Explain Less, Write More

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When you write, the temptation is to explain everything because you want to make sure your reader understands your story. You don’t want to leave any stone unturned, especially if it has any connection at all to the story you want to tell.

You try to explain your characters’ backgrounds because you know that provides your characters’ motivation, why they behave in certain ways or say things the way they do or even just say whatever it is you make them say. As you do that, you talk about their upbringing, their family and friends, their family history. You try to develop a whole character report, including what could pass for a decent psychological evaluation. You include birth dates, places, schools, past jobs—a complete dossier on each character.

You try to explain the setting because you believe the readers need to see your characters’ environment, the environment of the story, where it is happening and where it all began. You present no less than an historical treatment of the village, town, city, or country your characters move around in. You describe every room, house, street, and building in detail because you don’t want your reader to miss anything.

All that work and you still haven’t started telling your story! All that preparation and the first thing your editor does is chop it all out. All those painstaking details and it gets thrown away. Really, I have seen psychological evaluations that run as long as forty pages. And all for just a single person. And that doesn’t even include a comprehensive background or family history. You argue and agonize and complain and try to sneak the material back in, maybe even dump your editor and find a new one because you think your writing was brilliant and detailed.

It doesn’t matter how meticulous or brilliant any writing is that went into background because that is all it is—background. Any time you try to explain things to prepare the reader for what will happen merely takes away from how much time and space you have to show the reader what is happening—the true action of the story. How do you avoid this common pitfall?

When I teach fiction writing, I encourage students to imagine they are in their character’s shoes—whichever character’s point of view it is—and provide descriptions for anything as the character encounters it. For instance, don’t describe a house until your character sees it, from approach to entry. That way, your reader sees the house from the character’s perspective. Refrain from describing anything inside the house until the character has opened the door and looked in. Don’t describe the upstairs rooms if the character is moving around in the kitchen—unless your character is thinking of the upstairs rooms. If your character never sees the basement, there’s no need to describe it. Unless you have another character who’s thinking of the basement or is in the basement. It’s the same thing with characters encountering other characters. If the character knows nothing about another character and you’re setting them up to meet, don’t describe the second character until your first character sees him or her. That way, your reader also sees others through your character’s eyes. That way, you can introduce action and dialogue from the very start of your story instead of providing details that the reader is likely to forget as the story progresses.

It’s somewhat different with novels, of course, but it also depends on the type of novel you are writing. If you can carry on a brilliant dissertation on the creation and evolution of an island over a thousand years before it becomes populated with people the way Michener did, then, by all means, go right ahead. Otherwise, cut it short. After all, not everyone is a huge fan of Michener.

Show, not Tell, with Dialogue

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Many of my writing students avoid dialogue because they struggle with it, and rightly so. Creating convincing, concise dialogue is a challenge that compounds writing stories. What they do not realize is that dialogue helps writers show rather than tell.

Consider the effect, for instance, of writing:

She wore an attractive, brightly-colored dress.

This is you, the author via your narrator, telling your reader what she wore.

Compare that to the effect achieved by the following:

“Do you like my dress?” Darlene said as she twirled in a full circle, flouncing the skirt as she did. “I think yellow looks good on me,” she smiled.

In the first example, your writing presents the reader with adjectives for a dress, but does not provide any action. The reader will either gloss over the sentence or, if imaginative, create an image of “she” in the dress, which could be yellow, orange, red, yellow-green, or some other bright color or a mixture of colors. Neither does the reader have the vaguest idea what the dress looks like. Is it long or short? Loose or fitting? Straight or flouncy? Unless you elaborate on that sentence by adding more descriptions, there will always be a lot of room for interpretation—sometimes more than you want.

In the second example, we know who “she” is—Darlene. We know she’s wearing a dress and it has a skirt that flounces as she twirls. We know the dress is yellow. More than that, we know Darlene likes the yellow dress and is light-hearted, expressive, and in a good mood. How can we tell? Because someone in a bad mood wouldn’t care much about wearing a bright, cheerful yellow; a more serious person would not be caught twirling to show off a dress; nor would an introverted or shy girl twirl, show-off a dress, and more than that, think aloud that they looked good in anything.

While the color or style of a character’s outfit might not always be relevant, sometimes we need to include more vivid descriptions because they provide readers with a clearer picture of your story. The trick is not to weigh down your story with bulky descriptions that can be made more memorable and effective with dialogue.

