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!

Movie Making

Happy Turkey Day or Faux-Turkey Day to the vegetarians! It’s my fave holiday, and we on the blog have a shared reason for gratitude: Published or not, struggling as we probably are to work out our plots and create our characters, we’re writers!

And hail to you NaNoWriMo-ers, rounding a curve, the finishing line coming into sight. Eat well! Stay hydrated! Sleep is for slackers (like me). Keep writing!

On September 17, 2017, Bookfanatic102 wrote, I am rereading The Two Princesses of Bamarre again (for the 6th or 7th time), and I realized part of the reason I like it so much is how descriptive it is. (And Volleys is totally awesome.) Do you have any advice on making my books more descriptive and making my characters more fun to read and write?

And Christie V Powell wrote, Have you looked at Gail’s other posts? These ones on description could get you started: http://gailcarsonlevine.com/blog/category/description/. I also really enjoyed Word Painting by Rebecca McClanahan, which is all about descriptions, including of characters.

And Melissa Mead said, Make sure to think about all the senses, including smell, touch, and taste, as well as sight and hearing.

Thanks, Christie V Powell, for harking back to earlier posts!

And I’m with Melissa Mead on all the senses. Humans focus (pun intended!) on sight more than on our other senses, but to get sense-o-rama into our stories we need them all.

I’m having trouble with descriptions in my so-far-title-less historical novel about the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492,, so Bookfanatic102’s question comes at the right time.

The problem is the history. For example, at the moment I’ve reached in my story, Cima, my MC, is about to share a meal at an inn with her grandfather, her father, and the duke of Medinaceli. But I’m stymied about who would answer the door at the inn. The innkeeper? A waiter (were there waiters?)? One of the duke’s servants? Who else might be there? I’m not even sure that my made-up meeting with this actual historical figure would have taken place at an inn.

Alas, the place has to be solid in our minds before we can write it. For the room at the inn, I’m drawing on an image I found online. For the food, I’m working from a cookbook based on recipes from a period that’s only a little later than mine. For the rest, I plan to show my manuscript when I’m done to more than one historian.

In our describing, we need to go for a movie-in-the-mind. I live in one as I write, and when it isn’t there, I hunt for details to fill it in. When I’m writing fantasy, I can invent the details, which is wonderfully freeing. But my inventions are usually fueled by real life. I’ve watched YouTube demonstrations of carding fleece, listened to prairie dog vocalizations, smelled spices from my spice drawer. I have well-thumbed volumes of historical costume that I go to again and again. I also draw on my memory. For example, the topiary in Ella Enchanted comes from my memories of the topiary in the Cloisters, which is a museum of medieval art in Fort Tryon Park in northern Manhattan near where I grew up.

Not that we should be chained to reality when we write fantasy. After I’ve listened to prairie dogs, I can decide that my own version can have an entirely different sound; they can gurgle like pigeons, for example. But I’m happy to have something real and solid to spin off.

As with the gurgling prairie dogs, we can wake up our details with surprises. One way is to go against expectation. For instance–I’m making this up–in a seemingly utopian city, the sidewalks are paved with rubber, and none of the citizens ever has sore knees. These wonderful sidewalks are cooled in some high-tech or magical way, so they don’t melt in hot weather.

The fun of this is that we can introduce details for the sake of the movie and then discover that they come in handy for our plot. The rubber sidewalks, for instance, can be used diabolically by the city’s rogue engineers to catch our MC if the cooling is turned off and the rubber gets gluey.

I use my notes and my beloved lists to brainstorm about setting and details. I may ask in my notes, How can I flesh out this scene? Then I’ll start a bulleted list of possible ways. Or I may also ask how I can make whatever is going on hard for my MC, and start a different list. Or I may list possible sensory elements.

So we have several strategies: bringing in all the senses, using research, drawing on memory, making lists, writing notes.

One caution: adjectives and adverbs do not make our writing more descriptive. Generally, they just add air. I’ve talked about this before here. We need adjectives and adverbs, but we also need to be sparing with them.

Now for characters and making them fun to write and read.

One way is to get your MC into trouble you sympathize with, which may mean moving in your mind from the specific to the personal. You’ve never been stalked by a lion-tiger combo, but you may have been picked on. We can use our memories to fuel our character’s responses.

