If you’re headed to the Left Coast Lesfic Conference, I’ll see you there!
I’m slated to do a workshop on character. That is, developing them. Making them groovy for sexy-time reading. Making readers WANT to follow your characters and find out where they go, whether they grow, or even if they fall.
So I’ve spent some time thinking about how to create and convey character, how to capture it, and how to hold on to it and make it arc logically and effectively. And we’ll talk about that in the workshop. But for those of you who can’t make it, here are some things to think about when you’re embarking on a writing journey.
I’m one of those writers who thinks that setting is absolutely key to your story. For me, characters and story can emerge from a setting. Characters are products of a setting, its history, its culture, and regional flavor. Alternatively, a character from somewhere else entering a new setting will be bringing his or her own background and context into that new place. You’ll need to think about how that plays out in the story arc and the character arc.
If you’ve decided on a setting for your story, and you’ve got a rough idea of a plot and some rough ideas about characters, then start fleshing out your main character. You’ll need to figure out what makes this person tick in order to make your readers care about his/her trip through your pages. So if you choose to read on, you’ll find 10 tips from Auntie Andi to help you think about characters, and how to flesh ‘em out.
The big, existential question is always: Who is this person?
So let’s dissect that.
1) Name? Some writers don’t care about names, and they’ll take the first one that comes along and slap it onto a character. Or they’ll name a character something unconventional, thinking it’s oh, so cool that their main character, a corporate lawyer, is named Talyn Tigerfoot. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, especially if you can actually make that work for the character. But if you can’t, it ends up being jarring for a reader. At any rate, I’m not that writer. I spend some time thinking about names and what the sound of it conveys to a reader and whether it “matches” a character. If you’re not quite sure what I’m getting at, try the tips HERE.
2) Where does your character live and is that going to be the main setting of your story? If so, think about regional quirks — how certain communities do things, what sorts of things they do, and how those are going to find expression in your character.
3) Place of origin? (if, say, he or she is a stranger in your setting or grew up somewhere else). Where a person is from determines a few things like expressions he or she might use in speaking, and things like recreation and hobbies. Growing up on a coast is very different than growing up in a mountain community, for example.
4) Age? Yeah, obvious, right? But think about that. A character’s age is going to determine a lot of personality quirks. Older people might not be all into the smartphone thing, might prefer books to ereaders, and are definitely going to speak differently than younger. And they’ll have a lot of pop culture references that younger characters don’t, and vice versa.
5) Background? That is, did your character struggle in rural poverty for her formative years, for example? Or has she always struggled? Would you classify her as working class or middle? Or is she from a wealthy family? These determine how your character might react in different situations. If your character is from a rural agricultural community, she might be extremely uncomfortable in cities. If she’s from a poor family, she might have some issues around people who come from money. Likewise if your character was unable to go to college but ends up in a situation where she has to deal with other characters who did go to college, and who move in very different circles.
6) Occupation? This depends on age, too. If you’re writing young adult fiction and your main character is a young adult, then ask yourself about the school your character attends and what his or her favorite subjects are and what their activities are.
7) Personality traits? Think about 3-5 of these. For example, is your character easygoing or uptight? What sorts of things push his or her buttons and what are those buttons? What is something that’s been bugging her since childhood that she’s still working through? What’s that chip on his shoulder? How does your character deal with change or crisis? Things like this can also drive the arcs for your characters, and will be an integral part of the story.
8 ) Who else is in your character’s life? No one lives in a vacuum, after all. Even if your character is currently alone, shipwrecked on an island, she’ll be thinking about her friends and relatives. And a character can also have relationships with memories and people who are no longer alive. People who have died in your character’s life will have an effect on how that character reacts to things, and might trigger memories that will enrich or add tension to your story. So yes, dead people in a person’s past do count as being in your character’s life.
9) What does your character look like? Sex, age, ethnic background, race? These all play a role in how your character perceives herself and how the world and other characters are going to perceive him or her. A character’s sexual orientation and gender identity will play a role, too, especially if your character is a sexual minority. All of these will help determine what your character looks like, how she dresses, and how she presents herself to the world. I tend to know what my characters look like physically, but I generally don’t try to convey that exactly in my work, because I’d like readers to develop their own sense of how that character appears and how he or she negotiates the world. I’d much rather a reader come to know the character through his or her way of speaking, their friends and relatives, some of the things they like to wear, what they like to drink or eat, and what they think about, as well as how other characters react to him or her. But it depends on a writer’s personal style as to how he or she approaches this. All that said, it’s a good idea to have in your own mind an idea of what your character looks like, because physical appearance can and does play a role in fictional life as well as in real life.