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.

On Writing: Writing Retreats and Inspiration

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And by the way, everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.
~ Sylvia Plath, The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath

Happy Easter to all!

As a teacher in Catholic institutions, certain things were a given, including annual retreats, often held during the Lenten season, which was something I actually welcomed back then. Retreats are a great way to withdraw from the rest of the world to collect your thoughts and, as a writer, retreats are a welcome time to devote to nothing but the creative process. My writing group recently took a one-day write-in, not quite the weekend retreat we take each year, but a whole day to take a break from our daily hustle-and-bustle just to write with a bunch of like-minded individuals. It’s a wonderful break that I look forward to because when I write at home, there are too many distractions. Not to mention, editing jobs that require a different type of attention. It’s wonderful to just share the creative energy that electrifies the air when 10 people are in one place all writing. It’s also wonderful to share a little bit about what you’re doing, what you think, how you write. It’s a great way to connect with fellow writers who understand your little idiosyncrasies because they also have theirs. That is why I look forward to those little writing “retreats.” They break down the stereotype of the solitary writer. What people don’t realize is that, while writers mostly write alone, they are far from solitary. Writers, like any other creative person, need a creative energy that they get from being among people. They might not necessarily interact with those people or even know them well, but it is precisely those people who feed them with ideas and inspiration to write. People are inspiring and people inspire the imagination. While poets can shoot off the most impressive and sensual combination of words and phrases at the sight of a sunset or a flower petal or a leaf floating on a slip of wind, or even a shoe lost in the mud, prose writers, especially fiction writers, need to see and experience people, life, the whole teeming humanity of it in all its splendor or ignominy. That is what writers write about. Life and everything in, about, and around it. And when we know that others also struggle in their writing, we are encouraged and inspired to continue because success does eventually come, albeit in a varying degrees.

All writing comes from life. That is the simple bare truth about it. No matter how wild your imagination, it is and will always be something about life—and yes, death is part of life because any writing about dead people is in reference to their lives, the people they left behind, the people they meet in death or the after-life or whatever you want to call it. Fantasy writing, no matter how otherworldly or fantastic is about life because your creatures and characters are personified—they speak, think, feel, and behave pretty much the way humans do; and even their inhumanity and non-human behavior is based on what you have seen, observed, read, or researched about. Armed with that knowledge, there really is nothing off limits as far as what there is for you to write about. All you need is one little nugget of truth and a lot of imagination. Sometimes, you worry about not having enough imagination or a creative enough imagination. Sometimes, all you need is the power of observation and the ability to put your ideas down in sentences. Writing, in many ways, helps you make sense of what is happening around you. Every single day, you are bombarded with information and sensory input. All you have to do is put it together like a puzzle. Your pieces can come from anywhere. You might have a character with traits from a dozen different people you actually know or just one or two. You might create a setting that’s a little bit of a dozen different places you’ve been or just a one. You might create a history and future for a single event you read about in the news or witnessed at the bus station. It might be the woman in the line-up at the supermarket checkout; it might be the stray kitten in the gutter; it might be the well-dressed man with the fedora at the bookstore; it might be odd plastic bag swirling with an eddy of dried leaves in the middle of an intersection. All you need is one little prompt, a lot of imagination, and the courage to put pen to paper and write away.

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.

Character Types: Dynamic vs Static

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Plot is people. Human emotions and desires founded on the realities of life, working at cross purposes, getting hotter and fiercer as they strike against each other until finally there’s an explosion—that’s Plot.
~Leigh Brackett, WD

 

