Recipe for Creating Characters

Recipe for Creating Characters

Ruth E. Walker

Sometimes, the people I create for my novels and stories wake me up at night. They rattle around in my head like restless spirits and refuse to quiet down until I write a scene they’ve been waiting for.

Wait a minute. A scene they’ve been waiting for?

Exactly. I guess that’s how real they’ve managed to become in my imagination. So real that my subconscious gives them room to believe themselves to be alive.

All writers discover and develop their characters by a variety of approaches, each as unique as the writer themselves. But sometimes, our imaginations can use a little help.

For one of my workshops, I developed a simple and fun exercise for finding a new character. It works for villains, heroes, secondary folks, and even walk-on characters. Use it any time you hit a wall and need a nudge to add new people to a story or scene. It can even help when you have no idea what you’re going to write: bingo! a character to build a story around…all from a recipe.

Follow the recipe

1 cup of a real person: I find a visual source most helpful (a magazine photograph, portrait in an art gallery or people-watching expedition) Perhaps for you, there’s a person in history — recent or long ago — who has fascinated you. Whoever you choose, it’s time to build a story character from an image. Note some vital statistics about this person, (age, gender, eye & hair colour, etc.)

Then go a bit deeper into who they are (family, education, social position/job, hobbies, favourite foods, pets, etc.) Allow your imagination to take you to counter-intuitive places: thing — and people — are never completely what they appear to be on the surface.

Finally, answer three questions:

  • what does this person want?
  • what does this person actually need?
  • what does this person fear the most?

Of course, this outline of a person is open to change once you start to write the story. But by this point, you should have a sense of a personality coming to life. All you need now is to add the rest of the ingredients.

1 cup of story idea:  Maybe your new character has inspired a story idea already but if not, here’s a quick option: choose a central theme (quest, coming of age, gods vs humans, humans vs nature, etc.) and a genre (romance, sci-fi, contemporary, literary, thriller, historical, etc.) Write down the theme and genre (or blend of genres) and add in a few lines about the possibilities to come (escape of star-crossed lovers, a search for a missing “x”; a defense of a territory; a coronation gone wrong, etc.)

2/3 cup of setting: place, era, season, time of day. Here’s where you add in some sensory elements: temperature, quality of the light, smells in the air, sounds near and distant, etc.

1/4 cup of backstory: Careful, too much backstory up front and it will overtake your story stew. Go for subtle flavours: a hint of betrayal, a whiff of loss, a sprinkle of insecurity or shame.

Flavour bouquet: Just like that cheesecloth bag of spices in your chili sauce, here’s where you can mix up an interesting blend for your new-found character. Characteristics. Idiosyncrasies. Behaviours. Qualities of goodness and evil because no person is completely honourable, good and kind. And all of it affects the kind of person you are cooking up.

The garnish: An exciting way to serve up your character is through a line of dialogue. A few intriguing words can be all you need to set in motion a scene for your character.

Make it more than parsley on the plate: “Quick man! Jump overboard or die!” “Before the three moons rise, I promise to find your starship.” “My lady, the castle road and all who travelled it are gone.”

Of course, like any recipe, it’s always open to personal preference. So go ahead and experiment. Add new ingredients. Use more spice. Go heavy with the garnish. The point to all this is to muck about in the kitchen of your creativity and see what ends up on your page. At the very least, you’ll have something on the table that you’ve never had before. Hopefully, it’s one tasty treat.

Last Word

If you want to cook up more characters or spice up ones you already have, Ruth’s offering a one-day workshop Create Compelling Characters on June 15 at her Riverside Cottage property in Haliburton. Registration is open now.

Create Compelling Characters

Create Compelling Characters

Our stories are strong when the people we create come to life and connect with our readers.

On Saturday June 15, join award-winning writer and creative writing coach & editor Ruth E. Walker at Riverside Cottages in Haliburton County. From 10 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., Ruth will lead participants through a series of hands-on exercises and inspiring explorations of character in fiction, memoir and nonfiction.

Topics will include:

  • character development: beats & behaviour
  • motivation: wants & needs
  • dialogue:  the right words at the right time
  • character as a tool: plot, setting & themes

Ruth Walker

Your Facilitator: The first work Ruth E. Walker ever submitted won Canadian Living magazine’s 1996 story contest. Her fiction, nonfiction and poetry have won prizes and appeared in Canadian, U.S. and U.K. journals including Prairie Fire, Geist, CV2, Utne Reader Online and Chapman. Ruth’s novel, LIVING UNDERGROUND is in second printing. She is an editor, writing coach and partner in Writescape, offering workshops and retreats for writers at all levels.

Riverside is located south of Gelert Village on the Drag River in Haliburton County, just over 2 hours from the GTA. Nestled among pine, fir & birch trees, this 2-acre property has long offered writers an ideal space in which to create. Write at the harvest table, in the gazebo, in the screened porch or on the deck by the lazy river.

Register online or email info@writescape.ca

$65 +HST includes light lunch (soup & fruit & cheese plate)
and refreshments (coffee/tea/water & snacks)
PayPal registration:


Or etransfer to info@writescape.ca $65 + HST $8.45 = $73.45

Limit 10 participants: suitable for writers at all levels

Registered participants will receive a confirmation email that includes directions to Riverside Cottages and workshop agenda.

