Writing the Truth

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One of the things many of my short story writing students seem to find most difficult is writing fiction based on fact. They try to fit a real story into a short story plot without changing a thing, but want to use the true story as the basis of their short stories anyway, because they want to explore why it happened, help others understand the situation, or just share it because it was interesting to them. The hardest thing to explain is that they do not need to stick to the truth when they are writing fiction. In fact, many times, the truth might seem stranger than fiction. Many things don’t make sense, especially when the writer learns about the story from several different sources. Probably the hardest thing to teach aspiring writers is how to sift through all the details they think they should include to find the greater universality—the truth they want to really write about. Quite often, writers might start out without even knowing what truth they are writing about and go about it in a roundabout way. In fact, we are surrounded by stories, a great deal of them worthy of writing. However, we might not always have enough information to write the story. Thankfully, there is such a thing nowadays as microfiction. If we can’t write that novel, we can find publishing platforms for stories under 1,000 words. All you need to start with is a single event. As a writer, it’s your job to fill in the details that led to that event and the details that ensue from that event. If you were a journalist or a researcher, you would be looking for all the people involved, uncovering motives, personalities, histories. You would look at what happened to the people involved, how each of them felt after the incident, what they did, what they thought, what it did to their lives. Because you’re writing fiction, however, instead of looking for the facts before and after your story event, you weave the stories, inventing lives for each of the characters, giving them motives, personalities, histories so your readers know your characters intimately. You create an ending after the event, allowing your characters to somehow triumph over their situations even if it did not happen that way in real life. You devise some form of closure so your readers will have closure, because readers need that—even if their closure happens several books after the first. When that happens, you can celebrate your success in producing a series.

We know that the universal truth conveyed in timeless stories—the classics—is something we seek as writers. To plan a story around this universality is usually not as easy as it is to write about an event and discover the universality from that. The value in starting this way is that the writing can be more spontaneous and less forced. What is important is that the story itself is sound: in plot and structure, language and imagery, characters and motivations. As you develop your story, you need to weave in elements that resonate with the rest of humanity, mostly by working around powerful emotions: love, hatred, triumph, despair, fear, greed, ecstasy. These are what make stories interesting. If your characters don’t feel any of these, your readers aren’t likely to feel much for them, either. You need only read an anthology of short stories from any cross-section of history to find all these emotions. You need only read the winning stories from contests over the last handful of years to get a feel of the emotions that litter fiction and you will understand what makes fiction universal. Everything else can be invented. What will stand out and touch the readers are the emotions. Those are your greater truths.

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On Writing: Finishing

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The hard part about writing a novel is finishing it.
~ Ernest Hemingway

 

Endings. Whether it’s short or long fiction, sometimes the hardest thing to do with something you’re writing is how to end it. I have heard of many writers who write with an end in mind. In a way, that could make things easier because your only problem would be to figure out how to bring your story to that ending. Of course, sometimes, the characters have a mind of their own and decide to move in a different direction, turning your expected ending into something completely unexpected. Some writers are inspired by a great beginning. I imagine Dickens’s beginning for A Tale of Two Cities, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” gave him a huge field to explore, assuming he started that story with the beginning. Not every writer writes purely out of sheer inspiration, and I don’t imagine every great book began with the ending in mind. The more methodical and structured writers will plan their stories with a clear beginning, middle, and end. In fact, that is how I teach students to write their stories. I do emphasize that this is a plan, a blueprint, if you will, for the story, and the final work may not even be anything like the original plan. However, with a clear story arc formed by three distinct parts—beginning, middle, and end—you can proceed along a path that gives your story direction. I’d like to say that, most of the time, it should and will work out as planned, and it does, especially if you build on the basic parts and not lose sight of them. As you write, though, it’s important to be flexible and adapt to how your story develops. Sometimes, you might see a better ending or a more effective climax; or, as you write your ending, you realize you need to revise your beginning. That’s all to be expected. The worst thing that can happen is when you insist on writing the story the way you planned it even if the other story elements aren’t fitting in as planned. I’m not saying you should ditch the whole story, maybe you should just change it and work with what is getting written. You might end up with two completely different stories. When writing a novel, it becomes a little more complicated because you are dealing with several characters, several subplots, several scenes. Sometimes, some of the characters threaten to take over the lead, sometimes the subplots become larger than the main plot. There will always be a great deal of adjusting and adaptation as the smaller stories develop and the characters interact. No matter what ending you plan, once your characters come alive, your novel will have a life of its own and will continue. Unless you have excellent control over it, the tendency will be for that novel to beget a sequel and another until it becomes a series. That is how sequels, trilogies, quadrilogies, quintilogies, and so on have become so popular. Neither reader nor author wants the story to end. However, end it must, and if it can only happen by killing your favorite characters, then so be it. What is important is that the novel is written, ended, and completed. That’s quite the accomplishment, especially considering there must be thousands of novels that writers began to write that were never finished.

