To Quirk or Not to Quirk

On December 10, 2019, future_famous_author wrote, How do you create a personality for your main character? For some odd reason, my main characters just seem to be girls who like to read and who are outgoing, at least for the most part. The side characters all have very distinct personalities, for example, the very proper princess who likes everything to be perfect and can’t stand anything that makes her seem like a commoner. Another princess is a complete rebel- she’s the youngest of three, and both of her older siblings someday rule a kingdom, leaving her to be kind of forgotten.

And then there’s my MC, who doesn’t have much personality. She’s pretty much every other girl.

How can I make her more distinct and unique?

Melissa Mead wrote back, Hm. What about this character made you pick her to be the MC? That could be a clue.

This is such an interesting question!

I’ve had the same worry myself. My secondary characters are generally quirkier than my MCs. And so are those of other authors. I don’t think this is necessarily a problem.

Let’s take Peter Pan by James M. Barrie. It’s told in third-person omniscient, and the narrator has personality along with the characters. But the eyes the reader most often sees the story through are Wendy’s. She’s sweet, kind, somewhat adventurous but also conventional and not very quirky. This allows the reader to slip inside her. I certainly did when I was little, and I still do.

Peter is strange, magical, irritating, brave. His thought process is alien. He’s fascinating–viewed from the outside, because it’s impossible to get in. When I was little, I wanted to marry him! I couldn’t understand why Wendy goes home.

Now I do. He’d be an impossible, unreliable partner. Too quirky!

Or take the Sherlock Holmes series by Arthur Conan Doyle. Watson is the POV character because he doesn’t have a big personality, and because, while not stupid, he isn’t extraordinarily smart. Doyle couldn’t put the reader inside Holmes’s head, because then the reader would have to see the steps Holmes takes to reach his conclusions, and the magic would evaporate.

I don’t often read novels or watch TV series with unsympathetic MCs, who always have distinctive qualities. I don’t enjoy being inside them, though a lot of people do–kind, decent people, who think these MCs are funny. So I mean no condemnation toward the writers who write unpleasant MCs. After all, these writers are most likely also kind, decent people, who just want to explore extreme characters. I want to do that, too, in my secondaries. For example, I’m captivated by many of my villains, like Skulni and Ivi in Fairest and Vollys in The Two Princesses of Bamarre.

Having said all this, of course we don’t want our MCs to be ciphers (nonentities). So how do we give them the kind of (probably limited) personalities that our readers can mind-meld with?

We can look to our plots for guidance, which is what I do, because I’m a plot-centered writer. Character is super important to me, but plot is paramount. If you’re like me, you can ask yourself, What does my MC need to succeed in the end and yet also have to struggle along the way? Ella, who has a curse of obedience to contend with, is naturally defiant. Addie in The Two Princesses of Bamarre, who has to face monsters in her quest for a cure to a dread disease, is shy and timid. Aza in Fairest, whose looks are unfashionable, is sensitive about them.

What will bring our MC’s environment into sharp relief and make her and our readers suffer for her? Loma in A Ceiling Made of Eggshells, whose life is full of stress, loves the orderliness of numbers and counts compulsively to calm herself. Dave in Dave at Night, who lives in the regimented world of an orphanage, is a rebel, which both gets him into trouble and saves him.

If we’re character rather than plot centered, we start with character. What problem can we give our defiant MC? A curse of obedience! What else? Whatever problem we give her, how else will it shape her? How else can we shape her around it?

So that’s one strategy: use our plots to determine our MC’s quirks.

Let’s look at Ella close up, and I hope I don’t spoil her for anybody. What do we discover as we read? She’s defiant, persistent, has a sense of humor, a warm heart, comes up with clever things to say, and is generally intelligent. Hardly unique. Her lack of uniqueness lets the reader inhabit her.

Let’s go back to Loma for a sec. Her counting obsession is a quirk. If she were a secondary character, I’d probably bring the quirk up often, because I want the reader to remember her. But since she’s my MC, I bring it in only occasionally and trust the reader to remember. For the rest, she’s clever and loyal. Her primary motivator is her deep love for children, especially for her nieces and nephews–a trait shared by many people.

So that’s another strategy: introduce the quirk, remind the reader occasionally, keep the character consistent with it, but don’t harp on it. The reader will remember.

Here are three prompts:

• Try writing a mystery from Sherlock Holmes’s POV. See if you can show the reader how his mind works and still keep his brilliance an enigma. If not, just go with him as he comes to you.

• Your MC is contending against her two brothers for the throne of Saker. The competition has three stages: to fetch a golden feather of the misa bird from the depths of a witch’s forest; to think of three policies that will make and keep the kingdom’s subjects happy; and to cross to the middle of an oiled tightrope to proclaim the three policies to the seven judges of the succession. And the unspoken final condition: to survive long enough to rule. Think about the qualities your MC needs to have to have a shot at success and the flaws that will get in her way. Give her a single quirk. Make the brothers super quirky. Write the story.

• Write the same story from the POV of one of the brothers.

Have fun and save what you write!

Distinguishing

Before the post–drum roll! A Ceiling Made of Eggshells, about the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, is out! Hope you read it and enjoy it! If you haven’t already, I did a virtual launch on Facebook on May 14th following my usual daily reading. In it, I talk about the book and my research and take questions. You can see and hear it here: https://www.facebook.com/GailCarsonLevine/videos/3570405463045222/ If you’d like a bookplate-signed book, you can buy one at Byrd’s Books: https://byrdsbooks.indielite.org/.

Onto the post. On December 9, 2019, Superb♥Girl wrote, I feel like my two main characters are too similar, and I want them to be foils to each other. Y’all have any advice for creating opposites?

Several of you responded:

Erica: In some ways, similarities in personality can create more interesting situations than different personalities. That being said, change the less prominent character more than the more prominent character, and change only one thing at a time. That way, you can assess each change individually.

Melissa Mead: Show a point where they were both in a difficult situation, and made very different choices.

Blue Rive: I don’t know about creating foils–I’d like to learn how to do that better as well–but for making characters different, consider giving them defining quirks. For example, I have one character who’s very rational and thinks through everything she does logically, and then her friend wants to be a storyteller and thinks about things emotionally, plus has a very lyrical way of speaking and thinking.

For foils–I lied: I do have advice–make their personalities very different (though they don’t have to be opposite) but their actions (Catra and Glimmer from She-Ra) or backstories (Mura and Rat from The Nameless City) very similar.

These are great!

I’d never thought of Erica’s suggestion, to change the less prominent character more significantly than the most important one, and I like it, because it should make the revision easier and may lead to fewer plot adjustments.

The discussion about personality and action makes me think of my parents, who died over thirty years ago. I’m pretty sure I’ve told this anecdote here a long time ago. They were a love match. They squabbled sometimes, but my sister and I always knew that they loved each other–theirs was a romance that kept going.

Personality-wise, they were very different. My father showed three emotional states: joy, anger, and quiet (when something troubled him). Joy predominated, luckily for my sister and me. He didn’t reveal his inner life to anyone but my mother. She, on the other hand, presented emotional complexity–worried about everything, sometimes went into rages, had a bitter sense of humor, was afraid to show that she was happy (though we knew she was, fundamentally). Of course I loved them both, but she, prickly as she was, was easier to get close to.

When I was grown up and married, my husband David wanted to change jobs. After an interview, he brought home copies of the personality test he’d been given, which was pages and pages long. It may have been Myers-Briggs, which has come up several times here. I took the test at home. I don’t remember the results, but I came out quite differently from David. The next time we saw my parents, I gave each of them the test.

My mother completed it in the room where we all were, and she was finished in five or ten minutes. My father needed silence and shut the door behind him on an empty bedroom. He didn’t emerge for forty-five minutes.

When we scored it, they had each answered every single question identically!

First off, there are two strategies locked up in my anecdote for creating characters who differ from each other. One has been discussed a lot on the blog, that we can use Myers-Briggs or other personality tests to invent our characters. The other is, we can look around at real people we know or knew and use bits of them in our characters. Living (or dead) people offer traits we may not imagine out of our heads. We can write a short description of, say, seven actual people. Then we can stare at what we have and consider how we can use the descriptions in our stories.

