Writer’s Tip: Outlining—The Ups and Downs of Figuring Stuff Out

Khet6

What It Means To Be A Pantster

I used to be a pantster; someone who wrote books by the seat of their pants so-to-speak. Writing from the top of your head can be a freeing experience, and one that I’d suggest all writers try out at one point or another. I went through a phase where I was cranking out 6-10k words a day—practically blazing through the first draft of a novel.

Don’t get me wrong, being a panster is great; the creativity flows non-stop and you get a lot of writing done in a short period of time. It makes you feel like you can do anything, and it helps train your brain to write without significant pauses… that is, until you hit the brick wall of not knowing what comes next.

The Inherent Problems With Being A Pantster

Every pantster eventually comes to a point where they pause and say “okay, what’s next?” Because they didn’t take the time to plot out their novel ahead of time, they reach a point where they aren’t sure where to go with the plot. Sometimes the plot gets so entangled that they can’t see an easy way out. Sometimes the on-the-fly novel lacks the appropriate amount of character development or conflict. Some writers get past it; they roll up their sleeves, fix a few things, and keep pushing—but not everyone can. Sometimes things go so awry that you have to start all over. I know, because I’ve done it.

Khet

Once upon a time, not so long ago, I began a novel writing project I hesitantly named Khet. It was originally the story of a girl named Khet, and was set in pre-historic times. It was a fantasy/paranormal/historical/romance mishmash that explored the idea of what would happen if a stubborn little girl stood up to an ancient god. That was about as much as I knew about the story when I began writing, and at about nine chapters in, I got stuck. I didn’t know what kind of story I was writing. I didn’t know the characters. I got to the point where I sat back and took a good look at my story and said “I have to fix this.”

What Is An Outline?

Of course, the easiest way to “fix” Khet, was to start over and begin an outline. Think of an outline as a roadmap: it tells you all the stopping points along the journey to the story… who you’re going to meet, where you’re going to meet them, and what your plans with them are. Some outlines are simple—just a few important points to keep the story on track, like when to introduce a particular character or an outside conflict scenario—and sometimes outlines are remarkably thorough, detailing each step in how a scene plays out, conversations that need to be had between characters, and how tiny details from previous chapters play into the current scene. There’s no wrong way to write an outline, but I’d like to share with you one method of setting up an outline that I’ve personally found useful. I like to refer to it as the branch method.

Branching Out

The idea behind the branch method of outlining is that you start with big, vague concepts and begin to define and detail each concept until you’ve whittled things down to the tiny details. The best way to show this is probably by throwing myself under the bus (yet again) and give you an example from Khet’s outlining process.

When I started re-writing Khet, I started with the big, vague concepts of what the story was about. I chose the themes of my story first:

  • Romance
  • Fantasy

This helped me define what the story was going to be about, and helped me pick the setting. I decided that Khet was going to be about a girl (Khet) that is caught in a war between two species. Her love interest, Leander, is of the dominant species (Felnatherin), and she is a half-breed of Human and Felnatherin decent. This introduced conflict for Khet to overcome.

The next step, was to figure out the conflict points of the story… the bits of drama that spur the story on. So I decided that:

  • There would be a war raging between Humans and Felantherin, and Khet/Leander would have to be on opposite sides of that war.
  • There would have to be an outside conflict to drive the couple together and pose more problems for them. In this case, because of Leander’s love for Khet, he breaks the laws of the Felnatherin to keep her alive. This pits Leander against his own kind, and forces Leander and Khet to get along.

Of course, these aren’t the only points of conflict in the story, but these were the major points. Then I took a step deeper and thought to myself “If Leander hates Humans (as do all Felnatherin), what would make him fall in love with Khet? What keeps him from following the law of his people?” Light bulb! Khet looks just like the sister (Arielle) that Leander was forced to kill in the past (because she sided with the humans and broke Felnatherin law herself. He is a peacekeeper for his people). Because Khet looks identical to Arielle, Leander has to step back and take a moment to think before he executes her. He didn’t enjoy doling out punishment to his sister the first time around, and he couldn’t bring himself to do it a second time. Not only that, he was also curious to see WHY this girl had suddenly appeared that looked so much like his dead sister.

This brought up all sorts of conflict. Suddenly I had the beginnings of a real story. From there, I branched out yet again, taking time to decide why certain characters made the choices they did and what the consequences of those choices could be. I introduced new characters and started to plot out how those characters were involved with the overarching plot and how they worked to help or hinder the story of Leander and Khet. I spent time creating the rules of my universe: how bloodlines of Felnatherin transferred from generation to generation, the laws of the Felnatherin Court, the history between the two races that created the war.

Before I knew it, I had an entire notebook detailing the overall plot of my story and a list of characters. From there, I went one step deeper. I went back over my notes, throwing in sticky notes and comments in the margins—dividing my story into scenes, POV’s, and listing important conversations or incidents that needed to happen for the story to work. This gave me time to go back and fix continuity errors, add and remove characters, introduce new sub-plots, love interests, and details, and change things around that didn’t work on a second look (or replace them with better ideas!).

The next step was to organize it all. I started to write out a detailed outline detailing each scene, the location it took place, the time of day, weather, the characters involved, and a run through of how the chapters would play out from the first line to the last. It wasn’t super-thorough… I didn’t write out dialogue or actions, just general ideas, feelings, and context such as:

Chapter 8: The River Valley Village, Mid-Morning, Summer, Hot & Humid. Characters: Khet, Harith (brother), Safiya (sister), Hala (mother). POV: Khet.

Khet enters town, blinded, but she can get around easily enough. The village is alive with the sound of drumbeats and the smell of roasting meat. People move past Khet with purpose, barely paying her any mind. Everyone is focused on the upcoming ceremonies. By now, most people are used to the crippled girl getting around on her own and maybe, are even a bit wary of the fact that despite her blindness, she navigates with certainty and ease. They may believe there is some supernatural aspect to it.

The drumbeats at the village center reach a crescendo and then stop abruptly—signaling the arrival of the Felnatherin presiding over the maturing ceremony. The sudden silence sends a chill up Khet’s spine and she stops in her steps for a moment, turning towards the center of town—though blinded or not, she would not have been close enough to see.

A hand grabs her arm and a familiar voice guides her away from the center of the village, towards her home. She recognizes the voice immediately as that of her elder brother, Harith, and she is glad that he’s come to greet her. She needs to watch her actions and be careful not to draw attention to herself while the Felnatherin is in town, and without being able to take off her blind, it was difficult for her to tell who was around, even in so familiar a place.

He scolds her in a not-unfriendly way, telling her she is late and their mother is agitated beyond belief. Khet apologizes, but they both know her mind is on other things. If her ceremony ends up in marriage, these will be the last few hours where Khet has any freedom without her blind. It’s a daunting prospect. He compliments her on her new necklace (given by Adala in the previous scene).

Harith guides Khet home and then leaves (he has duties to attend?). Khet enters their meager family hut, which is bustling with activity.

Transition Setting: Khet’s family hut inside the river valley village, mid-morning, summer, hot and humid—but cooler indoors, and dark. Characters: Khet, Safiya, Hala. POV: Khet.

Khet removes her blind. Her elder sister (Safiya) is diligently finishing the last few bits of adornment on her ceremony outfit. When Khet enters, her sister scolds her for being late and threatens Khet to be sure that she pretends they aren’t related. She doesn’t want her association with the blind girl to ruin her last chance at marriage (Having failed to secure a husband at her first ceremony the year before).

Their mother scolds Safiya for being cruel to her sister, but asks Khet to understand… Safiya is nervous that she may miss out again this year. Khet shakes her head and says that Safiya is right. She has no intention of ruining her day, and she certainly hopes she doesn’t find a groom for herself. Her mother chastises her for wishing something so odd, but Khet explains her worst fears: that she will have to hide her secret for the rest of her life. She can’t explain to a husband that she’s been pretending to be blind her entire life, and she can’t explain why their children would be born with green eyes—the eyes of the Felnatherin. The voiced fear puts a stop to her family’s activities. She shrugs and says that she’d rather live the rest of her life alone than live with that fear.

Safiya tells Khet not to sulk, and ready, leaves to join the ceremony. Khet’s mother tells her not to worry and helps her to quickly get read.

Notes: Make Safiya’s dislike of her sister clear. Show that although she puts on a brave front, Khet is frightened by what her future might entail, and though she says she hopes to never get married or have children, she secretly wants both… just not at the expense of her freedom. Khet at some point should ask about Ruwa (Khet’s eldest sister)—where she is, what she’s doing. (Side note: Ruwa is also unmarried)—she is helping their grandmother set up the ceremony. (Side note: The Grandmother is one of the village elders).

As you can see, there’s enough detail to give a complete run-through of what will happen in the chapter and any important points that need to be made, but not so much detail that it’s a chapter in-and-of itself. I didn’t add in their conversations word-for-word or the little movements they make (like ducking under the entrance to the hut, or removing Khet’s blind and tucking it in her waistband), but I have a pretty good  idea of where the chapter will go, what will happen, and what conversations need to take place. The next step would be the First Draft.

There are a lot of ways to outline. Some people make point-by-point lists. Some organize scenes onto notecards. Some outlines are incredibly detailed, and some are vague. This isn’t the only way to create an outline, and it won’t work for everyone. I like it because it allows me to study the bigger picture of my story first, and then slowly whittle it down to the details. By the time I get to this final version that’s scene-for-scene, I don’t have any major points that need to be moved around or fixed. If I get ideas along the way for new characters or new conflict, it’s easy to write them on a sticky note and slide them into the outline. I can go back chapters ahead of where I am and add in side-notes of things that need to be addressed that have an impact on later chapters. This kind of outline feels natural to me because as the outline progresses, so does the fleshing out of the story. It’s easy to fix, and in the end, I pretty much know what’s going to happen in my story, all that’s left to do is to get to the fun part: writing it.

