character develop the action of the play?
      b. What physical traits affect the way your character thinks and moves?
      c. What are the distinctive emotional traits your character has?
      II. History
      a. How does my character’s past affect my present action?
      b. What is my character’s life script?
      c. How does it dictate my actions onstage?
      d. How does my character’s childhood shape my point of view?
      III. Circumstances
      a. How does each line affect my character?
      b. How do I feel about my previous, present, and future circumstances?
      c. What key events affect my character onstage?
      d. What experiences can I associate with these events?
      e. What is my emotional response to the setting?
      f. What is the weather like?
      g. What have been my experiences been in this setting?
      h. What am I dressed for? Why? What factors went into the choice/
      i. What is required of me in this setting?
      i. Socially
      ii. Emotionally
      iii. Physically
      iv. Politically
      IV. Action
      a. Break your scenes into beat
      b. Determine your action beat by beat and line by line 15
      c. Think through the physical choices available to each action.
      V. Objectives
      a. Select strong objectives for each beat
      b. Select a clear Super-objective for the play
      c. Determine how each objective helps you attain the super-objective.
      d. What is the main obstacle you face in attaining your objectives?
      e. What are the obstacles in each beat?
      f. How do the other characters hinder me and act as obstacles?
      VI. Subtext
      a. Determine denotative and connotative meaning of each line.
      b. Determine why your character chooses the words that create action.
      c. Determine what action occurs and what choices must occur between lines, word
      and phrases in the unspoken moments of the work.

      This is copied directly from Samford's Undergrad Theatre major manual. Therefore, it is geared more towards plays but should still be useful as a character/book analysis tool.

    • Wow! That might be really helpful! I've been trying to figure out how to go about making my world 3-D, complex, real to the imagination, etc. and I had a list of steps sort of like that (as in – there were a lot of them!) But it helped me out a bunch, and I've been hoping for something like that with characters. Great! Thanks so much, Bibliophile!

  14. Hey I'm seeking a little simple help: I need some endearments. What I mean by this is I am running out of pet names. In my one story, there are two people who hate each other, but whenever they speak to each other (especially on the phone) they call each other pet names. Example: "Niccolai,LUV, so GOOD to hear from you!" "Is everything going well, ANGEL?" "My SWEET, you've gotten me lost." No,no, DARLING, you've misunderstand me." "No need, DEAREST, I shall be fine, just rotting here without a tow-truck, don't worry a bit." Etc.

    Endearments I Already Use:

    Anyone have any to share with me? Thanks.

    • Foopy
      Sugar Pie
      Queen/King of my heart
      Sweet Heart
      Heart of my Heart
      My Sweet Baboo (stolen from Charlie Brown)
      Bae (pronounced 'bay')
      Belle (As in beautiful)
      Mon ami (My friend)
      Mi Amore (My love)
      Sweetie Pie
      Sugga (Not to be confused with 'Sugar')
      My Love

      These are all of the ones I can come up with off the top of my head. What is the premise of these character's relationship? Are they in an arranged marriage or something? It sure sounds like it from that conversation you posted above. If Niccolai is an actual character, then he would probably use more French/Italian endearments because his name sounds more European to me. I have included one of each, but I don't know any others.

      You don't need a litany of names though, just about 10 or twenty. You can even have them make it a competition or something to see who can come up with the sappiest name!

    • As far as I'm concerned, there is nothing more cutting then an acid soaked "sweetie."
      I don't think you need to worry about using a new pet name every time. They could have a few stock ones they typically use, and then get really sugary when they just what to tear each other apart.

  15. This isn't so much a writing question, it's more of q personal question for Ms. Levine.
    You write lots of twisted fairy tales (and I love them!) but none have been based off of Beauty and the Beast. Why is that? Have you not found the perfect approach, or do you just not like the story enough to even attempt it? You don't have to answer if you don't want to, but I would love to read your take on Beauty and the Beast someday. Thanks!

  16. I'm not sure if anyone's still checking this, but I had a question too, about my characters (to anyone who'd care to take a gander at it!)

    I've found that over the course of all my stories, my characters seem to repeat a lot of the same kind of traits. Whilst I do sometimes feel like they're independent and distinguishable and have their own voices, I feel like their personalities boil down to be very similar, not to mention that these personalities seem to have, at their core, an enlarged aspect of my own (I guess I rely on writing what I can identify with).

    Although my characters aren't carbon copies of me (thank goodness), OR carbon copies of each other, there are definitely similarities, and I'm torn between wanting to change the characters to make them unique but not wanting to lose the essence of the character as I've come to know them. Thoughts?

    • If they're a group of friends, and in books they normally are, then it's okay if they have similarities. I would keep them the same, and maybe add in some little extra quirks like this, suppose Jenna and Robert are both really easygoing, happy people, but Robert blubbers at the mention of unicorns and Jenna gets really angry when she hears the word 'elf'. That should be enough to differentiate.

  17. I know that this isn't really the right place to post this, but I found these pictures on Deviantart… I just rewatched 'Ella Enchanted' last night, and realized that I need to reread the book… again. It is one of my favorites, and the first fairy tale retelling I ever read. Here are the links. These pictures want to make me learn how to draw!

  18. What I try to do to make characters sound unique is one of two things:
    -Write it and try to exaggerate all the character's traits and edit it down later, or
    -Imagine a different character in their shoes. What would they do differently?

  19. I have a dilemma. I have been working on a fairy tale retelling that is a cross-over of the Twelve Dancing Princesses and the Nutcracker. I went on Google Images recently and searched up ‘magical ballet slippers’ and saw a book called MAGICAL BALLERINA: CHRISTMAS IN ENCHANTIA. I did some further research on this book and realized that its story plot was pretty much what I had in mind for my story!
    My story’s MC was about a girl who loved ballet dancing, and was attending an all-girls academy. She loves her ballet classes but she also takes other subjects there too (e.g drama, dance, baking etc.) My MC is performing in the Christmas ballet show, and at one point, she spots a pair of beautiful ballet slippers. She tries them on, and they bring her to a magical world, where she dances all night.
    That is pretty much the story line for the other story. I have never read or heard of that book, and I thought up of this story line up entirely by myself. So it was a huge shock when I saw a book with a very similar plot. What should I do? Should I continue the book I set out to write? Or should I ignore it because there is another book out there with a plot all too similar to the one I’m writing?

    • I hate it when that happens! I've had similar problems a lot. I would just keep writing it, but DO NOT read the other story to make sure you don't plagiarize. If you do that, I'm sure yours will be different enough. And from the title, I would guess that the other book is not very popular, so you probably don't have anything to worry about. Good luck!

  20. Hi there! First of all, thanks very much for sharing all of your very helpful writing tips with everyone!
    I have a question about beginning a story. I often come up with elements for a story, such as a setting and a character or some dialogue and a conflict, but I have trouble putting these elements together and adding elements to make a complete story out of my initial slightly-fuzzy vision. Any advice would be appreciated!

    • Biggest thing: Write them down. Your thoughts will start to order themselves when you're not watching, and suddenly the Dialogue A sounds natural coming from Character B and it could all happen in Setting C. Lots of pieces won't fit anywhere, but lots of pieces will.

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