Also, this anecdote makes me think about Melissa Mead’s comment. Real people and fictional ones are defined by their actions. Many factors shape personality, but two are certainly what happens to us and what we do about it.

My mother was an adolescent during the Depression. She never talked about that time, but I know the family was very poor, and there may have been times they didn’t have enough to eat, which I don’t doubt fueled her worrying. She was insanely (and sometimes embarrassingly) frugal. In a restaurant, for instance, after everyone had eaten the bread the server brought, she’d ask for more and stuff the second helping into her purse!

My father had a terrible childhood growing up in an orphanage. His joy may have been fueled by the certainty that everything in his future had to be better than that. He was a risk-taker and started his own business.

But it isn’t always so straightforward. My mother’s ethics when it came to property were slippery. If, when she was clothes shopping, for example, she liked a dress that had belt loops but no belt, she’d be outraged and would help herself to a matching belt. (She was never caught, and I would have pitied any store detective who nabbed her!)

My father professed to be horrified by this tendency in her, but I once saw him behave just as dodgily. He took me to a farm stand to buy corn, and, on the way, told me that the farmer always gave customers an extra ear when they bought a dozen. This time the farmer didn’t. When we got home, to my astonishment and dismay, he produced a thirteenth ear, which he’d pilfered.

I hasten to add that their children didn’t inherit our parents’ propensity to steal!

So two stressed childhoods, which were differently stressed, produced both similar and dissimilar actions. Same with our characters. While we distinguish them, we can also create likenesses, which will surprise readers. When something happens, we can decide on their responses, which will be predictable and not predictable.

Voice, like action, is a tool for character development. If these characters alternate POV, we can distinguish their voices. One can narrate in long, multi-clause sentences, that display an impressive vocabulary. The other voice can be direct, simple–short sentences and short words. One can often ask questions. The other can use exclamations. The narrations can reveal their inner lives. Going back to my parents, one inner life can be anxious, the other brimming with optimism. My WIP has two POV characters, one for the first half of the book, the other for the second. The first half is in the past tense, the second in present. I’m hoping that simply changing tense will go a long way toward differentiating them.

If we’re not writing in first person, or if only one MC narrates, we can use dialogue in the same way as I described in the last paragraph.

We can set up an argument between the two characters that will highlight their differences. In an argument, more than words and volume set people and characters apart. Again, it’s worth thinking about real people here. Some retreat into silence. Some play down a problem, others exaggerate it. There are physical differences, too. A friend’s eyebrows slant up alarmingly when she’s angry. A cousin tends to drum on something withe his fingertips. We can make a list!

Here are three prompts:

• We return to “The Three Little Pigs.” This time, have the them argue about house construction. Write their dialogue. Show their different personalities in the way they fight. If you can, without ever saying outright which pig builds which house, make the reader know.

• Describe five people you know, a paragraph or so for each. Then pick one of the Biblical plagues on Egypt, like frogs or boils. Write another paragraph about how they’d respond. If you like, use what you come up with in a story.

• Try a Freaky Friday idea. There’s a big power differential between your two MCs, like school principal versus a new student, or starship commander versus a cadet, or duchess versus a stable hand. Or any other asymmetric relationship you pick. Have them change places for a day, a week–whatever you like. Write a story about how they respond to their new situation.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Tra la la

Happy new year! May we all have perfect vision, actually and metaphorically, in 2020! And may we have good writing!

A year or so ago I said here that I would occasionally write something about grammar and usage. Occasionally seemed to be never again, but I have a little rant before I launch the post. Many people misuse lie and lay, so many that eventually usage will probably change. But at this point the old way is still hanging on, and I came across a poem that may make lie easy to remember. It’s an unpleasant two-liner written hundreds of years ago by the English poet John Dryden (I don’t know if he was writing about his actual wife, which would be very sad.):

Here lies my wife: here let her lie.
Now she’s at rest, and so am I.

Lie is the present tense; lay is the past. I lie in bed now. I lay in bed last night. The usefulness of the poem is that if we’re confused, we can think of the poem and make sure our usage fits the rhyme.

What confuses everybody is that lay is present tense when it takes a direct object: The hen lays an egg today. (An egg is the direct object.) The hen laid an egg yesterday.

Onto the first post of the year!

On November 9, 2019, Erica wrote, I like to sing, and have a tendency to randomly start singing bits of songs as I feel like it. My question is, how do you include songs/poetry in a story and make it seem like a part of a character’s nature, rather than like it has to be significant to the plot?

And Sara wrote, My advice would be to have all the songs or poems be pretty different from each other, and pretty random (if that’s what your character is like). I think if your character repeated one song or poem the whole time, then people would expect it to be significant. If the songs or poems are well known in your world, maybe have other characters notice and point out when your character randomly brings them up. They can talk about it. I think if something is related to character bonding, then people will see it more in that way than in a plot way. If they’re making up their own little songs or poems, I would go for random, situation-specific ones, since doing that kind of thing is sorta unique and noticeable and cool. Another thing is to just have little snippets of different songs or poems, because when there’s some huge song or poem in a book, it really seems like it’s there for a huge plot thing. The most important thing, though, is to do it, however you’re going to do it, multiple times in different situations without exactly calling a bunch of attention to it. I think when you let the audience notice something, it comes off as really subtle and clever. And something can’t really be part of a character’s nature if they only do it once or twice.

Erica wrote back, Yes, what I was thinking of would just be snippets here and there. Part of the reason I want to include them is because the plot of the story itself is very serious and dense. Including songs helps keep it from seeming so overpowering.

I agree with Sara that, in general, if songs or poetry are in a story, they should appear more than once, and if they’re part of our MC’s character, they certainly should. They can be as short as a word or two, broken off when someone enters the room where she is. It’s terrific if singing helps define a character’s personality, and I think it can work well to lighten the mood of a book.

(My mother used to hum when she was angry. When my sister and I heard her hum, we would tread very carefully! If I made her into a character, the humming would help define her.)

I agree also that if there is only one song in a book, it will take on a lot of significance just by being the only one, which is fine if that’s what we want.

And I agree again that the selections should generally be short. Otherwise, they can stop the action, and some readers will jump over them.

Many of my books weave in songs or poetry: Ella Enchanted, Fairest, The Two Princesses of Bamarre, The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre, A Ceiling Made of Eggshells, Fairy Haven and the Quest for the Wand (though the poems are written in Mermish, the language of mermaids–with no consonants), Ever, Stolen Magic (limericks), The Fairy’s Return (in which the poems are entirely silly). Forgive Me, I Meant to Do It is a collection of humorous poems, and I offer advice on writing poems in Writer to Writer. And in the novel-without-a-title I’m working on now there’s a Greek chorus of crows, who comment and issue warnings in verse. (I love a good Greek chorus.) So I’ve used poems in lots of ways.

For me, writing them is slower than writing prose, because I’m thinking about elements I don’t pay a lot of attention to ordinarily, like assonance, alliteration, rhythm, and, once in a while, rhyme. A couple of editors have asked me to write a novel entirely in verse–until I’ve explained how long that would take.

Erica says that she sings song fragments when the mood strikes her. If we’re like Erica, we can pay attention to those moments when we sing and what gets us started, and we can give them to our MC.

We can think about what we know about our MC and how singing fits in. We can make a list!

∙ She sings when she’s nervous (or when she’s angry, like my mom).

∙ She sings to keep herself from stuttering.

∙ She sings when she’s happy and has to let out her joy, or to express any passing feeling.

∙ She sings because she knows it irritates a certain person.

∙ She sings to see how high or low a note she can hit.

∙ She sings the songs her dead mother loved.

As an early prompt, list at least three more possibilities.

We can also ask how and when she sings–loudly or almost inaudibly, in the presence of others or only when she’s alone or some combination of the two. Is she a good singer?

We can pick a few of these and they will become part of her. They’ll make the reader’s understanding of her more complex. We can create a secondary character who also sings, but at different times and for different reasons, and this will contribute to his character. We don’t have to have two singers, but if we do, we’ll even further solidify how singing can delineate character.

If she gives up singing or stops speaking and only sings, the reader will be affected, even worried, depending on what else is going on.