10) Habits/quirks? Does your character smoke? Does she drink to excess? Or is she a little uptight about booze because she grew up in an alcoholic household? Does she like dogs or cats? Both? Does she have any kind of animal in her life? Does she like camping? Or maybe she’s into bowling. Be careful, though, and don’t go overboard with habits/quirks, because that might get in the way of your character arc. But it helps me develop a better sense of my characters if there’s something they do or say that makes them stand out from other characters. It doesn’t have to be flashy and it doesn’t even have to be something that’s intrinsic to that character. It can be something a character does habitually in relation to somebody else. For example, in my short story “Dinner Party,” when Shay goes to her neighbor Brisa’s dinners, Shay generally helps clean up. It’s an unspoken sort of agreement the two characters have. But it’s a habit, and it tells a reader something about these two characters and the level of intimacy they may or may not have.
Final thought on that? Balance. Don’t make your character one big quirk with nothing beyond that. So be careful with your quirks. If your character is eccentric and has a lot of quirks, don’t forget there’s a person underneath all that. Get to know that person and then layer the quirks in as you get more familiar with your character.
With that in mind, it might prove helpful for you to use a questionnaire to get your characters’ backgrounds sketched out. Gotham City workshops have a pretty extensive one. Check it out.
A few other links to help you think about writing characters:
Go forth and write! And read! And have fun doing it!
Greetings, peeperas y peeperos –
Hope you’re having a groovy day. I got to thinking about names and characters after the Royal Baby’s was announced. His name is still garnering some discussion on social media. “George” has a long history in the British monarchy, so that wasn’t too surprising. And most of the comments about it were along the lines of “good name,” “strong,” “masculine.” That sort of thing. The prince’s next two names are “Alexander” and “Louis,” which also got approval from the peasant peanut gallery around the world. Same reasons. When he takes the throne, he’ll be another “King George” (though I rather like “King Alex” myself).
Anyway, point being, lots of people got into the name game with the Royal Baby hoop-dee-doo. People were probably betting in Vegas on which names William and Kate would decide on, and I saw lots of discussion on social media about naming the baby and what names would be good and which ones would kind of suck. That is, not sound “royal” or “kingly” enough.
Which just goes to show you, names are important. Remember that Johnny Cash song? “A Boy Named Sue“? A lot of baggage came with that name. The kid spent his time seeking revenge on a father who abandoned him but managed to name him “Sue.” And in a society as gendered as ours, we all know what happens when a dude gets what’s considered a girl’s name. He’s considered “less than” a man, somehow “feminized” (as if that’s such a bad thing) whereas a woman with what’s considered a guy’s name doesn’t have to deal with the same issues. But gender hierarchies and social structures aren’t really the gist of my conversation here.
Rather, I’d like to talk about how names are indeed important in fiction.
So come on. Join me.
Hi, kids. Since people seem to have been interested in the last post I put up about editing, I thought I’d put this one up, too. This, as well, was previously posted at Women and Words, where I am an administrator.
At any rate, the last post I did here on my site about editing dealt a lot with the PROCESS a manuscript goes through prior to publication. Here, I’ll talk about all the different TYPES of editors you might run across in the publishing world, including those who might call themselves acquiring editors and/or managing editors and things like that. The publishing world involves business, and many editors are thus tied up with the business itself of publishing.
We’re not just mechanics for your manuscript. We are also gatekeepers and observers of what goes on in the publishing world, tracking trends and looking for the next big kind of genre that people might want to buy. Literary agents are often editors, too. They have to be. They’re assessing manuscripts and thinking about how to get that manuscript the best placement possible. They’re looking for manuscripts that might be trendy, but with new and interesting twists. And they’re also looking for the Next Big Thing, whatever that might be.
So yes, the nuts and bolts of actually editing a manuscript is important. But there are all kinds of other things at play, too, and these are tied to the publishing world and to the business. So let’s go have a look.
EDITING ROCKS! Read on to see why.
As some of you found out last week, I’ve got some stuff in the hopper, some stuff comin’ up, and a new novella for your (hopefully) reading pleasure. Here, in case you missed that info.
I will also be attending the GCLS conference in Dallas this June. I’ll be on a panel and doing some chat stuff and all that good stuff. Oh, here’s the schedule, so you can see what’s up.
Yes, that’s me, there, teaching a master class. Not that I’m a “mas-tah” type, mind you. That’s just what these kinds of things are called. So I thought I’d provide a little bit o’ info for you, so you can see what this class is all about.
It’s called “Setting at the End of the World.” Uh-huh. One of those cryptic Andi things. Here’s the description:
Setting is part of the infrastructure of fiction narrative. Setting can determine plot arc, characterization, and subplots. The WHERE of a story is, in a sense, another character, because it can play into regional differences, the culture behind a character’s motivations and identity, and the parameters of actions that characters can take.