I’ve been worried about my MC in the expulsion book because it’s such a serious book, and she’s a serious person. Will people be interested in her?

Here’s hoping. My approach to her is the approach I use with all my characters. I think about my plot and how she can fit into it. In the fifteenth century, a girl wouldn’t have much scope for action. A Jewish girl would be mostly in the home and would be very sheltered. But I need her to be able to act, since she’s my MC. I thought about what I could give her, and since this isn’t fantasy, a magical power is out. Her father and grandfather are financiers, as a few prominent Jews were at the time, so I made her love numbers and be phenomenally good at math, which will be useful for her family.

Then I picked another characteristic, basically out of a hat: I gave her an aversion to discord. She hates arguments, conflict, disagreements.

We can list personality traits and think about which ones interest us. Then we incorporate one or two into our MC or into a secondary character. When situations arise in our story, we think about how this particular trait will shape our character’s response.

We can do this in the outlining stage or during the writing if we’re pantsers. The result that has astonished me in book after book is that my plot shapes itself around the decisions I made long before I had any idea where my story was going.

In the expulsion book, set in a patriarchal era, I wanted a powerful character who could give my MC some of his power, so a major secondary character is her grandfather, who is a courtier, financier, and philosopher. He becomes very attached to Cima, but he isn’t always sensitive to her needs or feelings–and he’s very demanding about his own. The complexity is what makes him fun to write, and I think that applies to any character. Complications draw in both writer and reader.

It also helps me to make my MC want something very much. Longing is relatable. I don’t mean every MC has to be full of yearning. I suspect that a depressed MC might have lost the energy to want anything, and such a character deserves a spot as an MC. Still, longing sets our story up for obstacles and for revealing how our MC goes about removing them, sometimes effectively, sometimes not. Which makes me think of our dog Reggie. When a toy he wants is out of his reach, he barks at it. It never comes to him, but we’re charmed, and we get it. I don’t know what happens when he’s alone in the house. Maybe the toys do come out then. He’s very cute. They may be charmed, too.

Here are three prompts:

∙ In this world, creatures shapeshift from people to animals and vice versa. One of your MCs was once a porpoise and another used to be a dog. The former porpoise is hearing-centric, and the former dog is sniff-reliant. They are being chased by a villain who used to be a–you decide-what animal. Write the chase scene. Bring in all the senses. If you like, write the whole story.

∙ Your MC wants to be rich. She also helps out at the center for people displaced by the war with the centaurs. One of the displaced people is the former dictator of the neighboring city-state. He has a scheme to get back his fortune. Write the scene when he comes into the center and your MC is on duty. Make the movie in the reader’s mind. Keep going, if you like.

∙ Your MC is one of the displaced people from the last prompt. To escape the war, she and three others, strangers, thrown together by chance, have to cross a mountain range to get to safety. Your MC is terrified of heights. One of her companions is patient with her. The other two are not, and one wants to abandon her. Think about how your panicky MC would perceive the mountain, what she’d focus on and what she’d miss. Write a scene from her POV during the climb.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Beastie

First off, two appearances: If you’re in the area this Saturday, I’ll be signing at the Chappaqua (New York) Children’s Book Festival. I’ll be there all day, so there will be plenty of time to chat.

And in the evening on October 26th, I’ll be conducting a writing workshop and speaking at the Blue Water Convention Center in Port Huron, Michigan.

Details for both are on the Appearances page right here on the website. I would love to see you!

And let me mention for future planning for SCBWI members, that I will be conducting a two-and-a-half hour workshop in writing fantasy on Saturday, February 3rd at the SCBWI national conference in New York City.

Onto the post!

On September 8, 2017, Aster wrote, I wrote down an odd dream I had the other night, and I’d be interested in expanding it. I read Ms. Levine’s post on expanding fragments (she gave advice including delving into character- thought, feeling etc.). However, I do not think that some of those tips apply because the story is written from the point of view of a monster (more of a fictional animal), and I worry that by elaborating on thoughts and feelings beyond threatened, angry, submissive, etc., would make the character too humanesque.

Any thoughts? 

I asked for clarification, and a dialogue followed with Christie V Powell.