Accessibility of Riverside Cottages: The grounds are mostly level. The Rustic cottage is the main workshop location and there are three steps to access the main entrance; the building is open concept inside and the screened porch, rear deck and gazebo are level entrances. The washroom is also on the main floor but is not rated for wheelchair access. Please query if you require any specific accessibility.

Cancellation policy for workshops: We understand that life happens — we couldn’t be writers if we didn’t. But we work hard on preparing our workshop materials and program. Our policy is: up to 1 week prior to the workshop, full refunds. 1 week to 24 hours prior to the workshop, 20% discretionary administration fee.

The full fee applies within 24 hours of workshop start; however, you can transfer your registration to another writer. Please let us know if that is the case.


10 Places to Find Characters

10 Places to Find Characters

Look for Writescape’s 10 on the 10th for writing tips, advice and inspiration on the 10th of every month. Think of it as Gwynn and Ruth sitting on your shoulder and nudging you along.

Where does a writer come up with ideas for a new character? Do you always find characters the same way? Maybe it’s time to explore new ways to find the people who populate your writing.  

1. Everyday people:

Spend time in any public place and someone is bound to catch your attention because of what they are saying or wearing or the way they are acting. Play the “Who are they?” game. Name them. Give them an occupation, a family (or not), and a problem. Watch, listen, take notes, and then let your imagination take over.  Read literary voyeur Julie Wilson’s Seen Reading, a collection of micro fiction inspired by people on Toronto transit.

2. Historical people:

People throughout history have done amazing, stupid, brave, cowardly, horrific, heart-warming things. Digging into the past can uncover all kinds of people, both those who are documented, and those that were —or might have been—in their lives. Check out museums, plaques, archives, diaries, statues. If you don’t want to write about a famous person, think about siblings, spouses or colleagues and imagine their lives. Think of Susanna Moodie Roughing it in the Bush, or Philippa Gregory’s book The Other Boleyn Girl.

3. Historical events:

Pompeii excavation

Whether you are a fan of Tudor times, fascinated by the destruction of Pompeii, read avidly about the great wars or have your interest piqued by the voyage of the KonTiki, historical events are filled with possibility for creating characters. Anthony Doerr creates a blind French girl and a young German radio operator for his WWII novel All the Light We Cannot See.  In his book Pompeii, Robert Harris creates four characters – a young engineer, an adolescent girl, a corrupt millionaire and an elderly scientist – in a luxurious world on the brink of destruction.

4. Art forms:

Flip through a magazine or visit an art gallery. Visual art and photography can always inspire. Degas’s art inspired Cathy Buchanan to write The Painted Girls; Vermeer’s art inspired The Girl with the Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier.  The same goes for books, plays, movies, dance, comedy, music and oral storytelling. Think of Annie Proulx’s Accordian Crimes, a novel that follows the lives of characters who successively own a green accordion.

5. Travel:

Travelling always offers fresh perspectives on everything from the scenery to the way things are done, the foods people eat or their attitudes to life. You can set the story in the foreign place, like Frances Mayes did in Under a Tuscan Sun. Or write about the effects of travelling like Vicki Pinkerton’s Reflections on the Road. Or tell a home-grown tale with characters influenced by other cultures like Wayson Choy’s Jade Peony.

6. Media:

News text, TV and social media are a goldmine for finding unique characters. If you read a headline and it gets you asking questions, (Why would anyone do that? How did they survive? Why didn’t anyone help? How did they get away with that?) then you likely have the makings of a story and a character. Ask lots more questions, flesh them out and go your own way. Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie was published two years after the kidnapping and murder of Charles Lindbergh’s son. Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites was inspired by Agnes Magnúsdóttir who was convicted of killing her employer. Of course, the personal ads are always a fun place to start. Julia Wertz wrote the graphic anthology, I Saw You, based on real-life missed connection ads posted on Craigslist and in local papers.

7. Death:

While thinking about death might not be everyone’s cup of tea, gravestones, cemeteries, obits, and death masks offer great opportunities for creating characters. In Edinburgh, Greyfriars’s Kirkyard, just steps from The Elephant House where J.K Rowling penned the first Harry Potter book, you will find five gravestones she used to inspire characters in her books: Potter; McGonagall; Moodie; Scrimgeour and Tom Riddle.

8. Names:

And while on the subject of names, remember that many of them reflect ethnic and cultural connections, have religious or folklore connotations and can suggest era too.  Want an Irish character? Try Googling “Irish Names”. You’ll find lists for boys and for girls; meanings and popularity by year. Or page through phone directories and baby-name books. Notice street sign names and names on buildings. Want to write about rape or feminist themes, using the mythical name of Philomel (who was raped, and voiceless, but was transformed into a singing nightingale) adds a layer. Check out Margaret Atwood’s use of that connotation in her novella Nightingale published in The Tent (2006),

9. Opposites & reimaginings:

The despised Wicked Witch of the West in the movie The Wizard of Oz becomes a much more sympathetic character when we see things from her point of view in Gregory McGuire’s book (and later musical)Wicked.  If you read Jane Eyre and can’t stop thinking about the secret madwoman in the attic, then read Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea  which follows a young Antoinette Cosway who is sold into marriage to Mr. Rochester and slowly descends into madness.

