Many thanks to the many who sent in questions! My list is stocked full of thorny topics for months to come. And, of course, more thorns are always welcome.

On September 20, 2019, Katie W. wrote, I’m having a lot of trouble with one of my MC’s. In one of the character development posts, I don’t remember which, there’s a bit that describes him perfectly. “He develops strategies to distract from himself, becomes charming, a great talker, a reliable friend, but he never feels truly seen–because he doesn’t let anyone truly see him. Our plot needs to get him out of his isolation.”Problem is, I have no idea how to pull it off. How does he turn from a social chameleon to someone willing to stand up for an unpopular opinion? I have him doing it, but the transition seems too sudden, because he’s doing it for the sake of the plot and because I want him to, not because it fits with who he is. Although I have very little idea of who he is, as well, which might be part of the problem. Any suggestions?

Melissa Mead asked, Is there someone he cares about enough to want to earn their respect?

Katie W. answered, Not nearby. I really don’t like writing romance, so he doesn’t have a love interest, and until about two thirds of the way through the story, his family members are all at least a hundred miles away. He can talk with them, but they’re not physically there, plus he’s 27, so I don’t think he’d be in super close contact with them, anyway.

I’m noticing two threads in Katie W.’s question: How do we make our characters follow our plots? And how do we reveal the inner lives of our characters so that the reader (and the writer) understands why they do what they do?

I may not say often enough that the ideas I share here come out of experience and mistakes. The first thread make me think of my only novel in a drawer–deep in the recesses of my laptop, a book so problematic that I hate even to think about it, in which I made my character behave in a way that made even me loathe her.

It probably would fall into the young end of YA today. The title was My Future Biography, which, as you’ll see, says it all. I’ve buried the book so far in my subconscious that I don’t remember my MC’s name, so let’s call her X. X is a fifteen-year-old aspiring actor who believes she has more talent than anyone else in the universe. She lands a spot, through no accomplishment of her own, as an extra in a summer stock theater. (An extra, for people who don’t know, is on the lowest rung of the theatrical world–goes for coffee, paints sets, puts props away–whatever’s needed.) The first play of the season is Inge’s Playboy of the Western World.

As early as the first rehearsal, X begins to criticize the leading lady to anyone who will listen (no one). She also offers suggestions to said leading lady, truly meaning to be helpful.

My plot idea was that X would be taken down a peg or ten and wind up a humbler person. On the way there, frustrated that none of her ideas are taken seriously, she writes an anonymous bad review of the production for the local paper, which hurts the theater and the whole cast. This inconsiderate act makes her entirely unlikable. When the leading lady is injured, X gives a dreadful performance as her understudy, which even she recognizes. She finally gets her comeuppance, but it’s too late to save the book. (This is sad, because I still love the secondary characters I came up with. Also, at X’s age I was an extra in summer stock and I wanted to put some of the fun I had in a book. I was already humble–the theater did only musicals, and I’m not much of a singer.)

I think the problem here is my plot. The strategy for all of us would be to examine our plot as early as possible and think about what it will require of our MC. Can a consistent person do this? We usually want character growth, but it’s hard to make a character change completely and still be believable. I can’t imagine how I could have crafted a likable character who would do what I made X do, because if she was likable, she wouldn’t have written that review, but if she didn’t write the review, her comedown wouldn’t work.

What might I have done to the plot? Well, I might have introduced a villain, who, because he has it in for the leading lady or for some other nefarious reason, encourages X’s opinions and behavior, which are tentative at the beginning. It’s his influence that leads her to behave badly. She realizes her limitations as an actor at the same time she discovers that she’s been a pawn. Whew! thinks the reader. Now I can like her again. (But without trying it, I don’t know if that would fix the story, either.)

If we’re outliners, we can work this out as we’re planning our plot. If we’re pantsers, as I am (mostly), we should be considering character consistency as we write and adjusting as we go along.