The singing might become integral to the plot, if we’re pantsers and our story isn’t entirely set. For example, suppose our MC is in a tight spot. Can we have her use song to improve her situation? Maybe she sings in her prison cell and gets better–or worse–treatment from the guards as a result. Or, since song carries better than speech, another prisoner may answer her in song. Their duets can remain defining character traits, or they can influence what happens (plot).

This is not the direction Erica wants to go in, but I–a pantser–love when things I toss in casually turn out to be useful for my plot. For example, when I made Addie talented at needlework in The Two Princesses of Bamarre, I had no idea that her skill would come in handy later on when she’s trapped in a dragon’s lair.

Here are three prompts. In them, there may be more song than Erica is going for:

∙ The two Disney versions and the Broadway show of “Cinderella” are musicals. They did it first, but you can, too. Your Cinderella loves to sing. Write a scene from the original fairy tale and include song snippets. Some may be in Cinderella’s thoughts rather than out loud. One may be sung softly, and one may be belted out. If you like, write your own “Cinderella.”

∙ “Lovely Ilonka,” which I’ve mentioned here at least once, is one of the weirdest fairy tales there is. You can read it for free online in Andrew Lang’s Crimson Fairy Book. (These adaptations are old enough to be in the public domain.) Here’s a link: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/2435/2435-h/2435-h.htm#link2H_4_0002. Part of the story involves three maidens, each trapped in her own (of all things) bulrush. Write the scene when the prince plucks the bulrushes. Give each hidden maiden her own song or song snippet, which reveals her character. Show that each character is different through her song.

∙ To satisfy my continuing fascination with Rumpelstiltskin, make him the character who loves to sing. Write a scene in which you reveal his motivation, whether fair or foul, in song.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Actions Speak Louder Than Anything Else

On June 8, 2019, Hazel B. wrote, How do you make a character feel believable? Once you know how to make a person likable or unlikable, how do you make her real? When I’m writing, I usually pick an outward trait to start out with, such as shy or bossy. But not everyone is always bossy, and not everyone is always shy. I’m actually a combination of both. How do you make the character consistent, relatable, and believable?

Writing Ballerina and Christie V Powell responded.

Writing Ballerina: I usually don’t worry about that too much until I’m done the first draft. Then I take one character, comb through, and make everything consistent. I also like to run my characters through personality tests so I can get a better feel for them.
https://www.16personalities.com/free-personality-test is my favourite — free and very in-depth.

Keep in mind that the characters your MC (I’m assuming you’re talking about the MC, but this will work for any character) is around will affect how they act. When I’m with my closest friends I can be super hyper and silly but when I’m with other people I’m usually more reserved.

Christie V Powell: Enneagram is my favorite system, similar to 16 personalities. The free test is here: https://www.eclecticenergies.com/enneagram/test.

One thing I’ve been doing lately with a couple of writing friends is role-play. We take turns asking a question each week, and choose which characters will answer. Then we answer as if we were the characters. It can be a lot of fun, as well as good practice to get inside the characters’ heads. Recent questions we’ve done include: What do you do to relax? Are you a night owl or early bird? What’s a skill you don’t have but would like to learn? Some of the questions also are addressed to certain characters. We might say: To the main character’s best friend, or To the character last in alphabetical order, or To the youngest main character.

I agree with Writing Ballerina that consistency is paramount. I hate it when a character who, say, is edgy and irritable inexplicably turns calm and jovial. Character growth has to be earned, and the reader needs to understand it.

Having said that, I also agree that characters, like people, are different in different environments. Our edgy dude can be relaxed in the company of his great-aunt Susie, as long as the reader understands that she has this effect on him.

I love the role-play idea! What fun! I love it both for the writing assist and for the comradeship. Writing is lonely and hard. Writer friends understand like nobody else. And what a great way to bring in the unexpected, and the unexpected and surprising are a terrific way to create layered characters who feel real.

I’m thinking a lot about this right now, as I write the beginning of my next book, based on Greek mythology, specifically Cassandra and the fall of Troy. Cassandra, daughter of King Priam, is given the gift of prophecy by Apollo, but he curses it soon after by making no one believe her. After the curse, people, especially her father, consider her prophecies rants and believe she’s mad. I’m thinking about what it would be like both to see the future and to be considered crazy. What’s the thought process of someone who can look ahead? Who can see her own death? Does she look ahead constantly, compulsively, or does she avoid it? Does she keep trying to convince people, or does she give up? Turn inward?

I ask these questions because I find my characters in their actions. She’s a different character if she keeps returning to what brings her pain than if she distracts herself. I don’t think she’s going to be my major MC, but she’s going to be second in importance.

Characters’ characters affect our plot. An extrovert named Margie, for example, may make different decisions from a shy person, named Violet, nicknamed Shrinking. For example, Shrinking may stay home instead of going to the castle ball and may therefore be present when an intruder comes through a window. Margie goes to the party and witnesses the prime minister tip a vial of liquid into the king’s cream of mushroom soup. Each spins the plot in a different direction.

Our characters become increasingly real and layered as they make more and more decisions. Does Shrinking hide in the cellar, or run to the gallery where armor and swords are kept, or run to the head housekeeper for assistance, or appeal to her fairy godmother? Depending on her choice, other decisions have to follow, decisions that use other of her qualities, which we discover as we go along.

For example, suppose Shrinking is, to take another of Hazel B.’s examples, also bossy, so she runs to the head housekeeper and, in a trembling voice, orders her to deal with the intruder. But the head housekeeper says police actions aren’t in her job description and refuses. Well, what does Shrinking do next? We can make a list!

∙ Fires the housekeeper.

∙ Grabs the housekeeper’s hand and says, “Then we have to get to safety. Come!” (She’s still bossy.)

∙ Shrinking is shy, but she’s brave. It dawns on her that the intruder doesn’t expect terrifying small talk, and introversion doesn’t come into this. She takes a poker from the fireplace and a carving knife from the kitchen and starts searching.

∙ Sits on a stool and weeps uncontrollably. Her birthday is in a week, and her beloved father always gives the best presents, and now the intruder is going to kill her and she’ll never find out what the gifts are.

And so on. With each decision and action, we learn more about Shrinking and she becomes more real. We haven’t made her less believable–though not everything on our list has to be believable. In lists we’re encouraged to get wild.

Option two and three will contribute to her likability and relatability, because both combine two factors: Shrinking is behaving admirably, and she’s flawed, being both shy and bossy. Most readers want a flawed MC, because we’re all flawed ourselves.

Options one and four will make her harder to relate to without other factors. In them, on the face of it, she’s flawed and not admirable. We can deal with this, of course, in lots of ways. Here’s one: We may have set up the story so that the housekeeper is the real villain, and she’s drawn Shrinking into her orbit for just this moment, because she’s in cahoots with the intruder. Readers who already feel connected to Shrinking will be on her side and scared for her. Or we can make her behave well with other characters, but the housekeeper just pushes all her buttons, and they’re alone together in the mansion.

I generally don’t know my characters well when I start writing. They reveal themselves as I cook up actions for them. When I start a book I don’t generally use a character questionnaire, but I may fill one out as I keep going, to generate ideas for my list about what one of them should do next.

Here are four prompts:

∙ Add six more possibilities to my list above for a grand total of ten.

∙ Pick one of mine or one of yours and write the story.

∙ List what extrovert Margie might do when she sees the prime minister mess with the king’s soup.

∙ Pick one option and write Margie’s story.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Toe the Line, You Pesky Characters!

A reminder of the conference I mentioned in my last post: The Gathering at Keystone College: http://thegatheringatkeystone.org/2019-theme-schedule/.

On April 17, 2019, Grace L wrote, I was just wondering if anyone has any tips on keeping characters consistent? My main character tends to be kind of contradictory in her actions.

A few of you chimed in.

Writing Ballerina: I have this problem, too!

I plan out my characters beforehand, so that helps a little bit, and then I write my story. As I’m writing, if I find my characters are contradicting themselves, I make a note of it at the bottom of the document in a section titled “Things to fix in next draft.” That section is filled with inconsistencies that I’ll fix after the general story is down. In my current WIP, I originally made her afraid of heights, but I’m thinking now that it won’t work with the story so I might take it out.

I also find it helpful to have people who will give you CONSTRUCTIVE criticism read your story as you’re writing it to see if there are any inconsistencies, which you can make note of when they point them out.