We’ve been discussing how to make characters more interesting in your writing. One of the best ways to guarantee interesting characters, besides making them ROUND is to make your characters DYNAMIC as opposed to STATIC. Granted, literature needs its share of static characters, because sometimes the stories just need the characters to be the same. People come back to certain writers because their characters are the same, predictable, reliable. Procedural stories, which would be the basis of procedural drama in television, often have static characters. As the term suggests, static characters do not change. They remain the same from beginning to end. They often don’t grow older and they don’t generally have life-shattering experiences. There are hundreds of highly popular static characters in serial books, and there are quite a few I remember and enjoyed reading: Nancy Drew, Perry Mason, James Bond, the Bobbsey Twins, the Dana girls, the Hardy Boys, Miss Marple, and Sherlock Holmes. More recent serial publications with static characters? To some extent, the Bourne series and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoos series. Sometimes, the static characters don’t age, sometimes they do, but in every book, they pretty much think, act, and speak the same way. They do not undergo deep transformations. That’s why they’re suited to adventure and action series. Don’t get me wrong, you can write static characters and they can be very successful, as you can see from the examples I’ve given. They serve a very good purpose, and that is, the series. When the characters grow up, change, achieve their goals and move on, the series either ends or changes. Best example? The Harry Potter series. That’s a limited series because Harry Potter has achieved his goal of seeking revenge on his parents’ killer. Anything else after that time will be a new story. Those characters are prime examples of DYNAMIC characters. You’ve probably surmised by now, that dynamic characters are the opposite of static characters. They develop, change, become different, grow into someone else. They have life-changing and eye-opening experiences that alter their characters so that the way they are when you first encounter them is not who they are by the end of the book. Sometimes, the change is almost indiscernible. It could be a change in attitude or values that show how a character matures. These changes are not always accompanied by life-shattering events or dramatic physical changes. It also depends on the time span of your work. A story that takes place over a longer time is more likely to affect the characters or show how characters change in many different ways. No matter what the situation, your story involves characters with human sentiments, human traits, human foibles. What makes humanity makes your story. What moves humanity will move your readers.

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!

 

3 Basic Plot Types

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Many critics subscribe to the idea that there is no original idea or thought anymore, hence, nothing completely original that anyone can write about. Themes or plots? There are books and lists discussing every possible plot there ever was for a story. Depending on who you want to follow or believe in, you can classify every story or plot as one of three, nine, thirteen, twenty, or thirty-six plots. In the years I have studied and taught literature, I find that all plots can be reduced to three very basic plots, which my senior high school literature teacher introduced to me, and which I later encountered again while taking my Masters in literature. I find that all other plots are simply variations or elaborations of these three plots, based on the actions of the protagonist. For my teaching, I have decided to modify them slightly to suit my personality and preferences:

  • Running Man
  • Standing Man
  • Trapped Man

Consider every possible motivation, action, reaction, and consequence you can think of putting into a story and you will find that your plot will always be one of these three. The RUNNING MAN plot is all about a person running towards something or away from something. It’s the classic action-adventure plot and, understandably, the most exciting. You should write with this plot if you want to keep your readers at the edge of their seats. The STANDING MAN plot is all about a person who hasn’t decided what to do and needs to make a decision. It’s the type of plot for anything cerebral or introspective. If you want to focus on a character’s thoughts, personal development, and reactions to external influences and use up your whole story waiting for that character to make a decision, this is your plot type. Remember that from a standing position, your character can sit, lie down, fall down, or remain standing, all of which symbolize defeat, regression, or retreat. On the other hand, your character can decide to move from his spot, either walking or running. If this happens early in your story, then your plot is really the running man. If this happens only at the end of the story, then your plot is the standing man. Many post-modern stories fall under this classification because of their focus on metacognitive thought. I would classify coming-of-age stories as having this type of plot, particulary when the main character is at a loss which way to go; the main character is “standing” figuratively because he is being affected by an uncontrollable (external) factor—growing up—and he doesn’t know if he really wants to grow up or change. Classically, Holden Caulfield of Catcher in the Rye comes to mind. Finally, when your character has a problem or is in a situation that he actively or desperately wants to get out of and the whole story involves trying to get out of that situation or problem, then your plot is the TRAPPED MAN. Unlike the standing man, who sometimes doesn’t know he’s actually “trapped”, the trapped man is fully aware of his situation. Being trapped can be literal, e.g., your person is in a physical prison, captured, shackled, or what have you; or it can be figurative entrapment, e.g., a loveless or bad relationship, an oppressive home. All other types can easily be fit into these three types, which is why I prefer to teach just these three. However, for more mature students or more advanced classes, I will mention other plot classifications because they are more specific and more descriptive. As for the use of “MAN” in the names, I’m neutral in this use. I don’t subscribe to being overly politically correct or excessively feminist. I like the use of the word because it’s short and universal. If I ever were to change this word, especially in the light of inhuman characters as main characters or protagonists, I might resort to just using the adjectives or replacing “man” with “protagonist” or “character”—both of which are such unwieldy long words. I do like brevity in titles.