10 Questions to Get to Know Your Characters (AKA Schizophrenia)

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  Normally, hearing voices in your head and having conversations with yourself signifies some pretty serious psychological issues. For writers and creative types, however, what looks like a sudden onset of schizophrenia is more than likely just a Tuesday afternoon.

      One of the easiest ways to ensure readers hate your book is to stuff it full of poorly constructed one-dimensional characters. While plot and setting are critical to a story, dialog and characters can make or break the final piece. In order for people to enjoy reading your work, you have to convince them to care about your characters. If the characters aren’t interesting to the reader, there’s no reason to care about their fate or the outcome of the story. If we aren’t invested in the protagonist, we are unlikely to care how his story ends. In order to fulfill this need, your characters have to be well-rounded, lifelike people with personalities of their own that your readers can identify with. Like the rest of us mere mortals, they have to possess both strengths and weaknesses, fears and ambitions. I know you’re asking by this point, how do I keep all this straight and create a story or scene full of lifelike characters? Luckily, that’s the fun part.

      The simple answer is this: get to know your characters. Think back to some of your favorite fictitious characters in books you’ve read in the past. What did the author do to create the dynamic facets of those characters’ personalities? Can you think of any books you’ve read where the characters were just not incredibly well written or interesting? Did you finish that book?

      Every writer I know uses a different technique to flush out and develop their characters. Your approach may be different, and that’s okay! We all have incredibly unique writing processes, and that leads to the incredibly different works we create. Well-developed characters have a way of taking on a life of their own, and in my experience sometimes even write themselves. I was in a grocery store with another writer friend when she stopped and picked up a container of hummus, mumbling something along the lines of hummus sounds like something her protagonist would be likely to eat. To anyone else, a grown woman picking out snacks for her imaginary friend looks a bit strange. To another writer, however, I knew I was watching her character flush himself out.

      Getting to know your characters can be useful during any stage of the writing process, though it is particularly helpful in the pre-writing stage. There are several websites filled with character mapping exercises for newcomers, and they can help provide better insight for you as an author on who your characters really are. If you’re feeling lazy and don’t want to pop open a new tab for Google (no judgment here), here are a few questions you could try answering along the way.

  1. What was your character’s childhood like? Did they have any siblings? Any issues with school or at home?
  2. What is your character’s personality type? Do they prefer to be alone, or surrounded by company? Are they introverted? Friendly? Playful? Somber?
  3. What is your character’s lifelong dream or fantasy? Will they ever be able to achieve it? What is in their way?
  4. Use your five senses to describe your character. What do they look like? Do they have any distinguishing physical features? Do they have a particular scent either naturally or from perfumes or colognes? What does their voice sound like? Are there any identifying accents or pitches? Do they have a taste? Maybe your hero is charming to look at, but the smell of stale cigarettes cling to his clothes. Maybe your heroine appears mousy and unnoticeable until she sings with the voice of an angel. Whatever your angle, sensory details help connect us to the setting and characters.
  5. What are some quirks or odd behaviors or habits your character has?

  6. What are some of their most notable achievements?

  7. What are their greatest weaknesses? Is our bad boy secretly afraid of spiders? Maybe the strong female protagonist is stubborn to the point of unreasonable. Perhaps the lonely scientist is a bit of a know-it-all, chasing off potential friends.

  8. What is your character afraid of? What thoughts keep them up at night? Where did the fear originate? Will they overcome it?

  9. Does your character have any regrets? Any moments they wish they could live twice?

  10. What is your character passionate about? What do they care about strongly enough to lay down their life for? Will they be presented the opportunity to do it?

      While these questions alone are nowhere near enough to fully develop a well-rounded character, they are a great way to think outside the box and get to know your characters a little deeper. Have fun and happy writing, everyone!