We often hear our elders, teachers, mentors, and parents, no less, to always ‘finish what you’ve started.’ In a world where everything seems to get shorter and shorter, fiction being no exception, it seems harder to complete a novel when you’re not even sure people will be reading it through and through. Nonetheless, there is a market for novels, with upwards of 50,000 novels published in the US alone. The number is an approximation, based on 2007 statistics, and if a projection is made worldwide, there might be upwards of 80,000 novels published each year in English alone. Top sellers reach circulation numbers of at least 1,000 books each week to get into the NYT (New York Times) bestseller list, which is the most significant and probably most prestigious bestseller list to be on. PEI bestseller status is achieved with a sale of 900 books and numbers are greater in the rest of Canada. This is actually good news for writers because we know there are still readers out there, so go ahead, write that novel, but make sure you finish what you started. As a writer, I am living proof that it’s easy to start a novel–I must have started about a dozen already–but it’s nowhere nearly as easy to finish one. Poetry, short fiction, and creative non-fiction are child’s play in comparison. I have to admit length is a huge factor. Anything else but a novel can be done in a single sitting. (Incidentally, I’m only speaking of creative writing here, as opposed to academic writing. Academic books also take a very long time to write, certainly more than one sitting.) Poetry might take a few minutes. Short fiction, depending on how short, can take anywhere from a few minutes to a couple of hours–with the exception of the longest short stories every written–forty pages of print takes more than a couple of hours. Essays and all other forms of creative non-fiction can also be completed within an hour or less. But a novel! To write 35,000-50,000 for a children’s novel, 80,000 words, which is the standard length for a YA novel, or over 100,000 words for a 200-page novel can easily take 100 hours, assuming you can write 1,000 words per hour. If you type fast and the ideas are just pouring out, you might get out more than 1,000 words per hour–that’s about 4 pages of print, double-spaced. So if you were to write just an hour a day at that rate, you’d have your 200-page novel in about 50 days; a month or less if you wrote two hours a day at that rate; if you’re a full time writer and spend at least 6 hours a day writing, you might have a novel in half a month. Pretty impressive, but you’d have to be a very methodical or very manic writer, or a combination of both–which is what I’d say most writers are. If your aim is to write a book a year, aiming for 1,000 words per day, or about an hour of writing, can get you enough content to fill a 200 pages in a couple of months, leaving you the rest of the year to edit and revise–which really usually takes a lot more work than the original writing. Unless you’re a very methodical writer and have everything planned out down to the last scene so that practically all you need to do when you’re writing the book is putting in the dialogue, or whatever other method highly disciplined writers do. The point is to write, write as often as you can, and aim to finish what you started. Otherwise, you’ll get a dozen opening pages that will, in all likelihood, be chopped out anyway. It’s time for me to take my advise.

The Writer’s Ego

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I almost always urge people to write in the first person. … Writing is an act of ego and you might as well admit it.
~William Zinsser

 

Even if writers do not realize it, writing is their way of putting themselves out for the world to see. It’s a way of saying, “Here I am, world. This is me.” They might think they aren’t revealing anything of themselves in their writing, especially if they write about things other than themselves, yet everything they write carries their mark. Little bits and pieces of themselves, their feelings, their beliefs, their values, their choices, their preferences, even their hopes and frustrations, show up in their writing. Not that the readers will always know or find out, but those who do know the writer will know what parts of the written works are really parts of the writer. Fiction writers are probably the best at hiding who they really are in their works because they can put themselves in several different characters with no one character really reflecting who they are. Even the settings of their stories can seem so remote from their reality, the truth becomes unrecognizable except to the most discerning and critical scholar. Poets, on the other hand, reveal themselves in their poetry over and over again, quite simply because poetry is an expression of the self. Whereas prose can be objective and distant, poetry is highly personal and subjective. Poetry is the voice of the soul and for writers to express themselves in poetry is to bare their souls to the world. Either way, writing, more than any other professional pursuit, is a public declaration that the writer is not afraid to let the world know the person behind the work. Even when writing incognito, the writer knows there will be feedback, and it is a rare writer, especially at the start of a career, who will not care what their reading public says. It is exactly that feedback that convinces writers to persevere or, possibly, select another vocation, because writing, as an avocation, is merely dabbling in the art. The person whose vocation is writing will do everything to become completely immersed in writing, to be a writer through and through, to put the id, the ego, and the superego into words.

