What do you want already, you character, you?

I don’t have anything in our little series of contemplating the wonders of language, but if you have any ideas, please post them, and I’ll keep thinking. I’ve loved reading your favorites, least favorites, and needed synonyms.

On June 29, 2016, Lady Laisa wrote, How do you figure out what your characters want? I mean everyone says to “make your character want something” etc., etc. But how do you give them something to want that isn’t overly vague (world peace) or overly trivial (sparkly shoelaces)? Does anyone have any suggestions? How do you give each character a separate agenda while still fighting for the same cause as the other characters?

Christie V Powell contributed this: Usually when I think of this kind of motivation, it’s something internal, like acceptance or to be appreciated or to feel loved or to feel safe. Then for a major character those internal needs often turn into a goal: to find my missing brother or get so-and-so’s attention or be popular.

In my book, I have two pairs of characters who have the same motivation. The second two both want safety. One seeks it by searching for her brother, who always protected her (in the second book she seeks it by becoming more independent and learning to protect herself), while the other tries to defend people and face the villain to make the world safer for everyone. The second two both crave acceptance, but in opposite ways: one wants to fit in socially, one wants to be accepted for who she is.

These are great examples!

Let’s mix it up a little, because complex characters can have complex and sometimes conflicting desires, and let’s start with a book most of us know: Pride and Prejudice. I can think of more than one pretty big thing that Elizabeth Bennett wants: love–but she’s self-respecting and wants a partner she can also respect; financial security; respectability for herself and her family; and–which is why she’s so beloved, I think–humor/fun.

In her early nineteenth century world, she doesn’t have nearly as much agency as women do today. She can’t get a job in London and find love prospects online. She can only stay put, like a spider stuck in its own web and travel when her aunt and uncle take her or when her friend Charlotte invites her, and even then, presumably, she can’t travel alone. We see her two goals in conflict after her friend Charlotte Lucas warns her not to offend rich Mr. Darcy when he seems interested. We see her use her limited agency when she refuses Mr. Collins’s proposal and Mr. Darcy’s first proposal. We see her wringing her hands helplessly when her sister Lydia seems lost to that era’s proper society, when Lydia’s actions threaten the prospects of the entire Bennett family. So Austen has to do some of the work for Elizabeth, has to shlep the action to her, by making Mr. Bingley take up residence near Longbourn, by having Charlotte marry the curate of Mr. Darcy’s aunt, by giving Elizabeth’s aunt and uncle a yen for travel. Elizabeth winds up speaking more than doing. It’s the charm of her personality that draws people in, especially Mr. Darcy.

The subordinate characters have simpler wants. We don’t have to go to town with all our characters. Mrs. Bennett wants her daughters well married or, if not well married, married. Mr. Bennett wants to endure his life with his silly wife as pleasantly as possible. Jane wants to love and be loved. Lydia and Kitty want to flirt and be admired. Mary wants to be taken seriously. Mr. Collins wants to cozy up to important people. Wickham wants money.

Of course, you can disagree with me about any or all of these (except Lydia!). Readers have different takes, often different from what the author has in mind–and we’re entitled!

This wanting business is a dance between character and situation. Many writers start with a character who wants something, which can be something internal or something external. Once they’ve decided what it is, they bring in situation to frustrate success. Other writers (like me) start with situation then jig over to the MC to discover what she wants in light of the situation.

If we create an awful situation, what our MC wants will usually pop out at us. He’s in a burning building. What does he want? We list possibilities and remember that nothing is stupid on a list. He wants to save himself, to save his new kitten, to make sure some top-secret papers catch fire, to toast marshmallows, to get a tan, to ensure that the arsonist who set the fire is revealed. We pick one and pile on the obstacles.

To start with character, let’s suppose our MC does want world peace. When we move on to situation, there can’t already be world peace. So we have war. Do we want her to succeed? If yes, world peace has to be attainable. Maybe in this world there are only two or three warring nations. How can we position her to be able to bring peace about? Maybe she works in this world’s equivalent of the UN. Maybe she’s the coffee shop barrista and meets everyone. How can we make attainment hard? What’s she like? What qualities does she have that help her reach her goal? Which qualities get in her way? Who opposes her? What goal can we give this opponent? What qualities?

Back to Elizabeth Bennett. Let’s focus on her desire for love and marriage. What stands in her way? The backwater she lives in. The family’s relative poverty because of the entailment of Mr. Bennett’s estate. The foolishness of her mothers and her three youngest sisters. Maybe her own sardonic eye and overnice tastes. Maybe her impolitic way of talking.