Christie V Powell: Have you read the Eragon books? I think it”s the last one where the narrative jumps to the dragon”s POV for a couple chapters. She still feels alien in her thought process yet you can relate to her as a character.

I also suggest looking at some of Temple Grandin”s books, like ANIMALS IN TRANSLATION. Temple Grandin uses her autism to describe how animals perceive the world. I tried to use the principles when my MC uses animal form– she is less flowery, doesn’t use names, notices details and especially contrasts, is afraid of sudden movements, etc.

For expanding ideas into plots, I play around with several ideas. If it started as a dream, I’ll daydream with it, just playing around and seeing how long I can make it last. If that goes well, I ‘ll jot down as much of the dream and daydream as I can remember. Some of the characters have depth but others are cardboard cutouts or change throughout. Then I’ll come up with a fluid plot line. I do a lot of brainstorming, some lists, and some stream of consciousness. I also like to cheat and look at THE SEVEN BASIC PLOTS by Christopher Booker, which gives some potential plot structure ideas.

Aster: Thank you so much for the suggestions. To clarify- I was wondering how to expand the story fragment without giving the animal/monster human qualities- like intricate thoughts and feeling other than primal instincts.

Christie V Powell: It seems like it might be tricky to have a pro-active protagonist that way– a character who reacts as well as acts. Nowadays, proactive characters are preferred, although I’ve read a few who aren’t, like WHITE FANG (Jack London ).

I admire Christie V Powell’s loose, relaxed methods for generating ideas, which Aster and all of us can use to turn our idea germs into full-blown books (not diseases!).

And I love the suggestion of looking at the writings of Temple Grandin. I haven’t read her books, but I have heard several of her interviews, which may be available online, and through them have glimpsed inside a unique mind.

Many years ago, I read a book called CREATIVE DREAMING by Patricia Garfield (high school and above). One of the things I learned and have tried a few times is to set the stage for dreams while I’m still awake. For example, we can think about a plot problem as we’re drifting off, and we may dream a solution. Aster might re-imagine her dream, and the dream might extend itself when she falls asleep. It can take a few nights for this to work, and sometimes it doesn’t work at all, but it’s fun to try. Have any of you done this?

Another book to look at is GRENDEL by John Gardner–high school and up–which is a retelling of BEOWULF from the monster’s POV. And one more: NOP’S TRIALS by Donald McCaig (not sure–may be okay for middle school). I remember only the dog’s POV, but I just looked online and see that his owner’s POV is in there, too. As I recall, there is nothing cutesy about the dog’s POV in this book.

These books are real achievements, because, in my opinion, it’s difficult to write from the POV of a character who is so different from us humans. One difficulty, I’d say the major one, is that readers may have trouble entering the MC, whose actions and reactions aren’t explained through complex thoughts, feelings, and speech–unless Aster’s creature does speak. We also don’t know if he–I’m making him male, but he may not be–understands language. Regardless of the difficulty, I think it’s worth trying. It’s always an interesting challenge when we limit our resources. In this case, we’ll probably have mostly action to work with.

But action isn’t possible without some level of thought. So we should spend a little time thinking about how he does think. In words? In pictures, as Temple Grandin believes (if I remember correctly) that animals and autistic people do? In sound, maybe? In colors–how cool would that be!

How can we create sympathy, if that’s what we want? This is a version of how to make a character likable. We need to use everything we can think of, his name, for example. We’ll have a different initial response if his name is Snarl than we will if it’s Purr.

We can make him save someone right at the beginning, which will prejudice the reader in his favor.

We can use the humans around. Our creature can cause speculation and misunderstanding in his observers, which could be funny–or sad. People can perceive a threat when none is intended. This can escalate; first the creature can be in danger, and then everyone can be. The reader will care.

We can learn a lot about him from his reactions and from the acts he initiates. For example, does he hide from people or go toward them? Does he respond to different people differently?

To develop a plot, we can have him want something. Then we can frustrate his desire and see what he does. We can create obstacles and have him make mistakes or bad choices in the course of going after whatever it is.

Or we can put him in a terrible situation and not let up. Again, he can make mistakes. We can give him an antagonist, who is determined to harm him.