10. Traits:

Start with a character trait and create a situation where someone with that trait finds themselves facing it/using it/fighting it.  Then ask questions. Why are they in this situation? Who is the other person in the scenario? What happens next?

A woman who reads body language well:
Maddie knew Ashton was lying. His eyes looked down to the left, and shuffled his feet.

A hero who is uncomfortable around weeping women:
Tentatively taking Auria’s elbow, Gaston said, “Don’t weep. It does not become you.”

A womanizer:
As Alysha seated Tyron between his new love and his ex at dinner, he loosened his tie and looked for an escape route.

So many ways to discover characters, and this list is by no means exhaustive. So stash a notebook in your backpack, put on your hiking boots, and get out there to see who you can find.

10 ways to Nano-prep for writing your novel

10 ways to Nano-prep for writing your novel

It’s Writescape’s 10th anniversary and we have lots of excitement planned for writers in 2018. This installment of 10 on the 10th is the latest in the series of monthly writing tips, advice and inspiration. Think of it as Gwynn and Ruth sitting on your shoulder and nudging you along. Share with your writing colleagues and encourage them to sign up for more.

In a few weeks, writers around the globe will commit to writing 50,000 words of the first draft of a novel in 30 days. Will you be one of them? National Novel Writing Month or NaNoWriMo begins on November 1, and if you don’t know much about NaNoWriMo, check out our previous blog post NaNoWriMo 101.

That means that October, affectionately known as “Preptober” is a month for getting all your ducks in a row, so you’re ready to actually write on November 1. Below are 10 ways to get ready to write, for NaNoWriMo or indeed for any new novel project.

  1. Create a project hold-all to keep all research, writing, notes and ideas for your new novel. This could be a new folder in your computer, or a “new project” in Scrivener. Try a three ring binder scrapbook, with sections for research notes, character sketches, random ideas, checklists lists etc. Handy for quick reference, for validating research used, for trying out rough writing, for reference as you write. More than that, though, it is a tangible way to make the project real and a good way to stay focused and organized.
  1. Decide what you are going to write. Easier said than done. We all have stacks of ideas of what we could write about, but choose something that interests you. If you’re not passionate about your project you will find it hard to live with it daily and write productively. Choose a story you are spilling over to get out, or write a story that involves something you really want to spend time with. If you love Russian history, set a story in Russia during the revolution. If you’ve always wanted to know about perfume making, write a story where the protagonist is a perfumer. To help make it more real, choose a working title.
  1. Start with sketching interesting characters. If you’re a character-driven writer, begin with writing profiles of your protagonist and antagonist. Then as you work through your plot ideas (step 5) and new characters emerge, do character sketches of them too. If you’re a plot-driven writer, you may want to do step 5 first and return to this step afterwards. Remember these profiles are not just physical, but include your character’s history, flaws, emotional baggage, hopes, dreams, fears and relationships. You might find yourself returning repeatedly to these sketches to add details as you get to know them better.
  1. Ask yourself whose story you are telling and how it would best be told. Whose POV will best tell that story? One POV or multiple? What tense and person? Who is the reader you are aiming at? What genre? As you start to write, you may change these decisions, but start with a plan.
  1. Write your book jacket blurb. This may seem like it’s putting the cart before the horse, but it’s not. The book jacket blurb answers the all-important question “What is this book about?” The answer to that question helps to distill the thrust of the story: the conflict, the stakes and the character arc. It also helps define what age group and genre it is, because it focuses on the main thread of the story.
  1. Brainstorm story ideas. Outline potential plots. Ask yourself the simple but effective “What if?”, or use the base of all ancient myths and tales: the three act structure. If you know how you want your story to end, consider working backwards too. You might want to check out these tried and true variants of the three act structure too.
  1. Define your story world: place and time. This could be as simple as “Russia pre 1917 revolution” or “Haliburton 1956”, or as complex as a new fantasy world or imagined planet. Or it might be a mix, say a fictitious town called Halbury based on Haliburton. Setting is important to ground your story and your readers. The more complex your setting, the more up-front “world-building” you need to do: Government? Religion? Rules of magic? Climate? Etc. Prep work can include maps and floorplans.
  1. Outline potential subplots. Make sure they serve the thrust of the main story, that they have their own story arc and that there are no dropped threads.
  1. Sketch important secondary characters. Make sure they exist as a counterpoint or foil or supporter of your main characters. Like main characters, they too should have their own wants and needs and motivations. Ask yourself if one secondary character can do the work of two to keep the number of characters to a minimum, and to make each one stronger.
  1. Work on character arcs for all characters, primary and secondary. Each character must have their own motivations for doing what they do.

And one thing more

Get support. We all have lives to live and people in those lives. Talk to them about what you want to do and get them to realize you are serious. Enlist their help, whether it is to honour the time you set aside as uninterrupted writing time, or whether it is practical help like carpools or cooking dinners during November. Prepare them for your plan and then……START WRITING!