I would also appreciate any other tips anyone else might have! I don’t want my stories to be inconsistent, either!

Christie V Powell: I second having beta readers. They’re especially helpful for pointing out things like this.

Melissa Mead: In what ways? People can act in ways that seem inconsistent sometimes, for interesting reasons. Or is it more that you haven’t figured out who they are yet?

I agree about CONSTRUCTIVE readers!

About seven years ago, my husband lost a lot of weight, mostly by exercising portion control. I loved the new slimness for health reasons and for how great he looked–and still looks, since he’s kept the weight off. But, once in a while, I wondered (out loud) if he’d been replaced by a Martian. If he were a character, he’d be acting inconsistently.

Here’s a difference between fiction and real life: David couldn’t tell me exactly what triggered the change and made him able to do something that had eluded him for many years, so he doesn’t know, and I don’t, either.

That’s unacceptable in fiction. We’ve talked about character change a few times on the blog, mostly about whether an MC has to change in the course of a story, and opinion has been divided, but not divided about making the change, if it happens, understandable.

This goes for secondary characters, too. As soon as we define them through their actions, if they deviate, we have to explain why, through dialogue or narration or future action. So long as we’ve explained and the explanation leads to better understanding–and possibly more complexity–of the character, it’s great.

The most charming example of this that I can think of comes from the Wizard of Oz movie. The viewer who’s paying attention notices that, as the story plays out, the lion, who believes he’s cowardly, is always the bravest, the tin man, who thinks he has no heart, keeps rusting himself with his tears, and the straw man, who wants a brain, comes up with the best ideas. I don’t think the audience understands why their actions contradict their beliefs about themselves until the wizard gives the lion a medal, the tin man a ticking alarm clock, and, my all-time favorite, the straw man a diploma, with a line that goes something like, “Plenty of people are no smarter than you, but what they have and you lack, is a diploma.” Then he gives the straw man a rolled-up document tied with a ribbon. The viewer realizes that these characters weren’t inconsistent; they’d been showing their true natures all along.

The surest sign for me of inconsistency is when I make a character do things for plot reasons alone. We can train ourselves to be aware of this, as in, Stuart, the character who always thinks of himself first, runs into a burning building to save a child he doesn’t even know. He’s done it because our plot needs that child to be alive, and Stuart is the only one handy.

Not good enough. We have to go back in and change things. Maybe the child can not be in the burning building in the first place. Or we can alter Stuart from the beginning. Or maybe we can have him trip over the child while he’s saving himself, and the reader will agree that he has just enough compassion to pick her up, as long as she doesn’t slow him down, and he’ll be happy to appear to be a hero later.

If we’re going to make our readers understand inconsistencies, we have to understand them ourselves. Why would Stuart face a fire and possible death, if we don’t want to change him or put him in the building when the fire starts?

Well, he isn’t just one thing. Suppose he wants people to admire him, which would fit, and suppose there are journalists present or someone whose good opinion he wants. Then he might run in, intending to stay just inside the door, count to thirty, and run right out, but the door collapses behind him. He saves the child because someone shoves her into his arms and he doesn’t even notice in the course of saving himself.

Yes, people are inconsistent. We change our minds about lots of things. We behave differently with different people. We have moods. Sometimes we’re our best selves and sometimes our worst. For our main characters, we can explain the inconsistencies through thought, dialogue, and action. For our secondary characters, through dialogue and action–and the MC’s thoughts about this character.

However, there are fundamentals that don’t change much. I figure Mother Theresa on her worst day wouldn’t steal from a poor person and probably not from anyone else. Genghis Khan wouldn’t be a pacifist for even a minute.

Before I got published, I took a writing class from the late children’s book editor Deborah Brodie, who asked if the writer had to know everything about a character before he started writing. I thought yes, but she didn’t, and I no longer do, either. I get to know my characters as I write them. They act in the first situation I set up, and their personalities begin to form and narrow their choices. In the next scene, they act again, and the narrowing continues. If they and my plot diverge, I have to change one or the other–

–which is why, based on as much of my plot as I know when I start, I imagine characters who will go naturally in the desired direction. If that’s working, we don’t have to do a lot of course correction. In my forthcoming historical novel, for instance, I needed to give Loma, my MC, agency in a time when girls and women had next to none, but I didn’t want her to be a modern feisty heroine plunked down in the fifteenth century. I wanted her to be, as much as I could imagine, typical of her age: focused on family and domestic arts. So I turned to a secondary character, her grandfather. I decided he would become attached to her and take her with him on his travels across Spain, making her a witness to the great events and also putting her in situations where she would have to act. But first I had to define him as someone who would take a granddaughter–without making him modern, either. I think I managed, though I won’t say how, and neither of them had to do anything uncharacteristic to advance the plot.

So we can create secondary characters as well as MCs who will keep our characters consistent and our plots on track.

Here are three prompts:

∙ Up until now, your MC has been unfailingly kind to her best friend, who is shy and not well liked by others. But after the friend has failed some sort of test and is feeling awful, your MC belittles him and calls him hopeless. A moment later, she tears a rose bush out of the ground by its roots. Without making her really be the villain or be under a spell, write a scene, or more than one, that presents the before and after and explains the change.

∙ Before the prince comes along, Cinderella finally snaps and tells off her stepsisters and her stepmother. Write an earlier scene that firmly establishes her subjugation to the family tyranny, and then write the blow-up scene, making her transformation understandable.

∙ Before the prince comes along, Cinderella not only does what she’s told, she does it perfectly. When she scrubs the floor, she’s willing to spend an hour on the tiniest stain. When she does the laundry, she folds even her step-mom’s unmentionables in such a way that they open up without a wrinkle. But now, in the scene you’re going to write, she loses her work ethic. She gives the marble floor, which shows every speck of dirt, a quick once-over and just dumps the unmentionables in the chest where they go. In a scene, explain the change.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Like- or Dislike- ability

First off, for any educators who are near Bethel, Connecticut, this Friday evening, June 7th, I and Alan Katz, author of many funny books for kids, will be hobnobbing with educators at Byrd’s Books. Details here on the website. I’d love to see you!

On February 27, 2019, Raina wrote, I need some help brainstorming! What are some traits that make a character sympathetic/likable to you, that go beyond just being a good person? (For example, do you like characters who are clever? Brave? Ruthless? Confident?)

And on a different note, what makes you dislike a character? I’m not talking about antiheroes or intentionally “unlikable or antihero characters, but rather things that make you dislike a character because they’re not written well.

Also, how do you have a character grow and overcome their flaws without having those flaws annoy the reader at the beginning? People aren’t perfect and usually change and learn/overcome their flaws throughout life, but I’ve noticed that people often get annoyed and stop reading before that can happen.

And finally, on a much more general note, has anyone else noticed that characters in YA get a *lot* more scrutiny and criticism than those in other age categories? Be too snarky, and you’re “annoying.” Feel hesitation or ambivalence or change your mind about a situation (as any normal person would) and you’re “wishy-washy.” Be too perfect/special in any way and you’re a Mary Sue, make too many mistakes and you’re TSTL (too stupid to live). I have rarely, if ever, seen any reviews of MG books talk about characters like that. (Flat or ineffective characterization, yes, but nothing like this.) Do MG books just happen to have better-written characterizations than YA books, on average? Is this a matter of audience? (I’ve found that a lot of YA reviewers tend to be older teens or young adults (20-30), while MG reviewers tend to be parents reading with their kids or MG-aged kids themselves.) Or are we just holding fictional children and tweens to a different standard than teens?

You responded with a bunch of ideas:

Sarah: I think YA books in the Chick Lit category often portray teenage characters as full of angst, which is difficult to accomplish without making readers roll their eyes. There seems to be a big market for teenage girls who read for the “feels” instead of enriching their minds. Plus, so many YA books set up their characters in a way that allows for a steamy romance by giving them malleable morals or making them clueless to the situations they find themselves in. Though many books like that exist, they do not make up the whole population of YA books. Perhaps people roll up their sleeves when analyzing all YA books now and expect to find artificial motivations behind the characters’ behaviour. If I myself wrote a decent YA novel, I would rather that people give me a chance.