As I’ve said before: there’s nothing wrong with being a pantster—I encourage everyone to try it—but personally, I like being a prepared pantster. I can sit down and write my heart out after I know where the story is going rather than trying to figure it out on the fly. Ultimately, I know it’s going to lead me to having a better book because I’ve had time to really stop and think about things like bloodlines, historical events, the reasoning behind character’s actions, and the possibilities that their dialogues spur on. By the time I’ve gotten to the first draft, I know I’ve made sure I have enough conflict and that the characters actions will make sense… and the most pressing problem I’ll have is my sentence structure and punctuation.

Outlining isn’t an easy process. It takes time—lots of time. Sometimes it takes me a day or two to figure out how to solve a problem Khet and Leander face. Sometimes I create more problems for myself by changing a scene that other scenes relied on later in the story, and I have to then go back and figure out how that change butterfly-effected it’s way on down through the rest of the plot. There were times I got to chapter thirty-something and realized that I had a much better idea for how a scenario would play out and I had to go back to chapter one and remove a character that no longer needed to be in the book. Outlining is like trying to piece together a puzzle that is constantly changing it’s picture…. but it’s a lot of fun, and it’s so worth it in the end when you sit back and say “I know where my story is going.” and then sit down and write it.

Writer’s Tip: Tackling The Second Draft

 

ProofreadingThere comes a time in every author’s writing career when it’s time to set aside the first draft of your literary baby and get to work on the second draft. As a book reviewer, I can unfortunately attest to the fact that many authors don’t seem to know what to do at this point. Most of the time when I’ve rated a book 3 stars or below on the scale of “how awesome is this book?” it’s because somewhere along the line, the author has failed to invest in a good editor. Trust me on this: the quickest way to a negative review is to fail your second draft. Please: never upload your first draft. Just don’t.

I realize it’s difficult for any author to look at something they’ve slaved over for weeks or even years and edit with a critical eye. There’s something terrifying about cutting out entire chapters and re-wording sentences we long-ago fell in love with—but it needs to be done. If you can’t be critical of your own work, then invest in an impartial editor and beta readers. Regardless,  you should know how to edit to some degree, and I’m going to give you a bit of a checklist of things to look for. Save yourself some grief later on and give the list a look. You may not agree with all of the points I’ll make, you may even choose to ignore them completely, but you should take a moment to consider them. You’ll be glad you did later on.

Try to look at each of these points individually. It’s a long list (thought not comprehensive..these are just the basics), and it can be overwhelming if you’re trying to consider them all at once. Example: Don’t worry about your spelling while trying to sort out the punctuation in your dialogue. It’s easier, and a lot less stressful, to focus on one point at a time.

The Beginning

It’s ominous, I know. This is the one part of every story that the author undoubtedly stresses over. You’ve probably read it more than any other part of your work, and it’s been around the longest—sometimes through multiple drafts, unchanged. This is your initial hook. It needs to draw your audience into the story and keep them long enough to surpass any lack-luster parts that crop up before the story really starts to sink in. Because of this, you need to pay special attention to it.

Make sure you have a strong first sentence, if not a strong first scene. Pay attention to the technical side of your writing here; misspelled words, incorrect grammar, or misused punctuation will have your audience putting down your book quicker than you can say the title. Now, all of these things are important throughout your story, but double, triple, even quadruple check the first chapter.

Do not start with backstory, exposition, flashbacks, or the weather if you can avoid it. It’s best if the first few moments of your story give us an impression of the main character, or at the very least show us what to expect from the rest of your story. A reader should be able to read your first chapter and get the general gist of what genre your book fits into, and where the story may lead.

The Middle

Do me a favor: find your word count, divide it by 2, and find the chapter that sits at the exact center of your story. This is the climax of your story—or at least it should be. If you find that your climax came earlier, or later than this point, edit accordingly. If the middle of your novel sags you will lose your readers. This should be the point in your novel with the most tension. The absolute worst thing that can happen to your characters, should happen here.

The End

There should be a clear end to your story unless you’ve done something horribly wrong. If your story feels like it ends too abruptly, your readers will be confused and unsatisfied. Now, that isn’t to say that you can’t have an open-ending. Cliffhangers are great—especially if you plan on subsequent books—but at least 90% of your story’s plotlines (or everything but the main series arch) should be wrapped up by this point. Too many holes and things left unexplained can be frustrating.

If you’re working on a stand-alone novel, feel free to wrap things up completely, but be careful you don’t wrap things up too neatly. If your story ends with an epilogue where everyone gets married or is pregnant, you’ve gone too far. Having everything turn out all right in the end isn’t interesting, and the world doesn’t work that way. No matter how good your story was, if everything ends in puppies and hugs, your reader will feel as if you gave up in the end. Leave at least one point that doesn’t result in fuzzy warm feelings. It’s okay to have characters regret actions, or have a character end up with an unhappy result. This isn’t to say that your story has to be a tragedy, just don’t make it perfect; it won’t feel genuine.

The Plot

You should have one. You should also have an overall theme. Take a moment and in one paragraph, try to sum up your entire story. Don’t be too specific:

Plot: A teenage girl, a victim to circumstance, harbors a dangerous secret. When circumstance challenges her to question everything she’s believed about herself and the world she lives in, instead of allowing herself to continue to be a victim, she will fight back, putting everyone she loves in danger for the chance to change her fate.

Theme: Fighting for what you believe in despite the odds, instead of allowing those around you to dictate your fate.

Notice I didn’t name any characters, or specific events. Chances are, at some point, these things will change. Keep your plot in mind as you edit, and do your best to stick to it. If your plot seems weak, it probably is.

Genre

You don’t have to stick to one genre, but you should be able to list which genre’s your story fits into. (Have at least one or two dominant genre’s, after that, no one really cares). I know it feels good to be defiant and say your story breaks conventional genre’s, but when it comes to publishing, you’ll need to be able to classify your story in some way. Otherwise, no one’s going to know where to find it in the bookstore.

You should be aware of your genre while you edit and make sure you fit into it. Certain genre’s have aspects that have come to be expected. Erotica’s will have sex scenes. Romance will be predominantly about relationships. Thrillers should have a sense of danger to them. This doesn’t mean that your story needs to be a clone of every other book in it’s genre, but you should be aware of how these genre’s may effect your plot and theme.

Audience

Be aware of your audience. If you’re writing a Middle-Grade book, your story will be written differently than an Adult book. Keep the age of your audience in mind as you edit. Middle-Grade books won’t contain sex scenes. If you aren’t sure which audience you want to shoot for, that’s okay! Write your story how you want it to be written, and then classify it later, but once you make the decision, make sure you stick to it.

Characters

Each character should have their own personality and motivations. Do not make the mistake of introducing characters whose sole purpose is to show up in a scene, react to other characters, and then fade away into the background. No one will remember their names, and they will come across as one-dimensional. It’s okay if your characters don’t agree with each other, or even make things harder for one another. Characters that have depth will bring your story to life.

If you have trouble, take the time to write a page summary of each character. Talk about their motivations: What do they want out of life? What are their circumstances? What is their personality? How do they feel about your other characters? What is their opinion on the situation at hand? If they were the main character in their own story, how would they handle things?

For example: In one of the novels I’m working on there’s the main character: Khet, and her sister Safiya. Due to unfortunate circumstances, Khet has lived her life as an outcast. Her existence is against the law in her society, and she, and her family have been forced to be secretive about it. This has put a strain on the family as they’re always cautious about how close they become to others in their community. For Safiya, this is particularly difficult. She is Khet’s older sister, and learned at a young age that her mother had betrayed Safiya’s father and had an affair. Due to her anger at her mother, and now her sister because of their forced secrecy, Safiya tends to treat her little sister as a burden, and doesn’t consider her a true relative. She wants nothing more than to get married and have kids of her own, but it seems as if all her life she’s been forced to keep anyone outside her family at bay. When she’s finally given a chance to reach her goals, Khet’s secret is let out, destroying her chances of ever realizing her dreams.

Though in this scenario, Khet is the main character, and the situation is not her fault, from Safiya’s point of view, Khet is the villain. She is an obstacle that stand’s in the way of Safiya’s dreams, and accordingly, she reacts by trying to abandon her sister in an attempt to finally live her life free of these inherited burdens. From Khet’s point of view, her sister Safiya has a caustic attitude and betrays their family, endangering Khet’s life. She comes across as selfish, and maybe even a bit evil—but that isn’t necessarily true. Like Khet, Safiya is a victim of her circumstances.

Your characters should be just as complex. Secondary characters shouldn’t exist just so that the main characters have someone to talk to or argue with. They each have their reasons for what they say and do… take the time to figure out what those are, and then be consistent.

Unless something profound happens, your character shouldn’t change their mind or their personality at the drop of a hat. Your characters will need to be convinced, or forced,  to act or think differently. They shouldn’t change just because it’s convenient for your main character or you. It isn’t realistic, and your audience will start to question if your characters have some unknown, secret motive. Your characters should change during the course of you story—they will inherently do so as the story moves along and events and conversations weigh in on their actions, but it shouldn’t happen like the flip of a switch. Think of it as their religion: would you change your entire faith (or lack there of) in a split second? No, not unless something profound forces you to, or circumstances change.

Dialogue

Say it out loud. I’m serious. One trap that authors repeatedly fall into is to write their dialogue exactly like they write their narrative. You can’t do it. Dialogue isn’t perfect, and it’s one of the few places in a novel where you can break most of the rules of grammar. People talk in stilted half-sentences with stops and starts, mispronunciations, accents, and run-on jibber jabber. They swear, they lie, they sometimes even refuse to speak, sometimes, they even interrupt. That’s okay! What isn’t okay is monologues, and poetic one-liners.

Do yourself a favor; it’ll be embarrassing, but find an empty room (or hey, more power to you if it has people in it!) and speak your character’s dialogue out loud, acting as they would act. It takes very little time to spot poor dialogue. If you can’t get through a sentence without cringing, you probably need to get back to the drawing board.