Using Details in Writing

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You do not have to explain every single drop of water contained in a rain barrel. You have to explain one drop—H2O. The reader will get it.
~George Singleton

When told to provide descriptions and details, inexperienced writers often tend to include too many details, details that have no purpose or that are too much information. How do you know just how much detail to include? My first rule for writing details is to be exact. No matter what you are describing, use the most exact words you can find. Use appropriate terms while avoiding too much jargon, especially if your jargon limits readership severely or makes your writing of interest only to those with the same technical knowledge you are writing about. The exact term can mean the difference between half a dozen words and a single word or two. It also allows you to get directly to the point without digressing in explanations that are not necessary.

The next rule you need to remember is to make sure the details you provide are necessary and important to the story. You might describe a tree and want to write about the multicolored shading of the multitude of leaves; how the branches might twist and turn and scars from nature pockmark the bark; how a squirrel is tucked into an old knot that has rotted out, or the roots jut out of the ground like knees and tentacles. All these descriptions are good and create a wonderful image of a tree, but why would your reader need to see it that way? Does one of the characters see it that way? Unless a character in your story has intimate knowledge of the tree and needs to see all those details—maybe because the character is a botanist or a birdwatcher or a treehugger or someone stuck in that tree for long enough to observe all the little details—there is no need for that kind of detail. If it doesn’t involve the characters, cut it out. If it doesn’t contribute to moving the plot ahead, cut it out. If it doesn’t enhance the reader’s understanding of the characters or the plot, cut it out. If it doesn’t contribute to the overall mood or tone of the story, cut it out.

When you do include details, try to create a bigger picture for things that are encountered as part of a larger setting: a barrel of water instead of raindrops that fill the barrel; a forest instead of individual trees; a blanket of snow instead of hundreds of individual snowflakes. For things characters encounter intimately—for instance, a character who is having the worst time trying to fall asleep will notice everything, from the rustling of leaves outside the window to the lumps in his pillow and the creases on the sheets under him. On the other hand, if a character crashes into bed and falls right asleep, he’s not going to notice whether the sheets are silk or jersey, if the pillows are flat or fluffy, if the birds are chirping outside his window, or even if the bathroom floor is filthy.

Inexperienced writers also have a tendency to want to explain as much as they can. It is important to remember that readers also know a lot of things and it isn’t necessary to explain everything. Unless a character has a very unusual way of putting together a sandwich, there’s no need to explain how a sandwich is made step by step. You need to consider what is common knowledge and assume that your readers will know what is generally known. There’s no need to explain how a car is driven or how a house is built unless it is an unusual car. Even science fiction stories set in space ships don’t go into great detail about how the space ship operates, unless characters are involved in the operation thereof.

It’s exactly what I tell my writing students when creating character profiles and settings. You can write a complete character profile including biographical details, a detailed physical description, and a psychological profile, but not all of that will appear in the story; even if you eventually reveal everything about your character, you certainly should not dump all that information on your readers in a single logorrheic discharge. In the same way we don’t discover everything about a person or place in a single sitting or a single visit, you should only reveal as much details as are encountered and necessary at any given time. Many times, your details will and should only be part of a sentence or two, rarely a paragraph, certainly not a full page. Any physical descriptions should also be interspersed with actions and dialogue. A character’s long hair might be revealed when he tosses his head and his hair flips backwards like a horse’s mane. A weakness for chocolate might be revealed by a bowl of assorted chocolate candies on a character’s kitchen counter or as a centerpiece on a table. It all ties in with the art of showing rather than telling. Filling your prose with descriptions leads with a tendency to tell rather than to show. If you want to create minute detailed descriptions of everything, you might want to try your hand at poetry or creative non-fiction.

