You shout tomayto, I’m too shy to whisper tomahto, let’s call the whole story off

Does this title mean anything to anyone but me?

Before I go on to the post, I found out about this through poetry school: If you’re sixteen and older, you’re eligible, and there seems to be no fee to apply and a nice sum if you win. If you do win, be sure to let us know! Here’s the link: Good luck!

On May 28, 2015 Bug wrote, One of my main characters is extremely different from me. (For example, with Myers-Briggs, I’m an INFP, and he’s an ESFP.) It’s really sort of hard for me to write him sometimes because he’s so…not at all me, I guess. I guess my problem is that I have to write a person who’s very much a people-person, while I’m not (I definitely LIKE being around people, I’m just sort of shy a lot.) Does anyone have any advice for that?

The Myers-Briggs is fun to take for yourself and your characters! I couldn’t resist doing it for myself and for my MC in the prequel I just finished. The test is free, and you find out the names of famous people who share your or your character’s personality type. Also, suggestions are made about careers you may be well suited for, which I would take with a gallon of salt. None of my career options as an ENFJ is writer (Bug’s is, by the way), and none of my famous people is a writer. Actually, I’d take the whole thing with a gallon of salt, in that it isn’t helpful to regard an online personality test as the final word on who we are. Still it’s fun.

Even if you don’t take the test, you may want to read about it, because I’m going to use Myers-Briggs terms in the post, so a little knowledge will be helpful, but I will explain as I go along.

Bug, it’s great that you know all this about your character (and yourself). Now that I know I’m an ENFJ, although just moderately or slightly on everything, and my MC Perry is definitively an ISTJ, I realize how different we are. In other words, she’s an introvert, and I’m outgoing. Feelings influence my decision-making more than they influence hers, because she’s more of a step-by-step plodder. But I didn’t have much trouble writing her, because I knew, and the reader will, too, how she came to be what she is. So that’s one tip: our character’s history, whether as backstory or as played out in the plot, will reveal clues to his behavior.

For example, let’s imagine Harper, a child who’s adopted. She’s wildly intuitive, but her adoptive parents are cautious and logical. If she wants to get her way about anything, she has to defend her choice in terms they’ll understand. Gradually, necessity moves her into their camp, and her sixth sense goes to sleep. In our story she gets older and has to make a career decision. She lists pros and cons; she researches qualifications; she interviews people who are employed in the kinds of work she’s considering. One of her friends asks, “But which one would you like better?” And she answers, “That’s what I’m trying to figure out?” Her friend presses her: “Which one lifts your heart just to think about.” She frowns. “I don’t know what you mean.” Because we know how she got there, we know how she’ll take action and respond in lots of situations. If she feels attracted to someone, she won’t let that feeling take over. She’ll watch her crush and make judgments. Then, maybe, she’ll move forward.

Or, imagine that Bug’s extrovert, Manny, grows up in a family of extroverts. If he doesn’t push himself forward, he’ll get lost, so he does. Or, let’s imagine a more difficult childhood for him. When he’s a baby, his parents flee their home kingdom because of persecution, but they don’t speak the language. Manny, however, learns both languages. Even as a child, he has to represent his family in the new land. His parents give him responsibilities beyond his years, and he has to be effective with adults. Whether or not he starts with an extrovert bent, that part of him is pushed to develop. This knowledge helps us write him.

Addie in The Two Princesses of Bamarre is very shy, and there’s nothing in her past to explain it. I did have trouble with her because, although I’m only moderately extroverted, I still am. At the beginning I wrote Addie as so paralyzed by her shyness that she was almost catatonic. I went to my shy critique buddy, Joan, for advice, and she helped me dial back the paralysis. So outside help from someone who is more like your character than you are may be helpful.

