My Writing Process Blog Tour

Good morning! I was tagged by the brilliant Elizabeth Holloway (check out her site and her blog) in the “my writing process” blog tour. The blog tour works like this: I have four questions I have to answer about my writing process, then I nominate other writers to join the tour. They will answer the same four questions one to two weeks later. So here we go

1) What am I working on?

I’m drafting a companion novel to HOW WE FALL, about a high school dropout and an older college girl. Will’s mother disappeared after his parents’ divorce when he was eight, and he hasn’t heard from her since.

2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?

I suppose you could call it new adult, since the characters are that age range. It’s not a college book, though– it’s very much a mother-son story. Also, it’s not a story about Will and Claire getting together; they start out pretty much together and the story follows the trajectory of their relationship, which is not a smooth one.

3) Why do I write what I do?

I like complicated relationships, I guess. Really complex situations with a lot of built-in conflict where no one is entirely right and no one is clearly in the wrong. It feels more true to real life to me, and when conflict and resolution happens, I can make it more genuine. I write YA (and NA) of course, but adults and children feature heavily in all my stories so far, probably because it makes things messier to be dealing with a true-to-life set of age groups. I love having teens as main characters, though, because it’s such a volatile stage in life, and when people with few resources who are just starting to deal with their major firsts are pushed into high stakes situations, it’s fascinating to see what they’re capable of doing.

4) How does my writing process work?

It depends on the book how much I outline, but I always make myself live in the story first. I get out my markers and write a giant web of nonsense on my markerboard wall. I add possible conflicts and organic problems and conflicts for secondary characters, and all kinds of ideas for the main characters. I mull it over, erase and replace half of it. I fill out the (incredible, insightful, you must use them) worksheets in Donald Maass’s Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook. I erase and replace the whole mess on my markerboard with something that looks a little bit more like lists and a plot arc. Then I figure out which scenes happen in what order for the first third, and start writing. I like to fast-draft and save revisions for after I’m done drafting, but if the beginning feels weak or thin to me, I usually take the time to revise those first few chapters over and over until I get grounded in how the characters express themselves and what their goals are. Once I have a few solid opening chapters, I pick up speed and try to write every day or at least every other day. Before writing new material, I read what I wrote the day before and layer it a little more– boost the tension, cut lines, add in reactions and physical cues. Once I’m doing drafting, I send it off to critique partners and then ignore it while they have it. Then I compile notes once I’ve heard back from them, ask questions, cry/mope/run around excitedly while figuring out how to solve the issues, and then dig into revisions. A few rounds of this and maybe a few beta readers, and I send it off to my agent! At which point, the revision process repeats.That’s pretty much how I work!

And now to tag some other great writers–

Alex Yuschik

Alex is a graduate student and a writer. She does math during the day and writes at night. She pretty much likes anything you can put on paper, whether it’s letters, numbers, drawings, music, weird scribbly things and/or souls. Right now her writing interests run the gamut in YA fiction: she’s always been a fantasy and magical realism girl, though recently she’s gotten into contemporary. You can find her on Twitter or on her website.

Kelly Youngblood

Kelly graduated from the University of New Mexico cum laude with a BA in English Literature and a minor in Religious Studies. She has worked in the restaurant industry, as a legal assistant for a civil rights lawyer, in churches as a young adult coordinator and as a church secretary, as an operations coordinator for a non-profit volunteer organization, and most recently in campus ministry. She is now a stay-at-home mom who is in the process of discovering the next call of God upon her life. You can find her on Twitter or on her website.

What’s your writing process? Is it anything like mine?

#Subtips–Consent in YA Relationships

 

Even if you don’t write about young adult relationships, consent and non-consent in fiction needs to be handled intentionally and fairly. Most of us try really hard in our writing to not promote slut-shaming and rape culture and victim-blaming, but writing about healthy, considerate relationships requires more than that.

So what shouldn’t we be doing?