To expand his repertoire, we can give him abilities that humans don’t have. He can have as good a sense of smell as a dog. He can perceive colors differently than we do. He can sense emotions in a complex way, even though he may not have many words to describe them.

Going in a different direction, we can write in third person, and the narrator’s voice can interpret him for the reader. Or, the story can still be from the creature’s POV, but we can introduce a character who is a sort of monster whisperer. This character can explain the creature to the other characters and the reader, but she may sometimes be wrong.

Also, we don’t have to write a continuous narrative. Our creature may lend himself to shorter related pieces. The reader can see him in various situations and can connect the dots on her own.

Experimental fiction, which doesn’t have to be linear or logical, may lend itself to our creature. We can be dreamlike and surreal and concentrate on language. We can create discontinuities.. Also, just saying, dreams are traditional territory for poems.

Here are four prompts:

∙ Your creature is trapped and put into a cage in a menagerie. Write his capture and the scene that follows.

∙ Write the scene that precedes the fairy tale “Beauty and the Beast” in which the prince is turned into a beast, assuming he becomes at least part beast internally.

∙ Getting real for a minute, your MC has a head injury, wakes up in the hospital with cognitive losses. His thinking isn’t what it used to be. In a way, he’s the monster. Write the hospital scene from his POV.

∙ Have your creature fall in love either with a creature like him or with a human. Write the scenes in which this happens.

Have fun, and save what you write!

The Vastness of Us

On February 7, 2017, Mikayla wrote, I tend to base my MC’s off of myself, and I was wondering if you (or anyone else on here!) had suggestions for how to deal with this, such as precautions, tips, or ways to separate myself from my MC.

The Florid Sword wrote back, I have lots of trouble with this. Usually what I do to make my MC different from myself is I take one aspect of myself, such as a hobby or a negative trait, and say, “How can I change this from being myself?”

So, for example, I like to draw. The book I’m writing right now is based on my own experiences and the main character has to be kind of like me, to react in a similar way. However, I decided to take my hobby of drawing and make my character a cook.

I also tend to get very annoyed by even the tiniest things, but to change that I made my character very longsuffering but also gave her a habit of exaggerating everything.

Clever ideas, Florid Sword!

In a way, all our characters come from aspects of ourselves, or we couldn’t dream them up. Sure, some are based on people we know and characters we’ve read, but inevitably, unavoidably, they’re reinterpreted through our experiences and our innards. Most of you know how much I adore Pride and Prejudice. I’ve gone to Austen more than once for character inspiration, even for my MC. However, I doubt that the real Austen, while spinning in her grave, would recognize my creations as having any connection with hers. We may not be aware of how we’re spinning our characters, but we are.

We’re vast. We who write fantasy, and even we who don’t, have entire universes whirling between our ears–because even the world in a contemporary, realistic story differs from writer to writer. And the world we create in one story varies from the world in another. And we manage to people all those worlds! Though I may usually live by routine, I can, with effort, dredge up occasions when I acted spontaneously. Though I think I don’t have a hair-trigger temper, I remember occasions when something has set me off like a match to kindling. Within me exist spontaneity and routine, calm and fury.

Suppose we decide, to write an MC entirely based on ourselves, exactly like us, down to whether we sleep on our back or our side or eat our favorite foods first or leave the best for last, I doubt that others would agree with our representations. If we’re self-critical, we’re likely to paint a darker picture of ourselves than friends and family experience. And vice versa, if we fail to see our faults. Virtues and faults, however, are only part of it. We don’t know how our faces look when we feel this or that. We rarely hear our own voices, and when we do, the occasion is special, not the ordinary. We may not be aware of how much we change in the company of this person or that, or we may think of ourselves as chameleons and exaggerate our reinventions.

The Florid Sword mentions giving her MC a different hobby from her own, cooking rather than drawing, which I think is a fine idea. However, there is an underlying assumption that this MC, like Florid Sword, has a hobby. Not everyone does. And, if Florid Sword knows nothing about cooking, she’ll have to learn a little or research cooking, which she’ll have to do in her own characteristic way. We can’t escape ourselves!