You may be right that we hold teens to a different standard. I think that’s because stories about teens deal with more controversial aspects of society and ethics than books about the lives of children do. If readers disagree with the treatment of these aspects in some YA novels, this may bring them to the conclusion that the characters are designed to be unrealistic to help further a “false” message.

Unfortunately, I have not read a large number of YA novels that exist today, so I may be way off.

Sara (no h): For the question about characters overcoming flaws, what I try to do is make the character realize their flaw and want to overcome it, but fail initially. Good intentions should probably make them sympathetic. And, if they know they have this flaw, they might joke about it in a slightly self-deprecating way, and that self-awareness should also make them less annoying. It’s like Jo in Little Women, who is definitely aware of how bad her temper is, and she wants desperately to change it, but for a while she can’t.

Chrisite V Powell: KM Weiland talks about each character having a Lie, a Want, a ghost, and a Need. The Lie is something that the character believes about the world, and all character flaws are symptoms of it. So, in my current WIP, my character’s Lie is that trusting others is a weakness. Her flaws include hiding emotions, keeping distant from others, running away when she’s uncomfortable, and avoiding new experiences. Her Want is to find a home, both physically and socially. Her ghost is the reason she has her Lie: what past experiences caused her to form her lie. In this case, bullying by her cousins for showing weakness, and a betrayal by her father. The ghost makes her Lie relatable, and her Lie makes her flaws relatable. Her Need is the same as her truth–it’s what she discovers through the story that counteracts the Lie and allows for growth. My character Keita’s Need is that trusting others can be a great strength that empowers her to find her Want.

So, the main way that characters change (still summarizing Weiland) is through rewards and consequences. In the beginning, when you see the character in their normal world, they are rewarded for their lie. However, once the plot gets going, acting on their lie gets punishments and acting on the truth gets rewards. They discover the Truth in the middle of the story and wrestle between the two until the climactic end.

Melissa Mead: Sense of humor is a biggie for me. Not so much snark, but witty or dry humor.

For the second question, I do think it comes down to the difference in audience. Middle-grade (MG) kids are easier to please (and don’t write reviews very often) than teenagers and readers in their twenties. Older reviewers may have gotten past the age of snark. Not, I hasten to add, that all or even most teens and twenty-somethings are snarky. This blog, which is a meanness-free zone and on which, I think, many commenters are teens and twenty-somethings, is proof of that.

Many years ago, I volunteered teaching an after-school writing class at the local middle school. One afternoon, I brought a prompt: to write a self-portrait, not just of the writer’s appearance, but also of her inner self (they were all girls). The ten- and eleven-year olds were very uncomfortable and didn’t want to do it, so I told them to write a portrait of a friend, which they were eager to do. Twelve and over loved it. One said it was the best prompt ever.

I took the difference as revealing a distinct borderline between the eight-to-twelve-year-old set and young adults (YA). Seems to me that young adults are more introspective, middle graders more outward-facing and less critical. Do you guys agree?

Also, fault-finding begets more fault-finding as tit one-ups tat. As soon as a chain of criticism begins it takes a while to run itself out. The YA publishing world may be in a cycle of attack that will end eventually.

Onto the first question.

What makes a character likable is the same as what makes a person likable in real life. Being likable isn’t the same as being virtuous, although when I think about it, I do tend to like people I admire. But there are people I admire whom I distinctly do not like.

I go for people and characters who are relatable, vulnerable, and fun to be around. I’m very fond of people who tell stories on themselves, and I’m with Melissa Mead in that a sense of humor has to be in the mix. We can make a list! I’d put kindness on mine. Here are a few more, but this isn’t an exhaustive list:
∙ Intelligence, at least enough to see around a few corners
∙ Energy
∙ Thoughtfulness
∙ A tendency to see the best side of things
∙ Calmness, or at the very least, an absence of hysteria
∙ Reliableness
∙ Honesty tempered by empathy
∙ Unsentimentality

I’m having trouble stopping. Enough!

Your list may be different–in fact, Raina’s short list is mostly different from mine (brave, ruthless, confident). It will be helpful sometimes to have real people in mind when we make the list and when we craft our characters, the likable and the unlikable ones.

A friend once said to me that the way to make a character likable is to have him save someone. I don’t think that’s all there is to it, but that can nudge a reader in the direction of like. Saving someone will arouse our sympathy.

In an MC, whose thoughts the reader will know, the voice of the character matters in creating likablility. And this is a good spot to bring in the traits from our list to reflect them in our MC’s thoughts. This makes me think of flaws–a likable voice can immunize me from a character’s flaws. If I like being in her company, in her mind, I’ll be on her side, and I’ll root for her to overcome her faults. Say she takes the easy way out to avoid arguments even when she should stand up for herself. If she’s self-aware, as Sara says, I’ll want to stay with her and hope for change.

I agree with Christie V Powell that change usually comes about through actions and consequences, and usually the medicine (the bad outcome) has to be delivered more than once.

As for unlikable, I don’t like people who, when I see them coming, I want to run the other way. I don’t like complainers or people who are endlessly needy, even though I like being helpful. Of course I don’t like people who are cruel or manipulative or evil. We can make another list.

In terms of bad writing, I get annoyed if a character behaves out of character and does for plot reasons what he never ever would do. To me, the writer of that character has committed a writing crime worthy of sentencing by a judge in the High Court of Writing Offenses. Another infraction is writing characters who are so vaguely defined they can do anything and don’t have to be consistent–because who are they?

Here are three prompts:

∙ Your main character is the judge in the High Court of Writing Offenses. Frustrated readers haul in characters who haven’t behaved according to their personalities. Attorneys argue their defense. The characters take the stand. There’s examination and cross-examination. Pick a character that has annoyed you by behaving against his or her nature or a character who is ill-defined. Write the courtroom drama.

∙ Your MC is brave, kind, funny–also whiny and self-centered. She’s preparing to face (in any way you decide) the villain of the story, who has taken her family hostage. Write the scene as she gets ready. Include thoughts, dialogue, and action. Reveal her flaws and make her likable at the same time.

∙ Sometimes it’s hard to find the likability sweet spot. Your MC, out of kindness and sympathy, has befriended a newcomer to the neighborhood, who seemed to otherwise be shaping up to be a picked-on loner. But this new friend turns out to be very high maintenance: clingy, jealous, demanding. Still, your MC is aware of the pain she’ll inflict if she dumps him. The reader does not want the MC to be a doormat and also doesn’t want her to be mean. Write her thoughts about the situation and then the scene in which she takes action.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Who me? Not I!

On February 18, 2019, ashes to ask wrote, I have a problem. A big one.

I have been writing stories for years now, but I’m stuck in a rut of what I nicknamed “Same Character Syndrome.” I’ve made countless characters, and at first they seem different— some are blonde, brunette, or red-headed, they all have different ethnicities, etc. The thing is, though, they are all teen girls who are slightly awkward nerds. They all have the same speech mannerisms, and they like to look pretty. I’ve tried to make other MCs, but they end up degenerating into the same ol’ mold that all my MCs are. I’ve been thinking, and I think it’s because they are all embodiments of me, the author. It’s terrifying for me to realize that I am the soul inside these people whom I have thought so different. It’s like I wrote up a cloning machine, and they all come out of it with different faces and backstories, but the same stuff inside.

How do I fix this?

Suggestions poured in.

Christie V Powell: What if, just for a training exercise, you tried writing a character based on someone else you know well? I did that a lot in high school. I thought it was funny, looking back, that I had two characters in different stories that were based on the same person, but they were totally different characters. One was a peacemaker who tried to smooth things over for characters who didn’t get along, and the other was a major source of conflict for my main character. I’m not sure if that was the mystical character evolution that writers talk about, or just my changing relationship with the person!

You could also try using different characteristics of yourself for different characters. Real people are contractions, much more so than characters. In one of my WIPs, I gave all three POV characters one of my flaws (though exaggerated, I hope). One of them lives in fantasy/dreams and doesn’t handle reality well. Another has goals that are more realistic, but she tries to make them come true without always considering the work and responsibility involved. The third struggles with guilt over something careless he did that had terrible consequences. He’s also slightly based on a historical main character, for his physical/outer descriptions.

Melissa Mead: Have you ever, just for fun, tried making up a character who’s the total opposite of you? Or a different gender?