Showing force and manipulation as sexy— sometimes we think hey, isn’t it sexy if he/she wants him/her that badly? And I hope you know the answer there. Selfishness is never sexy.

Allowing our characters to react as if being pressured isn’t a big deal. Power and influence are incredibly strong forces on people, especially young adults, and being pressured for something you’re not ready for is traumatic and frightening. Enough people blow it off already; we shouldn’t let our characters do that, too.

Implying that “no” doesn’t really mean “no.” Playing hard to get can be a fun part of a relationship story, and teasing/flirting can be great. But when you’re building a healthy relationship between your characters and one says no to a date, a call, a text, a kiss, anything– the other one had better respect that. Sometimes we think it’s charming to have the guy take being turned down as an invitation to try harder, and when everyone is well-intentioned and our characters have no ulterior motives, it can be. But in real life, what does that look like? What does that feel like to the person who said no, to know they’re not being taken seriously, that their current wishes aren’t being respected? It’s scary. It’s offensive. We shouldn’t be modeling that as charming. It’s not charming; it’s dangerous.

So what should we be doing?

Calling out the flaws in our characters’ relationships— sometimes we write certain characters who do need to learn respect and boundaries, and relationships don’t always start off as healthy ones. If that’s the case, awesome job for writing realistic people. But call it out in the story. Make it an issue. Don’t let it just resolve itself (hint: that’s not resolving it) because they decided they loved each other. It’s a big deal; make it a big deal in your story. In addition to promoting a culture of consent and respect, those can be great turning points for your characters that will add depth and complexity.

Actively showing consent moments. It doesn’t have to be the super formal and sometimes awkward “can I kiss you?” (But hey, we all love awkwardness because it’s cute!) Work the consent into the flirting. Through hesitation and eye contact and body language. Use words and distance and time to show respect and permission. And if it’s more than just a brief kiss, have your characters check in with each other. Permission for one thing is not permission for all things.

Bringing consent into the relationship itself, not just the physical intimacy. Getting a girl’s number from a friend and calling her when she didn’t know you had her contact info? That’s invasive. In most situations, that’s not okay. Showing up at his house when he didn’t give you his address? Creepy. Invasive. Sometimes we show it as okay, as something that’s charming. For example, in the Vampire Diaries pilot– Stefan showing up on Elena’s doorstep. He’d met her outside the bathroom at school, then scared her in a graveyard– and now he’s at her home, at night? She really shouldn’t be charmed there. Not okay, Stefan.

Consent should be showing up all over the place when you’re writing a healthy relationship. And it doesn’t have to be super serious– it’s fine to keep it light-hearted. But work it in. Yes, you can call me. Come over some time. Can I meet your family? Would you like to go out again?

Home, contact information, being introduced to parents and siblings (especially younger siblings), and even friends mean your character is handing out some measure of trust and vulnerability. Don’t let those things be taken from them– let your characters give them to the other person. And if one (or more) of those things is taken away from them, make it a big deal. Address it. Your readers and your characters deserve a culture of consent and respect.

Is This The Best You Can Do?

I’m not a particularly clumsy person. But sometimes when I’m thinking, I convince myself my body is just my brain and there’s no need to watch where I’m going or pay attention to my surroundings.

That happened yesterday, and I smacked my elbow on the corner of my upstairs hall. It hurt so bad I sat down there on the floor and gave up all hope of life.

I grew up a farm girl. I’ve nearly been killed in several accidents, I’ve stabbed my hand on sharp wire and lost a lot of blood, I’ve been bitten by dogs, been stung by hornets when they flew up my jacket sleeve, and been chased by snakes in the pond. I’m no weakling. And yet, sitting there in the hall clutching my elbow, it occurred to me that this is what I expect my characters to handle, except much more.

I expect them to take it, process it, handle it, and still win. I take everything away from them– friendships, family, health, resources. I cause them pain (for good reasons, I have to remind myself) and just when they get it handled and get back up, I knock them down again.