Also: remember that 90% of a conversation is non-verbal.  Your character is not a floating head in a black box. They should move, gesture, sneer, even storm out of the room—but have them do something—this will help to anchor them within a scene.

Another thing to look out for: names. Most of the time when people talk, unless they are directly addressing someone for clarification in a group or  trying to emphasize a point, they will avoid saying the name of the person they’re talking to. There’s no need to state character’s names in the dialogue if it’s easy to tell who they are talking to.

POV

Your story should be told from the point of view that tells it best—not necessarily what you are most comfortable with. Some stories, particularly personal ones, may be better told from a first-person point of view. Others, particularly those with multiple important characters (especially those that are separated by a great distance), may be better told from a third-person point of view. If your story doesn’t work in a particular point of view, consider switching it. It’s okay if your story is written from the viewpoint of several different characters, and it’s okay if they don’t follow a set pattern of appearance, as long as it’s clear who’s point of view each section of your story is written from. However, please do not switch back and forth between the types of POV. Your story should either be all 1st person, or all 3rd person. You can’t do both. Avoid 2nd person—trust me on this. There is nothing more irritating than having the narrator tell you how you should feel about a story.

  • 1st Person: I picked up the red ball.
  • 2nd Person (present tense)*: You pick up the red ball.
  • 3rd Person: She picked up the red ball.

*2nd person POV is almost always done in present tense – and I best used for choose your own adventure books.

Tense

I’m going to piss some people off: Write in past tense. If you’re considering writing in present tense, please, think it over a little more before you commit.

  • Present Tense: She picks up the red ball. / I pick up the red ball.
  • Past Tense: She picked up the red ball. / I picked up the red ball.

As much as some people will argue, Past Tense is the natural tense for storytelling, as stories are always told after the fact. That isn’t to say that there haven’t been some successful novels written in present tense. There have—but these are the exception, not the rule. The majority of readers find present tense to be distracting and awkward to read through, we are used to past tense. It comes naturally to us.So go ahead, be stubborn and challenge the norm—I applaud you if that is what you want to do, but do it with the understanding that there will be a large amount of readers who outright refuse to read your work. It’s not something I would suggest you endeavor to do with a first novel.

Spelling, Punctuation, Grammar, Style

Spellcheck. Read out loud. Invest in a good copyeditor. Errors will happen—nobody’s perfect—but you can minimize the damage by checking and re-checking your 2nd draft before you hand it over to be published. There is absolutely no excuse to not catch 98% of technical errors before you publish.

Why read out loud? As the author of your story, your brain is so used to reading it (after all, you made it up!) that your brain has inherently learned to “fill the gaps” and skim over errors. Instead of reading the errors correctly, your brain skips over them naturally because you already know what it’s supposed to say. The best way to get around this is to read out loud. Reading out loud forces your brain to work not only through the visual center of your brain, but the verbal as well. The errors will trip you up, and they will be easier to spot.

Reading out loud also helps you to pick out the flow, punctuation, and basic wording of a sentence. If it doesn’t work, you’ll know it.

Now, each person has a different style of writing, but there are certain things you should look out for. Some of these may include:

  • Passive sentences: try to keep these at a minimum. Passive sentences aren’t bad per se, but they do make your writing weak. The reasoning behind this is that passive sentences on average take more words than active sentences. The longer a sentence is, the harder it is to follow. There are times when you’ll want to use passive sentences—for example: To fix the flow of a sentence. Sometimes passive sentences sound better, but the majority of your writing should be active.
  • Don’t be wordy. Wordy doesn’t necessarily mean that you have too many words in a sentence so much as too many words that don’t add anything to the sentence. When constructing a sentences, you want to be as clear and concise as possible. You can always add more words to fix the flow.

Example:

Katherine didn’t really care for Michael that much; he had always reminded her of a dastardly cartoon villain, complete with maniacal laugh and white lab coat.

OR

Katherine disliked Michael, he reminded her of a cartoon villain, complete with maniacal laugh and white lab coat.

Words trimmed: eight. Meaning: unchanged.

  • Vary your sentence structure and lengths (and read everything out loud!). If all your sentences follow the same structure and the same length, your writing will seem boring and dry. It’s good to be concise and get to the point of your sentence quickly, but keep in mind that you need to watch the flow of your sentences. Also, when given the choice, always pick words that mean exactly what you want them to, not the next best approximation. Green != Lime, and Walk != Shuffle.

This is an example. This is not how you should write. All my sentences are short. It seems forced. It reminds me of a drum beat. Thunk. Thunk. Thunk.

This is another example of how you should not write—even if it seems like a better idea than the previous staccato example, if all of your sentences are long, it can be hard to follow your narrative. After awhile, your reader becomes bored, and there’s more opportunity for them to become lost as the story drags on; the longer your sentences, the harder they are to follow.

This is a good example. It’s okay to have long sentences as well as short sentences. A nice blend of both is imperative to keeping your reader interested in your story without boring them. Your writing should be concise–it’s good to get to the point quickly–but by staggering the length of the sentences, the flow of the story is easier to follow. You can use short sentences to draw attention to important points, while longer sentences help smooth out the flow and clarify the points being made. Got it? Good.

  • Take the time to learn proper punctuation, and the function of coordinating conjunctions. Chances are, you’re using them wrong. (and, but, or, yet, for, nor, so) These words should never be used to start a sentence. They are used to join sentences. Sometimes, such as in dialogue, it’s okay to make an exception (like I said, dialogue breaks the rules of grammar!), but chances are if you’re using any of these words to start a sentence, you should change your punctuation.

WRONG: Khet liked Leander. But as much as she enjoyed his presence, she couldn’t help but feel intimidated by his predatory stare.

RIGHT: Khet liked Leander, but as much as she enjoyed his presence, she couldn’t help but feel intimidated by his predatory stare.

 ALSO RIGHT: Khet liked Leander; she enjoyed his presence, but she couldn’t help but feel intimidated by his predatory stare.

PUNCTUATION CHEAT SHEET

When in doubt: check it out.

The Period:

  • Shows that a thought or idea is complete, and is always used at the end of a sentence. Example: I was homesick.
  • Use after most abbreviations. Example: Dr. Nevarr
  • Use after an initial. Example: C. A. Morton
  • Always placed inside a quotation mark that ends a sentence. Example: “If you think I’m going to jump off the edge of this building, you’re insane.”

The Question Mark:

  • Used to mark a question. Example: Why is the sky blue?
  • Place inside closing quotation marks if it is part of the quotation (or dialogue). “Why is the sky blue?” she asked.
  • Place outside the closing quotation marks if it NOT part of the quotation (or dialogue). Did she really just say, “He’s a jackass” ?

The Exclamation Mark:

  • Belongs at the end of an exclamatory sentence. Example: Put on your coat!
  • Should never be combined with any other form of punctuation. Example: What is wrong with you?!
  • Should never be repeated. Example: Never, ever, do this!!!
  • Use sparingly. When used often, your writing will begin to sound comical. Example: It is not okay to repeatedly use exclamation marks! It makes things sound silly! The more I do this, the worse it gets! Seriously! Don’t do it!

The Comma:

  • Used with names and titles. Example: Cary Morton, Author; Jamie Paige, Illustrator
  • Used after introductory expressions. Example: On average, you are more likely to be crushed by a vending machine than bitten by a shark.
  • Used after interrupting words or expressions. Example: Khet, who was often left to her own devices, found the event exhilarating.
  • Used to set off a direct quotation. Example: She said, “Please don’t open the door.” Not that I listened.
  • Used to set off appositives. Example: The character, Khet, is female.
  • Used to separate items in a series. Example: cakes, cupcakes, pies, and cookies.
  • Used to set off words of direct address. Example: The whole event is ridiculous, Leander.

The Semi-Colon:

  • Used to join closely related independent clauses. Example: It’s not bad to use a semi-colon; sometimes they are quite useful.
  • Used to join independent clauses when one or both clauses contain a comma. Example: Sometimes it’s hard to tell when to use a semi-colon, and so they are left out completely; people find it hard place them correctly, and are often warned not to.
  • Used between main clauses connected by a conjunctive adverb. Example: Khet wanted to run away; however, she knew it would be pointless.

The Colon:

  • Used before long, formal quotations.
  • Used before lists.
  • Used before part of a sentence that explains what has just been stated. Example: Khet was a mystery: she rarely ever talked to anyone outside her family.

Quotation Marks:

  • Used to mark dialogue.
  • Used to set off a definition.
  • Used to set off the title of a short work, such as a poem, essay, song, short story, or magazine article.

The Hyphen:

  • Is used to show a break at the end of a bit of dialogue or sentence, usually due to a sudden interruption. Example: “But—“ she started, but quickly stopped when she realized no one was listening.
  • Used in specific compound nouns and adjectives. Example: well-known
  • Used in fractions and compound numbers. Example: twenty-two, one-half

The (em)Dash:

  • Is used to show a break between phrases and clauses. Example:
  • Use to show emphasis, such as a sudden change of thought. Example: Safiya was selfish—and beautiful—but she wasn’t outright cruel.
  • Used before a summary of what is stated in a sentence. Example: Khet wasn’t prepared to leave her family, even if it meant saving herself—she cared about them too much.

The Ellipses:

  • Use to show that you have deleted words or sentences from a passage you’re quoting.
  • Use to show a discontinuation in thought or dialogue. Example: “Leander … seriously?” or “I want … “ She sighed. “I don’t know what I want.”

Punctuation is often a personal style choice (as long as you follow the rules). For example: I use a lot of emdashes (—) and semi-colons ( ; ) when I write. It isn’t wrong—despite popular belief—both can be quite useful; I happen to put my thoughts and dialogue together naturally in such a way that they are used more often than with other authors. That’s okay. You don’t have to use them, but you can if you want to—as long as you are using them correctly.