Suppose our MC wants sparkly shoes. No judgment. She’s entitled to want what she wants. Why does she want them? We can have fun with that! She saw the same shoes in a magazine on the feet of someone who, in her eyes, has everything. They symbolize success for her. Or, maybe the shoes are a one-off and no one else has them, and they’re worth a jillion dollars. Maybe they’re guarded when they’re not on their owner’s feet. There are lots of possibilities. Lists will be helpful. How does she generally go about getting or failing to get what she wants? What is her situation in life? Does someone always give her whatever she wants, except this one thing? Or does she live a life of deprivation, never getting what she wants?

To put this all together, like so many things in writing, it’s all in the execution. Our characters can want anything. If it’s a big, abstract goal, we have to make it concrete. If it seems tiny, we have to create its significance, in reality or in the psyche of our MC.

Here are four prompts:

∙ An earthquake strikes, a big one. List possibilities for what your MC wants. Pick one. Write the earthquake scene and the scene that follows.

∙ Pick a different desire from your list in the earthquake situation. Write the scenes again.

∙ Write the first scene in the story of the character who wants world peace. She–or he–doesn’t have to be a barrista. If you like, keep writing.

∙ Write the first scene in the story of the character who wants the sparkly shoes. If you like, keep writing.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. Failed Villain says:

    What about the motivation for an antagonist? They’re always harder for me because I personally have no desire whatsoever to kill someone or rule the world, so I can’t figure out how to express those motivations. Or are they even realistic motivations? Sometimes I get stuck because my villains seem too pure evil. I try to give them some sort of backstory, but again I can’t really relate to that. It’s one thing to write about a character with a dark side, but it’s another to write a character that is pure (or mostly) evil.

    • Maybe they started with ordinary motivations that got out of hand. For example: “I’m tired of being pushed around. I want some control over this bullying.”
      :Punches out bully:
      “What a rush! That bully will never bother me again. But there’s this whole gang of bullies…”
      :Plan to stop bullies lands the whole gang in the hospital:
      “Well, I stopped the bullies, but now the whole town’s mad at me, and I can’t stand it, so…”

      And one bad choice leads to another, and another, until the villain’s so caught up in their bad choices that he feels like the whole world’s out to get him, and the only way to make it stop is to rule the world.

      Or when he punched the bully, the bully fell and hit his head on a rock, and eventually died, but the villain-to-be was the one who called 911, so no one suspected him. And the next time it was easier to punch harder…

    • Melissa’s got it, I think. Evil motivations are ordinary motivations, it’s the actions on them that are extreme. Often they are reacting to something hard that really was unfair or not their fault, but they react in an extreme way. Here are the main villains of my series:
      1: Older teenger motivated by fear. He wants to stop people from hurting him, so he hurts them first. He’s reacting to a traumatizing event in his childhood when he learned that he had an older brother who his parents (he thinks) killed for having unusual abilities, so he became terrified of his parents and later anyone else who seemed to be a threat.
      2: A father motivated by revenge. He watched his family die of disease because the healers attended the royal family first.
      3: Cousin of the MC, who desires power and revenge because of his mother, who drilled it into him after his father died.
      4: A human girl desires attention and love. She at first admired her opponent’s family but felt cheated when she learned they were not human.
      5: A princess desires to help women in hard situations. She ran away after being betrothed to a stranger and didn’t want others, including her sister, to share her fate. So she started undermining the leadership of her kingdom and eventually brought it down.
      6: A counsellor desires control and power. He felt powerless after his wife left him and desired to ‘fix’ the kingdoms and make them more orderly and nicer.

        • I am trying to get your book “Fairy Dust and the Quest for the Egg in ebook format. Is that out there or ever going to happen? I do not to any of the social sites as I do not have the time with a husband in advanced stages of Alzheimer. But I love the book so I can read it as I cannot read in book form any longer. Sandy Goff, alsoewok@q.com
          Thank you for anticpated response.

    • I think one of the most common motivations is power and fear of losing that power. I remember studying Macbeth in English class and our teacher explained his actions along the lines of “Power corrupts. The more you have, the more you want, and the more afraid you become of losing it. And you’ll go further and further to protect that power, because you know that everything you’ve done to gain it has made you a lot of enemies, and once your power is no longer there to protect you, you’re a goner.” And that’s kinda what happens with Macbeth. He kills a guy for power, and then has to keep killing more people and gain more power to avoid getting killed himself. One of my characters in my Alice in Wonderland retelling, Mira the Red Queen, is the same. I wouldn’t exactly call her a villain, since the point of the whole story is that there are six MCs who all work against each other, so everybody is the hero of their story and the villain of someone else’s. But anyway, Mira made an impulsive decision and killed somebody for personal gain when she was ten. So everybody hates her, and she realizes that the only way she can stay in power and alive is for everybody to fear her as well. So she kills more people over the years to make that happen, essentially becoming this crazy tyrant (she was originally going to be the Queen of Hearts, but I changed her into the Red Queen from Alice Through the Looking Glass instead). But inside, she’s just a scared little girl who wants to get out of this vicious cycle of fear and power and hate, but doesn’t know how.