In trying to be a good writer, I have to test my characters. I have to throw everything at them, push them to change and become active and either fall or rise. The whole process of telling the story is me asking them, “Is this the best you can do?” I expect the best from my characters. Is this the best fight you can put up, the sharpest thinking you can do, the greatest love you can give, the hardest you can try?

When we expect so much from our characters, we’d better not be expecting less of ourselves. As a writer, are you doing your story justice? In the time I’ve spent editing and writing (not nearly enough) I’ve started to realize the humble writers, the ones who are willing to go back to the drawing board and read books on writing craft and take the harsh critiques, are the ones who make it.

When you’re asking yourself if you’re ready to query, if you’re done with edits, if you need to change this or that, here’s the question to ask: Is this the best you can do? We ask for the best, the most, the hardest things, from our characters. Give your writing your best, and keep asking yourself, “Can I do better? Is this all I’ve got? Is this the best I can do?”

Find the answers to those questions, chase them down, settle for nothing less, and you’ll become a good writer.

Opening Pages: Using The Vampire Diaries To Guide Your Beginning (part 1)

Fiction is a form of art, and art is personal, subjective, and filled with exceptions.

However, fiction is also a science, with specific principles and forms that are guided by the psychology of how people read and respond to story. These things can be taught and learned. They can be added to a writer’s skill set and significantly improve both the writing and the story. (Side note: if you’ve been told you’re not a good enough writer, that’s why you should keep going if you want to be one. Like all things, becoming skilled is a process.)

The first chapter of a story, often the first two chapters, can be incredibly difficult to write. It’s often the most rewritten and revised portion of a book, and it’s the place where flaws can mean you lose the attention of an agent, editor, or readers. Readers decide within a few seconds of opening a book whether they’ll keep reading, and it’s up to those first chapters to hook the reader enough that they’ll spend hours following your characters around instead of all the other things they could be doing.

Complex stories in any genre, and especially sci-fi and fantasy, can be particularly difficult when it comes to beginnings. Almost every story needs to open with action, tension, subtext, clearly defined main characters, a compelling connection to those characters, and a central conflict or problem. Fitting all that into the first few pages of a story is hard enough, but it gets exponentially more difficult when the story contains a large cast, several subplots, a huge backstory, and multiple points of view. This is often the case with sci-fi and fantasy, and it’s those genres I see struggling the most with their beginnings. Complex contemporary stories (TV example: PARENTHOOD) can also struggle here quite a bit.

One TV show that does tension, plot, and character well is The Vampire Diaries. (Plus: Damon!) I’m using it as an example of how to open particularly difficult stories because it has an enormous cast, a backstory covering  thousands of years, multiple points of view, and several main storylines and subplots.

Note: there are spoilers in this post referring to the first episode, and a few beyond that. If you haven’t seen the first few episodes, I highly recommend watching them now (Netflix has the show) to get the most out of this post and to not spoil the story.

Episode one of season one of The Vampire Diaries has a lot going on. We meet Elena, Jeremy, Jenna, Stefan, Caroline, Bonnie, Matt, Tyler, Vicki, and Damon, as well as a few minor characters. High stakes, including two deaths at the beginning, tragic pasts, supernatural content, and compelling goals for each of the main characters make this a particularly difficult story to begin. It’s a wildly successful show, with viewers coming and staying for the history, romance, tension, character depth, and moments of genuine emotion. So let’s see how the show starts a story that does all that.