I suspect that it’ll help that you can identity ways that your characters are like you. Ex, if you catch a character automatically obeying a rule, you can come up with a compelling reason for them to break it.

Song4myKing: A friend once told me that she felt the characters were stronger when men wrote about women and women wrote about men. She said it worked that way for herself, because she had to think harder when writing a man’s perspective. She couldn’t just rely on her own ordinary patterns of thinking, and assume her readers understood.

Kit Kat Kitty: I find it helpful to read books or watch shows that focus on one or more characters that are different from the characters you would normally write. (Especially if these different characters interact with each other) This has helped me so much with coming up with different characters. And it’s not just how they look, it’s how they act or feel or what they believe. And although this has already been said, writing characters of the opposite gender really helps if you’re trying to write characters different from you.

These are great!

I often wonder this about questions that come in, and I don’t mean to put down the question or the questioner. It comes up because we writers can be so unsure of ourselves and so ready to turn our criticism on ourselves. Here’s the question: Is this true? Are ashes to ask’s MCs really clones of one another?

When we find ourselves making this kind of judgment, it’s worth showing our work to someone else to be sure. In this case, ashes to ask would need to show at least two stories to this other reader, who doesn’t have to be a writer, just someone who loves to read and loves stories and, above all, isn’t mean. If the readers don’t see the similarities, we may be able to drop this worry.

Now that that’s out of the way, let’s assume that ashes to ask’s assessment is correct and all her MCs are similar and very much like her. Ashes to ask also says that they start out different but degenerate into sameness. What to do?

Degeneration means there was a process that could be halted. I generally recommend that we write an entire story before revising, but in this case revising as we go along may be helpful. Before we start a day’s writing we can look over the work of the day before. If our MC says something that is just what we’d say in those circumstances, we can LIST! other possible things she might say–or think or do. When we plug in new lines of dialogue or thought or new actions, our MC will take shape.

I like Christie V Powell’s idea of basing an MC on someone you know. When it’s time for this MC to speak or think or do or feel, we can decide how that actual person would react. One of my favorite of my prompts in Writing Magic is to think of two people we know who aren’t romantically involved with each other. The next step is to imagine that they’re forced to marry. Doesn’t matter how old they are. We can adjust that. The final step is to write their dinner table conversation on their first anniversary. The fun is that these people, finding themselves in an unexpected (to say the least) situation, will still be themselves, will speak as they would, will adjust to circumstances as they would.

Ditto to Melissa Mead’s suggestions about writing a main character who’s either our opposite in terms of personality or a different gender.

Or a different species or kind of creature entirely.

My characters are plot-driven. I come up with MCs who will both be challenged by what I’m going to throw at them and able to survive whatever it is. Most of my characters are much braver than I am, for example. In The Two Princesses of Bamarre I made up a shy heroine with reserves of courage. I needed her to be shy and not to want the quest that she enters into. By contrast, I’m not very shy and I don’t know if I have reserves of courage. I hope if I need them they’ll be there!

So, it’s worth thinking in the planning stage about what kind of characters we need to make our plot happen. If we’re writing a romcom, for example, we might think about the perspective on love that our MC needs to have for our particular romance to have many bumps but come to a happy conclusion.

My favorite example of a story in need of a character comes from the fairy tale, “The Princess on the Pea.” What kind of character might feel a pea through all those mattresses? I think there’s more than one answer, but we need to consider the question going in. (Or she might not feel the pea, but she has to contrive to pass the test.)

Like real people, our fictional characters are defined by what they do, say, think, and feel–most significantly by what they do. Our plot is shaped by what they and other characters do. If ashes to ask revises as she–or he or they–goes along, the changes she makes to her MC will affect her plot, and she’ll need to adjust.

We need our plot and our MC to work together. Let’s think about some situations. Our MC becomes embroiled in a secret society, but once in, she gradually realizes that its aims are malevolent and that it mistreats its members. Her goal becomes to undermine and destroy the society and to save the innocents in it. What sort of MC should we design who may succeed in the end but who will have a lot of trouble along the way, whose nature is both aligned and misaligned with her mission?

Or, our plot is about colonizing a newly discovered region, empty of humans but supporting herds of intelligent unicorns who don’t know what to make of the newcomers and are reluctant to share their place. The colonizers are fleeing their home country or kingdom because of their beliefs, whatever they are. Going back isn’t an option. Who can be our MC for this?

Or, our plot takes place in a time of famine. Our MC is the oldest child in a poor family struggling to survive. Who will our MC be, who will both fail and succeed in helping?

Or, in this time of famine, our MC is upper class and has plenty to eat. What kind of MC would involve herself with the starving and would both fail and succeed in helping?

I say fail and succeed because we need an MC for whom the task will be particularly difficult, to create tension.

To make our MC different from ourselves, we can ask how we would go about these challenges and then LIST! other possible ways and the traits necessary to carry them out.

Having said all this, however, let’s go in the opposite direction. Suppose we’re stuck with one MC. No matter what we do, we keep writing the same character again and again. All is not lost–even if this character is us in disguise. We know ourselves, our complexity. We come alive on the page. It can be a good thing. We may have invented a character, or a cast of characters, who can sustain us from book to book. Think mystery series! Think fantasy series! Think series in general!

Here are five prompts, which you probably saw coming:

∙ Try my exercise from Writing Magic.

∙ Write the scene in the secret society situation when our MC realizes that the organizations goals are not what she or he thought. For extra credit, make the MC not be your gender.

∙ Write the first contact between the humans and the unicorns. Make your MC blunder terribly. For extra-extra credit, switch it up and make her be one of the unicorns.

∙ In the famine situation, your MC’s older sister is close to death from starvation. Write a scene in which he attempts to find food and fails.

∙ In the famine situation, your wealthy MC happens upon the starving sister. Write the scene in which she initially fails to help.

Have fun and save what you write!

Nobody’s Perfect

First a reminder of two events: tomorrow (Thursday, January 17th) at the New York Society Library in New York City, and Sunday (January 20th) at The Studio Around the Corner here in Brewster, New York–although that one may have to wait for the snow date on February 3rd. For details, click on In Person here on the website. If anyone can make it, I’d love to see you!

On November 16, 2018, Emma wrote, I’m an aspiring 13-year-old writer and really appreciate your blog! I was wondering if you had any advice on developing character flaws. I kind of want my characters to be ‘perfect,’ but I know that’s not realistic and the readers need to be able to connect with the characters. Thanks for any suggestions!

Melissa Mead wrote back, Have their flaws grow out of their strengths. For example, if they’re very smart, they might look down on people who aren’t. Maybe without even realizing that they’re doing it.

Kit Kat Kitty wrote back, too, Characters can also have flaws because of the situation they’re in. One of my characters was raised in a strict order, so she has no idea how the rest of the world works, so she needs someone to help her. Her aunt also died to save her, so she feels like she has to do something to make her dead aunt proud. She’s also amazingly headstrong. My other character was the sole survivor of a massacre in his village, so he doesn’t like to attach himself to people, although he is a lady’s man. And my other character was taken from her parents when she was a child to be raised in the same order as the first character I mentioned, so she has trust issues, and some identity issues, and her lover dies.

I am not very nice to my characters, am I? So the point is, characters can have emotional scares or be thrust into situations they can’t handle to bring out their flaws.

Yay, Emma, for wanting to give her characters flaws! We all have ‘em; our characters need ‘em.

Early in the life of the blog, people kept posting about Mary-Sue characters, and I asked who or what a Mary Sue is. Some on the blog were kind enough to explain: a Mary Sue (or Marty Stu) is perfect! She can solve any problem, and almost everyone loves her. Those who don’t are eventually revealed as villains. You can read about the Mary-Sue trope on Wikipedia.

My husband and I have been watching The Amazing Mrs. Maisel–definitely high school and up–on TV, and, in the second season, I’ve noticed that the writers have given Mary-Sue attributes to their eponymous MC. For example, a brilliant but eccentric artist, after meeting Mrs. Maisel for just a few minutes, is so smitten with her that he shows her his masterpiece, which no one else has been allowed to see. She hasn’t done anything so extraordinary as to merit this honor. Grr…, I thought, about a show I generally like.