      Another motivation I’ve noticed is unfairness/injustice. The villain feels that they have somehow been cheated/acted against unfairly, and takes it upon themselves to”fix” that, as well as resent the people they see as “getting more than they deserve”. In my Snow White retelling, that’s the backstory of the Evil Queen, Rowanna. Basically Snow’s mother, Esyllt, stole Rowanna’s boyfriend and then her beauty, some of which was transferred into Snow. So every time Rowanna sees Snow, she’s reminded of Esyllt’s betrayal, and wants to take back what once was hers by eating Snow’s heart. Rowanna doesn’t think she’s doing anything bad, just setting the scales even and taking back what is rightfully hers.

    • Jenalyn Barton says:

      My favorite villains are the ones that have noble intentions, but go about them the wrong way. Some good examples are Darth Vader (he wanted to save Padme), Light Yagami from Death Note (he wanted to rid the world of evil), Zuko from Avatar: the Last Airbender (he wanted to regain his honor, although he does eventually become a good guy, he starts out as the antagonist), Professor Callaghan from Big Hero 6 (he is bitter over the lies of his daughter and wants revenge). But don’t forget that even the “pure evil” villains have something they want. Captain Hook wants to defeat Peter Pan and get revenge for the hand Peter cut off. Shere Khan hates Man. The Firelord from Avatar: the Last Airbender wants to expand the territory of the Fire Nation. Hans wants to rule his own country. Syndrome from the Incredibles wants to be a superhero. The possibilities are limitless.

    • There are so many great replies here! I always have to remember this quote by Stephen King when writing my villains:
      “Writers must be fair and remember even bad guys (most of them, anyway) see themselves as good- they are the heroes of their own lives. Giving them a fair chance as characters can create some interesting shades of grey- and shades of grey are also a part of life.”
      Villains can be Mary Sues too, just in different ways than the protagonist. A protagonist Mary Sue is someone who acts too perfect. They often have too pure motives, perfect looks, and always do the right thing, which doesn’t help the story be realistic at all and completely abolishes the concept of a character arc. A villain Mary Sue is often perfectly evil- they’re as bad as bad can get simply for the sake of being bad. Making a villain a Mary Sue does not create a sympathetic or interesting bad-to-the-bone villain. Instead it deprives the story of all goodness, much as a protagonist Mary Sue does.
      Backstory is a great way to give your villains a reason for sprinting down the wrong path. What if the good guys accidentally killed your villain’s significant other after trying (and succeeding) to take away her most prized possession? That would give her a reason for hating them and wanting to get her revenge. What happened in your villain’s past can determine what they do in the future. This example brings me to another point. What if your villain wasn’t the only one who wronged people? What if the good guys did something to her that was wrong? That takes it to a whole new level. Not only does she have a reason for being revengeful now, but she also isn’t entirely in the wrong. Doing something like this could make your readers think something like “You know, I absolutely hate to say this, but Villain is actually kind of right about this.” That creates sympathy. When your readers agree with your villain on a small point they see her side of things, which makes her motives and actions that much more meaningful to them. Sympathy is a great tool to use as long as you don’t over use it. You don’t want your villain turning into your hero, after all.
      Now your last sentence said “It’s one thing to write about a character with a dark side, but it’s another to write a character that is pure (or mostly) evil.” You’re right that it is very different to write a character who is 92% evil. But what about that other 8%? What if that was your villain’s good side? If you can write a mostly good character with a dark side, you can write a mostly bad character with a small, good streak. Now if you want your villain to be someone like Sauron from Lord of the Rings who basically represents evil and isn’t a human being with anything humanistic about him, then that’s a different kind of villain. That’s the kind that represents how dark someone can actually go, who is put in the story to represent evil at its core. Even then, though, Sauron has a gigantic motive so he’s not a Mary Sue (or is it Gary Stu?). But I’m talking about a villain with some concept of human morals or who owns a favorite pet that they’re soft with. Some villains you can give a good streak, however small it may be, and if written properly it can work in your favor. It creates sympathy, as I said above. If your villain happens to be one of those renditions of pure evil, then by all means go all out and make them as evil as evil can get. Otherwise, give them something, whether in their past or present, that twists your readers’ feelings about them and makes them sympathize.
      I just thought of a great example. If you’ve read the Harry Potter books or seen the movies I’m sure you’re well acquainted with Delores Jane Umbridge, who is more affectionately known as Old Toad Face. Why is she such a great villain? What makes us hate her even more then Voldemort? Maybe it’s because even though she is deep down pure evil, she sure does sugar coat her evilness. We don’t like that all shades of pink, bows, lace, and cute little cats cover everything she owns. We hate how she does that innocent, squeaky little clearing of her throat along with an overly sweet smile every time she interrupts someone. I’m sure you can guess that we hate these things because they’re all normally associated with innocence, cuteness, and sweetness. But we know she’s not sweet at all. My point is that you don’t have to use a good side (a fondness of cats, tea, and the color pink) to show that your villain is not completely evil. You can also use a good side (a fondness of cats, tea, and the color pink) to make your readers hate your villain more. Readers don’t like it when you twist villains. They want to hate that guy because he deserves to be hated. He’s filthy and evil, right? But throw in a baby son that he has to take care of and you make their emotions all confused. The right combination of backstory, sympathy, and twisting can make a very interesting villain who either the readers will hate to love or love to hate.