If our plot is okay, then we think, again as early as possible, about what sort of character can carry it. The example I always use from my own work is my Princess Tale, The Princess Test, which is based on the fairy tale “The Princess and the Pea.” Who would have a terrible night’s sleep in the most luxurious bed in all of fairy tale land?

Let’s also consider Hamlet. What sort of character would be as indecisive as Hamlet is? Just saying, many characters, confronted by a ghost whose reality can’t be doubted, would decide in pretty short order whether or not vengeance is called for or what else should be done. Laertes would. But Hamlet waffles. Shakespeare figured out who would do that and what the result would be. That’s the character he wrote.

Onto how we reveal our characters, because if we know them, we can engineer their change, as in Katie W’s case from a chameleon to someone with permanent stripes or spots. We have available what our MC thinks, feels, and does. Plus the other stuff we can invent about him: what his hobbies are; where he lives (whether his home is furnished early-American style or modern, whether its neat or messy, like that); what his friends are like and how he behaves with them.

At first, we just have to make up stuff out nothing. All we have to go on is our plot idea and the kind of person who will conform to it.

Let’s suppose that our MC Charles works for a tech company, and the CEO, Jason, operates like a dictator. Jason has favorites who advance whether or not they’re competent. He also thinks ill of some of his employees. He doesn’t hold back from ridiculing them, and their stars do not rise. Flattery is the bitcoin of this realm.

Charles, as we write him in the beginning, is adept at the game, maybe more than anyone else. He flatters without fawning, and everyone likes him. His skillfulness wins him the job of director of HR (human resources), but in that position he has to enforce and even create policies that are in line with Jason’s practices. For example, he reassigns the talented technical writer Sarah, who has been a tad too outspoken, to an offsite location two hours from her home because Jason has said he can’t stand the sight of her.

How do we change him, grow him a spine?

Well, since we don’t know him well yet, what can we make up about him? We can make a list!

∙ He likes his salary and being able to buy whatever he wants, within reason.

∙ He doesn’t take his job very seriously, except for wanting to keep it.

∙ His main interest in life is stamp collecting.

∙ He has a stutter, which he controls very well, but when he becomes emotional it comes back.

∙ His apartment is full of houseplants, which he talks to. When he goes to work, he puts on music for them.

As an early prompt, add five more bullets to my list.

What can we pick to start him toward standing up to Jason? We can add some notes to our list.

∙ He likes his salary and being able to buy whatever he wants, within reason. As head of HR he sets up the pay scale for all the employees, which makes him uncomfortable.

∙ He doesn’t take his job very seriously, except for wanting to keep it. An employee who has been reassigned to a very unpleasant boss breaks down in his office, or, say, threatens him. He’s shaken.

∙ His main interest in life is stamp collecting. Someone he’s buying a stamp from emails him, and they start a correspondence.

∙ He has a stutter, which he controls very well, but when he becomes emotional it comes back. His stuttering starts to be a problem at unexpected times, once in front of Jason, who isn’t nice about it.

∙ His apartment is full of houseplants, which he talks to. When he goes to work, he puts on music for them. One of his plants starts drooping. He takes it to a plant nursery, where one of the workers treats him the way he treats people at work, in a false friendly way.

Not all of these will be useful, but one or two may be. The point is to create an imperative for him to change, which he will do through thoughts, feelings, dialogue, and actions.

Here are three more prompts:

∙ Using my list or your own, bring about Charles’s change. Write the scene in which he stands up to Jason. If you like, keep going. Charles will retaliate!

∙ Make Jason your MC and bring about change in him.

∙ Rewrite Hamlet. Your Hamlet can decide that his dad, the dead king, was a despot, a terrible husband and father, and the kingdom is better off without him, even though murder is an extreme way to achieve regime change. Or he can elope with Ophelia and head for Mantua. Or he can hire an assassin and ascend to the throne. Or something else that you decide. Write the story. If you’re ambitious, write it as a play in blank verse.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. I just had another thought about Katie W.’s question.

    “plus he’s 27, so I don’t think he’d be in super close contact with them, anyway.”

    If you wanted him to be, it’s not unrealistic. I’m 52, and still in close contact with my immediate family.