Too much detail can be tedious and lead a story away from from its plot. Too many explanations can be tiring and leave nothing to the imagination. They can also burden the reader with too much information. Sometimes, it’s really better to leave things to the reader’s imagination. That’s one of the good things about reading–it stimulates the imagination, and your writing should aim to do that. If you want to explain things, in extensive detail, you might want to try writing non-fiction instead, or instructional materials. Sometimes, you need to give the reader the benefit of the doubt. Readers don’t pick up your book or story knowing nothing. You need to trust that your reader is already knowledgeable about many things, which is why they’re able to read fiction. Unless, of course, you’re writing encyclopedia entries–even then, you need to assume the readers already have certain basic knowledge. Try to think the way the characters would. Describe and explain things according to how the characters see them or experience them. Provide information that will be important to the characters and that will help your characters deal with their problems. Whether or not your character finds the information immediately or later in your story, you have set things up in a world your characters live in, as opposed to blending your world with your story world. If your characters don’t need explanations for certain things, your readers don’t need them either. If your details don’t help your characters or the story, your readers don’t need them. Those are your ultimate cues for how much to include in your fiction.

There’s Always Something to Write About

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We’re past the age of heroes and hero kings. … Most of our lives are basically mundane and dull, and it’s up to the writer to find ways to make them interesting.
~John Updike, WD

I would not quickly agree with Updike that we’re past the age of heroes and hero kings. While our current world might not warrant wandering about on horses or in armor with swords at our sides or even bows slung across our backs, we have our chariots and our props, tools of the trade that we use to struggle through life. Probably the biggest challenge in contemporary literature is finding characters that are interesting enough to write about. We forget that people are interesting and as writers, we need to learn to bring out everything that is interesting about them. In my memoir writing classes, I have encountered people saying they have nothing to write about because nothing interesting has happened in their lives. Yet, as I guide them with tips, techniques, questions, and prompts, they suddenly find that there are so many interesting things that have happened in their lives. Now, they have more than enough to actually write about. I, on the other hand, have the quandary of what to write about first. I have encountered so many interesting people, places, and events in my modest and not too short life thus far, and the accumulation of memories is startling, when I think of it. People don’t need to be highly imaginative to become writers. They just need to learn how to use vivid descriptions, picturesque language, detailed imagery. It’s the details that make things more interesting. Remember when someone, possibly a grandparent or an uncle or aunt or even your parents, told a story that everyone enjoyed? They remember details that involve all our senses–sights, smells, sounds, textures, feelings–every little detail adds to creating a picture, a painting of something that happened, and if the action is as vividly described, then the painting becomes a movie clip or a staged scene, and when enough of those are strung together, you have a living, breathing movie in words. Isn’t writing grand?

Character Types: Round vs Flat

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We’re past the age of heroes and hero kings. … Most of our lives are basically mundane and dull, and it’s up to the writer to find ways to make them interesting.
~John Updike, WD

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We started talking about character creation and description in our last installment. Creating characters is such an intricate process and I’ve already described how to develop a character profile in “How to Create Memorable Characters” and, more recently, “Writing Realistic Characters.” What many of you might not be familiar with are the different types of characters. Knowing the different types helps you decide how to develop your characters and how much to develop them. I’ve already discussed the most common type, the STOCK character. A stock character is a common type found in literature through the ages. They’re also called stereotypes. Many of these characters came from classical literature and, because they have the same general traits and purpose in a story, they’re easy to integrate in a story. Stock characters are pull-of-the-shelf varieties and if you look at fairy tales, legends, and classical drama, you’ll find a wide variety of stock characters. I remembering describing stock characters in an earlier article, calling to mind Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers, or fairy tale Cinderellas and wicked stepmothers. The next two character types are ROUND vs FLAT characters. Round characters are well-developed characters with complex characteristics. These are the realistic characters I’ve been talking about. They have personalities, quirks, families, histories, and futures. Round characters are like real people because you create them that way. When you include physical, psychological, and biographical information about a character, you have a round character. Your main characters are most interesting when they are round, so you should plan around that. On the other hand, you could have FLAT characters. Flat characters are one-dimensional or, at most, two-dimensional. They are like cartoons on a page, caricatures, because they take the one outstanding trait of a character and you do not see anything else about that character. Flat characters are completely predictable. They always react the same way, they don’t have thoughts, let alone deep ones; they rarely have relationships, deep or complex personalities, histories. You’re probably thinking, why do flat characters exist at all? In short fiction, flat characters are not likely to even exist. In longer fiction, we use flat characters to fill in the role of extras, such as the nosy next-door neighbor, the cranky garbage collector, the crotchety spinster, the 97-pound weakling, the brawny football hero, the dumb blonde. Stock characters can also be flat characters, but don’t have to be. You can take stock characters and give them complex personalities and problems, something you’ll never really find with flat characters. You need flat characters in your stories because your main characters need to interact with those flat characters as they get through their days; you need flat characters to remain flat because they provide your main characters incredible contrast and color; despite their flatness, your flat characters also provide color in your story, albeit background color. Just don’t overdo it. Like a painting, keep your flat characters in the background and your round, three-dimensional characters in the foreground.