Here’s the first few minutes of the show, in case you want to refresh your memory:

Personally, the first few minutes of episode one strike me as weak and scattered. We have Stefan’s voice-over telling us that he’s been hiding for centuries and that he’s a vampire. Then we switch to a car with a man and a woman returning from a concert on a foggy night. They hit someone, both people are bitten and killed by what turns out to be a vampire. This is a prologue, and I don’t think it’s a particularly effective one. When I first saw this episode, I thought the characters would be important ones, and they weren’t; I thought the concert would be important, and it wasn’t; I wondered briefly if it was a flashback, and the man and woman were Elena’s parents, which was confusing. Then we have the show’s title appear, and we cut to Stefan’s point of view, and get more voice-over telling us that his coming home is a major risk, but he has to know “her.”

So basically, we have a prologue from Stefan’s POV split in half by a prologue containing strangers and a mystery killer. The goal of the prologues, most likely, is to give us the tone of the show and let us know there’s more going on in the story than we think. Neither of these goals justifies having one, and especially not two, prologues, when it fractures the beginning and we could find out in much more subtle and intriguing ways that there’s more going on in the story than it at first looks like. Prologues like this rob the reader of wondering; we’ve been told there’s a vampire, we’ve been shown in the most obvious way that he’s not a good one, we’ve been told there’s major risk to him somehow, and we know this is all connected to the girl. All of that material would be more impacting, and therefore more compelling, if it was worked into the story bits at a time and in more subtle ways, because then the reader wonders and asks questions. That’s key to tension. (The psychology behind telling a story on screen is slightly different for movies and TV shows than for books. Prologues may be part of that; I’m addressing the techniques used in telling this story as if it were a novel.)

The story hits a much stronger note when we switch to Elena’s POV just over two minutes into the episode. This is where “chapter one” starts, and is where the strong storytelling begins. Elena is writing in her diary, which makes the title of the show make sense for the viewers. I’m not a fan of the diary element in these first few episodes, partially because it’s a bit cheesy and partially because it’s also a form of telling. The diaries of the founders are a much stronger reason for the show’s title. However, we do have some great stuff happening here. 1) We are tightly focused on a girl in a specific moment. Tight focus is necessary for story beginnings, even for stories with huge casts and long backstories. Give us a single character, MAYBE two, to connect with, and focus on the moment, the particular action that is happening right then. 2) We’re also meeting Elena on a day something changed. Starting on “the day that’s different” is a fantastic device that enables readers to jump into action and follow a character as her world alters; right there, we have action and character development, simply from watching the character react to change. Elena here is vowing to make today different by hiding her still-present grief for her first day of senior year. 3) We hear her say “Yes, I feel much better” and the camera shows us family photos on her dresser. This is fantastic tension; we know something tragic happened. We figure out what when she immediately follows that with saying she lost her parents. I’d rather see that line cut and leave the readers wondering why she’s grieving. Raising a question and then not answering it immediately raises tension and helps to hook the readers, as long as they know enough to ground themselves.

And we do know a lot about Elena, even though she’s only been on screen for a few seconds. Her room and clothing show (see? showing, not telling) us that she’s a middle-class American teenager, the photos show us a happy family, we know something went wrong and she’s struggling. The very first page of Elena’s story gives us action, tension, a bit of context, and a compelling struggle for us to connect to. Grief is universal. So is struggling to present a strong face to the world. Most viewers can relate to her, and so far she’s likeable because of it. We also have her goal, which is vital to guiding the story. Managing her grief as she starts school is enough of a goal for now. Make sure your characters have a goal right off the bat; we need to know the goal so we’re interested in whether the character succeeds or fails. We’re already reading (or watching) to find out whether the character wins, and if so, how.

Note where the story begins: we don’t have a crowded stage with several characters, we don’t have a chunk of backstory or exposition, or a high-action chase, or epic danger. We’re allowed to settle into the world by watching one character struggle with something relatable. Details are brief and impacting, and tons of information is withheld. And we have questions: how did her parents die? Where is she going? Why is today important? We’ve spent about 40 seconds with Elena by this point, so about one page. Aim for that effect with your first page. Ground us, compel us, hook us. Make us question and relate. Keep the focus tight.