And let me offer you shy ones (many writers are) some info about extroverts (moderate ones, anyway), as represented by me, which you are welcome to use in developing your characters. I like gatherings, even if I don’t know many people. I may start off feeling shy and nervous, but I steel myself. I’ll stand at the edge of a group and listen for a little while. I usually get a vibe. If they’re willing to include a newcomer, the circle widens and people smile. If that doesn’t happen, I move on. When I find a receptive group, I listen and chip in if I have something to say, but staying on topic, because I’m the interloper. After five or ten minutes, I may introduce a new idea that particularly interests me. If others are fascinated, too, I feel even more comfortable, and the conversation develops. In big groups, social gatherings where networking is happening, groups fragment, because most people want to touch more than one base. When the group falls apart, I move on and repeat.

At the buffet or bar (where I get seltzer with a splash of cranberry juice, which looks pretty and vaguely alcoholic and tastes good), there’s a chance to meet people one-on-one. If people are waiting in a line, I may have time to get a little acquainted with the person ahead or behind me, which can be nice.

Three things I never do:

∙ Hold forth and deliver monologues about myself or pass myself off as an expert on anything. I’m more likely to be asking questions than asserting anything.

∙ Worry about making a fool out of myself. There’s always that risk, and I’ve swallowed my foot more than once, but I haven’t died, and usually a funny story is the result.

∙ Rehearse what I want to say before saying it or go over it for flaws. That road leads to silence and feeling alone, because even if I finally approve my contribution, the conversation has moved on. I plunge in.

Internally, I’m irrepressible, which fuels my extroversion. If I care about a topic and have ideas, I think I have an obligation to share, to spur conversation and even to create fun.

My extroversion is fueled by enormous curiosity about people, which I bet I share with many shy folk. The difference, I think, is that I’m not restrained from coming out with it. I mean well, but occasionally I cross into nosiness, which may be welcomed–or not!

What about the shy among you? Any tips about how to write shy characters?

If our opposite character type has to act, we can list possibilities, starting with what we would do, what an opposite action might be, what our outgoing cousin Naomi would do, what Anne of Green Gables would do, and the possibilities that just pop to mind. If nothing seems right, we keep going with more possibilities.

It will get easier as the story progresses, I believe. Once our MC performs like an extrovert, we’ll see him at work and come up with more extroverty actions for him the next time. We’ll also discover how he reacts to other characters, whose natures are established. How is he with a shy friend? How with his brother who’s more out there even than he is?

Here are three prompts:

∙ The Match-Made-In-Heaven dating service puts people together by similar Myers-Briggs scores. Your MCs, Michael and Addison, are identical shy ISTJ’s (Introverted, Sensing, Thinking, Judging). Write their first date. Write the journal entry of one of them afterward. Decide if they ever want to see each other afterward. Keep going with the relationship if you like, which can go in any direction. They can fall in love or become opponents in a struggle that has galactic proportions.

∙ The Opposites-Attract dating service takes the opposite approach. This time, Jordan (INFP-Introverted, Intuitive, Feeling, Perceiving) is matched with Peyton (ESTJ-Extroverted, Sensing, Thinking, Judging). Write the date and the journal entry. Keep going if you like.

∙ Let’s work with Harper, our MC who’s methodical, careful, and cautious. But, remember, her nature before she blended into her family was intuitive. Put her in a situation where being methodical and careful land her in trouble. Her intuition has to wake up. Write the situation and the story.

Have fun, and save what you write!

        • Gail Carson Levine says:

          No, that’s it. I thought the song might have gotten lost in the mists of time, and I’m glad it’s still alive and making its case for love across differences.

          • Learning to care about people who aren’t like us is an important part of life. Lately I’ve been adding a diverse cast of characters to my novel to depict how different cultures can be beautiful. I have a Brit, an Egyptian, an Irish, a half-Korean, and a Frenchwoman, and their differences really made my story pop.

          • Sorry for inturrupting , but I thought Id tell you that I replied a little late to your last comment on your last post, but its there now, and I just thought youd want to read it. Wrote this here just in case you dont check that post again..;)

  1. I once wrote a character very unlike me. I’m a chatterbox, and my MC was shy. She ended up with no personality whatsoever, so I based her off a girl I knew of. She turned out great!
    Thanks for another great post, by the way.

  2. Tips on writing shy characters…I’m a shy INFJ who talks a lot. I’ve never set out to write a character where shyness was their #1 trait, but some things from personal experience that I hope will be helpful:

    If I find myself in a social situation, the first thing I do is look for someone I know.

