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!

Ditch Those Cardboard Characters: How to Write More Realistic Characters in Fiction

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      Imagine yourself as a reader who has just spent $10 or so on a new book. You open it and read it through, excited to see what twists and turns the author has laid out for you. The plot is intricate and engaging, the setting dynamic and full of beautiful detail and imagery, and at first things seem to be going perfect. There’s just one tiny little problem: you aren’t really crazy about the protagonist.

      The main character is this perfect guy or gal who lives this fairly comfortable life. Or, perhaps he is a complete underdog who is consistently dealing with the deck being stacked against him. Either way, they happen to always make the right choice. They are incredibly attractive, successful, and talented, even if the world hasn’t figured it out yet. Perhaps even the villains fall a bit flat, portraying an image of evil for the sake of pure evil. Though the book had potential to be one of your favorites, you walk away feeling pretty….let down.

      Shout it from the rooftops, one of the most important things you can remember when writing fiction is that people are not flat and one-dimensional. They seldom do things for only one motivation or are driven by only one force. Black-and-white answers to problems are almost as rare as miracles. Humans are messy, complicated creatures. That’s what makes them so interesting to read and write about. The fact is, no one wants to read about a hero’s journey where the hero doesn’t change or learn anything. Maybe the hero has a massive fear of public speaking he has to face to get his message across to the world. Maybe she’s a wee bit forgetful and happens to miss an important engagement and hurt someone’s feelings. Maybe he just lies, often, and can’t seem to figure out why. When it comes to crafting characters, I like to think back to people I know in the “real world.” What makes them so interesting to be around? What are some of their weird quirks and habits? What massive contradictions exist within their personality? Is she a hardcore feminist with a secret nostalgia for the 1950s? Maybe he’s a bit of a misogynist because he secretly believes women are smarter. The possibilities are endless when it comes to creating depth within your characters.

      For me personally, I find the same to be true of antagonists and villains. Being evil for the sake of evil is a bit overrated, and doesn’t honestly make a whole lot of sense in the real world. Why is this person so hell-bent on stopping our hero from reaching their goals? Is it self-preservation? Was there a defining moment that upset our antagonist enough to turn towards the dark side? Maybe, in a different lighting, the “bad guy’s” motives are even understandable. Maybe he believes he’s saving society, or doing what he must because no one else is willing. While it might seem counter-intuitive to create sympathy for your antagonist, it makes for a much more interesting story for the reader. Off the top of my head, a great example of this is the Divergent series by Veronica Roth. Without giving too much away (spoiler alert!), there are several different antagonists introduced throughout the series. All have their own motives for their not-so-ethical behavior, despite their opposition to the MC’s goals. The problem is, even though you can see where all of them are coming from, they are all still pretty bad guys. You’re left with watching the MC attempt to choose between the lesser of all of the evils. It’s unsettling, sure…but so is life, which is what made it a great story.

      As I write this, I am staring at the manuscript open in another document, wondering if there is enough depth to some of my background characters. While I am often mindful of the detail I add into my protagonist, the supporting characters have a habit of falling a bit flat at times. Thankfully, I have the rest of this summer to focus on NANOWRIMO and edits. For now, I think I’ll brew a pot of coffee and return to my book. After all, the best writing often comes from intensive reading.

Be well!

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!