The next scene cuts to the kitchen as Elena walks in, and we meet our first new character: Jenna. We’re seeing the effects of Elena being parentless because Jenna doesn’t know what to get her for breakfast, the mood is hectic, and the room is a bit of a mess. This gives us the sense things are just the bumpy side of normal here. And that’s more tension.

Adding to the tension and hectic mood, Jeremy walks in. We saw him briefly in the family photo, so we can assume he’s related. We also get a question answered: Jenna mentions their first day of school. Opening pages need to continually raise questions– some big, some minor– and answering the minor ones as we go helps to make the reader trust that the author will make progress toward answering the big ones. That makes a huge difference in whether you’re hooking the reader or frustrating him. A frustrated reader puts a book down because he doesn’t know enough to make sense of the story. A reader who is hooked keeps reading to find out. Raise questions, answer a few, and keep raising more as you go. (Side note: keeping questions floating around does more than raise tension; it also prevents you from giving tons of backstory and info-dump, which remove questions, slow the pacing, and cause readers to skim.)

We’ve also got bits of character development scattered all through this. Jenna is overwhelmed but trying hard. She offers breakfast, lunch money, and anything else she can think of. She forgets about her presentation, and dashes out the door late for it. Jeremy has tension written all over him; from his movements to his lack of eye contact, he shows he’s withdrawn and unhappy. He takes the lunch money; Elena doesn’t. Elena, in fact, is the one to remind Jenna of her presentation. We immediately, less than 3 pages into the story, have these characters pegged: Jenna is trying but is in over her head, Jeremy is unhappy and acting out, and Elena is grieving, responsible, and trying to help others around her. This is enough of a sprinkling of character development for us to get a clear picture of who they are. Later they’ll get deeper, but it’s enough for now.

Right before the scene ends, we get the tension raised again: Elena asks her brother if he’s okay, he rolls his eyes and says, “Don’t start,” and Elena is annoyed and hurt. The focus shifts from Elena to the TV behind her, where we see a news broadcast with photos of the two people who were killed coming home from the concert during the prologue. We have tension between Elena and Jeremy, which lets us know there are problems there. We wonder why, and what kind of problems. We have a callback to the killings on the road, letting us know they’ll come up again and be important.

This is all in the first minute and a half of the show  past the prologues, and probably about the equivalent of the first three pages of a story. A little more than this is what you’d include as sample pages in your query. This amount of story is actually more than most readers will give your book when they’re browsing in Barnes & Noble, and agents will often need even less to tell if your story isn’t for them.

Openings are difficult because they have to do so much in so little space. Sprinkling is the key. Even when you have a massive story and a large cast, keep the focus tight and as you expand it, just sprinkle in the tension and details and relationships. That’s what I want to emphasize here. Of course genre differences apply– frequently there’s more action and suspense in thrillers, for example. But in general, just use bits of information, shades of development. Sprinkle in those things, and you’ll have to room to get your plot and characters on stage, leaving room for character goals, tension, action, and suspense. Even the plot should develop in small steps. Notice none of the storylines have been developed yet. We don’t know much about any one thing, but we know a little bit about a lot of things. We have a hint of something supernatural. We’re grounded in a modern middle-class American high school life. We have a family in turmoil because of recent deaths. Our main character has a goal; Elena desperately wants to start off her senior year with a strong face. Plus, we have dozens of questions, and numerous possibilities for things to go wrong. School is starting, something’s wrong with Jeremy, Jenna is overwhelmed and might have trouble with these teenagers, and we know there’s a stranger in town and there’s been two killings. Readers will keep reading, and agents and editors would be interested because the story is already complex and layered with relatable characters, and the information release and tension are subtley done.

Yes, there are exceptions, and yes, a particularly strong element can carry weaker elements and still have a strong opening for the story. But if exceptions were what usually worked, they wouldn’t be called “exceptions.” And if you have a particularly strong element in your beginning, don’t burden it by making it carry a flawed structure or weak characters.