  2. For Katie W.’s original question- maybe you could have another character say it, and give the first character more time to develop?

    I need some advice on how to write purple prose- I like the way I write, and my writing voice, even though it’s simple, but I have a character who wants to be a poet and I’m having trouble making his voice strong. I thought I’d make his lines more lyrical and poetic, but I’m struggling a lot with it. Any tips?

    • Read a lot of old poetry and old books. That’s the easiest way to get a feel for how to make elaborate language sound natural. As long as he sounds distinctly different from the other characters, you should be fine.

      • Gail Carson Levine says:

        I suggest thinking about sound. Think about vowel and consonant sounds and work in as much assonance and alliteration as you can when he speaks. If you’re going for purple, he can never just say “grass.” He has to say “green, green grass,” even though grass is usually green. Have fun!

    • When I have trouble giving a character “voice,” I give them an accent. It never shows up on paper and I never say they have an accent, but when I hear them in my head they do. This helps me pick words they’re more likely to say, depending on if it’s a rural, posh, urban, etc accent. That’s the difference between “Now wait here just a minute,” and “I beg your pardon?” Giving them accents from other countries can help make interesting word choices too. Someone from Japan would speak English differently than someone from Ghana would, for example.

  3. I couldn’t help grinning at some parts, because my villain’s name actually is Jason, and parts of this describe him perfectly. This particular story is on the back burner at the moment, but I’m sure when I come back to it, this post will be very helpful. Thank you!

  4. So I’ve recently seen a lot of hate for the social divisions in fantasy. Fantasy is my genre, and I use things like racism and sexism in my books to make a point that they are to be avoided and fought against.

    I’m interested in hearing everyone’s opinions on the subject. Should the racial hatred and such things be dropped from fantasy, or should they still be used to help raise people’s awareness? Should the worlds fantasy writers create have people who all get along to show people what the world could be? What do you think?

    • Writing Ballerina says:

      I also write fantasy, and when I do my purpose is to tell a story and experience a new world. So I don’t put issues from the real world in my writing.
      But in other people’s works I think it’s fine and can be very skillfully done and when it is it’s quite admirable. However, my preference as a reader is to read a story and enjoy the events, so I’m not a huge fan of it if it is super blatant. But I don’t mind a little in the background. Of course, this is just me, and other readers may think differently.

    • I think that fantasy stories should not be treated as allegories to address problems of the modern world. Including similar problems in fantasy as are in the real world seems realistic, but I think using fantasy to make a philosophical point is cheating the genre somewhat.

      • Sorry my responses are so late! I completely forgot to check up and see what everyone said!

        I never realized that people didn’t enjoy fantasy as an allegory for the real world, and I think you might be right. The worlds in fantasy are their own worlds with their own cultures, and what problems spring up there should be their own, not dragged in from someone else’s world.

    • I think it depends entirely on how you go about it. Either having everyone getting along or having them hate each other can work, depending on your characters and the situation. I think as long as you aren’t writing a story for the sole purpose of proving your point, and the point doesn’t end up overwhelming the story, you’re fine. Of course, I’m apparently one of those people where those kinds of themes go right over my head. (In one book, I didn’t realize the author was writing about discrimination against a certain group until she outright said it in the afterword.) So it might be a little more complicated than that, but so long as you aren’t hitting the reader over the head, I think it ought to be fine either way.

    • Well, in my book there’s two worlds, one where there is essentially no racism/sexism, one where basically everyone is racist or sexist or both. But I’m not published (*yet*), so we’ll see how that works out.

      As for published examples, in Jeremy Whitley’s comic book series PrinceLess, many people, particularly humans, are incredibly racist and sexist. There’s an immense amount of (human) prejudice against the elves and dwarves. (The way he plays with gender stereotypes is hilarious.)

      Some of Gail Carson Levine’s books deal with this too, like the Lakti/Bamarre relationship in The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre.

      …does that help at all?