Coincidentally, in my historical novel Dave at Night, I gave Dave a talent: drawing, because, before I started writing, I drew and painted as my hobby. I picked drawing deliberately so that I could use something I already knew. We don’t always want to cut ourselves off from material that will make our task a smidgen easier.

One more thing. Our readers who don’t know us will read the character we believe to be exactly like us through the prisms of their own personalities. This is particularly true of our MCs, whom our readers will enter. Our identities will merge with theirs.

I think I often do this here–urge you not to worry. Above are all the reasons I think you needn’t. Now for my method of building characters. I do it to a large degree unconsciously, but this is how I believe I do it.

My stories arise out of ideas rather than characters. My new book, The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre, begins Rapunzel-ish, with an abduction. (I’m not giving away anything that you won’t learn in the first few pages.) Lady Klausine takes my MC Perry to raise as a member of the Lakti nobility and to learn the ways of their Spartan, warrior culture. When I developed Lady Klausine I considered what Lakti mothering might be like and modeled her on what I came up with. Then I thought about how her very-tough-very-little-love method might form her daughter. Both characters grew to a large degree out of these ruminations–which have nothing to do with my own past or my own personality.

You can do the same. Think about your story. What’s the world like? What challenges will your MC face, according to your plot as you’ve imagined it so far? Who will the other major characters be? How will they affect her? In an MC, we’re looking for traits that will allow her to survive but that will also force her to struggle and suffer. We can list possible traits and virtues and flaws, like greed, intelligence, friendliness, jealousy. How will this one or that one help or hinder her as the story moves along?

We can see how this works in reverse and how our MCs can naturally be unlike us. Try this: cast yourself as the MC in a fairy tale or a book or movie you know really well. For example, how would you behave if you were Snow White and the evil queen’s hunter left you alone in a forest? Further along, how would you co-exist with the dwarves? Would you stay with them?

Let’s say the answer to the last question is, No way. Their cottage would make you claustrophobic. You might like them or hate them, but remaining there would drive you crazy. You like to take control of your fate. Sadly, you would make an impossible Snow White. So, if not you, what sort of character would be able to do what the story requires of her?

Let’s turn this into the first prompt. Write the scene in the forest with the hunter with you as Snow White. You may need to check out the original Grimm version for this. If you can’t get with the program, figure out who would be able to. Put that new character in and revise the scene. In Grimm, Snow White is no more than a pawn, but make your MC more three-dimensional.

Here are two more prompts:

∙ Keep yourself as Snow White. You can’t act as she would, so change the story in sync with your nature. Keep going. See what happens.

∙ Use the characteristic that Florid Sword gave her MC. This Snow White exaggerates everything. Write a scene from her sojourn with the dwarves.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Eek!

First off, thanks to all of you who came to an event on my tour, some of you traveling impressive distances! You asked the best questions, and it was a joy to meet you!

And, since I’m just getting the hang of social media, I’ll say now what I should have said a few months ago: If you like, you can follow me on Instagram at gailcarsonlevine. Not much there about writing, though. At the moment it’s mostly spring flowers, and you can see some of the beautiful places I happened across on my tour, like a prairie river walk in Naperville, Illinois, or a bird sanctuary-nature preserve in Petaluma, California. And a silly selfie of my condition when I returned after a redeye from California–as a dead tree!

Now for the post!

On December 23, 2016, Poppie wrote: I have a fairy MC whose idea of excitement is a pile of books. But life in the modern “people” world is often unpredictable and full of dangerous machines and creatures… the things he avoids as much as possible. He’s forced to confront his fears when he is recruited with other young fairies to form a society, where the main object is to rescue fairies from danger.

The problem is, how do I make him cowardly, without him coming off as whiny or annoying?

Two of you weighed in.

Christie V Powell: Give him a reason: Is he afraid because he once witnessed something tragic or scary? Or does he have a big goal or dream that he wants to stay alive and well for? Was he betrayed by someone? If he has a reason, I think his fear would be more relatable.

Another idea: When have you felt afraid? Pull from that experience. I sometimes avoid conversations because I dislike conflict. If I were writing a cowardly character, I could use those experiences, probably by showing some thoughts (‘I could say something friendly, but what if she misjudges it and thinks I’m being forward or condescending? Best say nothing.”).