    My best friend once told me “You turn into a social animal at Albacon.” (My local writers’ convention.) I love conventions. While I’m there, I chat with all kinds of people, and even do things like readings and being on panels. But I take the day after a con off from work whenever I can, because after a weekend of being “on,” when it’s over, the energy just drains out of me and I need some time to recharge.

    One of the reasons I’m shy is because I have a terrible time recognizing faces and putting them with names. (And I love cons partly because everyone wears nametags.) I suspect fear of embarrassment or of making a faux pas can be a big reason for shyness.

    • I’m like that too!
      I think the main reason I suddenly become out going and social at big conventions is that nobody knows me, and I’m probably rarely going see hose people again, if ever. I feel like I’m our normal lives we have a sort of reputation of either shy or outgoing, and are hesitant to do anything contradicting that, or people might notice the difference. (Which may not be a bad thing, but I still try to avoid it.) When I’m in a big group of strangers I don’t have that problem, and therefore am more likely to be outgoing. Another thing is, it’s a lot easer to make friends and talk to people when nobody knows each other, like the first day of camp, or something, as opposed to when they all hav their social groups cemented, like on he third or fourth day.

    • Chrissa Pedersen says:

      Melissa that fits me as well. Nice to know there are shyish others that come-out at gatherings where the dress code includes name tags 🙂 And I totally need the same down time after being “on” for a day or weekend.

  3. Firstly, happy birthday! You’ve been a role model of mine since I was a kid, so I hope your birthday is just absolutely wonderful. 🙂

    Secondly, I sang the song the title references once, so it’s actually a bit special to me. Gershwin is alive and well!

    And thirdly, some tips on shy characters. I’m a very shy and introverted person–however, everyone in my entire immediate family is very extroverted (even if some of them won’t admit it). Because of that, I often feel like I’m doing something wrong when I don’t want to immerse myself in crowds.
    Even when I do know people, I get easily overwhelmed by crowds and need time to myself often. My friends often have OTHER friends they seem to like more than me, so when the two of them are together, I blend into being the third wheel because I don’t want to intrude.
    It helps when I’m with my very extroverted younger sister, who is also my best friend and kind of helps me get deeper into the “scene” of wherever we are.
    However, when I’m doing something I really enjoy, I come out of my shell more. With friends I’ve already become very close to or a whole group full of people I’m comfortable around (like my church or my local Chorale), I lose a good part of that shyness and am able to express myself a bit more. I have immense stage fright, but that tends to go away when I’m with people I know well, such as performing at church or singing with my sister. I’m at a point now where I’m trying to conquer this stage fright specifically because there’s a Disney solo in my Chorale’s performance that I really want–I know that I want to be able to do this solo, so I’m purposely trying to make myself more comfortable on stage in case I get it.

    I personally have never had problems with writing very extroverted characters, because–much like many others have said–I base these characters off of people I know. Being in a family full of extroverts exposes me to what these people are like. So write what you know–it works!

    • Something to add: social awkwardness and being introverted are NOT the same thing. People tend to think that if someone is introverted, they MUST be socially awkward–or vice versa. For instance, I’m an introvert. I like to be by myself and sometimes get uncomfortable in large groups of people. However, when I DO get involved in a conversation with someone, I can usually think of ways to keep the conversation going in a positive way–sometimes ESPECIALLY when it’s a stranger, because I have questions to ask that I don’t already know the answer to.

      In one of my books, I have a character named Ted. Ted LOVES people. He really enjoys trying to talk to others and putting himself in social situations. He likes going to places where there will be lots of people, because it’s a chance for him to make friends. He often contributes to conversations, and sometimes is the first to do so.
      Unfortunately for Ted, just because he LIKES people doesn’t necessarily mean he’s GOOD with people. Ted has a vocal quirk where he tends to stumble over his words, can easily run out of conversation topics, and sometimes relies on others to do the talking for him before he can pick up where they left off.