    • Fantasy is just a category. What defines something as fantasy is its elements of magic, imaginary creatures, etc. What story you tell and what themes you explore are up to you, just as in any genre. Some readers and some writers prefer to explore real life issues in a new context. Other readers and writers prefer to escape the real world and its problems entirely. There’s nothing wrong with either preference. Tell the story you want to tell. Remember that you’re offering a story, not forcing it on anyone.

  5. I have a question for you all. It’s not exactly a writing question. What are your Myers-Briggs and/or Enneagram types? I’ve noticed similarities in the writing styles of people with the same type, so I’m curious to see what types you all are. I was also wondering what types are more drawn to writing. Thank you!

  6. Hi y’all, you may have noticed that I haven’t been as active on here lately, and that’s because I haven’t had a lot of time for writing because of school (I’m a high school sophomore). I’m hoping to write some over winter break, but I’ve run into a serious lack of inspiration. I do really want to write, but I’ve found that the inspiration for all of my WIPs has just ground to a halt. Any tips?

    • Writing Ballerina says:

      I get this sometimes too. You have a few options:
      1) You can let them sit for a while until you feel refreshed (be careful with this one – I do this and then have the tendency never to feel refreshed. If this happens let it sit until the details are fuzzy, then read it over with a reader’s eye and you’ll probably get excited about them a bit)
      2) You can add something random to spark things up and get the ball rolling (something like a green sea monster obsessed with raspberries or a random cat) (I did this a few times during NaNo). This will help you write something, anything, and then the momentum of that writing (that will inevitably be cut later) can help you move on to the next plot point.
      3) You can skip to a part that does excite and inspire you. There’s no rule that says a book has to be written chronologically.

      Hope this helps!

    • future_famous_author says:

      Read!!! Read a book that’s written really well. Read a scene from your favorite book. Watch a good movie. Or re-read something that you’ve already written.
      Scroll through Pinterest. Look at the character inspiration pictures, and just keep scrolling. I got a really good idea for a story based on a picture that I found on Pinterest.
      Hope this helps!

  7. This was really helpful! My MC is definitely changing, but I’m having a hard time figuring out how to write what’s in my head, and how to write the less likeable parts of her character. This definitely helped!

    My book has a kidnapping plot, but it’s nearly 100k words. I’m trying to make it shorter and up the tension. Do you have any ideas?

    • What I would do is look at each chapter individually and examine what happens in each chapter. If you write a single sentence summary of each one, you can see where stuff does or doesn’t happen. This makes it shorter by removing the boring stuff, so you solve both problems at the same time. If that doesn’t help, I would take a look at subplots, backstory, and exposition, looking for places that are too long or too boring. Either way, the goal is to remove excess that’s slowing down the plot and extending the word count.

    • If it has a kidnapping plot, then you probably have a time limit. In those situations, tension can be added by putting a countdown at the top of each chapter, something like “Chapter 11: 25 hours left”. Although it makes your story marginally longer, it does increase the tension.

    • future_famous_author says:

      And even if stuff is happening, like the scene isn’t boring, it can still be excess. I’m sure there are plenty of scenes in my WIP that don’t matter to the plot but are still fun to read and write. Things about the reader needs to know, what pieces are necessary to reach the end, and take out anything that isn’t helping you to reach the climax and THE END.
      Also, that’s a lot of words!!! My WIP right now only has 30K, and it’s the most I’ve ever gotten!!! I tend to get tired of stories before I’m even a fourth of the way done, but it sure sounds like you’re just in the revising and editing stages! Nice work!

  8. Writing Ballerina says:

    Just wanted to say Merry Christmas! To any and all who celebrate it! I hope your time is filled with new memories and special people!

  9. Writing Ballerina says:

    Question: Do you ever go to write, but find you can’t untangle the jumble in your head that is ideas and things you need to fix and character arcs and subplots and everything else? So then you either can’t write without getting lost and confused or you try to write and get overwhelmed and can’t go on too far because you can’t figure out what’s supposed to happen next?

    Sorry if this question makes no sense; I don’t really know how to explain it 🙂

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