Next time: Dynamic vs Static Characters

 

On Writing: Dealing with Adverbs

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The road to hell is paved with adverbs.

~Stephen King

Quite recently in the world of writing, adverbs have been shunned, probably because of what Stephen King wrote in his iconic book On Writing, which provides writers with a great deal of advice on how to improve writing with his unique writing style and perspective. This really isn’t anything new. Ever since the very fist edition of Strunk & White’s Elements of Style was published in 1959, writing teachers have tried to impress on students of writing the concept of “less is more.” That King specifically cites adverbs has everyone jumping the bandwagon and cutting out any word ending in –ly from their works. I’d say that’s really a rash reaction, because adverbs are beautiful words that help the reader create an image in their mind. What writers need to remember is that there are different kinds of adverbs, and some are worse than others, insofar as leading a writer down the road to hell. The use of adverbs is closely linked with the need for writers to “show, not tell,” a skill that is more difficult to master than many writers think. Because adverbs, especially adverbs of manner, tell us how verbs act. For example, we say “He ran quickly” using the adverb “quickly” to describe how he ran. In this example, I’d say the use of the adverb ‘quickly’ is lazy, just because there are so many ways to describe running. The preferred and more effective option is to use the exact word, and in this case, ‘ran’ is not exact enough. To show how a person runs quickly, we can more effectively use the words raced, rushed, dashed, hurried—you get the idea. Choosing the more exact word is using more picturesque language with less words. Alternately, you can say “His legs pumped up and down as he pounded the ground with his feet, his face drenched with sweat pouring from his brow with the effort, touching all he passed with a rush of warm air.”

On the other hand, there are adverbs that have no better way of being said, such as adverbs of time and place. There’s no better way to say “today” than with the word ‘today’; there’s no easier way to say ‘up’ or ‘down’ than by using the adverbs exactly as they are. When using linking adverbs, you need to make sure they are necessary. Linking adverbs help describe sequence (then), cause and effect (consequently), and contrast (however) and give us better transition between ideas, phrases, and sentences. Be careful not to overuse linking adverbs, though. I advise against the use of evaluative adverbs in writing fiction because it introduces too much of the author’s opinion into the text; use evaluative adverbs only when they reflect a specific character’s thoughts. Authors need to be very careful not to be actively present in their stories, and leave the stories to the characters and their narrator. Even if you use the omniscient narrator, who sees and knows everything, you must be careful to maintain your narrator’s persona. If you want to write your personal opinions, then write creative nonfiction. Unless you want to sound like today’s younger speakers, be careful how you use degree adverbs—adverbs that show to what extent or degree something happens. Modern language has seen the introduction of some words to replace the word ‘much’ so instead of saying ‘much more’ or ‘much less’ we hear people saying ‘way more’ or ‘way less’ and so on. Unless your character has a terribly limited vocabulary, I’d limit the use of this colloquialism. Focusing adverbs can also be dispensed with most of the time because they tell the reader what to think, rather than show them things, and are generally a matter of opinion (in the same way I used the word ‘generally’ in this sentence).

All this is not to say that we shouldn’t use adverbs at all. Adverbs can be very effective when used judiciously. Sometimes, there isn’t enough time to ‘show’ the reader everything in full picturesque detail because sometimes the details are not that important. In that case, you can either use the adverb or eliminate the details, because they probably aren’t significant enough to include.