Whitespace, Paragraphs, and Dialogue Structure

Whitespace is exactly what it sounds like: the white space on a page where words do not exist. The more of it you have, the faster the pace of your story. No one likes walls of text. If your pages seem to have few line breaks, start a new paragraph and give your reader’s eyes a break. Generally the rule you want to remember is: The Rule of One:

  • One statement per sentence.
  • One topic per paragraph.
  • One theme per chapter.

As far as formatting paragraphs and dialogue you should start a new paragraph:

  • Anytime the speaker of dialogue changes.
  • Anytime the actor changes.
  • Anytime the topic changes.

For example, you wouldn’t write dialogue like this:

“Khet?” “Yes?” “Where’s your sister?” “I have no idea.”

Instead, you would format it like this:

“Khet?”

“Yes?”

“Where’s your sister?”

“I have no idea.”

The same thing goes for the actor. You wouldn’t do this:

“Khet?” Leander’s voice cracked, and he cleared his throat. Khet arched a brow.

“Yes?”

Instead, it should look like this:

“Khet?” Leander’s voice cracked, and he cleared his throat.

Khet arched a brow. “Yes?”

Dialogue doesn’t have to sit at the front of a paragraph as long as the person speaking is the same person acting. Also, if the same character speaks more than once, you don’t have to break it up:

“Khet?” Leander’s voice cracked, and he cleared his throat.

Khet arched a brow. “Yes?”

“Have you seen your sister?” he asked, “She seems to be missing.”

Khet stared at him for a moment. “You can’t be serious.” She frowned. “You are serious. Shit.”

…And while we’re on the topic of dialogue and structure, let’s take a moment to discuss proper dialogue punctuation and dialogue tags. Usually, you don’t need dialogue tags half as much as you think you do. From a young age we are taught to slap them on the end of every line of dialogue. To be fair, this is done because as children, it helps us to identify dialogue and remember who is speaking. As we get older, we don’t need quite so much instruction. If dialogue is written well, it doesn’t need a tag. Theoretically you should be able to tell who’s speaking without adding a tag.  If you must use a dialogue tag, make sure it’s one that is commonly used (and therefore easily ignored). Example:

“Khet?” Leander asked.

“Hm?” Khet replied.

“Never mind,” he said.

Ouch. Way too many tags, but you get the idea. Instead, it’d be better if we dropped all the tags that weren’t essential:

“Khet?”

“Hm?”

“Never mind.”

“Leander….”

“All right, all right. Look, we need to talk.”

“About what?”

“Us.”

I didn’t need any dialogue tags here. Now, this isn’t going to happen every time there’s dialogue. This is just one example. In this case, I didn’t need to explain who was talking because the characters had a back-and-forth pattern that repeated, and at one point or another, both of them addressed the other character directly. Dialogue tags tend to slow down the pace and can be quite cumbersome if you let them. Unless you’re writing children’s fiction, it’s usually best to use as few dialogue tags as possible.

So what qualifies as a dialogue tag? Any bit of text that describes who is speaking and the direct manner in which the dialogue is spoken. Example:

  • He said.
  • He asked.
  • He replied.
  • He yelled.
  • He whispered.
  • He bellowed.

What doesn’t qualify as a dialogue tag? Any action performed during or after the dialogue. A lot of people get these confused. Example:

  • He grinned.
  • He smirked.
  • He laughed.
  • He frowned.
  • He gestured.

You can’t grin a sentence. You can only grin during a sentence. The difference? Punctuation.

“Khet,” he whispered.

“Khet.” He smiled.

Notice that with the top example (the dialogue tag), the dialogue ends in a comma, and the sentence is ended after the dialogue tag. With the second example (the action), the dialogue ends within the quotation marks, and the action is a separate entity. It’s very easy to get these mixed up, and a lot of authors do.

You can, however, combine the two:

“Khet,” he whispered, a smile on his lips.

The dialogue tag should always come before the action. You can also put dialogue tags and actions in the middle of the dialogue (especially if you need a pause to emphasize what’s being said, or the character has been speaking for a large amount of time).

“Khet,” he whispered, “please speak to me.”

“Leander….” she began, “I can’t. Not now. Not after—“ She gestured over his shoulder. “—that.”

Take note that with a dialogue tag, the tag is always started with a lowercase letter. With an action, it will always start after quoted punctuation and with a capital letter, and end with a full stop. When you interrupt dialogue with a dialogue tag or action, if there isn’t a long pause (and sometimes there is!), you should treat the dialogue as if it never stopped and write the punctuation/capitalization accordingly. Example:

“Khet, “ he whispered, “please speak to me.”

“Khet.” He ran a hand back through his hair, disheveling the blonde locks. “Please speak to me.”

In the second example I’ve added a longer pause, and left out the dialogue tag, forcing solid punctuation between the two strings of dialogue.

Your Characters Don’t Live in a Vacuum—Detail

Your character has senses:

  • Sight
  • Smell
  • Touch
  • Taste
  • Sound
  • (And Mood! Yes, it counts, trust me.)

You need to use them. It’s easy to let your character float around in a vacuum where all we see is their inner thoughts and their outward dialogue—but that isn’t all there is. Describe things. Add detail. These things are important—just don’t overdo it. Let me introduce: The Rule of Three.

Your readers can only remember three descriptive aspects of any object, person, or place at a time, after that, they skim. Keeping this in mind; you should always try to add detail, but keep it within reason, and for the love of God, make it relevant.

It doesn’t matter that the stop-sign is octagonal or red. We can pretty much guess that’s the case. It does matter that there’s a dead body slumped at the base of it. The same goes for people: try to keep descriptions of characters vague:

Khet was 5’4”, 114 lbs., and brunette. Her eyes were the color of clouded jade, and a spattering of freckles dotted her fair skin.

… That would be going overboard. This is better:

Khet was a petite brunette, with eyes the color of clouded jade.

Three descriptors. That’s all you get. Use them wisely.

As a side note: try not to force your readers into a description. Every character that meets Khet isn’t going to describe her the same way. For example:  Leander (who adores her), would probably describe Khet as lithe with a pert chest, and hair that shone the color of amber in the sunlight. Her sister (who hates her), would probably describe Khet as a gangly, awkward girl, her skin mottled with sunspots, and with hair that hung limp in ratted tangles across her forehead. Perception of places, people, and things will be different depending on who is describing them. Let your characters describe your world – don’t describe it for them.

If you can, you should also avoid Info Dumps. Info Dumps are when an author stops the story to describe something, and then returns to the story as if it never happened. It’s distracting, and your readers will get bored. Instead, always try to work your details into the narrative and dialogue naturally. Things should be described as they are noticed by the characters, but never in a huge block. Spread it out, make it relevant, and keep it to a minimum.

The Basics…

These are the basics of things you need to look out for when editing your second draft, but they are by no means the only things you need to look for. I didn’t get into redundancies, incomplete sentences, world building, or choosing descriptive words by the underlying mood (I don’t have all day to get into these things. Pfft.), but hopefully this will help give you a bit of a checklist of things you should keep an eye out for. These are the things that frequently pop up in books I review that drive me bonkers. Do your readers a favor and fix them.

Cary jumped down off her soapbox, sending the audience a quick salute, and then sauntered off into the remnants of blogland.

A Writer’s Guide: Naming Characters

When it comes to writing novels, names often get overlooked in the grand scheme of things. Most of us are happy if we can tell who is talking and we can remember the character’s names for the entirety of the book, but bad names can ruin a book. I don’t know about you, but when I get ahold of a book where the main character’s name is a comical 20-character tangle I can’t pronounce, it ruins the book for me. It’s hard to take a book, or a character, seriously when you want to roll your eyes every time you read the narrative.

In this article I’ve compiled a list of things to consider when naming a character for a novel, and though it’s pretty simple, I hope it serves to help someone in their future endeavors to name a character. Most of this is common sense, but it’s often easy to forget these little tidbits of wisdom when you’re busy trying to figure out if your character makes a better Ashley or a Paige.

Getting a  Spark

There are many great places to get ideas for names. I’ll list some here that you may have missed.

  • Phone Books
  • TV Credits
  • Family & Friends
  • Baby Name Lists
  • Mythology
  • Combine two names! Courtney + Evangeline = Courline
  • Evolve a name! Caroline->Carline->Carlene->Lene->Lena
  • Random Name Generators

Sometimes you may hear a name that strikes you. Write it down. Keep a list of names you like or that you may have heard and found unique, but may not be able to use at the present moment. When you need a new name for a character, check your list! You may already have one.

Name Length

The length of a character’s name is an important factor to consider when choosing one. Short names are often more memorable than long names, but long names can also have a significance. Generally, short names are often equated with strong, simple, and good characters. (Ariel, Juno, Harry, Jack ) Longer names are usually associated with nobility, intelligence, and sometimes, evil. (Voldemort, Hermione, Desdemona, Lancelot) Of course this isn’t always the case, but it’s something to think about when naming your characters. Especially when you’re naming a main character, it’s often helpful to make up a shorter name as it will be repeated often, and it needs to be easy to remember and pronounce.

Also, if your character has a long first name, consider balancing it out with a short last name, or vice versa. “Alexandra Gallager” is a mouthful, but “Alex Gallager” and “Alexandra Hart” are easier to swallow.

How Many Names Do You Need?

When creating a character, you should know the character’s full name, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you have to use it. Most of the time in novels, a character’s middle and even last name are not used at all, and if they are, they’re used only a handful of times. The exception to this of course is Historical novels in which propriety corners the characters into referring to each other by last name. For instance, in one of my novels I have a character named Abigail Olivia Conway, but no one ever calls her that. They call her Abby, Ms. Conway, or simply, Abigail.