Writing with Distractions: When the “Real World” Screws Your Creativity

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      If you’re anything like me, writing during the summer months can feel particularly challenging. Between the warm weather and all of the opportunities to socialize, finding the time to sit down and write can feel like climbing a mountain. Imagine this: you’re on a crowded bus or in the middle of a social event when inspiration suddenly strikes you. This person would make a great anti-hero, or perhaps this setting would be perfect for that one scene in that one story you’re working on. You end up shifting in your seat, biting your nails anxiously waiting for this to finally be over, waiting for the ability to make it back to your journal/laptop/typewriter to start bringing your ideas to life. You race home, full of excitement and inspiration…

…only to remember you live with your children/roommates/spouse, or you left the dishes in the sink in your hurry to leave earlier, or there’s just too much background noise and distraction for you to focus on actually honing your craft. Believe me, I get it. As I write this, there are little squeals and shrieks filling my home as the children play. Later tonight, my partner will be home excited to discuss the events of his day, regardless of what I seem to be working on. Our two fur-babies seem to have the most interest in cuddling on my lap when I’ve opened up my laptop to do something productive. Every few minutes, my focus will be torn away by a cry for mommy, or a cat attempting to climb across the keys, or the occasional loud conversation from the neighbors above us.

      All of this is, of course, an attempt to pretend I don’t get distracted by social media surfing and memes.

      So, what’s a writer to do living in a world full of distractions? Do we stifle the creative thinking in an attempt to be more present and engaged with our surroundings? Do we do our best to remember our ideas and place them on a back-burner until we finally find some time for ourselves? (Okay, seriously, if your life is anything like mine I do not advocate that last idea; you’ll never write anything down but ideas.) How can you tune out the sights and sounds of your environment long enough to accomplish your writing goals? Well, friends, buckle up, because I’m about to tell you how to get away with writing through distractions, otherwise known as making crazy creativity look normal.

      The first suggestion would be to try to limit your distractions. If you’re anything like me, you just read that last line and snorted, possibly even rolling your eyes. Don’t worry, I get it. It’s not like you can just send the kids off for a month long camping trip in the woods, or teach the dog how to use the toilet like everyone else. Distractions are going to happen, no doubt about it, and you can’t always turn your back on them or tune them out. However, not every distraction is unavoidable, or life and death in that moment. Don’t be afraid to tell your family, “Hey, I’ve got some work to do tonight, so I’ll be in my room/office/special chair for a while. Please only bother me if someone is literally dying.” Do your best to ask for support where you need it and limit the number of times someone breaks your concentration to ask for an extra juice box.

      If you notice you’re still struggling to focus even when you finally manage to lock yourself away for a bit of alone time, don’t be timid about switching up your rituals and routine to discover why. I once knew a girl who used music to help her fall into her “creativity zone.” She would spend hours building playlists of music she thought she’d enjoy writing to. Most of the time, however, she would then find herself tabbing out of her writing software to skip or change songs she found distracting. Eventually, she realized she was spending more time and focus on creating her writing playlists and finding acceptable tunes than she actually was writing. She switched over to listening to electronica (is it still called that? Pretty sure that’s still what the kids are calling it) while working, and her productivity has never been higher. When I asked her why, she laughed and told me, “Since I don’t listen to this stuff in my car or for fun or whatever, I don’t really have an attachment to what song plays next. When I’m in my zone and focused, it all honestly sounds the same to me.” While serious amounts of bass and auto-tune may not be the magic solution to improving your concentration, making small changes to your routine can help you cut out unnecessary distractions and time-wasters, an invaluable action when free time can be so difficult to come by in the first place.

      If Facebook and Twitter seem to be more your weakness, you’re not alone in that either. Social media has become one of the easiest ways to keep in touch with friends and network, but it can also present a major source of inattention for many of us hoping to be productive on the internet. Just “checking in” or “reading this one article really quickly” can quickly turn into two hours spent browsing memes and replying to comments, only to realize you’re out of time and you’ve written little besides your name on the page. The easiest answer? Shut that shit down. Close out all of your internet browser tabs before even opening your Word document; you’ll thank yourself later. Does that require a bit more willpower than you’re capable of? No worries, thanks to living in the age of technology, there are tons of apps and software available to help writers focus and limit distractions. While Microsoft Word may be the most familiar and easiest to use for most new writers, software such as Scrivener and Ulysses help writers limit distractions while fully engaging in the creation of their story (if figuring out the software itself doesn’t pose too much of a distraction!). Full-screening your word processing software can help minimize webpages and apps in the background just begging for your attention.