Authors can overlook it or don’t use its potential in their work. They take it for granted (easy to do, people. Don’t think I haven’t, either), and don’t observe the things that go on even in the every day places around them. Therefore, what I encourage authors to do — those who are just starting out and those who have been at it for a while — is to take an extreme scenario and use that as a backdrop to practice character sketches and plot outlines.
An extreme setting gets people out of their usual place, both literally and figuratively, and encourages them to pick its elements apart and apply those lessons to the settings with which they’re more comfortable.
So in this class, we’ll be working with a post-apocalyptic setting on Earth and explore how something like that can affect characters, their relationships with each other and the world around them, and the overall narrative structures and plot arcs of the fictional scenarios we come up with during the session. When we’re done, I hope to have demonstrated how important setting can be as an element in fiction, and ways to effectively integrate it into story-telling. I also hope to stimulate the powers of observation of those who participate, so that they take that with them back to their writing with which they can create deeper, richer layers for their narratives.
There you go. Sound groovy? Well, if you’re going to be at GCLS, hope you check it out.
Otherwise, happy writing, happy reading, happy Monday!
Hi, fellow readers and writers! And assorted peeps!
I’ve been on the road for a few days. When I travel, I take books. Actual paperbacks. OMG, like, I must be some kind of antique! Don’t worry, I also take my Kindle, but I generally have at least 1 paperback, usually 2. This time, I had 5, because I was going to be on the road for a few days.
Anyway, I had a couple of thrillers by a writer I enjoy reading, an urban fantasy by another writer I enjoy reading, and two novels by urban fantasy authors new to me. All of these paperbacks are published by mainstream houses, big imprints.
One of my writing colleagues says that when you read a novel and all of its parts are working as they should (plot, characterization, dialogue, narrative style), then you don’t stop reading. You flow with the text from beginning to end (maybe stopping to re-read something because it was really cool or really struck you). But if the parts aren’t working, you’ll know because it’s like hitting a pothole when you’re driving. Or coming to a traffic light where you sit for a while.
And that’s exactly what happened while reading one of the books by an urban fantasy author whose work I didn’t know.
The things that interrupt my reading flow are the dreaded “telling and not showing,” stilted dialogue, plot holes, and misspellings. Typos I can understand because I’m an editor, and I get that not everything will be caught. We do the best we can, but a few get through. I can forgive a typo here and there in a book. However, misspellings are another matter. An editor needs to know how to spell and which form of a word is correct. In one of these books, editors dropped the ball. In the other, they let a couple things slip through. Editing is, in some ways, an art. But like any art, it requires extensive knowledge of writing and grammatical mechanics. Editors need to be painstaking in their work. They need to be detail-oriented. And sometimes, that just doesn’t happen. Even at the big houses.
Hey, Happy Thanksgiving to those of you who engage in this American holiday.
I’m not really big on the holidays (as in Thanksgiving-Christmas), as some of you know, but I do enjoy the bit of time off I can take to catch up on my chillaxin’.
So I took yesterday off and basically freebased over half of Season 1 of the X-Files. I’m up to episode 15 (there are 24). It’s been years since I’ve watched the series, and though the costumes, hairstyles (and shut up, but I’m trying to bring back Mulder’s look), cars, and technology are dated (season 1 premiered in 1993), the writing and characters remain strong. Not every episode, mind you. There were some episodes that just didn’t work (like this one; sorry Chris Carter. Just. . .no.), but for the most part, it remains a strong show with episodes that still creep me out.
source (re-sized here)
Basically, if you want to write a series — any series — and keep it going for a long time, use the X-Files as a potential model. Not in terms of what actually the show is about, but rather how its infrastructure is put together.
Continue on for my ode to the X-Files. . .
One of the ironies of writing is that we tend to read other writers’ guides on how to write. And we should, because there are some really good writing guides out there. It’s important to have guides on hand to grammar and punctuation, guides that help us figure out infrastructure, and tips that we can implement in our own writing to take our games to the next level. And then there are inspirational writing guides that can make you feel warm and fuzzy after you’ve had writing issues.
So here are a few of my suggestions.
For mystery writers, check out Chris Roerden‘s Don’t Murder Your Mystery (that link will also show you another of her great guides, Don’t Sabotage Your Submission). The tips in that book you can use for other genres, as well.
Stephen King’s On Writing. It’s already on its 10th anniversary. Part memoir, part guide, this handy toolkit will address just about everything you need in your bag o’ writing tricks. The fundamentals, my friends. Plus, it’s a warm, intimate look at King’s early life and how he himself approaches writing. But don’t just listen to me. Go check out the link.
Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones (originally published in 1986, but it was updated in 2005). This is sort of a “Zen and the art of liberating your inner writer” kinda book. Might not be everyone’s style, but it’s a different approach and delves into creativity and its potential spiritual elements.