Of course there will be instances in which a character needs a particularly long name due to their culture or an inherited title (we’ll get more into that later), and the time may come when you will have to repeat the whole thing: James Ferdinand Elijah Beaumont III of Durham (ouch!). If you have to have a lot of names, make sure they all fit together.

Also consider the fact that for some stories, it may be better to have only one name or no name at all. As an example, I have a novel where the main character is simply called “Khet”. She lives in Neolithic times when surnames didn’t exist and communities were so small that second names weren’t needed.

Some great stories, such as The Postman, Waterworld, and The Time Machine have main characters whose names are never revealed. They are simply referred to by description: “The Postman”, “The Mariner”, and “The Time Traveller”.

Sometimes characters are named only by nickname or by an alias. You should know what your character’s real name is, but that doesn’t mean your audience needs to.

Nicknames & Pet Names: Unique vs. Practical

If your character has a long name, or has several, you may consider giving them a nickname—particularly if your character’s name is difficult to pronounce. Even if your character does have a short name, you may consider letting some of your other characters give them a nickname or a pet name. For example, I’ll bring up Abigail again.  For most of the characters in my story, Abigail is referred to as “Ms. Conway”, but her friends call her “Abigail” or “Abby”. Her curmudgeonly grandfather calls her “girl”. Nicknames don’t have to be used by your entire cast of characters; they can be exclusive to certain individuals.

When choosing a nickname, it helps to consider if it’s a convenient nickname, or an opportunistic one. For instance, Abigail is referred to as “Abby” because it’s shorter. It’s a tourniquet version of her name, and what I’d call a “convenient nickname”. It exists because Abigail is a mouthful to say all the time. Hypothetically, Abigail could meet a man who refuses to call her anything but Violet. Violet, because when they first met she had a bright purple shiner where she’d been elbowed in the eye. Calling her Violet (referring to the color of the bruise) is an opportunistic nickname. Opportunistic nicknames don’t necessarily have to relate to a character’s real name.

What’s important to remember with nicknames is to adapt them to the character and the character’s situation within the story. For instance, if you were writing a young adult novel where the main character’s name was Maggie but everyone only called her “Raven” (for no particular reason), it would seem somewhat absurd. If you’re going to give a character a unique nickname, there should be a story behind how they got it, and it has to make sense. Why would I call Maggie “Raven”? Because in 6th grade she dressed up as a Raven in a school play and sneezed so hard from the feathers that she fell off the stage and into the front row. The kids at her school call her Raven to tease her, and she doesn’t particularly appreciate it. I would NOT call her Raven “because it sounds dark and awesome”.

Symbolism

Symbolism is okay if it’s subtle and believable, but if you’re trying too hard to be clever, you’re going to get a few eye rolls. Naming a dark, grim character “Raven Darkwood” is somewhat ridiculous. Naming the same character Darcy Mordant doesn’t seem so odd. Did you know Mordant is synonymous with: biting, caustic, cutting, pungent, poignant, sharp / grim, critical, or sharp humor? Darcy literally means “dark”. Don’t make your symbolism so obvious it becomes silly.

Other Naming Conventions…

In fantasy and sci-fi in particular, it’s common to have a character’s name be a little unconventional. Sometimes characters are named by their heritage or a title. For example, often in ancient times people were named after their father:  Erikson (Erik’s son), Thompson (Tom’s son) etc, their job: “Fletcher”, “Carter”, “Potter”, or were given a title: “The Bold”, “The Red” “Heavy-Hand”. Sometimes these names and titles were adapted through the family line. For example: Dracula literally means “Son of Dracul” Dracul meaning Dragon. Vlad Dracula III was named after his father, Vlad Dracul II who was historically a member of the Order of the Dragon. It’s okay to make something up if the naming convention works for your world.

A Few Things to Consider

  •  Names have a flavor. Some names (Damien, Delilah, Lilith, Lucifer) sound evil. Some names (Chastity, Harmony, Ella, Grace, Joy) sound good. Some names (Jace, Teagan, Skye, Aiden) sound modern. Some names (Edward, Abigail, Sebastian, Lottie) sound classic.  When you’re choosing a name make sure the flavor of that name fits your character, the time period, and their heritage. It makes no sense to give your character a classic Italian name if they’re from America in the year 2042.
  • Your character doesn’t get to pick their name. Their parents picked their name. When choosing a name for your character, consider where their parents grew up and the type of people they are. For example, if I had a character whose parents were Irish but had moved to America before she was born; her name might not sound American. It’d probably sound Irish. By the same token, orphans who are raised in nun-run orphanages often have names relating to religious figures. Hippies may name their kids really absurd names like Rainbow Joy or Moon Ray. Poor kids. Names are based on the parent’s expectations for their children. Don’t use a trendy name just because it sounds cool.
  • Avoid famous names unless you’re trying to make a point of it. Oprah probably wouldn’t be a great idea. Neither would James Bond. When in doubt, always Google your character’s full name to make sure it’s not accidentally associated with a well-known character from another book or a celebrity!
  • It’s okay for fantasy names to be quirky, but not absurd. Don’t use excessive apostrophe’s or add a ton of z’s, x’s and y’s. Don’t double or triple up on vowels. It makes you look silly.
  • Avoid androgynous names (Sam, Alex, Billie) unless you’re making a point. Using androgynous names makes it hard for your readers to figure out what gender your character is. The exception is if you’ve purposely given your character an androgynous name to spark character development. Example: A boy named Ashley who feels defined by his name and spends the book trying on different names for himself in an attempt to become someone other than who he is.
  • Try not to end your character names in “s”; it makes it difficult to write:  Hans’s? Hans’? What?
  • Avoid names that have more than one pronunciation (or cannot be pronounced) it’s not clever, it’s annoying. If your readers can’t pronounce the name, they’ll skim. You never want your readers to skim.
  • While unique names can sometimes be memorable, they also run the danger of seeming absurd to your readers. Plain names may not stand out as much, but they’re usually more relatable, unpronounceable, and rarely produce fits of eye-rolling.
  • Vary your letters. You don’t want an entire book where ever character’s name begins with “M”, you also don’t want two main characters with the same first initial, or a character whose name sounds like a rhyme. If it sounds silly to you, it probably is.

Don’t Be Afraid To Set a Name Aside

It’s okay to venture into writing a story where you don’t know any of the character’s names. It’s also okay to change a character’s name at any time during the writing process. If you aren’t sure what to name your character, write in a filler name that can be easily found and replaced at a later time. Get on with your story. Eventually you’ll settle on something, or you’ll choose not to have one at all. Either way, don’t let your inability to choose a name keep you from writing your story! Need good filler name? Grab a relative’s name. They won’t read the first draft anyway, right? You can also use simple designator like: “MFC” (Main Female Character) “JANE” or “JOHN” (as in Doe), or “THATANNOYINGGIRL” and “THEBROODINGBOY”. Have fun with it.

Well, it was short, but hopefully I gave you a few things to think about when considering names for your character. Thanks for taking the time to read my little guide to choosing names. I hope it helps!

Reblog: A Newbie’s Guide to Publishing

 

A Newbie’s Guide to Publishing: Guest Post by Richard Denoncourt.

This is a great post on book covers. It has a checklist of things to consider when choosing one, and talks about the impact a good cover can have on your sales. Give it a read!

Writer’s Tip: Show, Don’t Tell

Khet

Image (c) Copyright Cary A. Morton.
(The owner of this blog)

Show, don’t tell (SDT). It’s one of the few consistent pieces of advice that all writers have heard at one time or another. Even the most amateur of writers parrot it back, but knowing the phrase doesn’t necessarily mean that we understand it, or how to implement it.

So what does “Show, don’t tell.” really mean? SDT is the idea that instead of telling your readers what’s happening in a story, you show them. This seems like an abstract concept to most of us, but what it boils down to is this: using words to give your readers an idea without having to directly state it. There are many ways good writers do this. It can be as simple as adding a scene for when your character walks down the street to the corner market rather than saying “she went to the store.” but it can also be as complicated as weaving subtext into dialogue and editing entire character personalities to prove a point down the line. I want to look at two examples to try and get this point across in a way that will sink in for you. My goal? To make you really think about SDT and what it means, and how you can implement it in your writing.

My first idea I want you to consider is:

1. Convince your reader of your point by putting them in the character’s shoes.

For example, let’s say I have a character who needs to make a tough decision. I could simply say:

It was a tough decision.

Sure–but it’s not convincing. The reader may say “okay.. so it was a tough decision.” but it’s not going to resonate with them. It doesn’t draw the reader into my story. Why should they care? If I were to take the concept of SDT and implement it, the correct course of action would be to put the reader in my character’s shoes. Instead of telling the reader it was a tough decision, how could I make them waffle over the decision as well?

Let’s say the tough decision was the choice in a love triangle. I know, I know, there are some of you rolling your eyes right now, and that’s probably because more often than not, you’ve run across a book that had a love triangle in it and it seemed like a convenient plot device. That’s probably because the author did a whole lot of telling rather than showing. So humor me. Instead of  having just the character waffle over the decision between the two love interests, it is your duty as a writer (yes I really said duty) to make your reader waffle too. You want to get your readers so engrossed in the story that they don’t care how tired the trope of a love triangle is. How do you do that?

Show your readers why your character wants to waffle. Make the love interests so equally loveable that even your reader has a hard time choosing between the two. That means they both need to have equal part bad to their good and they must be equal to each other. Putting your reader into your character’s shoes is one of the most involved and complicated ways of “showing” but it’s good –no–great writing. It’s hard, because you have to really convince your reader that both the people in this triangle are worth loving, and no, you can’t just say “this guy was really sweet and funny, and the other guy was really sexy and deep”. I’d need to show those traits consistently throughout the story so that I never have to “tell” my reader why they’re both a valid choice. It should be a no-brainer why my character waffled over the decision.

This also applies to describing your main character’s personality. Instead of saying “she was beautiful, shallow, and none-to-bright.” Find ways to prove those points to us. Show an instance where she’s shallow or where her beauty is brought up (like a character that glances at her and then walks into a pole). Show us how dumb she is with her dialogue and actions.