        • Emma G.C. I love that I’m not the only one that tends to write long posts like that! I always intend to make a short note and then I click post/send and it turns out to be a small book 😉 You should see my emails!

          Also, you make some good points!

      • StorytellerLizzie says:

        We also hate Old Toad Face because, as it was explained to me once, Voldemort is like a serial killer you hear about on the news: scary but distant. Toad Face is that co-worker that you can’t get to like you, the Manager who gives you extra work because they can, The boss who made you work on Thanksgiving: scary/mean/evil and up close and personal.

    • For every great villain, they have some kind of emotionally scarring backstory. All of the greatest antagonists in history, something happened in their personal life that permanently twisted them into a creature of evil. I suggest that you do some research on famous villains in history, and maybe you’ll understand the motives of an evil villain.

      • Failed Villain says:

        Thanks to everyone who responded to my question! You all made very good points. Kitty, I think you’re absolutely right!
        “All those who have power are afraid to lose it.”
        -Darth Sidious, “Star Wars”

  2. Hey fellow writers, I read the blog all the time but rarely comment.

    Anyway, I have a question I could use some help with! I’m writing a short story that follows two characters: Logan and Valerie. But the idea of the short story is that they’re actually the same person, just reimagined based on who they’d be if they had been born the opposite gender. Each chapter/paragraph (haven’t decided yet) alternates between the Logan/Valerie viewpoint. In many ways they’re similar – both are creative – but in other ways, growing up as a certain gender changes them completely (IE they each have different friends that rub off on them, different relationships with their parents, etc)

    So, what I need help with is this: a story. I want to place both ‘characters’ in a vaguely similar situation and explore how they each react to it based on who they are. The situation would need to be something outside of being affected by their gender so that it wouldn’t be too different between the two versions.

    Anyone have any ideas? Also, girls out there – do know of any subtle female ticks/habits/behaviors that I should add to Valerie and not Logan?


    • How old? That’s going to make a huge difference in how differently they act as well as what they might be doing.
      If creativity is important, maybe they are trying to win an art competition of some kind? They might treat their opponents differently: for instance, if their personality is competitive and they both are willing to try yo stop the others, the girl would probably try more subtle methods (he might try to sabotage their project while she frames them for cheating)

      • I was thinking about late high-school age. I’m trying to think of something unique, though, that brings more of a spin to it than just a ‘school story’.

        • Gail Carson Levine says:

          When I have a plot question like this, I often turn to fairy tales. There are many versions of the same tale but with the genders switched, like “The Princess on the Glass Hill” seems to me to be a male Cinderella story.By looking at the variations, we can see how the story unfolds when “she” is a “he.” Then we can use the bare bones of the story in any context: contemporary, sci fi, fantasy.

    • Ooo, this sounds interesting. Thanks for clearing up the ages, because Christie V Powell is right. Ages make a huge difference. What if they were each stuck in a life threatening situation? What if someone broke into their houses when they were home alone? Life threatening situations have a way of showing who a person truly is. This may be a little extreme, but what if they’re lone survivors of plane crashes? Maybe something less dramatic, like what if they were hiking with their friends and got lost in the woods without a phone (or with a dead phone)? I like Christie’s idea because it shows strategy, as would a life threatening situation. It shows us what they would do in the face of a problem. Would they analyze, then jump in and figure it out, or would they plunge in, worrying about the details later? Strategizing is something that only requires one character. In other words, you don’t have to have a bunch of your characters’ friends or family around in order for your characters show their true colors. Strategizing is something that often times takes place inside your head.
      About subtle female ticks, habits, and behaviors… that would totally depend on Valerie’s personality. Is she a tomboy, or a girly girl, or artistic, or scientific, or nerdy, or something else? Maybe she’s a mix of several of these things. If she’s a girly girl she’ll probably care more about how her hair looks than a tomboy. If she’s artistic she’s going to be more feeling-based than a logic/fact-based scientific girl. I’d definitely say that as a female she’s gonna care more about looks than a boy and her conversations will be different, but it’s hard to generalize because everyone is different. Just looking at my circle of female friends, every one of us is crazily different.