 

 

 

Flesh Out Characters with a Sketch

Flesh Out Characters with a Sketch

Ruth E. Walker

As a character-driven writer, I love discovering the deeper layers of the people I create. Usually, I already have a strong sense of what makes my characters tick—it’s what draws me to the page to explore their lives. But not always. Sometimes, even a “character-driven writer” needs to develop a character sketch to have a better understanding or handle on one or more of the people in a story.

A sketch can be like a quick line drawing or caricature that fleshes character out when you fill in some blanks:

  1. the basics: age, gender, height, weight, hair colour, shoe size…
  2. add a sense of place, both physical and social: home location, job, education…
  3. toss in a bit of “flavour” with likes/dislikes, idiosyncrasies…
  4. go even deeper: fears, longings, secrets (shhhhh!)…
  5. get a clue to motivations: what happened to them before the story starts?

It can be far more detailed, using shadow and light to reveal facets of personality (key for reaction and interaction), motivation (key for tension-building) and subconscious desires (key for thematic development.)

For example, starting with an idea of a character, a person for a story:

Bob is a 47-year-old truck driver for a long distance hauling company. He’s overweight but not obese and his hairline is receding. He drinks Gatorade to stay awake when he drives overnight. Bob likes old movies, baseball and wine gums.

Bob’s name, age, gender, appearance are sketched in. I tossed in a bit about Bob and his likes. A just-the-facts-ma’am approach is fine to start. If you want more than “good enough”, dive deeper. Everyone has a story. Even our imaginary “Bob” has more than one reason for what he does…or doesn’t…do.

A character sketch can offer a writer more than just an outline of the people in a story. In fact, the act of developing a sketch of a character might serve as a springboard of ideas for plot, setting or themes:

Bob, a 47-year-old truck driver has been hauling long distance rigs across the country for over twenty years. These days, even climbing up into the cab is chore; he knows he should drop a few pounds but it’s hard when he keeps getting the inter-province routes and shorter and shorter deadlines. Some guys pop pills to stay away on night runs but he keeps to power drinks, even if it means he has to piss in a bottle to avoid stopping. Besides, even when he does stop these days, sleep won’t come or at least not for long. Even pulling out the tablet and firing up a few old movies doesn’t do it for him anymore. Two Turner Classics and his eyes are still wide open, and then he’s chewing on wine gums for breakfast and pulling on his Blue Jays cap to get back on the road. His cap doesn’t really hide his thinning hair but still, it’s the Jays so that’s gotta count for something. That’s what his dad always said to him. Life, Bob—it’s gotta count for something. That is, until the day his dad hung himself from the barn rafters.

With genre fiction, there are certain types of characters we expect to show up. A cozy mystery needs an amateur, or even reluctant, sleuth. A fantasy should have supernatural or magical characters. A horror works best with a terrifying and evil villain. Etcetera. Of course, a wise writer takes those expectations and plays with them so that the reader gets some surprises. Like villains who turn into heroes or heroes with murderous hearts. And it’s those character surprises that open up tired plots and overused themes and can take your story on a whole new track.

Drawing out personality

There’s another kind of sketch that may prove helpful in understanding your character. In my workshops, I’ve used photos of people to inspire writers to discover new, unexpected characters for their stories. But I have also scoured magazines and photo books looking for faces or expressions that can help me solidify a character in my mind. A couple of years ago, I was a bit lost working on my science fiction novel. My main character had some “wobbly bits” to the person I thought she should be; in other words, she was a bit fuzzy. Never good for a writer.

I turned to a police sketch program online. After several attempts, I finally came up with her face and that helped me firm her up as I continued to write the latter half of the novel.

The free program I used is no longer available but there are several online services that can do similar work. You need to pay for and then download the program, for example, Flash Face and Portrait Pad. I haven’t tried either one but if you have, let us know in the comment section.

For those of you who use Scrivener for organizing and drafting your work, you probably already know the many uses of this program for sketching out characters, from visual aids to templates to file folders. The Write Practice blog shares some of the Scrivener character sketch features. For those of you not using Scrivener, The Write Practice reminds writers that most of these tools can be adapted for use without any specialized software.

And check out the five links to character worksheets in this All Freelance Writing blog. Writers are offered a range of approaches to finding and developing characters: questionnaires, checklists, guides and charts.

A character sketch is useful at any point in writing. From inspiring a new story to adding extra character touches to a third, or fourth or fifth or…later (!) draft, diving deeper into a character’s life is a tool all writers need in their creativity kit. So go ahead. Get sketching.

 

 

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10 effective ways for characters to describe themselves

10 effective ways for characters to describe themselves

It’s Writescape’s 10th anniversary and we have lots of excitement planned for writers in 2018. This installment of 10 on the 10th is the latest in the series of monthly writing tips, advice and inspiration. Think of it as Gwynn and Ruth sitting on your shoulder and nudging you along. Share with your writing colleagues and encourage them to sign up for more.

How do you get readers to know what your main character looks like? Put your character in front of mirror and have them “notice” their almond-shaped eyes and cute dimples? Really? Sure, use that cliché if you want your readers to roll their own eyes and toss your book away.

There are much more effective ways to introduce descriptive qualities for your main character but first you need to make some important decisions.

Start with deciding what, if anything, you need your reader to know. And then get ready to get those important details delivered as soon as possible. Opting to bring in character description at Chapter 9 will only serve to annoy your reader because they will have already imagined what that character looks like. But avoid overloading the first few pages with description. Sprinkle it in, like a mild spice.