Strunk and White, The Elements of Style. It does not matter that this book first started life as an in-house writing guide for college students in 1918 by Cornell’s William Strunk. Nor does it matter that this pup got new life in 1959 when E.B. White revised Strunk’s 1935 edition. It’s freakin’ timeless, this book, and addresses things like the most misspelled words, common word usage errors, and proper punctuation. The book does have its critics, but it’s a nice brick to have in your writing framework.
Also get on over to Keith Cronin‘s recent blog over at Writer Unboxed to see his list of suggestions for writing guides. We overlap in a couple of places, but that’s okay. I like his list and I’m going to take his suggestions on a couple of things.
And here’s a list by Jon Winokur over at HuffPo (from 2010, but that’s quite okay).
Hopefully, that’ll get you started. Happy reading, happy writing!
I was reading the latest issue of Writer’s Digest (I highly recommend you try a subscription to this mag — it usually contains good writing and promo tips for authors plus interviews with authors) and came across an interview with Andre Dubus III, who wrote The House of Sand and Fog (among many others). The film based on that book was an Oscar nominee. The book itself was a finalist for the National Book Award.
Dubus is a larger-than-life kinda guy. Boston brawler born, who looks like the literary love child of John Mellencamp and Kurt Russell (that’s Zachary Petit’s description and I agree), he’s comfortable sharing a laugh and a pint as well as writing these intensely dark and poignant stories that leave us wrung out, alone, and wondering where the good is in being human. He taps the deep and lives his truth, which may be why his writing resonates with so many.
How does he do it? I like to find out about other writers’ processes. That is, the actual mechanical things they do to prepare for a writing session. Here’s Dubus’ process, from the article in Writer’s Digest:
“Andre Dubus III is both artist and businessman. It’s methodical: Every morning, Dubus wakes up and takes his kids to school (he lives in Massachusetts with his wife, who is a professional dancer, and two of his three children). He returns home. It’s empty of everyone except the dog. He takes a cup of black dark roast coffee down to the basement, where he’s built a 5-by-11 sound-proofed room. He sits at a desk in front of a blank wall, types the previous day’s longhand writing into the computer, then turns the machine off. He sharpens a pencil with a knife, reads three or four poems — for ‘the high bar of language that poets always give us prose writers’ — and then stares at the page.
‘I try to put myself in a state of openness and receptivity and not try to say anything and not think it, but dream it. And then I pick up where I left off.’
He writes for two to three hours, goes to the gym to clear his head (he still works out ‘like a demon’), and that’s it.
When it comes to creating a piece of writing, Dubus believes the story has to percolate in our mind — and that you shouldn’t write it too early.
‘There’s a profound difference between making something up and imagining it,’ he says. ‘Imagining it instead is falling into your psyche, your imagination, and finding some aspiring writer asks him a career question, he says he gets uncomfortable — he’s happy to help, but wants to know if the person has done the real work first: painstakingly crafted the words.”
From “Meet the Real Andre Dubus III,” by Zachary Petit (Writer’s Digest, July/August 2012), p. 43.
The interview itself is not available on the Writer’s Digest site unless you’re a subscriber (it’s in the print version, though), but you can get some of Dubus’ other words of wisdom from the site HERE.
So, writers. What’s your process? Does it seem to work? Would you change it if you thought it would open new windows for you? Just curious.
Got some groovy linkage here you might find useful for your writing and publishing selves.
Keith Cronin tells us: DARE TO SUCK! Great advice, because all writers (at least all the ones I know) go through a phase where everything they write or try to write feels like it’s no better than drunken monkey poo thrown liberally across greasy burger wrappers. That’s okay! Write it anyway! Or skip the scene that’s giving you nervous hives and write another one. The important thing is to keep writing, because you need that momentum (and if you want to find out more about Keith, click here).
Lydia Sharp says: It’s okay to watch movies and TV shows! Cuz you can learn cool things that translate into fiction writing! I agree. Catch her post about 5 ways novelists can benefit from doing that. And find more Lydia here.
The problem of knock-off ebooks at Amazon (that is, copy-cat books based on legitimate titles that Amazon posts). Check the comment thread, too, on that one. I guess my question on that one would be: If you know the title and author of the book you want, why would you buy a knock-off with a slightly different title/author? Hmmm.
And Stevie Carroll has a discussion about female friendships in fiction going over at Women and Words. Readers, you might want to check that out and offer suggestions to Stevie and others about books that have female friendships. Find Stevie at her LiveJournal here.
All right, friends. Happy reading, happy writing, and happy Tuesday! And please do feel free to provide links you think will benefit us here in The Situation Room in the comments. Cheers!