    • StorytellerLizzie says:

      One habit I notice girls of any personality seem to do is play with their hair, myself included. If I’m bored I’ll grab a strand of my hair and start twisting it around my finger. When it won’t twist anymore, or it’s twisted so tight it starts to feel uncomfortable, I let it go and start again. It’s kind of a subconscious habit; I don’t always realize I’ve been doing it unless I catch myself in the act, or if I’ve been doing it for a while I’ll notice later that my hair is messed up in one spot. Hope this helps!

      • Ah, good point. Most girls I know do play with their hair. I’m the only exception! I do, however, play with a certain bracelet I wear all the time. I’ve noticed some of my female friends do this as well.

        • I can’t wear long pendant necklaces very often because I can’t keep my fingers off them. I don’t know why! When I’m not wearing a necklace, I spin my promise ring around my finger.

  3. Jenalyn Barton says:

    This makes me think of two things my Fiction Creative Writing Professor told us. The first was one of his “10 Rules of Good Writing”: ” Good writing is about desire.” If there is no desire, there is no story. The other thing he told us is “Before you write about death, learn to write about missing the bus.” I take that to mean that even the smallest of desires (catching the bus to get somewhere on time) can make a good story, and so your characters don’t always need the big desires like world peace and all that.

  4. Does anybody know any middle-grade books along the lines of kid journalist tries to uncover a conspiracy, or just sticking her nose in things she shouldn’t be in general? (Not mysteries like The Boxcar Children; I’m more looking for something like Harriet the Spy, or the MG equivalent of 1984 or Divergent/Your typical YA dystopian novel.)

    I’m currently querying my MG contemporary fantasy/adventure novel. The logline I have right now is “When a class trip to the North Pole goes awry, the twelve-year-old aspiring journalist who saw too much must bring down Santa’s global surveillance program, his elven hit squad, and dark, ancient magic or lose her memories.”

    I’m currently pitching it as Rise of the Guardians meets Harriet the Spy. The Rise of the Guardians part fits really well with my book, and from the summary of Wikipedia, it seems Harriet the Spy fits pretty well too. (Aspiring writer sticks her nose where it doesn’t belong, things go bad.)

    However, I’m trying to read the book, and I can’t. The writing is dry, the plot is slow, and even though this is a short book, I don’t want to force myself to finish it. But I don’t think it would be a good idea to use a comp title I’ve never actually read, either. So does anyone know of any (perhaps more readable) comp titles I can use? Books like Harriet the Spy, but less boring?


    • I just read “The Arctic Code” by Matthew Kirby that might fit. The MC has secret information she doesn’t understand given to her by her mother, and chooses to investigate instead of trust authorities.

    • StorytellerLizzie says:

      Normally I’m all about reading the book all the way through, but college required readings have taught me that if you just can’t read the book (subject matter-wise or time constraints-wise) try spark notes or something similar. It usually gives a run-down of the whole story (better than wikipedia) and the chapters are broken down for you if you want specifics. If the story is that dull for you, it should get you what you need without that urge to bang your head against the wall.

    • Failed Villain says:

      “Found” by Margaret Peterson Haddix is interesting, although the rest of the series is much different and not as good.
      (Mysterious letters, codes, and disappearances!)

  5. Has anyone ever had a writing journal. I hear of a lot of writers who like to have a journal with them that they write down clips of conversations they hear, or character traits that they see in those around them. Just little tidbits that they can use to crate characters and plots. I want to start one, but I don’t really know how to. Is the writing journal thing helpful at all? Thanks.
    Oh, and good post Gail. It was really helpful. I have been struggling with motivations, and this post has shed some light on the subject.

    • I know some people do, and it seems like a good idea if it works for you. I do keep a journal, but it’s usually full of the ordinary day to day things, not writing ideas. I have a file on my computer for recording ideas that strike my fancy. Mostly though I think of the story of Harry Potter. JK Rowling was on a train when the idea hit and she didn’t have anything to write with. She said something like, “I only remembered the best ideas.” I think that stuff we do and think ends up stored inside our heads somewhere, and it’ll surface when we need it.

    • I keep just a regular journal, but on my phone I have a section in my notes that’s called “Writing Ideas.” Whenever I’m in a restaurant or out somewhere and an idea strikes I usually whip out my phone and write it in there. If it’s not revolutionary and every word I just imagined in my head isn’t important, I only write down a few words to remind myself of the idea. When I go back to read it, if those few words make me go “Oh! I remember that idea!” then I may elaborate on my Writing Ideas Word document on my computer. If I don’t really remember what it was I had an idea about, I just leave it in my notes and continue on.
      Now I have yet to record a conversation but I desperately want to. My grandmother and her sister are just the funniest when they get talking, but they jump around so fast that I barely have time to whip out my phone before I’ve forgotten what they’ve said. I’ve thought about using a voice recording app on my phone so I can still have their conversation and use it later, but I don’t want to seem weird/their best conversations happen when the “camera’s off”.