Like any good spice, character description should be subtle and give readers a glimpse of a character’s personality, skills, lifestyle, etc. Add to the story with character development or plot points: thick glasses, so does your character miss an important small detail? Long unruly hair covers the embarrassing childhood scar on his forehead?

Here’s ten ways to introduce character description without using a mirror:

1. Outside Observation: use another character to reveal details: All these months working beside you, I never noticed your green eyes. Or: That shade of pink really complements your peaches and cream complexion.

 

2. Closet Choices: when meeting someone they want to impress (are afraid of/are attracted to) they might think about their appearance and what effect it may have: He looked every bit a CEO. Would my gypsy skirt and Birkenstocks destroy the image I’d built up at the office?

3. Family business: try a comment directed to a family member on how alike or different they are. Sister — you may be lean and mean, but I like to think my ample figure speaks of kindness and warmth.

4. Action Figures: insert description as part of the action that adds to the mood – frantically rummaging through a drawer looking for the perfect sweater for a blind date or methodically polishing shoes before a big event;

5. Get Physical Part 1: choose to be indirect by describing another’s action — Jimmy easily handed me the file from the top shelf. “Here you go, Pintsize,” he said with a grin.

6. Get Physical Part 2: do it indirectly by describing an object: The box might be small but it was way too heavy for me to lift.

7. Use Science: do it by describing what physics allows them to do: With my height, swinging that broadsword through the fool’s neck would be childsplay.

8. Status: use profession/occupation – There was no point in brushing away the flour from my pastry chef uniform. My tailored suit was a stark contrast to the backyard full of jeans and sandals at this bbq.

9. Laughter: joke about it – most of us deprecate ourselves. Sure, I can have a second piece of cake. Especially if I want to add to the spare tire around my belly.

10. Self Aware: acute self-consciousness can be effective — I longed to grin back at him, but pressed my lips together instead. No way he was going to see my gap-tooth smile.

Often, the most powerful description is a trigger for an emotional reaction in your reader. A flaw or peculiarity can evoke empathy, raise questions and/or reveal your character’s humanity. After all, feeling connected is a big reason why we love stories and the characters we meet within them.

10 Questions to Ask Your Characters

10 Questions to Ask Your Characters

It’s Writescape’s 10th anniversary and we have lots of excitement planned for writers in 2018. This installment of 10 on the 10th is the latest in the series of monthly writing tips, advice and inspiration. Think of it as Gwynn and Ruth sitting on your shoulder and nudging you along. Share with your writing colleagues and encourage them to sign up for more.

Readers love “a good character” because something about that character resonates for them. You can make a reader-connection with your characters when you spend some time to get to know them.

These 10 questions are designed to get your characters to reveal insights. Your reader doesn’t need to know the answers but you do. What your characters reveal about themselves will affect every action/reaction that she or he makes. And that, dear writer, is a big part of what makes a fully fleshed, believable character.

 

  1. Who do you love? Love for another can be the driving force for a character. Unrequited or reciprocated, love is an emotional connection for readers. Or it could be your character is so self-centered that only they deserve to be loved by themselves.
  2. What’s your deepest fear? We all have fears. It is what makes us human. Your character is no different. And it will affect how she reacts to any triggers for that fear. And lets you add those triggers when you need them.
  3. How do you feel about your father/mother? — helps you get into the life history of your character. It affects everything your character says and does. Especially useful with mentor/influencer figures for your character.
  4. What do you like to eat for breakfast? — pretty mundane stuff, right? But what your character likes to eat reveals qualities: eggs and bacon (carnivore; not worried about health) oatmeal (solid; old-fashioned); kale and plain yogurt protein smoothie (health-conscious & maybe vegetarian). You’ll need to keep their diet in mind — it will affect what they tend to notice around food.
  5. What do you like most about where you live/work? The day-to-day is a big part of anyone’s life. From repetitive, structured assembly line work to high-pressure aerospace research, what your character experiences on the job affects her approach to the world. Or if he lives in a cardboard box in an alley or a sprawling mansion, it affects his clothes, his hygiene, his daily view of his neighbourhood. Discover what she likes to understand her regular behaviour.
  6. How do you feel about children? Oh yes. How does she feel about those little snotty-nosed rug rats? Does he go all goofy and fun-loving when kids are around? Is she worried about how her body will change when the baby is born? Does he want kids but doesn’t think he can manage? Complicated, conflicted or blasé, your character’s answers show you their nurturing instincts…or lack thereof.
  7. Do you believe in a god(s)? Whoa! Now this is really deep. Or maybe it’s not at all. Your character may have no interest in any faith and this is a simply answered question. Is their belief, or lack thereof, a philosophy or is it more ingrained than that? What is your character’s moral centre?
  8. If you could be anyone else, who would that be? Well, this could be a short answer: nobody. I like being me. Or maybe they actually long to be someone else, someone not even in your story. Golly! That could be very cool.
  9. Who has influenced you in your life’s actions? One outstanding teacher, a childhood friend or a series of people. Positive and negative: a colleague at work who had the courage to whistle-blow, or Aunt Peggy who was always positive no matter what life dealt her. A coach who introduced drugs or some criminal act. A sibling who demanded loyalty by blackmail. A mother who lied.
  10. What makes you happy? Sure it might be chocolate ice-cream, but go deeper. Glass-half-full person or glass-half-empty? Always looking for happiness in the future or the past or in the moment? Needs others to be happy or can find happiness alone? A taker or a giver?