How to Create Memorable Characters

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[I]t’s not a good idea to try to put your wife into a novel. Not your latest wife, anyway.

~Norman Mailer, quoted in Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews, Third Series, 1967

 

How are characters created? In non-fiction, characters are clearly real people as described by the writer. In fiction, however, characters are supposed to be completely fictitious, a.k.a., unreal, made-up, invented, created, imaginary. And yet, the best writers are the most notorious borrowers, copiers, and imitators, mainly of life. How else would they be able to create surrealistically real scenarios and characters if they did not borrow, copy, or imitate from real life? The best writers are excellent students of life in that they observe life keenly and everything they see becomes a potential source for something they write. They might describe a restaurant, but if they had never sat in a restaurant and observed every little detail about it, from the cutlery to the cuisine, from the service to the servers, from the entrance to the ambience, they would not be able to create a restaurant in words that places the reader exactly where the characters are. The same thing goes for characters. Writers need to observe people closely, watching every movement and pose, from the twitch of the fingers to the facial tics, from the strands of hair to the creases and folds of their clothes, from the twinkling in the eyes to the faintest blue or red capillaries weaving delicate networks on a papery-skinned cheek—such is what brings characters to life. As well, not a single little mannerism should escape them, from how a coffee mug is grasped to how hair is brushed from the face, or how fingers tap or twirl and feet jiggle to the slant of shoulders, the tilt of the head, the curvature of the spine, the way ankles or knees or arms cross—all these make characters more human. To complete that image, characters have voices, different tones, different expressions and ejaculations, different accents, different kinds of laughs. It’s not surprising, therefore, if a writer’s characters resemble the people around them, the people they live with, the people close to them, or even the people they detest and abhor the most. Of course, only those who know both the writer and the people in the writer’s life will know who a writer has modelled a character after. In fact, if you are a writer looking for a character, you need look no farther than your family, friends, and acquaintances. In most cases, writers will pick and blend characteristics so that their fictitious characters are a mish-mash of traits from several real people. Depending on how realistic the fiction is, writers can take all the good traits from several real people and put them in the protagonist, then take all the bad traits from those same people or others and put them in the antagonist. While that may not sound realistic, that would certainly make a great caricature for a cautionary tale, a humorous tale, or a fantasy. Certainly, the more unrealistic characters are, the more impossible it is that they are real people. Of course, that is not to say that there are real people out there who are real characters—which is where our expression comes from for calling people “characters”—the fact that they seem so unreal, it’s almost as if they’ve been made up.

When I give workshops that teach writers how to develop characters, I usually provide participants with a character sheet, not unlike character sheets you might find for role-playing games, because they are, essentially, character creation sheets. Writers can develop their own or look for them in a variety of online writing resources. Basically, a character sheet has three major aspects: (1) the physical features of the character; (2) the biographical-historical background, and (3) the emotional-psychological features of the character.

As the categories suggest, the physical features tell us how tall, heavy, the color and length of hair, the eye color and shape, the shape of the body, identifying marks, hand and foot size, what fingers and toes look like, clothing size, teeth condition, nose and nostril type, neck, etc. It helps to have a picture of someone real, or to create analogies: swan-like neck, flared nostrils, chunky fingers and toes, spade fingernails, etc.

When describing biographical-historical background, we decide how old the character is, birthdate, place of birth, race, nationality, residence, family, relatives, languages, education, skills, places lived, their work, religion, memberships, training, jobs held, and all other types of things you might find in the most comprehensive biodata and curriculum vitae ever.

Third, and probably the most difficult, is establishing the emotional-psychological profile of the character. This includes quirks, beliefs, superstitions, attitudes, intellect, viewpoint on various topics from politics to art and culture to family, personality type, phobias, preferences, desires, weaknesses, dreams, and anything else that reflects their psyches. Finally, every character must have that fatal or tragic flaw. That one thing that is the character’s Achilles heel, the one thing that will affect the character’s success. It can be one or more of the character’s phobias or weaknesses that prevent success, but definitely one thing that within the character that works against overcoming the problem they face in the story. This is the humanizing factor that makes readers more sympathetic towards fictional characters, because we all know that nobody is perfect.