    • StorytellerLizzie says:

      One of my writing professors had us do that for a writing assignment. We were supposed to go out into the world and record bits of conversations we heard. I don’t tend to keep one on me anymore, but when I do, I go old school with writing utensil and paper. My recommendation if you try this, especially if you’re old-school like me, is to write on something small; when I was out trying to collect conversations people would see my big spiral notebook and get quiet quick!

  6. StorytellerLizzie says:

    So this is an odd question, but does anybody have recommendations on names for characters? In a WIP I gave to some friends to beta-read, they said some names I gave to characters were too “elaborate” and “hard to pronounce” the setting is sort of a Narnia/Middle Earth fantasy, and for me naming a fairy “Susan” or a dragon “William” is out of place. Any and all suggestions are appreciated.

    • Think of the names you have picked out, and see if there is a way of simplifying them, while keeping the sound.

      My sister and I both love Crown Duel by Sherwood Smith. But we both had trouble with some of the names. The MC is Meliara, which is a pretty name when sounded out properly, but both of us admitted that most of the way through the book we pronounced it in our minds “Malaria.” The other name I think of from the book is Vindaneric (or something like that). Try pronouncing that in passing! He was often referred to by his title rather than his name, and once or twice a friend shortened his name to something like Danric. My sister liked the shortened form of the name so well that she added it to her list of potential children’s names.

    • Great suggestions, everyone. I have to add the name of a website that I’ve mentioned several times before. It’s http://www.nameberry.com and it has proven to be extremely helpful to me when I’m stuck in the Pit of No Name Ideas. Try looking at some of the lists they have there to find some names that are out of the ordinary.
      Because you said your story setting is similar to Narnia and Middle Earth, I just thought about the names used in those stories. “Aslan”, “Gandalf”, and “Frodo” sure are different, but you don’t have to think twice about the way they’re pronounced. It’s possible to come up with interesting, never seen before names without making them difficult to pronounce. I came up with the name Thalius for a character in my WIP. I came up with it by looking at lots of other names and asking myself what I wanted the name to sound like. I wanted it to sound sort of regal and ancient, so I looked at some old Roman names. I found that many of them have “ius” at the end, and I liked that. So if you’re looking to create a name, remember to make it easy to pronounce and ask yourself what you want it to read like or sound like.
      Here are 18 interesting/out of the ordinary/medieval-sounding names I found that I thought you might like. You’re welcome to use any of them, though I would appreciate it if you didn’t use the above name I made up:
      -Warrick or Warwick
      One more thing. Try looking up lists of medieval names, and if you find one you like either use it or change it a little to create your own name.

      • Failed Villain says:

        A tip for Latin names: (and more etymology stuff)
        To be historically accurate, or just to make them sound nice, male names always end in “us” or “ius” (though some changed to end in an “n” over time, like Octavius/Ocatvian.) Female names always end in “a” or “ia”.
        Children were named after their parents. If the father was named Octavius, for instance, the daughter might be Octavia.
        You may also have noticed that they have the stem “oct” (as in “octagon”) which really does mean eight. People often numbered their children! While not all Roman/Latin names are number-related, they really don’t get much more creative. The name Flavia, for instance, literally means “blonde”!
        …But you probably won’t be telling your reader the etymology of every name, and Latin names do sound cool.

        Sorry to go on such a tangent, but hopefully you found it interesting! 🙂🙂

        *StorytellerLizzie, feel free to use any of these names, regardless of their peculiar meanings!

  7. Names are funny! Sometimes, you think of a character, the name pops up, and you can’t imagine any other name for him/her. Other times, you have to struggle to find a name that works for you, and your audience.
    I had this problem while writing my Jack and Elsa fanfiction series, I had to pick out a name for their daughter. I originally wanted something from “The Snow Queen” so I went with Gerda. Then I thought, “people will confuse it with Greta” (here’s my first tip: see if any of the names of your characters look too similar to a more common name, like Gerda-Greta.)
    I tried Greta for Jack and Elsa’s daughter, but when I brought it up with one of my cousins, she said: “does it have to be Greta?”
    After a little brainstorming, I came up with “Nora.” And I realized it was perfect!
    It’s scandinavian-ish, it sounds winter-y, and it works well with “Frost.”
    Another tip: The time period and setting of your story can affect the language dialect…and names. Even if your story takes places in an imaginary place, you can pick a language and derive names from it. For example, the name “Tumnus” from Narnia strikes me as an ancient latin or greek kind of name.
    One last tip: some languages are easier to pronounce (and to read) than others. Easy languages (for me) include Spanish, Latin, Greek, Italian, Zulu, Scandinavian.
    French, German, Chinese, and Japanese are more tricky.
    Hawaiian names are impossible for me to read, although all the languages sound cool out loud.
    That’s all I have right now…I hope I was able to help a little! For even more on this topic, check out this post titled: “Nomenclature” on Mrs. Levine’s blog. : )

    • StorytellerLizzie says:

      Well when I started the story, I knew my MC was going to be a half-human girl with an elf for a parent; so while she got a human name, Violet, I went with translated to elvish words that described parts of the other characters personalities. For example if I’m remembering this correctly, I have a fairy character who was a bit of a spitfire; put “fire” into the translate box, scrolled and came across “Firye”, it stuck. Other names that I chose were Arthon, Pelior, and Eruvarn.