One more important question. All of these questions are fine but the answers are deepened and your character far more revealed if you ask one simple question after they answer each of the others:

Why?

Don’t let your character off the hook with a short response. For example:  How do you feel about your father? I always hated my father. Why? Because he was despicable. What do you mean by that? He was an asshole. He beat my mother every Saturday night as far back as I can remember. Why didn’t she leave him? Because she was just as despicable…

Like what you’ve read? You can have 10 on the 10th delivered to you each month by sending us your email in the comment section. You can unsubscribe anytime. You’ll also receive The Top Drawer our Wednesday blog with tips, resources and inspiration for writers. To see past posts, visit: writescape.ca

Trusting Your Reader

Trusting Your Reader

Ruth E. Walker

As a writing coach and editor, I often remind writers to trust your reader. This is not reserved for those new to the craft. Even writers with published work under their belt will slip into the world of telling when they should be nudging.

Show vs nudge

We writers hear it all the time: show don’t tell. It’s great advice and it means to write so that you keep readers engaged. Show is all part of a writer’s essential toolkit of Active instead of (ho-hum) passive writing:

  • use active verbs instead of adverbs
  • watch for info-packed sentences and unnecessary description
  • keep characters reacting physically
  • remove repetition (words, phrases, actions) unless it is important to the story/character
  • avoid clichés and stereotypes—surprise your reader (and yourself)

But it’s not exactly what I mean with “nudge.” I mean something even more subtle, more layered. Something that moves your writing up the ladder. Something that echoes subconsciously for readers.

 

For example

Imagine you are writing a book about a teenager who is a soccer star. Alexia has all the usual teen angst of being confident and insecure. Everyone tells her she defends the net like a world cup pro, that The Beautiful Game will be her ticket to success. But Alexia fears that she’s only a soccer star on her high school team and will be revealed as ordinary when she joins the provincial all-stars.

But what is your story really about? The desire to be a soccer star is just what Alexia thinks she wants. What she really wants is for her mother coaching soccer in Europe to come back home and show that her own daughter is more important than her mother’s career.

That deep longing that Alexia won’t even admit to herself is your ticket to “nudge.”

Avoid the Hammer

My Writescape colleague Gwynn often refers to tell as a Hammer (as in, hitting your reader over the head and saying, “Hey reader, are you getting this?”) Like me, she sees missed opportunities for subtle hints or when the supposed hint is as obvious as…well—a hammer to the forehead.

Back to Alexia’s longing. We could have her write in her diary: I miss my mother. I wish she’d come home. Nope. Hammer.

We could have her watch the other mothers cheer for her teammates and wipe wistful tears from her eyes. Nope. Hammer with a Sentimental Whack.

We could have sit with her best friend and talk about it:

“Why are you so upset Alexia?”

“Well Pat, I really miss my mother. With her over in Europe coaching that semi-pro team I just feel so alone here. I don’t have any grandparents or other family except Dad. And he’s busy all the time and really, I think they’re separated and just not telling me. The seasons over there are longer than ours here and I want her to come back before my season ends, to see me play just once.”

Nope. More than a Hammer, this exchange also qualifies as an As You Know Bob moment, where a writer has their character say things the person listening would already know but wants to make sure the reader has all the important information. All. Of. It.

This is a prime example of not trusting the reader to either have already figured it out OR (and this is just as important) have the patience to piece it together as the story moves forward.

Don’t poke your reader in the eye

Let’s go back to Alexia’s longing. Would you give her a mother figure in the new coach of the provincial team? That would be kind of obvious. Besides, Alexia needs to learn about the complications of mothering and find a way to connect with her absent mother.

One way to do this is to make Alexia be a mother-figure. A pet perhaps? Too unlikely. Maybe a new teammate who is even more insecure than Alexia and she nurtures her along? Too obvious and lacking in energy.

What if the provincial team requirement is a certain amount of volunteer work? What if the winter before she leaves for training camp she gets stuck with 6 weeks coaching at an inner city community centre. Despite her initial frustrations and lack of empathy, she forms attachments. And then finally, she has to leave for training camp before “the big game/event” of the community centre. She has to choose between her soccer career and the “support your team” mantra she kept telling her young charges.

Maybe all this helps Alexia see her mother in a different light—the pull between family and career that many women struggle with. Maybe this isn’t the most subtle nudge to keep Alexia’s longing a constant theme. But the point here is that I was nudging you to consider ways in which you can adjust a story—pare it, shape it—and eventually move it into thoughtful territory that nudges readers into deeper engagement with your writing.

It’s actually one of the highest compliments you can give a reader: I trust you to understand what my story is about. And frankly, it’s a lot more interesting to write without a hammer in your back pocket. And, as you know Bob, it’s something I encourage writers to remember.