We don’t want our readers to be similarly irritated.

I agree with both Melissa Mead and Kit Kat Kitty. Flaws can come from strong points and from backstory.

They can also come from plot. Here on the blog I seem to go back often to “Snow White.” Snow White is about as Mary Sue as a character can get, since the prince falls madly in love with her even though she seems to be dead!

But she has flaws baked into the plot that we can exploit. The dwarfs warn her not to trust anyone who comes to their cottage, but she seems incapable of taking their advice and repeatedly opens the door. She lets the evil queen lace her bodice and comb her hair and feed her a poisoned apple. Earlier in her story, she has no suspicions about her stepmother’s character. What character flaw or flaws can we derive from her behavior?

∙ She’s stupid. This is low-hanging fruit because she sure seems stupid.

∙ She is determined to see the best in everyone and willing to go to great lengths to prove she’s right, hanging onto the conviction that the old lady didn’t mean to lace her up so tight and wasn’t aware of the comb’s properties. She may even worry that the old lady, in her innocence, was herself harmed by the comb. When she shows up for the third times, Snow White is relieved.

∙ She’s defiant. When the dwarfs tell her not to let anyone in, it’s inevitable that she will.

∙ She’s almost as vain as the evil queen. She wants to be laced up tight to make her waist as small as possible and wants the curls that the comb is guaranteed to provide. The apple is touted as great for her complexion. She can’t resist.

I’m sure there are other flaws that can explain her behavior. For an early prompt, list three more.

The next step is to consider which of the flaws interests us most and which expands our plot and gives us new ideas for conflict.

We can use the same strategy for minor characters, like the dwarfs. What flaws can they have that might lead Snow White to welcome the old lady? We probably don’t need to develop all seven in depth. One or two will do. So what might their flaws be?

∙ One may be a neat freak. If anything is the slightest bit out of place when he and his fellows come home from mining, he has a tantrum. Snow White is scared to move when she’s alone.

∙ One has a terrible temper. The other dwarfs and Snow White tiptoe around him.

∙ One is grudging about her presence and makes clear that she has to earn her keep by cleaning and cooking.

∙ Another is a slob. Snow White is forever cleaning up after him.

And so on. There must be more.

For another flaw-creating strategy, we can make a list, and you all know how much I love them. We can write down every fault we can think of. For this, we don’t want super-villain flaws, like a desire for world domination. We want garden-variety shortcomings. Here are a few:

∙ absentmindedness
∙ forgetfulness
∙ being a tad self-centered
∙ talking too much
∙ overconfident
∙ under-confident
∙ can’t keep a secret

For another early prompt, list twelve to twenty more. It may help to think of the foibles of people you know and even of yourself. What drives you crazy in them and in yourself?

Once you have your list, cast your eyes along it. Mark the ones that appeal to you. Jot down some notes about how you might give one or more of them to your MC and how the flaws will contribute to your story, and also how these flaws mesh with what you already know about her.

Then, as you continue writing or move into your story, remember to bring them in as your flawed character acts, speaks, and thinks.

Here are three prompts, in addition to the ones above:

∙ It’s November. Your flawed MC and her flawed best friend take on NaNoWriMo. Write the tale of their month. Use their flaws both to help and hinder them from reaching their goals. Decide if one or both of them succeeds and if they’re still friends at the end.

∙ Pick three different flaws for Snow White–or any fairy tale MC. Write a synopsis of the story three times, showing how the flaw influences the way the plot develops. If you like, choose one and write the whole story.

∙ I just looked at the Wikipedia entry for the Hindenburg disaster. Sabotage was suspected as a cause but never proved, and there were other, technical possibilities. Along these lines, read up on the Hindenburg disaster or any other terrible event. Develop flawed characters who influence the way history plays out. This is fiction, so you can change anything–introduce a dragon or zombies, set it in the future or the Middle Ages. Write the story.

Have fun and save what you write!

Wimp or Not a Wimp

To you brave NaNoWriMo-ers, I’m thinking of you and wishing you well!

On September 8, 2018, Writeforfun wrote, I have a character with a sort of condition/curse that causes him a lot of pain and discomfort at certain times. I have no trouble describing it because I got the flu recently (the kind where you ache so badly and you’re so weak that you can’t walk across the room), so I can envision exactly how he feels.

My problem is, I’m worried that I’m making him seem whiny or wimpy when I write about it. He never actually complains about his pain, but I keep mentioning how he’s feeling, or mentioning actions such as rubbing a sore joint, in order to get the point across; however, as I read over it, I feel like he just sounds kind of pathetic. He’s supposed to be a silently suffering but ultimately strong kid, but I’m not sure I’m achieving that.

Any tips?

Writeforfun went on the provide a sample:: The king cast an apologetic look at Oliver. “I am sorry to take you to the dungeons,” he said. “But I assure you, you are by no means a prisoner.”

Oliver could not find the courage or strength to reply, so he nodded vaguely as he rubbed his aching arms.

“It’s just down here,” said the king gently. Sir Rodrick pulled an extra torch off the wall and followed after Oliver, who tentatively descended after the king. It was a spiral staircase, and though there were no windows, there were so many torches that it was brighter in the staircase than it had been in the hallway. Oliver wasn’t sure if he had the strength to make it all the way down; his legs were throbbing, even his skin stinging as his transformation drew painfully nearer.

“I’ve put a few extra torches up for you,” said the king as he descended the stairs ahead of them. “I see no reason for it to be dark and dreary down here during your stay.”

Oliver could not find the strength to thank him, so he nodded weakly.

“Only a bit further,” said the king, who had noticed his fatigue. He shot a glance past Oliver to Sir Rodrick, but Oliver did not know nor care what he was communicating.

The spiral staircase made him dizzy and seemed to stretch on forever, but at last they reached the floor. It was cobblestone like the paths outside the castle, only this floor had no shoots of moss and grass peeking through the cracks; only dry, hard earth or, in some places, mud.

I wrote, He doesn’t seem either whiny or wimpy to me. He seems heroic. But I’m adding your question to my list, because there are aspects I think we can explore.

And Poppie wrote: You can use a cue to let the reader know what he’s going through without having to repeat yourself. For example, earlier in the story the reader finds out that his right elbow aches so badly that he can’t bend his arms, so he grabs it as a reaction to his pain. Later, when ever he grabs his elbow, the readers know what’s going on without going through the details again.

Are there times when his symptoms are better than others? You could sprinkle those in throughout the story. It would give him a break and give more weight to when he’s suffering.

Taking off my writer’s hat for a moment and just saying, I got my (senior) flu shot last month. Even before I grew so old, I presented myself for vaccination every year, because, before the vaccine was invented, I came down with the flu annually, with all the attendant misery. We can’t write when we can’t sit up!

Onward!

Before I get into advice-giving, I want to point out the skillful and economical way Writeforfun sneaks in a hint that Oliver’s symptoms presage a transformation.

I am firmly in the camp of writers who believe in finishing before revising, excepting only when we (I) are so lost that going on is impossible. When I’m worrying about an element in my story, I write a note about the problem at the top of the first page  to remind myself to keep it in mind as I revise.

Often, when I finish, I realize that my worries were just that–and six other things need fixing, but not those.

Let’s assume, however, that Writeforfun has reached the revision stage. As I said above, Oliver doesn’t come across as wimpy or whiny, but I think it is possible that the reader is being reminded more than she needs to be about his physical troubles. If his well-being matters to the reader, she won’t forget that he’s in pain. This applies whether he’s our main character or our villain. If he’s important to the story, the reader will remember. A few details will go along way. In fact, the reader may intuit more suffering for him if we don’t reveal everything–

–unless for some plot reason, the reader must understand every intricacy of Oliver’s misery. If that’s the case, Oliver doesn’t have to bear the whole burden.

I have the idea that this is from a third-person omniscient POV, because the narrator reveals, not only Oliver’s pain, but also the king noticing the pain. If that’s the case, the king can be shown to think something about Oliver’s condition: how pinched his face looks, how he’s dragging one of his feet–whatever. Sir Rodrick can have an emotional response to Oliver’s apparent illness, sympathy or anger or something else.