  8. I have a question about backstory/flashbacks:
    In my book I began for Nano this year, I sprinkle in flashbacks to the past that explain my characters mysterious origins, as she meanwhile is trying to discover the truth of said mysterious origins. I want to explain enough that it draws the reader in and makes sense, but not too much to where it will spoil the mystery right away. Unfortunately, I feel like the instant they read that the man in the flashbacks has the same color hair as my MC their going to go, “Oh that must be her father.”
    (which he is) I’m not sure if I want them knowing that right away, but it might also help if they figure that out on their own, because it will make a plot twisty reveal of something far more earthshattering later on less predictable. however, I also want to avoid the things leading up to said plot twisty reveal feeling lame and predictable and not fun to read.
    How can I reveal enough to drive the story and add intrigue without making everything too easy to guess?

    • What age are you writing for? The younger your audience the more obvious you can get.
      If the hair color seems too obvious to you, how about throwing out some red herrings? That is, have someone else who isn’t related have hair that color too.
      You’re always going to have some readers think it’s too obvious and some not enough– it depends on what kind of reader they are. I’m the sort who reads so fast that I don’t stop to predict. If I do pick up something, it goes into the back of my mind so when it is revealed, I’ll go, ‘Oh, yeah, I remember thinking that might happen.’ If it is too predictable I get annoyed (but that takes a lot). On the other hand, my husband likes to predict what will happen next and feels glad to guess right.

  9. I have been toying with an idea for a story told through blog posts. It would be from the perspective of a twenty-something girl and I would like her voice to mature as time goes on. At the start she is an English student in college, so I want to make sure she sounds educated from the beginning, but I still want to show her maturing as she is entering the “real world” of adulthood. I am also afraid of making too big of a change between individual entries. Are their any good tips on how to let her voice change naturally as she grows?

    • Gail Carson Levine says:

      That’s a very interesting question. One example I can think of is THE DIARY OF A YOUNG GIRL by Anne Frank. She’s much younger at the beginning and the aging, since it really happened, comes about quite naturally. You can see what changes occur. A kids’ book example is ANNE OF GREEN GABLES. At the beginning, Anne throws in as many big words as she can think of, but later her language simplifies and becomes more graceful.

    • A much much younger example is Junie B Jones, where her vocabulary and grammar change as she goes along. While not at that level, you might see your MC picking up new phrases and expressions that she didn’t use before.

  10. Hi everyone! 🙂 I am working on a YA fantasy novel. Though I didn’t plan on it at first, religion keeps coming into my story. For example, on their quest, my MCs have to find an ancient book hidden in the library of a monastery. But you can’t have monks without a religion of some kind. And again, later they spend time in the ruins of a temple. But what was the temple built for? (I spent a semester abroad in Jerusalem, the most beautiful city on earth, and I think it’s starting to show through in my writing. World religions are fascinating!) Anyways, I’m starting to toy with the idea of having different religions in my story’s world, but I’m not quite sure how to do it. Do you guys have any tips? I was wondering if anyone had suggestions on fantasy books that incorporate things like temples or religious themes in a way that doesn’t distract from the story. I’ve read books like Percy Jackson, which is helpful, but my story is in an alternate universe, which makes things a little different. I just don’t want to sound cliché or distracting when I’m working on my worldbuilding. What do you guys think? Any tips, or book suggestions?