While I have presented a great deal of details that can go into the creation of a character, that is not to say every single detail must be present. As an aid to determining how much detail to include when creating a character, let me just say that the detail should be commensurate to the length of the story. The shorter the story, the less detail; longer, epic stories will need greater detail, because then, characters are exposed to the reader’s scrutiny in a greater variety of situations. They meet more characters, do more things, have more to accomplish or overcome; hence, they need to be more well-thought out, more fleshed-out, more real to account for every possibility along the way. This also makes them more realistic and, ultimately, more sympathetic. Readers will admire heroes but they adore heroes who succeed despite their flaws. In fact, the more flawed the hero, the more sympathetic and, in the end, the more sweet the triumph.

I still want to get a shirt that says: “Beware. Novelist. I’m watching you. I just might write you into my next novel.” Novelists do write people they know into their novels, because it’s the people they know best who provide them with the best fodder to humanize a character. If you want to paint them as the antagonists, however, heed Norman Mailer’s advice: don’t make your characters too much like the people you live with, because then, you’d have to live with them and they’d never let you live it down. They can make your life unbearable, so be careful what you write about them or how you write them into your novel. Especially if it’s your spouse. Unless they don’t read your novels at all, then you’ll be perfectly fine. Still and all, I think it one of the most fun and entertaining things to do as a writer, to include bits and pieces of real people into my characters. I’m sure every great writer has picked traits from people they have encountered to make their characters more interesting and real. The trick is to change the physical characteristics and biography so the real people aren’t easily recognizable. Try it on some character sketches and have fun!

 

Writing is Nonpareil

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Writing can wreck your body. You sit there on the chair hour after hour and sweat your guts out to get a few words.  ~Norman Mailer, 1998

Funny, I never had any problem completing writing assignments, regardless of the format. Anything from poetry to essays to research papers were a breeze. Assignments for the school papers or magazines I could pump out. Articles for press releases and publicity I could churn out. But when I decide to sign up for a 1-month-50K-word writing challenge, or tell myself I need to write my book my collections my stories my poetry I come up with sweaty guts à lá Norman Mailer, so I guess I’m not in such bad company. Probably the distractions of survival have something to do with it. I think it’s probably the knowledge and realization that life isn’t just getting up and going to class and doing what is expected of you or asked of you or even what you choose to do because you know you always have somewhere to go home to, food at the table or in the fridge, a bed, and all the creature comforts you need. When you’re writing and hoping that it will bring home the bacon and pay the bills, then it becomes an immensely unreliable method for relieving worry or for self-expression because your expression becomes limited to your source of worry which is whether or not your writing will sell and how soon and how much. Anyone who wants to be a writer by profession or vocation should first take a course on how to survive on writing alone. The intellectual, psychological, and emotional satisfaction you get is nonpareil.

The Trouble with Writing

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Every writer I know has trouble writing.

                                         ~Joseph Heller

Why do writers have trouble writing? Let’s face it. Writing isn’t easy. Except, maybe, for my friend Patti Larsen, who won the 2014 World’s Best  Story Award and churns out about 17 novels a year. Writing requires great skill, a wide vocabulary, an unlimited imagination, and infinite patience and perseverance, not to mention guts. Writers who start out with lots of talent and nothing else don’t get very far, I imagine. They might be the one-book-wonder who disappears into quiet obscurity because they never completed another book. It really isn’t just skill in constructing great sentences and paragraphs, but skill as well in putting those together into a masterful story; the skill of organization, which helps you keep all your ideas in order and helps you develop your story in a logical manner–that is logical at least to you; the skill of observation, which provides you with an unlimited source of ideas and details that bring your writing alive. We’re already familiar with the patience and perseverance it takes to write and revise until a book is ready for publication; it takes infinite patience and perseverance to get the book out and published, and even more to get publicity and marketing up to decent levels so that you can truly say that your career is writing, and it’s not just a hobby or something you do on the side while you’re working at another job that will pay the bills until you make that bestseller or award-winner. Even before the publication stage, writers need to have the courage–the guts–and the density to push your writing out there and at the mercy of public who either love your work,  tear it apart, or ignore it. In fact, I might prefer that they tear it apart, because from a marketing point of view, that would still sell books, and controversy generates interest; whereas a cool reception would not sell a single copy. All that exposure is tied to the fragile, introverted personality the majority of writers have, so it really makes it more difficult to dangle your work out there.