2. Another example of SDT (and perhaps easier to grasp) is the use of subtext to show emotion. The idea behind this is that you should never have to explain how your character feels, their actions and words should show it clearly enough that it never be said.

For example, I’ll take a 1st draft (short) scene from one of my own stories. Yup, I’m throwing myself under the bus. It reads like this:

“Mahir!” I called out into the darkness with a tired note to my voice and smoothed Sadia’s hair back from her face to calm her.

Mahir’s awkward thumping footfall approached to my left, and he collapsed onto the flat rock beside Sadia.”What?” he asked in a tired, gravelly voice.

“Give me your cloth.” I ordered, motioning it. I could barely see his face in the creeping dark, but I didn’t need to. He stared at me in nervous reluctance. “Just give it here. No one here cares about your nakedness. Let me bind your feet.”He hesitated, but began to unwind the cloth from around his waist.

The pain of our feet scraped raw had been our constant companion for the last several hours. Even Mahir was past caring. A low warning growl sounded from behind me, but I ignored it as I tiredly tore Mahir’s loin cloth into strips and begin to bind his feet.

“What about you?” Mahir asked quietly in the dark, a note of concern to his voice. His eyes were focused on something behind me, but I ignored it and kept at my work.

“I’m fine.” I waved off his concern.

“Khet-” he started.

“There’s nothing to be done about it!” I nearly shouted, and Mahir grew quiet. The shrill sound of my voice echoed off the rocks in the dark. “Help your sister to walk.”

It’s not god-awful, but it’s not great either. Now let’s look at the same scene with SDT applied:

“Mahir!” I called out into the darkness, wincing at the falter in my voice. It’d been hours since we’d left the village and my tongue felt like wet clay in my mouth. I cleared my throat and smoothed Sadia’s hair back from her face. Her small shoulders relaxed, and she leaned against my chest, her sweat-beaded forehead sticking to my skin.

Mahir’s footsteps thumped in an uneven gait from my left, then he collapsed onto the flat rock to the other side of Sadia.”What?” His voice was like gravel crunching under foot, and the skin of his lips had begun to flake off in dry bits.

“Give me your cloth.” I motioned for it, my arm awkwardly swinging out in his direction before falling back to my side. I could barely see his face in the pale light of the moon, but I didn’t need to. He stared at me for a moment, his half-lidded gaze zeroed in on my face. I fought the urge to swallow against the pasty feeling at the back of my throat. “Just give it here. No one cares about your nakedness. Let me bind your feet.”

He hesitated, but began to unwind the cloth from around his waist. He held his feet a few scant millimeter’s from the gravel around us, careful not to set them down even as he worked.A low warning growl rumbled behind me, but I ignored it as I tore the loin cloth into strips and began to wrap them tightly around Mahir’s feet.

“What about you?” Mahir’s gaze flicked down to my feet. Even in the dark, the wetness on the gravel beneath them was evident.

“I’m fine.”

“Khet-“

“There’s nothing to be done about it!”. Mahir tensed, and I let out a long breath, purposefully unclenching my hands. The shrill tone of my voice resonated among the rocks around us, and only when the air was still again did I speak. “Help your sister to walk.”

Obviously, the basics of the scene are the same. What changed was the way I elaborated on the scene by “showing” my readers the emotions and subtext of what was happening. I didn’t need to say that they were tired, thirsty, or in pain, but I guarantee you that my reader understood that. I never had to say that the siblings were concerned for one another, or relieved to be off their feet. Go ahead, look back and see if you can find any of these words:  tired, thirsty, pain, exhausted, concerned, or relieved. You won’t find them in the second scene. This is the essence of SDT; to use the narrative and dialogue to present the idea that your character is tired (for instance) without ever having to use the word “tired”. Your readers don’t need to be told how to feel about a scene if you just let them feel it. Put them there in that moment and quit “telling” them about it.

“Show, don’t tell.” is the simplest phrase to parrot out as advice, but the real concept behind it isn’t easy. It’s work. It takes planning and sometimes it can be difficult to spot places where it should be used. Don’t let this discourage you. Hopefully by the end of this article I’ve given you something to think about it, and maybe–just maybe–I’ve given you a better understanding of what SDT really means. The next time you approach an author or a struggling-writer with the phrase “Show, don’t tell.” help them out. Explain it to them. Link them to this article. Parroting the phrase isn’t helpful if the person receiving it doesn’t know what it means. Cut them some slack and give them a helping hand up… we all need one sometimes.

P.S. The text examples used in this article are from Khet, an original Fantasy novel by moi. You can find the first (unedited) chapter posted as an excerpt under the “My Unpublished Writing” category over on the right hand side of this blog. The bits used here are from the second chapter.

Writer’s Tip: Writing Believable & Unforgettable Characters

So, rather than do my usual book review or giveaway article, I wanted to take some time today to give some writing tips instead. I know a lot of you out there are aspiring-writers (I’m one myself!) and sometimes we get so caught up in this “must publish!” attitude that we get lost in our stories along the way. Sometimes there comes a point when we stare at our half-finished novel and say “I’m stuck. “ Usually these moments happen when we don’t know where we’re going next with our story, and usually that’s because somewhere along the line we’ve strayed off the path and we aren’t quite sure how to get back.

One of the things that you may find helpful if you’ve never done it before is to take a really in-depth look at your characters and the world they live in. Characters are really the backbone of our stories. You can carry an entire story on the shoulders of a character without much plot (memoirs anyone?), but you can’t carry a plot without some great characters. So, to help you guys out, I wanted to write an article on things you should think about when creating a character for a novel, and give you some tips on how to create believable and unforgettable characters that aren’t overly dramatic or Mary Sue’s, while also giving you some ideas on how to go about fleshing out your story and maybe discovering plots that work well within the world you’ve created.

I’ll go through the points of this “list” sort of one by one, explaining and discussing each point. You don’t have to treat this as a questionnaire for your characters (though you can)… my goal is to get you thinking a little more in depth about your characters as real people, and not just as roles to fill in your novel.

For the purpose of this article I’m going to sort of work along-side you and make up a world as we go along so you can see where I’m leading with these questions. I want you to consider these points within your own story, not copy mine.

Culture & Environment

The first thing you should consider when writing a novel is what I call Culture & Environment. This is the world around your character. When creating a plot for a novel, or a character, I don’t want you to jump right into it saying “I’m going to write a steam-punk romance novel.” Jumping off from the genre isn’t a bad thing to do, but if you want to create a character full of depth, you need to also make sure your world contains depth. Here are some questions I want you to consider:

  1. What technological age does your story take place in?

The culture and society of your “world” are going to vary greatly depending on the technological age of your story. Society worked different in the Stone Age than it does now, and will work differently in the future some thousands of years from now. These things are going to make a dramatic impact on the type of person your character is and how they handle situations.

For the purpose of this article I’m going to be making up a completely new world , set of characters, and plot as sort of a guideline for how these questions feed into your story. Starting with my technological age, I’ve decided my characters are going to inhabit a very steam-punk-esque era on their world. The technology is advanced in function but very Victorian-Era in execution. We’re talking steam, intricate clockwork mechanics, and a world that is industrialized but still very caught up in how things look, and the intelligence behind creating those things.

  1. What sort of society does your character live in?

Taking the technology discussion a bit further, consider how this age and environment shapes the society that your character lives in.

For example, since my story takes place in a steam-punk-esque environment, I’m going to say that the society is shaped by the mental aspects of the age. Intelligence, manners, charms – these are the sorts of things this society cares about. People who are creative, hardworking, and inventive are applauded. The sciences and arts are the forefront of education on this world, and other things like athleticism and greed, while still in existence, are not the norm.

  1. How are the different genders or classes treated in your world?

The next thing you may want to think about is how the different genders and classes are treated in your world, and the type niche’s there are in your society. Depending on your country, all throughout our own world’s history, men and women have been treated very differently and a lot of times, class plays into this. Now, you don’t necessarily have to have a world where the classes are segregated, but you should take time to consider how your character’s social class or standing may impact their story.

For instance, in my world because intelligent, creative, and industrious people are applauded, I’m going assume that the upper class of my society are those of high intelligence and creativity. These are your scientists, inventors, artists, and writers. A step below that would be the elegant elite… Those that maybe haven’t had made any large discoveries or artistic works, but maybe inherited fame from a predecessor, or married into a well-known family. These are the lords and ladies of my world. They may not “do” anything of particular significance within my world, but they’re still part of that upper crust of people that my society looks up to. Below that would be the “every day worker” these are the people who work in watch shops and take tickets at the train stations. They aren’t famous for their intelligence and they may not have invented or created anything significant, but they’re still very much part of the society in applauding that upper crust and striving in their own little ways to maintain this world as a whole. They work within the laws and boundaries of the society they live in. Below that would be the criminal and downtrodden. These are the people that circumstance, money, heritage, or intelligence have pushed into the fringe of society. They are the poor, the stupid, the shamed, the maimed, and the criminal. They work outside the laws and boundaries of what we consider “polite society” because they have to. Survival is their main concern in this world, and that will sometimes push them into doing things the rest of society doesn’t necessarily condone.

Now aside from the classes, I’m going to assume that in my particular world, men and women are fairly equal. There’s more importance placed on the intelligence of an individual than the gender. In my world you’re going to see ladies smoking cigars and making business deals just as you would men, and likewise, men are going to be just as devoted to family and fashion as women. The gender roles in my society aren’t going to be as clear-cut as what you might see in another time period or setting.

A Quick Word on Plots & the People in Them

Now, if you’ve been following along, mulling over these questions in your own story, you should have a pretty good idea of the culture and environment that your characters live in. It probably feels more like a real place to you now than it did a few minute ago when you were just considering “steam punk” – or whatever other genre you’d picked.