    • I’m not sure if you’re wanting to create or incorporate a religion in your story to add to the theme (or to become the theme), but if you are you should definitely check out The Chronicles of Narnia. ‘The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe’ definitely reflects the story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection as pictured in the Bible in the religion of Christianity, and is a major theme in the book. I’m kind of sensing from the way you wrote your comment that you’re more interested in creating a religion to add history and to explain things. Before giving tips, here’s the dictionary definition of religion:
      1. n. a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.
      So by the definition the first thing you need is to create “a set of beliefs” about how your universe was formed, why it was formed, and who/what caused it to form. In my WIP (also a YA fantasy novel) I have an intelligent creator who formed the world and everything in it, similar to the christian God. You can have your religion based on recorded facts in history of how the world was formed and what or whom formed it, you can have your religion based on beliefs that were imagined but are not fact based, or you can have a religion where they’re not quite sure how or why the world was created. Get creative here. I wrote a whole several pages on how my world was created, why it was created, and by whom in story form. I plan to use it as a valid document for those who believe/practice my religion in my story world. Look at different mythologies and religions to get some ideas for your world’s genesis.
      Next, and the last part of the definition, your religion needs “a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs” and “ritual observances”. With most religions the people often have to give a sacrifice in a special place (perhaps a temple) to their god or gods, as you already know. Their god is usually a supreme being over something, and often times the creator of the world. In my story the people worship one god, but you can have several gods, which can get pretty fun to create. You could have the god of water, who doesn’t get along with the god of fire, therefore they must be worshiped in different temples or something. As for sacrifices, you don’t have to have them but they are a common “ritual observance.” Another ritual observance is washing before entering a temple. Now about a moral code. This is most likely a decree or document given to the people by the supreme being/s that states what they are and aren’t allowed to do.
      Once you’ve created all these things you’ll have a great start on your religion. At the end you said you don’t want it to distract from your world building. Most religions have historical roots which does affect the way history is shaped. Your religion will probably affect the history and backstory of things that went on in your world before your story takes place, so it may affect your world building. If it’s not extremely important to your story, however, it will affect your story less. As for cliché, come up with your own rituals, gods, temple structure, and moral code. Don’t only use other religions as your guide. Do something that hasn’t been seen in a religion before, but that still makes sense. Hope this helped and sorry it was long!

      • Gail Carson Levine says:

        Just saying, my EVER incorporates two religions. Both are critical to the plot. If you want the religious aspect to be a minor thread, you might look at Terry Pratchett’s books. He’s wildly inventive, but the religions are mostly on the sidelines.

        • Except in Small Gods.

          If this isn’t too egotistical, I had a great time making up some religious background for my book Between Worlds. Emma G. has some great advice. I’d also add that if your character is a follower of the religion, it’s good to ask yourself why they follow it. Habit? Hope? Because it annoys their parents? Are they pretending to follow it in hopes of disproving it?

          And mixing believer and non-believer characters creates all kinds of fun. I’ll steal from my own for an example, since it’s handy: Juliar was born and raised in the Star Temple, which he serves. Miska’s not human, her people don’t have a formal religion, and Juliar’s snuck her into the middle of a service:

          The woman dipped a white cup into the stand before her, and brought it up brimming with water. One by one, the Temple servants filed past, received the cup, and drank from it. Juliar lingered until the end, and took his sip in silence. Miska took the refilled cup next. It was stone, cool under her hands, and the water was cold and refreshing. Miska drank it all, gratefully, and handed the empty cup back to the woman.
          “Thank you . . . Ma’am?”
          “Indeed. Juliar? Come back here, please.”
          Juliar seemed to shrink an inch with every step he took back from the doorway. “Yes, Vedi Sharanis?”
          (Busted! 😉 )

      • Most religions try to answer the “Big Questions” such as, “How did everything begin?” “Who am I?” “What is the purpose or meaning of life?” and “What happens to a person when they die?” There are probably other “big questions” as well, but those are some of the ones you hear most about. How your character answers those questions is his or her worldview, and it affects what they think of events, their own decisions and all.

        Redwall is an interesting example of how religion is handled in the background. The events take place in and around an abbey, the MC is a novice at the abbey, and the founder of the abbey had been a warrior who hung up his sword and became a brother. And we never learn much more than that. It worked for Redwall, and there is a danger in overthinking things that you really want to keep in the background. But having said that, I think it’s good that you’re trying to figure out what the religion is about. If you don’t ask the question “temple to whom?” your readers likely will.

    • Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn is another good book that plays with religious ideas. It’s adult fantasy but one of the main characters is a teenager and it’s clean for all ages.
      Religion comes up a bit in the YA fantasy I’m working on (book 3). I kept it fairly simple: the main character’s society is what some may call primitive. They believe that the Earth is a sort of goddess and that she created them (all other people and animals were created by Earth’s mother Moon and all plants created by Earth’s father Sun). They have a creation story, and celebrate the changing of each season with huge festivals.

    • Failed Villain says:

      Ooh, fantasy religion is fun! Sometimes I like to mirror a real world religion and weave in some sort of message about the real world, but that can get complicated. Making up an entirely new religion is hard too, though. If it’s not a central part of the story, don’t make it too complex!

  11. Aspiring writer says:

    figuring out what a character wants isn’t too hard… I don’t think. it’s kind of like, if you’re reading this blog you want to be a writer, that is your goal. a character doesn’t always have to have a big huge goal to get, sometimes the goal is too protect someone, or to go home after being pulled into a magic world. if you read this and it helps someone glad I could help.

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