DID YOU KNOW

Gwynn and Ruth are great writing coaches. It’s been their pleasure to work with writers of all kinds and at all levels. At the next Writescape retreat, Spring Thaw, they get to kick off the retreat with some one-on-one consultation with the writers there. Plus they both provide written feedback for work submitted in advance.

Support. Clear and constructive feedback. And the care and feeding of the writer’s soul that comes at all Writescape retreats. April 20 for 3 days or extend your pen for 5 days.

 

Getting Your Novel Unstuck

Getting Your Novel Unstuck

Guest blogger Stephanie Gibeault is a freelance writer with a passion for fiction for young readers. She recently wrote a post for Writescape about the benefits of writing away at the Highlights Foundation’s Pennsylvania retreat. As she promised in that December post, she’s here to share what she learned about getting a novel unstuck:

Whether you call it writer’s block, an empty tank or say your creative well has run dry, every writer has days or weeks when putting words on the page is a challenge. This past summer, I found myself stuck on my middle grade manuscript.

I created a storyboard (on my closet doors) to help me see the flow of the plot, only to discover there were structural issues I hadn’t noticed before. I could see what the problems were, but had no idea how to fix them. Thankfully, I had already signed up for a workshop dedicated to getting unstuck.

Stop spinning your wheels

In my recent guest post, I wrote about my experience at the Highlights Foundation workshop Getting Your Middle Grade Novel Unstuck. I learned many things at the workshop, but the main focus was how to deal with being stuck.

Beginning, middle or end of your story—there are great techniques that can help move you forward. Instructors Chris Tebbetts and Elise Broach armed me with loads of options. And many of them don’t even involve working directly on your manuscript.

The most valuable piece of advice I took away from the workshop: there’s always something you can be doing even if it’s not writing.

Experiment with play

Sometimes, it feels like anything other than writing a new scene is procrastination. That’s simply not the case.

Anything that moves you forward with your writing, builds your skills, increases your familiarity with your characters or fleshes out your plot is a productive and effective use of your time. That’s incredibly liberating.

Discovering your characters

Successful middle grade writers create characters their readers connect with—and characters the writers know inside and out. Chris and Elise offered lots of suggestions to get to know our characters better. Here’s a really effective one for me:

  1. Create a chart with a column for a character’s self-perception and a column for how they are seen by others.
  2. The two columns are those perceptions that are true or accurate and those that are false. This provides insight into your character’s psyche – what they hide from others and what they hide from themselves.
TRUE/ACCURATE FALSE/INACCURATE
HOW BOB SEES SELF Hilarious

Fun-loving

Always positive

Never afraid

HOW OTHERS SEE BOB Cute but annoying

Makes light of tough situations

Attention-seeking

Over-the-top

Journal as your character. Get at their innermost thoughts, motivations and goals.Other ways of getting in touch with your characters include:

  • Fill out a questionnaire or survey as one of your characters. How do they answer differently than you or another character would?
  • Write about a character’s perfect day. What makes him or her happy?
  • Create a character profile with details like hair colour, favourite movie and best friend. The more details the better.
  • Write a letter to yourself from a character about what you are getting right and wrong about him or her in your manuscript.

Stretch some more!

I learned how writing prompts helped uncover details about our characters and plots. I thought it would be limiting because I’d have to go in a particular direction rather than letting my creativity flow.

I was amazed. Forced to explore areas I might otherwise have ignored, I answered questions not directly related to my story but essential to understanding it. Simple questions like, “What does this character want?” or “Why do I love this story?” gave me a great start.

ReVision to move forward

Editing can be as radical as starting from scratch and rewriting a scene entirely from memory. You’ll likely retain your favourite parts while stumbling onto some new descriptions, dialogue and directions at the same time. With track changes in your word processor, it’s easy to compare the two versions, choosing the best sections to keep.

Or be more conservative and only delete what isn’t completely necessary. Decide what, if any, details need to go back in and what the reader never needed in the first place.

One of my favourite suggestions was when Chris told me to rewrite a section of my manuscript in first person point of view. The purpose was not to rewrite my entire manuscript, (although that is exactly what I will do), but to get me deeper into my main character’s head.

I couldn’t believe the difference it made. No longer hovering over my story, now saw it through my protagonist’s eyes. Changing point of view, or even tense (from past to present, for example), allows you to approach your narrative from a different angle and that can be all you need.

No more excuses

With so many available options, I no longer have any reason to be stuck. Or to use the phrase “writer’s block”. If you’re feeling stuck with a writing project, consider trying some of these suggestions.

Remember to take advantage of workshops and retreats to help propel you forward. My experience at Highlights sure made a difference for me.

Did You Know

Are you stuck? Writescape retreats offer the perfect space to stretch your writing skills, re-imagine your work in new and exciting ways and the safety you need for full-throated expression. Spring Thaw is already half full of eager and focused writers like you, ready to give focus to their work.

Join us for an all-inclusive escape on the shores of Rice Lake. Elmhirst’s Resort boasts cozy fully equipped cottages with fireplaces, private bedrooms and gorgeous sunrise lake views. All you need is your jammies, toothbrush and writing materials; writers at all levels are welcome. Choose either a 3-day or 5-day retreat. April 20-24.