I want to take a moment to talk about plot. You may already have one picked out, and that’s fine. Good for you. However, if you haven’t quite figured out the specifics of your plot and only have a vague genre idea of what you want to write about, follow along; I have a point to make that may help you flesh out your story.

Consider this: instead of making up some random plot idea, take a moment to think about the world you just described above. Now, tell me, who in this world has a story to tell? Using my own story as an example: What about the “elegant elite”? What if one of the society darlings suddenly found themselves in a position where they were now considered one of the “downtrodden”? What if one of the “downtrodden” was actually an amazing inventor trying to work their way up through society? What if one of the “working class” fell in love with an inventor of the upper crust? What if an invention was created that posed a threat to this world. What if it was stolen? And last but not least, what if some natural event or sudden upheaval took everything we just created, and tore it apart?

There are millions of possibilities just within this small glimpse of a world we’ve created that could spawn its own story. Think of the possibilities, grab one that sounds interesting to you, and then build it into something amazing that you can share with other people.

Through all that, I have something else for you to consider: Theme. Plots and characters and worlds aside, what sort of story are you looking to tell? Is it one of redemption? Love? War? Greed? Coming of age? Think about it and consider how these themes may fit into your world and what impact they may have on your story.

The Unimportants

The heading may be a bit deceiving, but bear with me. There’s a few things about your characters that while seemingly important, don’t hold as much of an impact on your story as what you may think. These are often the first things we think about when we create new characters, but among the many other things there are to consider, they’re relatively less important. These are:

  1. Name

First off, don’t just pick some random name that sounds awesome. It may sound cool, but it may not fit into your story. Keep in mind the Culture, Environment, Society expectations, Gender, and Class of your character. For instance, in my story old-fashioned names like John, Mary, Constance, Alice, David, Sebastian and Benjamin fit into my world readily whereas names like Raven, Skylar, Monique, Gavin, and Zebulan don’t really fit. The trick is to pick names that fit within the time period and location, and avoid names that are simply striking or unique.

You also want to avoid names that are difficult to pronounce, are really long, or have unusual spellings. No one thinks you’re being clever by naming your character “Kriystahl”. When your readers come upon these strange little snowflakes of individuality what they’re really thinking is: Amateur Writer. They will be more impressed with you taking a common name and making the character spectacular and memorable in such a way where that common name begins to mean something more than just average.

For this exercise, I’m going to name my main female lead:  Abigail Conway. It is a common, unassuming name that fits into the time period and society without sounding comical or overly unique. I’ll let her close friends call her “Abby” for short, and everyone else (due to society manners) shall refer to her as simply “Abigail” or “Miss Conway”.

  1. Appearance

Now this one’s a little trickier. Again, you want your character to fit into the world. What you don’t want is a character that is so unique in how they look that people roll their eyes at the description. Characters that are stunningly gorgeous with huge breasts and hour-glass shaped figures are a dime a dozen. Take some unremarkable features, and make them remarkable by pairing them with one specific attractive feature. Also, keep your descriptions down to a minimum.

For instance, Abigail is thin, short, and has a fair-complexion. These are pretty standard descriptors. She has brown hair/eyes, and the one striking feature she holds is a dimple in her right cheek when she smiles. All other descriptions of Abigail will come from how those around her see her. Someone who dislikes Abigail may describe her as unkempt or plain. Someone who loves her might say she is delicate and has eyes the color of honeyed tea. We can let the characters make up those features – we don’t need to do it ourselves – and if you try, what happens is you end up coloring the views of your characters and your reader. It’s easier to relate to a character if you let your readers fill in the gaps themselves.

  1. Age

It’s not really important what the exact age of your character is, and chances are that you’ll never say it in the story (unless it plays some important role in your plot). However, you should pick an age regardless, and then stick to it. Your age, while not important to the story itself, will play a big factor in the voice of your character. Four-year-olds don’t speak and think the same way a twenty-year-old would. Nor would a twenty-year-old put importance on the same issues as an 80-year-old.

For my story, Abigail is going to be 20. She’s young and ambitious, and still looking for a love interest, but isn’t obsessed with romance or social standing in the same way a 16-year-old would be. She’s at that age where she’s looking to make her mark on the world and is still figuring out her place within it.

  1. Gender

This one is a given, but you need to pick the gender of your character. It’s important in a way that changes small details of the story like how people address your character or the clothes they wear, etc, but what I’ve said about my character, Abigail, could just as easily be translated to male as it is to female. At some point, you’re going to have to pick a side (unless they’re a eunuch or a hermaphrodite). Pick it early on, and use it to help define your character and how they interact with the world around them.

Background: Family, History, and Skeletons in the Closet

First of all, AVOID DRAMATIC PASTS that exist solely for the purpose of being dramatic or making your character into a special snowflake. Nothing is more annoying to a reader than having a lead character raped or orphaned if it’s being done only to make the character seem unique. It’s not unique.

Events in your character’s past should define and explain why your character is who she/he is without upstaging the story itself. Most of us don’t think about how our character’s family changes who they are, but it actually plays a very big role on personality. A character that is raised as an only child by a single parent isn’t going to have the same personality as a character that’s the youngest of 9 children and has both parents. Not only that, but at some point your character’s family is probably going to make an appearance in your story.

Also consider how the past of your character impacts  their social standing, job, and personal life.

In Abigail’s case, she was raised by her Grandfather, the watch-maker. Her mother, a seamstress,  died early in her daughter’s life due to illness, and her father hoisted her off on her Grandfather to raise as he toiled day and night in a mid-level job servicing the rail line. Abigail loved her father, and he doted on her when he was home, but for all intents and purposes, she spent most of her childhood in the backroom of her Grandfather’s watch shop. When Abigail was 9, her father was killed in an accident on the rail-line. How has this affected Abigail?

Because of her somewhat tragic but loving background, Abigail has grown up strong-willed and good-natured. She places great pride in hard work no matter what level of the job, and adores her Grandfather even if he is a stubborn old codger.  She spends her days working in the fore-front of her Grandfather’s shop, makes deliveries for him, and has a small assortment of family friends that stem from her family’s position in the middle class. She may have friends that work on the rail-line like her father, or she may know elderly customers of her Grandfather’s shop. She probably knows a lot of gentlemen and young wives – because those are the type of people who visit a watch shop.

Now, before I get too far into how this background affects Abigail’s story and her personality, let’s look at those skeletons: A skeleton in the closet doesn’t necessarily mean a crime or something awful in a person’s past. What it means is: something your character doesn’t want anyone else to know, or doesn’t readily share.  Why do we need a skeleton? Because at some point you’re going to dust it off and show it to the world. Skeletons breed conflict.

In Abigail’s case, her skeleton is that she worries about her grandfather’s health and ability to run his watch shop. She puts on a brave face, but she knows he’s getting older, and sooner or later, the watch shop is going to pass on to her. Her grandfather wants to see her married to a nice man that may help her run the business. The problem with this of course, is that Abigail doesn’t want to make watches, and she’s not really concerned with getting married at this point in time. She dreams of adventure (something that is not necessarily appreciated in her society).

Being alone a lot as a child, sitting quietly in her grandfather’s shop, she spent her time reading and imaging faraway places. Her father would come home from work in the evenings and tell her stories of the people he met working on the rail-lines and the faraway places they came from. She’s desperate to see those places and people for herself someday, but will never admit it to her grandfather or anyone else, because she loves her grandfather and knows he wouldn’t approve. This unfulfilled need is slowly eating away at her insides day by day; a quiet death in mid-society.

Now as you’re reading this, you may think “oh she’s thought all this up ahead of time. There’s a lot of detail.” but I’m not. I have no idea what the plot for this story is going to be at this point in time. As you’re reading this, I’m making all of these details up off the top of my head. Abigail and her small life did not exist before this article. Abigail’s grandfather didn’t exist before the heading to this section. As you start to think about these things in your own story, it’ll start to flesh itself out. Ideas, people, and places will pop into your head that “click” with the rest of your story. Let them.

Keep in mind, that these people you’re making up as you go along should be just as complex as your main character. Eventually I’m going to have to consider Abigail’s grandfather’s name, his history, family, and his motivations. Secondary characters are just main characters out of focus – they should be just as complex and interesting as the stars of the story. Some day you may want to give them their own novel. Taking the time to think up all this background, even if you don’t use it, gives your characters a sense of depth they wouldn’t have had if you’d just gone : “Abigail’s got a grandfather. He’s grumpy. His name is Hugh.” No, his name is Hugh Conway, he’s a watch-maker and was once married to a strong-willed gal named Lilly Jones. They had a son named Peter, who married a seamstress named Grace Kemp, and they left behind a joy-filled daughter named Abigail who dreamed of setting out on her own and finding adventure.

Social Status & Moral Compass

A character’s social status will also have a big impact on how they interact with the world, and how far their moral compass swings. A character from the “elegant elite” will react to characters around them and moral issues very differently than a character in the dregs of society. Necessity, greed, personality, and even family will affect what your character is willing to do and how far they’ll cross the moral compass line. You should know what would push your character to murder, and what would push them to self-sacrifice. How do they treat their friends? Would they ever abandon their family to serve themselves?

In Abigail’s case, she has very strong morals. Because of her family’s love and kindness, she was raised to be kind to all manner of people, no matter their social standing. She is comfortable in the middle-class of her society, and doesn’t feel the need to treat others poorly. She holds no resentment against the upper classes, and doesn’t disdain the downtrodden (though she may be wary of them as they are often thieves and may push her good nature a little too far in order to gain things for themselves.) Abigail wouldn’t self-sacrifice herself because she knows her grandfather would rather she be safe no matter what, but she is willing to take some risks to her own safety in order to help others or even herself. Murder would not sit well with Abigail and I believe she would only kill someone in the most extreme of circumstances.