      So remember that when you’re writing an introvert, they don’t necessarily have to be bad with people. And extroverts don’t necessarily have to be good with people. 🙂

      • Agreed. I’m introverted too, but some of my friends act surprised when I say that. I’m not usually shy, and when I am, I pretend I’m not. I used to be, but then I realized that most other people aren’t as calm and collected as they appear.

      • This is so true–I am extremely extroverted, especially if I’m with people I know, but I sometimes swear I was cursed with social awkwardness. The amount of times I have put my foot in my mouth or spoke before thinking could keep me up at night reliving the embarrassment over for years lol. But I’m still extroverted–I love being part of groups and conversations so much that I take the risk of my inevitable social awkwardness in order to do what I enjoy. 🙂

    • My mom once said that age isn’t a number, it’s a state of mind, and Gail’s mind is sharp as a medieval sword, so she’s really a lot closer to 18 than the calendar says.

  4. Hello and Happy Birthday 🙂
    I’m shy. And it’s terrible to say, but mostly I’m not very interested in other people. It can be a torture to invent a question for a stranger, after we tell each other why we both came here and what a nice place it is. And if I see someone intriguing… I watch and try to guess who they are, and what they are like, and if we could be friends or not. And while I’m guessing, someone else comes to that person and starts a nice conversation.

    I’m used to be less experienced in the company, worst with people, worst about having fun, – it may be not true, but I feel so. And so, if several people talk and I have an idea (of a joke or what we should do), I believe that everyone have already thought of it and rejected it silently. And I keep silence too.

    Funny thing is that, if there is someone more shy under my “protection”, I’m much more brave and spontaneous.

  5. Hi, I have a question. I recently joined Twitter so I can follow some good writers (and contact that cute-as-can-be national champion athlete I secretly love). I’m also using it to read up on agents and editors to find out their interests. Is it okay to contact them via Twitter to get an idea of what they like before emailing them? Or is it a faux pas to say “Hello, Mr. So-and-So. Would you be interested in a 58,000-word retelling of Romeo and Juliet set during the Vietnam War? Thank you.”?
    Any help would be appreciated!

    • Gail Carson Levine says:

      I’m not on Twitter, but I suspect it would be a faux pas. You can look particular agents up on the website of the Association of Authors’ Representatives ( Then you can visit the agent’s website. Longer and slower, yes, but much less likely to make anyone angry at you. Good luck with your search!

    • I took a publishing class and I can tell you that would be very faux pas. Twitter is more for a publicity thing, so people can follow them. It looks less professional to contact them via Twitter. I would suggest the same thing as Gail–contact agents or editors using their websites. Those are specifically for contacting editors so you can send them your manuscripts 🙂

  6. Second question! I’m writing a story about cyberbullying, and there’s a scene where one of my MCs goes online and finds her Instagram page full of hateful comments. Real cyberbullies use a lot of obscenities, which is tough to convey in a PG book.
    How do I show what they’re saying without making the story 300 pages of profanity? I don’t want a vulgar story, but I want to make it realistic too. Do you have any suggestions on how to do this? Thank you!

    • Here’s how I dealt with something like that once. I don’t know how young your MC is, though, so this might be too childish:
      Eldred was swearing-loudly enough to draw a crowd before they’d even set up-and shaking the bars of the empty cage. He climbed in. Grant heard him thumping around below, using words that Nana wouldn’t let him say. When he came out, his face was purple. He stormed to the back of the lot, while the rest of the performers stood around trying not to look baffled.

  7. First of all, I got the title. I remember it from a movie (don’t remember even enough to research the name) that my mother showed me when I was very young.
    Second, I found this entry really helpful! Thank you for writing it. You are an amazing writer and I admire you.

  8. I need some help with one of my stories. In that story, 5 American teenagers travel to the modern day land of fairy tales (like the ones by the brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson), loosely based on the European countries where they originated. How do I make them able to communicate with the local inhabitants without resorting to “everyone just happens to speak English”? It always struck me as unrealistic, reading other similar books (like Chronicles of Narnia, though that one actually had a plausible explanation in one of the later books) and it really wouldn’t work in this case, since there are multiple kingdoms/countries, and they all speak different languages. I don’t want to have them be able to speak every language they encounter through magic spells/technology either. It’s also doubtful that they would know a lot of European languages, especially the ones not taught in school, like Danish. Any ideas?