      Visual clutter can be as much of a distraction as having a three-year-old in your lap enthusiastically blabbing on about the bird they just drew. For me, nothing kills my motivation and creativity quite as quickly as slipping into my office, only to notice the empty cups piled on the desk or the pile of little papers all over the room I’ve scribbled notes on. While it can be tempting to start organizing that pile of sticky notes or washing the dishes before they pile up, don’t. Trust me. Just find a way to shove them out of your line of vision for now. I promise, that trash will still be waiting for you later when your house is too unsettled to concentrate on writing. If you’re anything like me, tidying up this one little thing will somehow turn into hours spent rearranging and cleaning your house, and while your office might shine you’ll have little else to show for it.

      But what about those times when writing is just not an option? Is there a way to continue working on your craft while supervising the small children with paint at the kitchen table? Well…yes and no. For me personally, there is no way I can focus on developing my plot or characters while the kids are climbing all over me. I’ve tried countless times throughout the years, but little people have a talent for demanding the majority of your focus and attention while they’re up and about. However, this doesn’t mean I have to put all of my creativity to rest until bed time rolls around. Instead, I find other ways to work on my story, things that require less focus and concentration than the actual writing part. Sure, I may not be able to churn out my quick-paced action scene while cooking dinner for the family, but I can use that time for researching parts of my story I need more information to write, or doing lesser character-development exercises. Occasionally, I can even accomplish my first round of edits and cuts while attending a tea party with Barbie and her friends. I’m not saying it’s easy, but I am saying it’s possible.

      In the end, you have to want it badly enough to make it work and find a way to juggle your work/life balance (or, in the case of many writers, work/work/life) that leaves enough time to perfect your craft distraction-free. You have to be willing to turn off the television, or tell your friend “not today” from time to time. Until we find a way to transport writers and artistic types to another planet to do their work distraction-free, one of the most challenging parts of writing will always be finding a way to squish time for your passion in with the rest of your life. While there are days it might all seem impossible, believe me when I say it CAN be done.

It just might require an extra couple of cups of coffee.

Want to be a Better Writer? Read.

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      I picked up a new book today. I’d like to say I am incredibly excited about breaking it open, but that would be a straight-up lie. I happened to come across a discount book bin outside of a craft store, and it felt immoral to not pick up a few books at less than a dollar a piece. The only downside? None of the choices were books I would have picked out on my own in a Barnes and Noble or even the public library. Still, I picked out two that seemed to have the least visible signs of damage and wandered my way back home, intent on burying my face in some classic literature for the evening.

      I made it through the first chapter, to my credit. After about half an hour, though, I found my attention fading. Did I remember to turn off the oven? What did I need to pick up at the store before dinner? What is the cat doing over there? Knowing myself well enough to realize my A.D.D. Was kicking in, I closed the dusty pages and pulled out my tablet for a change of pace.

      The thing is, I still intend to finish both of those books. It won’t be enjoyable, per say. It’ll be almost like an assigned reading project back in high school. But that is totally okay. Eventually both of those books will have a permanent place in my memory and on my bookshelf, and I will be lost in new literary adventures.

      The advice is almost as old as the craft itself: writers need to read. A lot. Sadly, this doesn’t just mean reading what happens to interest us or what we enjoy. Writers need to read everything from reference books to magazines and nonfiction to classic and contemporary literature. Reading improves a writer’s active vocabulary and grasp of the language. It introduces you to new words and new styles of writing. It can inspire new ideas for your own writing, or simply show you a different way of approaching a story.

      Reading is also a fabulous way to connect with others. It gives you the opportunity to find out what other people are reading, or expose friends and family members to books that inspired you or your work. I lived with a girl once who would insist to everyone we’d meet they had to read “the book that changed her life.” While not every article you come across online is going to massively alter your life in some way, it can alter your level of ability as a writer.

      So go dust off those old romance novels your mother so lovingly donated to you before you abandoned them. Go find that book your friend recommended that you’ve “totally been meaning to get around to,” or hell, open up a magazine at the checkout counter in the grocery store. Wherever you find the words, read. Study your craft, and you’ll be amazed at how much better you reproduce it.

Happy weekend!