Relationships

Relationships are something you’re going to want to keep in mind throughout this whole process. You should consider each character’s relationship with each other, from the smallest secondary character on up to the main character. Just because you know all of your characters and their personalities doesn’t mean all of your characters know each other or even react to each other in the same way.

For instance, Hugh Conway, Abigail’s grumpy old grandfather is a shrewd business man with a soft spot for his granddaughter. He unnecessarily dotes on her, but to other people is probably quite abrupt and stingy. He probably haggles over groceries like a penny-pincher, but delights in wasting his hard-earned money on small gifts he knows his granddaughter will love and appreciate. Abigail teases her grumpy old grandfather in good humor, but is quite kind and friendly to most everyone else she meets. She may have a soft spot for orphans, but scolds them when they steal. She’s probably very open and even outlandish with her best friend, and awkward and shy with a handsome young rail-line worker who takes his lunch at the corner café down the street from her grandfather’s shop.

Middle-aged women in the area probably consider Abigail a joyous and fetching young girl (if a bit improper in her zeal) and secretly hope their sons will take interest in her. Older men and women probably shake their heads at the watch-maker’s granddaughter who is a bit dreamy in their opinion and not notably intelligent. Younger men her own age probably consider Abigail good-natured but a bit too boisterous for anything more than a passing flirt, and women her own age may consider her utterly ridiculous and ill-mannered (seeing as she doesn’t seem to care about proper fashion or being coy like they do).

My point is, every person in the story is going to view Abigail differently based on their own backgrounds, social standing, and personality, and she’ll probably interact with each of them differently.  Just because I like Abigail as a character and I think she’s fun and pleasant doesn’t mean the rest of the characters will agree with me. Keep this in mind as you continue to fill out your characters.

Flaws, Desirable Traits, & Personality

At this point if you’ve been following along (gee I hope so), you should have a pretty decent if vague understanding of who your character is. We’re going to take that a bit further and talk about their flaws, desirable traits, and personality. No one is perfect, and no one is so unforgivable a character that they don’t have at least one desirable trait. Take a minute to think over your character so far, and try to list three positive and three negative traits. They may have more, or even less, but there should be a fair balance in their personality. Never forget: Good guys can do bad things sometimes, and bad guys can do good things.

For an example: My dear Miss Abigail Conway is…

  1. Generally good-humored and happy.
  2. Almost never says a negative word about anyone.
  3. Loves her friends and family deeply and without reservation.

However, she also:

  1. Is often inappropriate in her comments and actions because she doesn’t fully comprehend society’s expectation of her manners or behavior.
  2. Is socially awkward and often ends up putting her foot in her mouth because she easily gets flustered around mean or immoral people and doesn’t know how to react to them.
  3. Is adventurous and often takes risks that put herself and other people in danger.

In short, Abigail is outgoing and happy, but also impulsive and prone to mistakes. To balance her vivid personality, she is rather plain-looking and unremarkable with the exception of her smile. Overall, nothing about her particularly stands out from the whole if you see her on the street. Some people will like her; others will think her foolish and inappropriate. She isn’t perfect, but she’s likeable.

Your main characters should always be likeable in some way. If your main character is “evil” then they should have some personality trait that makes them engaging or interesting for the reader, and at the very least: we should be able to sympathize with them. There’s nothing worse than having a character that we find boring an unlikeable – And forget about the whole “good / evil” thing. Characters do bad things, and they do good things. Don’t label them“evil” or “good” for the sake of being evil/good. Characters should be complex, unique individuals, just like people in the real world. Everyone’s a little bit of both.

Now, we also need to examine how Abigail (or your character)’s inner personality is different than what they outwardly present. Outwardly, Abigail is everything above. However, inwardly she is also somewhat melancholy and worrisome. She loves her family, but she is stifled by the life she leads. She longs for that adventure, and when that sometimes overtakes her actions, she ends up getting put back in her place by society. The light that makes up so much of her outward personality is slowly becoming more and more forced as on the inside, the light is slowly fading out. She’s not terribly unhappy with her life, but she longs for more. She is also worried about her grandfather’s health, his watch shop, and shudders at the thought that someday years from now; she’ll still be working in the shop alongside a husband and children of her own. She’s not ready for that life even if she assumes that is what she’s headed for. Abigail wants out – but is afraid to disappoint her grandfather who has lost so much already.

What are your characters fears? What do they worry about? How do they feel about their current situation? All of these things tie into your character’s personality.

What Makes Your Character Distinct or Unforgettable?

Every character should have something about them that makes them distinct or unforgettable. There’s nothing worse than having a character that is so lack-luster that the reader forgets their name halfway through the next chapter. Character should be memorable, if not in personality or appearance, then in deed. Take a little bit to review over what you know of your character so far. What stands out the most about your character? What do you think draws people to them as a character (either in the story or from the reader’s point of view?

For Abigail, I think a lot of her appeal is in her joy for life and thirst for adventure. With her personality you just know that she’s going to do extraordinary things, and you can’t help but be influenced by the light of her personality. For Hugh, I’d say it’s his dedication to his family. He’s a grump of an old man, but he doesn’t withhold love for his family. He would have saved himself hassle and money if he’d set Abigail on the streets as a child, but he didn’t- and when and if Abigail decides to leave for greater things, I don’t think he’d stop her.

Whatever “distinctness” you give your character, it doesn’t have to be something huge. It can be as little as the way they greet other characters or the way they always support their friends, even in the most foolish of endeavors.  It can even be a negative thing: Maybe a particularly unkind character beats a street urchin with a cane, or claims an apple is rotten in order to get it free from a vendor. The point is that it has to be something memorable. Don’t let your characters (even your side characters) fade into the background by simply showing up in a scene, playing off another character’s dialogue, and then pop out of existence like they never existed.

Voice

The voice of a character is the way they think and speak, not only in dialogue but narration. There are quite a lot of authors that fail at making their characters voices unique, and it has a noticeable effect: all their characters sound alike, and the reader gets confused about who’s speaking – or sometimes the character’s voice comes across as too mature or too juvenile for the character. So here are some things you need to think about when considering your character’s voice:

  1. Age: a 5 year old doesn’t speak the same way a 20 year old does.
  2. Culture/Environment/Class: A character in the victorian-era England won’t speak the same way as a character in the year 3029 in NEW New Orleans. Nor will a character raised in the streets speak the same as a character born and bred in nobility.
  3. Personality: A happy character with a pleasant personality isn’t going to talk to people the same way a grumpy, sour-puss will.
  4. Gender: Men and women will not speak the same. Now, this doesn’t mean there aren’t exceptions, but generally they have different motives behind their conversations, so the way they approach it will also be different.

For the purpose of this exercise I’ve decided that Hugh speaks with a gravelly, pinched voice and clipped, direct sentences. He doesn’t waste time on words and pleasantries. He is direct, and narrates his world in undertones of complaints about time management and wasted money – and never speaks people’s names directly. Abigail, on the other hand, speaks with a casual, teasing but friendly tone with a lady-like proper alto voice. She uses manners when addressing others, often calling them Sir, Madam, and Young Sir/Miss. She refers to her friends by their surnames only. She saves her greatest endearments for her family, and calls her Grandfather Hugh Conway: Gran’papa. Hugh has been known to curse at almost everyone in long, rude tirades (he calls the grocery woman down the street “that slack-jawed cutpurse-spinster”), while Abigail would never say a mean word about anyone – not even those she greatly dislikes. The closest she comes to an insult is when she teasingly calls her grandfather “you stodgy old bastard” which he secretly likes, and is always said with tongue in cheek.

Abigail narrates her world in tones of excitement, optimism and curiosity. How do your characters narrate their world? How do they speak to others? Do they have a sense of humor? Let their personalities color their view and language.

Motivation, Goals & Obstacles

We’re nearing the end of this article, so there are just a few more things I want to impress upon you. Some of the most important things to know about your characters are motivation, goals, and obstacles. See if you can answer these questions:

  1. What is your character’s motivation or goals in life? What is it they want for themselves, what kind of future do they envision?

Also, in a smaller way, as you’re writing, think about what your character’s motivations and goals are for each conversation and scene. Keep these things in mind.

  1. What things stand in the way of their motivations and goals? Is there anything you can foresee outside of some random event that could keep them from their goals?

Try not to take plot into account yet. For instance, what Abigail wants for herself, is to lead a life of adventure. She wants to do something extraordinary with her life. She DOESN’T want to spend her whole life in the little watch shop. The obstacles to this of course, are society and her grandfather. She doesn’t want to disappoint Hugh, and in her world, gallivanting off to have some grand adventure is rather frowned upon in general.  It’s okay if there are no foreseeable obstacles in your character’s way – there doesn’t have to be.

Now, taking plot into account, think about what your character wants, and if there are no obstacles in their way, throw one in front of them. If there –are- obstacles, consider finding a way to remove them, or make your character attempt to reach their goal despite the obstacles.

I could have Abigail’s grandfather die: that would remove one obstacle. Or, I could have something crop up (like Abigail getting kidnapped) that suddenly makes her goals possible, whether she likes it or not.

Ask yourself this question as you write, and any time you get stuck: What does my character fear the most, and how can I make it happen? Where your story goes from there is anyone’s guess. Anything could happen.

What’s Abigail’s story? I don’t know. Her book hasn’t been written – like I said, Abigail and her grandfather didn’t exist before this article. Maybe she gets abducted by a handsome member of the local street gang, in trouble with the law and is held for ransom – and thus begins her adventure into a new and unexpected journey. Maybe she finds herself unexpectedly trapped in an arranged marriage and runs away, leaving her Grandfather behind, and joining the rail-line. Or maybe her Grandfather dies and leaves behind a watch and a mystery to solve. I don’t know – but if I’ve accomplished anything with this article, hopefully by the end of it, you’ve gotten a feeling for who she is, and on some level, care about her story. Hopefully, after all is said and done, I’ve given you the tools and inspiration to tell your own story.