These are the kinds of things that make for a strong opening to a big story. Tight focus, a strong goal for the main character, questions, tension, suspense, a bit of context, development of the main character and their relationships, and enough action to take the story just a step forward. All this should happen in a very few number of pages, and the key is sprinkling. If you have chunks of any one thing in your first pages, chances are it’s crowding out other things that need to be there. It definitely can be done; TVD did all that, prologues included, in three minutes and thirty seconds. Sprinkle them in at the beginning, then pull on those threads once you have everything on stage.

This is part one of a series of posts on TVD episode one, so come back next time to look at how TVD pulls on all those threads!

What are your thoughts? Are you a TVD fan? What’s the best advice you’ve heard on writing or structuring opening pages?

Flip Flops and Sexism: Pixar Rule 13

We got snow last night. About six inches of it. The snow came after an ice storm- branches are down everywhere. Several hit our house- no damage, thankfully. The trees and roads and even the grass are encased in a solid layer of ice, and now we have 5-6 inches of snow on top of that ice.

The adults are grumbling. The children think it’s magical. My husband and I think it’s kind of cool. My Siberian husky is overjoyed, because we didn’t actually get much serious snowfall this winter.

Opinions. Even something like snow brings out reactions and opinions in people. Your characters need that, too. Here’s Pixar’s 22 Rules of Storytelling, rule 13:

 Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience.

Your characters, especially the character through whose eyes we’re seeing the story happen, have to have opinions. Until recently, their whole lives didn’t revolve around the main conflict. Chances are, not too long ago, they were fairly normal people. Even if they weren’t, they still have a complete personality- or they should. How do they feel about global warming? Flip flops? Sexism? Onions? Preferences and opinions on even small things will help add real-life texture and believability to your writing. A passive character who is just a lens through which we watch the story, reporting what happens around them, would be even less fun than watching the evening news (hey, look an opinion!).

Of course, opinions about what’s going on in the plot need to be included, too. Do they think justice is being served? Do they think, even as rush to rescue her, that their sister brought most of this on herself? Your characters should personally react to the events going on around them, and that means they are even going to disagree with each other. I’m going to jump ahead to rule #15 here because it applies so well:

If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.

Think about how you would feel if your sister disappeared. How would you feel if your brother was running for mayor, but you knew he wasn’t the right man for the job? Put yourself in your character’s shoes and track those emotions for a while. Jot them down so you can see what fits your character later on, but give it some time first. Really daydream about how you would react. Of course, don’t create your characters as yourself, but doing this will add a layer of believability and genuine emotion to them.

The flip side of this whole “give your characters opinions” thing is that your characters are going to disagree with each other. Mary likes olives. Claudia does not. Father thinks John should support his brother’s campaign regardless of political differences, because they are family.  John can’t support him in good conscience, brother or not. Adding real-life texture to your characters through preferences and opinions and disagreements will deepen your characters. It’s also going to make their world more complex- small conflicts, things to enjoy, preferences people surround themselves with that start arguments or create inside jokes. And of course, all of this is going to  complicate the main conflict. The good guys aren’t all agreeing on what to do. Not all of them are 100% good. Rivalry between the bad guys means things don’t go as planned.

So think about what you prefer, what things you argue with others over, what conflicts you have with your friends and family. Listen to the opinions that crop up that guide people’s lives. Work bits of those things into your characters, and they’ll be more active, more complex, and more enjoyable.

Check out the posts from my blogging friends who are doing this challenge with me!

Talynn Lynn, a writer, editorial intern for Entranced Publishing, and writing assistant extraordinaire,

Mary Pat, a writer, fellow teacher, and fantastic blogger,

Alex Yuschik, a writer, grad student, and also an intern to a literary agent,

and Regina Castillo, a dedicated reader, writer, and blogger.

As always, thanks for reading!