      • That works for two of them (one Chinese and the other Latino), but I don’t see how I can make them know Danish, Italien, French, and German, and a whole bunch of others used in passing. The whole thing is pretty much a teenage crime spree accross fairy tale Europe, after they crash a stolen car through a magic mirror while trying to escape from a Holes-style juvie camp. Thanks for the suggestion, though!

        • While it probably won’t work for more than one character, couldn’t one be interested in languages? I myself am very interested in languages; I am learning Italian in school and am teaching myself Irish, German, and Russian. I also have two other friends who are taking one language course in school and are self-teaching multiple others. It’s plausible and realistic-though it would not be as likely in five characters as it would in one. Also, most European languages are very similar to each other, so if a character is taught/teaching him/herself languages, he/she will be able to understand more than the few he/she knows because of these similarities. If you establish the character’s interest in languages/knowledge of languages before traveling to the fairy tale-land/place, then I think it will work just fine for the reader as well

        • I’m taking “crime spree across Europe” to mean a lot of fleeing, not very much sticking around to make friends, and no time for formal language training. How many characters do you have outside the group of five kids that they need to talk with a lot? If it’s a small number, they could get by not talking much in each country.
          If this fairytale Europe is like our modern Europe, a lot of people speak multiple languages, so they could run into people who know English.

          • Gail Carson Levine says:

            If they’ve magically crashed through to fairy tale land, other magical things could have happened. They could arrive with the ability to speak the native languages–and, say, the language of birds.

    • I had a language barrier in one of my stories. Here are a few ways of doing it:
      1. One character speaks a foreign language and acts as translator for the others. In my story with a cast of Russians, one took English in high school, so she translates for everybody else.
      2. The characters have special reasons for speaking the foreign tongue. In my story about a Czech singer who moves to Italy, the MC teaches herself Italian through librettos of famous operas. I wrote one story where the MC is infatuated with Celine Dion’s music (some of which is in French) and teaches herself some French, but all she can say are the lyrics of the song, which makes her talk very funny 😀
      Hope something helps, and good luck!

      • For some reason I can’t reply directly to Gail’s reply, but it might be funny if the characters could only understand English and Bird, so they always have to find a bird to translate for them. And birds like crows and magpies and sparrows might get mischievous and mess with their heads… 🙂

      • Don’t forget that your Latino could have several languages already mastered depending on what country or region he or she comes from. I have a friend from Paraguay who came to the States speaking at least parts of four languages – Spanish (her father’s language), a dialect of German (her mother’s family immigrated), Portuguese (because of bordering Brazil), and a native language I can’t spell. She’s now quite fluent in English as well.

        French and Dutch are also spoken in parts of Latin America, as well as pockets of other languages.

        • The native language was probably Guarani. My mother was a missionary there and picked up pieces of it, even though her assigned language was Spanish. Twenty five years later she still uses random Guarani words, like “chuchi” for fancy.

          • Yes, Guarani sounds right.

            Kitty, I’m not sure how fluent she is in Guarani, but she is definitely fluent in Spanish, German (at least her dialect), and now English.

  9. I’m such a huge fan of the MBTI test (I’m a very consistent INFJ, although my introversion, like your extroversion, is very slight–but real), and had so much fun reading this post, as usual. These prompts are also so much fun. Thank you! 🙂 And happy belated birthday!

  10. This is kind of a long shot, but does anyone here speak Dutch? I need help with something kind of complicated and I don’t trust Google Translate.

    • I don’t speak a word of Dutch, but I know a few ways to trick the translating site.
      First, I type what I want to say in English. Then swap the languages. Copy and paste the Dutch translation into the Dutch-to-English translation box and see how close it is. If it’s wrong, try rephrasing what you want to say in English. If it doesn’t accept “Do you want some cheese?”, try making the character hold out the cheese and say, “I have cheese.”
      It’s some work but definitely worth it. Good luck with your story! 😀

    • I use a site called Wordreference sometimes for my Spanish homework, and it works very well as a translator/ Foreign language dictionary. Even the teachers at my school recommend it. I just checked and it does have Dutch and several other languages so maybe check it out.