Song4myKing: If he knows he’s cowardly, I think it can help. Whiny and annoying characters are the ones who think the world owes them something, or think they are somehow great, or somehow exempt from doing the grunt work everyone else should be doing. Your fairy may whine and be annoying to the fairies as a front, but if the readers know that he sees his own shortcomings, they’ll be less likely to want to slap him.

And acknowledging his timidity (especially if he’s telling the story) can sprout opportunities for humor – which helps make just about any character likable.

I’m with both of you. And humor is great for likability.

Thanks, Christie V Powell, for sharing your fear. Here’s one from my life, which you can use however you like. During the year when Ella Enchanted, my first published book, was going through the publishing process, I became convinced I would die before it came out. When I had to fly during that year, I was paralyzed with terror. I know there are scientific reasons that explain why planes, loaded with people and luggage, get off the ground–but I don’t understand them. Intuition says, Impossible!

A friend whispered a Jewish superstition to me that’s supposed to keep you safe, which, while not believing in it any more than I believed that planes really could fly, I adopted. I can’t tell it here or it will stop working for me, but if you know a Jew who has a great-grandmother or if you are a Jew with such a great-grandmother, ask her to whisper it in your ear. That superstition has kept me calm on flights ever since. I haven’t used it in any additional circumstances, though there are others that scare me too, but the practice is a little uncomfortable and inconvenient and I don’t want it to take me over. If you find it out, don’t publish it! It’s secret!

I don’t think I’m being whiny to make the confession above. People’s fears are often interesting. Readers are likely to be drawn in rather than put off. Imperfection humanizes characters–even if they’re elves!

In this case (unlike mine), the elf has a real reason to be afraid. The mission of this society is to rescue elves from danger–so the danger isn’t imaginary. Not being afraid would be odd. His fellow elves are likely to be afraid, too. How do they handle their fear? This is a great opportunity for character development, because we all process, manage, and give in to fear differently. We, the writers, can experiment with lots of ways on our characters and decide which will best suit our MC. We can try to write a minor character whiny elf (probably not easy) and give the whining to him or her.

Is fear whiny if it’s just in thoughts? To me, a whine involves an annoying sound, and it needs repetition. If he rarely speaks of his fear, he’s unlikely to be whiny. But I think he can talk about it often and still not be whiny. As Song4myKing suggests, he can be funny. Comedians often turn their foibles into humor. This elf can do that, too.

His nattering on about his fears may even set his companions at ease. He’s far more frightened than they are. And they may also feel less alone.

In characters and people, there’s nothing wrong with fear. A person or character entirely without fear is exceptional if not troubling. What one does with fear is what counts. If, out of fear, our elf lets a friend go into danger alone, the reader may not like him, and his talk of fear may then sound unpleasant.

Of course, he can let the friend go into danger alone the first time–and redeem himself later, and I believe the reader will forgive him.

I’m charmed by this MC’s love of books and wonder if that might be another tool to address the whiny factor. He can remember his favorite fictional characters and bring their strengths in to help him, with varying results. Humor may be discovered there, too.

Also, as is always true, we can fix whining–and see more clearly whether it is or isn’t whining–in revision. When we gain some distance from our story, its flaws become evident–and fixable–and so do its virtues, like the perfectly nuanced fear of the MC we thought was whiny.

Here are three prompts:

∙ Your technophobic elves discover a high-tech bomb ticking away in their home, the basement of an office building. If the bomb goes off, they and hundreds of people will die. Each is struck with terror. Describe their behavior. Write the scene.

∙ Your (human) MC discovers, at the riding camp she begged her parents to send her to, that she’s afraid of horses. She knows no one at the camp. Going home is not an option. Write a scene. If you like, write the story.

∙ If we’re discussing fear, we can’t skip a haunted house. This one appears on an island in the middle of a lake where the day before there were only trees. Light burns in an attic window, and black smoke issues from three chimneys. The smoke wafts to our MC’s town. People choke. Babies can barely breathe. Someone has to enter the house, get to the source of the smoke, and stop it. Write the story.

Have fun, and save what you write!

What do you want already, you character, you?

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

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

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

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

These are great examples!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are four prompts:

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

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

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

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

Have fun, and save what you write!