 

The Basics of Character Development

As I work on revising my novel this week, I’m going over my character development. My novel has a wide cast and that’s challenging (but fun) to manage. Currently I’m working out notes on each character to make sure my portrayal of each one is consistent and that they are as fully developed as their roles require. This has, of course, brought me back to my books.

My post for this week will therefore be a breakdown of the nuts and bolts of character development. As always, challenge, question, and comment below, please!

The goal of character development is to create characters  exactly suited to your purpose. In my experience, there are 3 levels of characters. Tertiary characters (background people- the cab driver or cashier, perhaps) should be flat characters that don’t distract your readers. They aren’t interesting and they shouldn’t be interesting. For them, this this is good character development.

Secondary characters are much more complicated, of course, as are primary characters. These two types of characters are what I will generally be referring to throughout this post.

With primary characters, the goal is exactly the opposite of flat and uninteresting. They should be, as Brandi Reissenweber puts it in Writing Fiction: The Practical Guide from New York’s Acclaimed Creative Writing School, “real enough to cast shadows.” Before we look at how to do this, let’s look at why we want this from our characters. In Master Class in Fiction Writing, Adam Sexton says, “If they are well-wrought, stories intrigue, entertain and satisfy us. But it is characters that we love— and love hating. In the short stories and novels we read and reread, it is characters above all that we cherish.” Characters are what make your readers attached to your work. They make your writing memorable. Ebenezer Scrooge, Neville Longbottom, Elizabeth Bennett and Anne Shirley are an enormous part of what makes their novels compelling.

So, how do you make the next Huck Finn, the next Atticus Finch? There is no recipe for characters like that, and a lot of it has to do with talent (both learned and natural talent). However, there are consistent elements involved in developing characters that are complex, memorable, and realistic.

Active protagonists are essential. With few exceptions, a story with a passive protagonist will eventually wither and die. Protagonists set the story in motion; they drive the action. If they aren’t active, neither is the story. An active protagonist is one who wants something. This is key to a good protagonist. Again, Reissenweber says, “Desire beats in the heart of every dimensional character. A character should want something. Desire is a driving force of human nature and, applied to characters, it creates a steam of momentum to drive a story forward.” How badly the character wants  whatever they want tells the readers how hard to root for them to succeed– if Atticus only sort of wants to win the trial, readers will only sort of care.

This desire must be something internal and external. Characters have to desire something tangible that is core to their identity. For example, a teenager put into foster care as an infant may desire to know his birth-mother. This may be borne of an internal desire to find his identity- who he is and why. The tangible, plot-propelling expression of that is the hunt for his mother. Note that because this desire is key to who he is, he will, guaranteed, want it badly. Linda Seger, in her book, Making a Good Writer Great, notes says that “Yearnings push and pull at us…Sometimes they’re so strange that we wonder what anyone would think about us if they really knew what we yearned for, or how much we yearned for it… Too many characters lack guts and vibrancy because they only have a wee bit of want, rather than raging desires.” An internal desire to be loved, to be accepted, and to take control of one’s life (and many more desires like these) are realistic internal desires that a character could have, and the tangible, concrete counterpart desires he may have are endless. Your character must have them, however.

One more important note is that this abstract, internal desire is often a big part of what connects us to a character. For instance, most of us know and empathize with the need to be loved, and we will connect with a character who wants that badly.

Besides a strong internal desire mirrored by a strong external desire, there are 4 more main traits of solid characters. The second trait is complexity. No human can be reduced to a stereotype, and characters shouldn’t be, either. Characters may start with a type- the farmer, the feminist, the rural preacher, the hipster, the gold digger– but they must, absolutely must, transcend type. They must be different from anyone else of that stereotype. The farmer might secretly study foreign politics. The feminist may love gardening with a passion. The preacher might be a compulsive liar. The reasons why they do these things that separate them from their stereotypes make them real people. These differences should include flaws and virtues, as well. The sinless hero and the completely evil villain are stereotypes themselves.