If the POV isn’t omniscient, we can still use the other characters. Dialogue is one way. The king can remark on Oliver’s limp or his pinched face. Sir Rodrick can question whether he must be imprisoned, since he seems too weak to be a flight risk.

We can use Oliver’s actions, rather than his inner state. He can stumble or grab Rodrick’s arm, which is involuntary and not wimpy or whiny.

We can use his own words to reveal his courage, his non-wimpiness. The king can ask him if he’s all right, and he can say, “Never better,” even though the reader knows he’s in pain.

And we can use his thoughts to achieve the same end. Because he is brave, he can think, This isn’t so bad. Anyone can manage this. He can draw on some wisdom from his world, possibly a saying to help him get through–but resorting to that particular saying will show the reader how bad it is.

So we have these other strategies to reveal the shape a character is in, other than his own thoughts and feelings: the perspective of other characters as revealed through their thoughts and feelings; dialogue between other characters and even with him; and his actions, like a stumble.

Here are three prompts:

∙ Your MC is trying to keep his dog, Fraggle, from being discovered. The stakes are high. Fraggle is not only his adored pet, but also his service dog. If she’s taken from him, he will fall apart. Write the scene so that the reader knows what’s going on.

∙ Your MC is climbing a mountain to reach the citadel of her enemy, and she’s in great emotional pain. You make up the reason. Write the scene.

∙ Your MC and your villain are discussing a truce, but neither really wants one. Both want to discover the other’s true next move. Write the scene from the POV of an omniscient narrator. If you’re inclined to try it, rewrite the scene in first person of one of the two.

Have fun, and save what you write!

The Heart You Write From

Thank you, Melissa Mead, for the title of this blog post!

On February 15, 2018, Writeforfun wrote, I’ve been struggling with this for the past few weeks (actually, I’ve always struggled with it but only realized what I’ve been doing about two weeks ago!). Have you ever noticed your own personality flaws showing up too much in all of your characters?

The blog had lots to say.

Christie V Powell: I’m a little worried about that right now, too. I’ve recently branched out to two WIPs with different characters than my main series, and I worry about them being too much alike (all four girl names even end in -a).

One thing that I hope will help is their character arcs: each one is working on a different trait that drives the story. Keita struggles with motivation to make a difference, prejudice against another clan, and to give up her wants/needs for what is really best for her kingdom (different books in the series). Kenna from DreamRovers struggles with a desire to escape reality, while Norma tries to live her dreams but gets overwhelmed when she takes on too much responsibility. Mira from Mira’s Griffin struggles with over-independence. According to KM Wieland, character flaws are just symptoms of the Lie that they believe about the world, which the story will disprove. So Kenna’s Lie is that dreams are better than reality, and her flaws are not noticing when people need her, being absent-minded, giving up too quickly, and so on. Mira’s over-independence does sometimes make her not notice other people, but it has a different root.

I also gave them a few superficial things: Mira hates goats, while Norma loves them. Keita never wears shoes, while Mira loves her boots.

Melissa Mead: Not just the flaws! I have to be careful to make sure they’re not too much like me, period. And my male heroes tend to be a certain type. 

Back to Writeforfun: Interesting! I’m glad at least that it’s not just me! My problem, as I now realize, is that all of my characters – and even my favorite characters from movies and other books! – are all plagued by some deep-seated insecurity/self-consciousness (specifically, insecurity based in some unchangeable physical trait or condition that makes them different from everybody else). I can’t believe I never noticed how much I do this before! And yes, the embarrassing thing is that I realize now this is a direct reflection of myself. I’ve always been careful, of course, to make each character’s personality unique, with a variety of flaws and virtues (I’ve got a ditzy optimist and a stoic realist and everyone in between!), but invariably, they still end up with some deep-seated insecurity. It’s almost as though I can’t relate to them if they are completely comfortable with who they are. I just can’t figure out how to overcome this!

Back to Melissa Mead: That doesn’t sound like a problem to me. It just sounds like that’s the heart you write from. I realized recently that I do a similar thing. All my books so far are, on some level, about outcasts finding home.

On a related note, does anybody else have just plain odd STUFF that keeps turning up? For instance, in 3 totally different books, I have characters who eat mice, or at least threaten to. My characters tend to go hungry a lot, even though I never have, and there’s usually some sort of “city on a hill…”

Fascinating, the Lie about the world that the character believes and the story will disprove! Thinking back on my books, that paradigm doesn’t fit them all, but it sure fits some, and it’s another useful way to look at our plot and find our way through it. As an early prompt, try seeing the MC in your WIP as living a Lie that your story will disprove. Consider how you can use that notion.

I agree with Melissa Mead that much of these worries don’t seem like problems, and I love the idea that they’re the heart we write from. Many writers spend their careers spinning stories around a single problem; others take decades working through an issue before moving onto something else. Of my work, not only Ella Enchanted is about obedience. In one way or another, so are Ever, The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre, and even my picture book, Betsy Who Cried Wolf, is, too. What’s up with that?

Best not inquire! I mean that! Our subterranean lives power our stories. If we fish them up and turn them over and over in our hands, even gut them for the golden ring in their bellies, the gold is likely to lose its glitter.

Also, we can’t tell what readers will find in our stories. I may think I’m writing about obedience, and a reader may decide my theme is following your star.

I keep thinking of the sentimental saying, “Turn that frown upside down.” It could be said about me that I’m a worrier. I would say it! I hate how I worry about things large and small, in the near future and years off. A supportive friend, however, might turn my major personality disorder upside down and say that I anticipate, rather than worry, that I give myself time to plan. Nice friend!

My MCs are generally worriers, too, and for that, I’m grateful. Their worries help maintain the tension and make fine chapter endings when no cliffhangers are handy. The worries also remind me to include their thoughts, and they clue the reader into what to watch out for. Just as good, if my MC doesn’t see something coming, the reader probably won’t either, and I can deliver a fine surprise whammy.

Let’s apply this method to a deep-seated insecurity. How can it work for us? Well, for starters, it will put the reader on the character’s side, since not a few people on the planet feel deeply insecure about something. And, like worrying, it can heighten tension. The reader will be on the lookout for triggers for this beloved character’s insecurity, will think, Uh oh! Is this going to set her off?

What would my supportive friend say about a deep-seated insecurity? She’d say, “You’re self-aware, not blind to your imperfections.” My friend hates oblivious, self-satisfied people. Self-awareness can help a character overcome obstacles, including the internal ones. Self-aware people can suss out the insecurities in others, even the buried insecurity in a villain, and use them.

If we’re writers, our instincts are likely to be good about what makes story fodder–like an insecurity. Alas, we’re also people and maybe a tad self-critical, so we turn this advantage that nature gave us into a source of alarm.

When we’re aware that we’ve put our own characteristics into our fiction, we can muse about more than one way to use the attribute. Okay, we think, this character is insecure about his weak chin, so how can this insecurity work in our plot? We can make a list!

∙ He grows a beard. What can I do with a beard? As you know, I’m researching late medieval Spain, where Christians were clean-shaven and male Jews had to wear beards, so I could do something along those lines. His beard could identify him as a member of some group he doesn’t really belong to.

∙ His insecurity makes him sensitive to insecurities in others, and he has a protective streak, which gets him involved with all kinds of people, some wonderful, and some who take advantage of him.

∙ He way overestimates other people’s awareness of his chin, which leads him to overcompensate. (His Lie about the world!) 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.

Each of these has the same root: insecurity, but they all go in wildly different directions, and I’m sure you can think of more.

As for Melissa Mead’s characters’ mice-eating propensities–cool! However, once it’s noticed, options open up: badgers, baby bats, dust bunnies. Just so they’re eating, since they all seem to be starving, too! The city-on-the-hill seems another example of the heart one writes from.

I doubt that we can write characters that are entirely different from us, since they come from us and we have to be able to understand them. The triumph is that we manage to splinter ourselves and create multi-dimensional characters out of the fragments. People we know, people we read about, bits of characters in other books and TV and movies turn up in our stories, but they all have to go through our brains and our guts to come out fully realized on the page.

For three prompts, go with my weak-chin-insecurity plot directions and write a scene or a story based on one or two or all of them. And for a fourth, fifth, and sixth prompt, think of three more ways to use this insecurity, and put them in a story or stories.

Have fun, and save what you write!