  11. Out of curiosity does any one know any tips to simplify writing? I have a very descriptive, flowerily, flowing style. I like words, and I like playing with them, and I want my writing to sound beautiful and odd, and interesting. My instructor in my English class wants us to work on simplifying, cutting the fluff, and writing only what needs to be said. It’s really challenging! When I am editing I can’t seem to tell the difference between what’s important and what’s “fluff” I really want to improve and learn new writing styles and voices. I am just having a hard time dong it!

    • Have you tried writing Drabbles? They’re complete stories, told in exactly 100 words. I find them great practice for “distilling” stories. Or you could try writing some flash fiction.
      The first place I submitted stories to had an upper limit of 600 words. I’d write stories of 1,000-1,200 words, and have to cut them to fit. It was a great learning experience.

    • Hi Genevieve, I don’t really have any sage advice, but I struggle with this also. It’s really hard to cut out all the fun detail for the sake of the plot moving along, but I think I’m getting better at it.(hopefully)

    • Advice I’ve heard: “Cut anything that doesn’t move the plot forward, contribute to character development, or enhance theme.” Naturally, you need SOME fluff, or books would be bullet points. But that’s a guideline to keep in mind.

    • I’m just an amateur writer, but I try to use a few expressive words and actions to convey something big. Instead of “he put the paper down angrily”, I say “he slapped the papers onto the table with a grunt”. Slapped is more vivid than put, and if he grunted you can imagine he’s angry, so you don’t need to say “angrily”.
      Hope it helps, and good luck with your story!

  12. Also have a very very happy birthday! I am a huge fan of your work and have been since I was a kid! My favorites are the princess short story collection and fairest!!!!!!

  13. ButterflyYulia says:

    Hi, I have a quick question. I’m writing a story where the preacher’s wife says “Don’t say that unless you want to go straight to (the h-word)”. Is it obscene to use the h-word in reference to a place? I don’t want to be known as a “dirty” writer or anything, but that’s the kind of thing I imagine the preacher’s wife would say.

    • No, as long as its not taken out of context, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a religious figure referring to that ‘place’. So long as you make him say it using words that can’t be taken in any other way.

  14. ButterflyYulia says:

    Hi, I have a quick question. I’m writing a story where the preacher’s wife says “Don’t say that unless you want to go straight to (the h-word)”. Is it obscene to use the h-word in reference to a place? I don’t want to be known as a “dirty” writer or anything, but that’s the kind of thing I imagine the preacher’s wife would say.
    Thanks guys!

  15. I think a good tip to writing shy characters, or any kind of characters is pretending to be one yourself. What I mean is, though you may not be shy, I’m sure we’ve all had a few experiences where we feel intimidated, embarrassed, or even mildly reluctant to speak up, for any reason. Think about the time when you were the new student in class, or when your mom asked you a silly question in front of your date. Put yourself back into your past self’s shoes, and relive the whole situation. Inhale every moment of action, every snip of conversation you remember, and the expressions you may or may not have had on your face. Try to start from there and exaggerate the feelings. Hopefully, this will, at the very least, give you material to start from.

  16. I am a proud INFP, which, apparently, is one of the rarer types! If you’re trying to come up with a character, here are some tips about MY personality type that I hope will help!
    – I am shy around strangers and quiet in large groups of people
    – I am [surprisingly!] loud and “extroverted” when with close friends
    – I find it hard to enter into a group of people, whether a circle of conversation at a party or a circle of friends at school/work
    – I don’t mind being around most people, but high-energy types (especially little kids!) can make me tired
    – In larger groups of people where some are close friends and some are not, I rarely enter discussions even if I know everyone
    – I have an EXTREMELY active mind and often zone out and don’t hear what someone is saying
    – I really like making things, especially characters for stories, I like to think that I am very creative
    I hope some of that helps!

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