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Power Up Your Dialogue

Power Up Your Dialogue

Ruth E. Walker

Excerpt from “Shooter”, award-winning Young Adult novel by Caroline Pignat:

I meet his eyes. Hold them for a moment. “Thanks…Hogan.” He shrugs it off like it’s no big deal. But it is, for me, it’s huge.
“Okay–but your brother is definitely dead,” Xander blurts at Hogan. “That I know because–.”
“Xander!” Isabelle cuts him off. “Geeze, don’t you have a filter?”
“No.” Confused, he looks down at his camera. “I never use one. I’d rather see things as they really are.”
We sit in awkward silence, looking everywhere but at each other.
“He’s right. It’s true.” Hogan lets out a deep breath. “It’s been two years. I should be able to at least say it.”
But he doesn’t.
Xander tilts his head and stares at Hogan. “But it’s true that you killed him?”

In fiction, well-crafted dialogue like Pignat‘s can take my breath away. But what if your dialogue is so over-written, unrealistic or dull that your reader wants your characters to stop breathing? Or at least, stop talking.

I get to read a lot of dialogue from writers at all stages of their writing career. For example, I read and assess self-published works from potential members of a national writers’ organization. I’m also a coach and editor working closely with writers seeking to polish their manuscripts. And I teach workshops that focus on crafting excellent dialogue in fiction.

I’ve read some fantastic and engaging dialogue. And I’ve read dialogue that felt like listening to someone recite the nutritional contents of a milk carton. Believe me, you want the words your characters speak to be fantastic and engaging. No 19% of vitamin D for you.

Dialogue has work to do

I’m always surprised when writers miss opportunities to make dialogue work for them. Dialogue is not filler, nor is it secondary. It’s a multi-tasking powerhouse and writers would be wise to remember that.

But even more important, there are technical effects that support and enhance your story. The following are just a few examples of the potential for spoken words:

Plot:

  • propel your narrative forward with action: “Get up! They’re swarming the gates.”
  • foreshadow, suggest, nudge: “Are you sure the doors are all locked?”
  • establish setting, time, era: “Mistress, your limbs are showing ‘neath your petticoat!”

Character:

  • convey emotional state: “Every time I look at you, I see her, alive again.”
  • highlight personality/idiosyncrasies: “Beans can’t never touch meat on my plate. I won’t eat it!”
  • establish culture/social background: “Ach lass, will you no’ be getting down from there?”
The art of character-speak

If we wrote dialogue like true, normal conversations, we wouldn’t have readers. Most real life conversations are a jumbled mess, peppered with ums, ers and ahs, interruptions, half-finished sentences and the shorthand of shared experiences.

For readers, dialogue is the illusion of active listening, of looking from person to person as a conversation unfolds. Readers also enjoy an increase in white space to ‘rest’ their eyes. Conversations create the dynamic that excites readers and keeps the story moving forward.

The job of the writer is to put words in the mouths of our characters and make it all sound natural while making sure it does some of that multi-tasking work we want it to produce.

Here are two approaches to consider.

1. Take out words to give a more natural flow. Start with a basic conversation.

“Did you see that cat get run over by the bus?”
“What cat are you talking about?”
“Frank’s old tabby cat, Tibby.”
“I didn’t see a thing. I guess Frank will be a mess.”

By taking out a word here and there, and giving a bit of a tic to one of the speakers, we also get a bit more flesh on the character.

“You see that cat get runned over by the bus?”
“What cat?”
“Frank’s ol’ cat, Tibby.”
“Didn’t see a thing. Guess Frank’ll be a mess.”

2. Use surprise or the unexpected to up the tension. Real life is often surprising when our conversations with a neighbour or colleagues go off to places we didn’t expect. Do the same thing in your dialogue because there is nothing like potential conflict to tempt your reader.

“Hi, Andrea.”
“Janice? It is you.”
“It’s so good to run into you, Andrea. You look amazing.”
“Why did you hide him from me?”

Knowing when to bring in dialogue

If there is a formula for when and where to use dialogue, I’d love to know what it is. I can say this much: When I look over my fiction, I see that I use dialogue most often when I need to raise the stakes or create conflict or tension in the story.

I don’t mean that the “conflict” or “tension” needs to be dramatic verbal combat. There are gradations and shades to tension and conflict, so sometimes that means being subtle in how I construct those conversations between characters.

Brushstrokes can be more effective than a gallon of paint. With those big scenes of a major reveal or emotion, I will often default to dialogue. But I also use dialogue for subtext and quiet discoveries.

Choosing to write scenes primarily through dialogue, action or narrative, is intuitive for most writers. But when looking at your second or third drafts, pay attention to where you’ve made those choices.

It could be that what you’ve shared in a long, explanatory passage of mostly narrative just might be better delivered through conversations between your characters.

Did You Know?

We were recently asked what a writing coach does. A writing coach supports writers at different stages of the creative process. At Writescape, we often work with writers who just want to know if they are on the right track.

Sometimes a writer needs help with specific techniques like Point of View, dialogue or story structure. And sometimes, a discouraged writer just needs someone to prompt or encourage them.

Coaching services should be tailored to your unique needs and timetable. Writescape’s  coaching services combine online, mail and telephone or in-person communications — depending on geographic, time and similar circumstances.

Contact info@writescape.ca for more information on our coaching and editing services for writers.