The third element is contrasting traits. All people, as you peel back the layers, have conflicting characteristics. Personally, I am a social person– to a point. I am social, and I am also not. One of my characters in my novel does not want a husband- but she does want children. Ebenezer Scrooge is a hard-hearted miser, but deep down (deep, deep down), there is a part of him that is still a little boy. These contrasting traits happen because of all the baggage we carry around with us. All the things that influence who we are help create these contrasting layers. My husband still surprises me with the things he does, and not because I don’t know him well or because he’s an inconsistent person (he isn’t). It’s because people are complex beings with multiple reasons for why we do what we do. Sometimes one reason wins out, and sometimes another does. This creates those layers, those contrasting traits, and the characters in our fiction should have them too. A character without them won’t be convincing.

I just mentioned consistency, and that is the forth element of round characters. Consistency is  the effect of readers being able to see why the contrasting traits exist. So as your characters live out their lives in  your plot, make sure there are solid, consistent reasons behind why they do what they do. They may do surprising things (and they should) as long as we can see why that choice was made. Elizabeth Bennett said she’d never marry Mr. Darcy, but she did, and we believe it because we can see why she did. She changed her mind, but the reason she did is still consistent with who she is.

Of course, Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy both changed as characters over the course of the novel, and ability to change is the fifth characteristic of sound characters. The possibility for characters to change keeps us reading and keeps the characters from being predictable. We want to know if Scrooge becomes a better, happier soul; if Neville Longbottom rises out of his shy, bumbling childhood; if Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy can change enough to value each other as they ought to. They might, they might not– we read to find out. Here too we find ourselves rooting for this kind of character, and if he or she has a strong internal and external desire, we’re doubly captivated.

Those 5 things -desire, complexity, contrasting traits, consistency, and ability to change- are the main elements of compelling, realistic characters. Now, say you’ve got that all worked out. More than that, you’ve got pages filled with who this character is beyond these 5 traits. You know his his backstory, his favorite kind of peanut butter, his nervous habits, and what makes him happy, sad, and angry. How do you make all this complexity come across in your writing? How do you characterize him within your story?

There are 4 main methods of characterization. The first is what the character does. This is the closest thing we have to objective information about who a character truly is– what she does. Adam Sexton also points out that, “if readers have observed an aspect of character in a scene, they will more likely remember it.” So, instead of telling us what she did, have her do it in a scene. It gives us strong evidence about who she truly is, and we’re likely to remember it since we saw it.

The second method of showing character is through what the character says (or thinks, if we have access to that through the point-of-view.) This is, of course, more biased and subjective than actions. Kind words, judgmental statements, or pithy thoughts let us in on how characters think and who they are. Complaints, wise advice, thoughtful responses… these things are great opportunities for readers to see who your characters are.

The third method is through what other characters say or think about that character. This method is especially useful because it characterizes both the speaker and the character about whom she is speaking. If I say harsh words about a friend of mine, it may tell the reader something about my friend, but it will likely also tell the reader something about me. It may tell a great deal, in fact.

The final main method of showing characterization is through what the narrator tells us. Except for cases of unreliable narrators, the narrator is honest and unbiased. We don’t have to filter what he tells us. Make use of this reliable perspective for elements of your character that you absolutely don’t want doubted, and then support those traits with the other methods.

In all these things, subtlety is the goal. If these things are done heavy-handedly, readers will feel forced or manipulated. Being too obvious is just as bad as being confusing, if not worse, so this is where practice and good feedback is important in character development. Learning to see where you are overwriting and where you are being too subtle is important to having truly realistic characters, characters who keep readers coming back and are real enough to cast shadows.

Of course, there is much more that can be said about each of these areas, and I have glossed over and abbreviated many things. The three books I reference in this post have excellent sections on character development and I highly recommend turning to them for additional examples and explanation. Thank you for reading!