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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Pinterest for Fiction Writers Part 1

Pinterest for Fiction Writers Part 1

Gwynn Scheltema

My favourite procrastination tool is Pinterest, but unlike my next favourite procrastination tool, Solitaire, it actually serves many useful purposes for a writer.

What is Pinterest?

Think of Pinterest as an infinite digital corkboard. On your “corkboard”, you have visual topic collection files called BOARDS for your PINS. Pins are visual web links that take you to the source of the information you are pinning (magazine article, blog, website, youtube video etc.). If you pin someone else’s pin (greatly encouraged) you are RE-PINNING. A person who has a Pinterest account (it’s free) with a collection of boards is called a PINNER.

Pins don’t have to be only informational text.. You can pin pictures, infographics, videos, photos and all kinds of ideas and inspiration. You can make your board public or secret. You can be social or not as you choose. (I choose not.)

Best of all, you can search by topic and define whether you are looking for a pin, a board, or a person. For example, I can search for all pins on “plot”, or all boards on “writing tips” or all people for “mystery author”.

If you download a “pin button” to your browser search toolbar, you can pin from anywhere you go on the internet including your own photos if they are in the cloud.

Novel vision boards

When beginning a novel, I create a board with my novel’s working title and pin images of possible characters, buildings, period dress, geographic details like birds or plants or places. Later I can add research links, newspaper cuttings, quotes, cover ideas, relevant books to read or anything else that might inspire or inform me.

I can even create sections within my board. For my mystery novel “Pyes and Ivy” I have sections for my characters, my town “Riverton” and the B&B where the action takes place “Ivy Lodge”.I find having the visual helps me keep things consistent.

Novel development boards

Of course, not every aspect of your novel has to be on one board. (You are allowed up to 500 boards and 200,000 pins). So let’s say you are working on your villain. You can create a board just for him/her. Get writing tips on writing villains. Get quotes from or about villains. Get ideas for names, motivations, and personality traits.

Rinse and repeat with other characters or setting or events…..

The craft

And when you have characters, you need an arc for them and a story arc too. Pinterest gives you access to loads of free printable worksheets for every aspect of planning your novel. Ditto for articles on “how to…” and “tips on …”

 

Looking for another way to describe hair colour? Words to use instead of “amazing”. Pinterest has pins for that. Also pins for commonly misused words, when to use what kind of hyphen, and avoiding clichés—including cliché characters.

 

 

Motivation

I have a board called “Words to write by”. It’s full of inspirational and kick-in-the-pants quotes. A quick visit there when I’m feeling like my writing is crap or I’m getting nowhere usually gets me going again. And let’s not forget the hundreds of writing prompts—visual and text; story starters and what ifs.

If you like to be social, you can follow other pinners, join group boards or comment on pins. There are even hilarious “Pinterest Fail” pins.

 

Making money.

Once you have a book to sell there are great ways to sell it on Pinterest. It’s the up and coming social media market place. But that’s a whole other blog. Stay tuned for Pinterest for Fiction Writers Part 2.

 

 

 

The Gift of Flaws

The Gift of Flaws

Ruth E. Walker

“Everybody loves a flawed character.” That’s a truism we hear often. A character with a flaw is, of course, channelling human qualities. After all, even the people we love the most in our lives carry “the stuff” that makes them imperfect.

My beloved aunt, who reads all kinds of books, loves Alice Munro, P.D. James and Margaret Atwood, and is in her happy place with a challenging crossword puzzle yet lacks the confidence to attempt to understand poetry. “I’m not clever enough,” she says.

The woman who loves language and words can’t understand poetry? But I cut her some slack because I love her.

So, too, will your readers cut you some slack when your characters reveal their flaws. But you want more than a reader’s understanding. You want those idiosyncrasies, characteristics and flaws to benefit your story. And they will when you use them deliberately to affect aspects of your story.

The following is by no means a full list of flaws. It’s a sampling just to give you something to think about as you work with your characters. Flaws affect actions, reactions and interactions:

Physical Flaws

Genetic or resulting from an injury, a physical weakness creates opportunities in your story

  • contrast (self against a perceived perfection in other characters)
  • sympathy (plays on your readers’ emotions — especially useful for villains)
  • motivation (especially strong when the flaw relates to character goals)

Consider Shakespeare’s Richard III; a villainous King of England but his motivation for power has a natural home in his deformity and how others treated him. Superman is invincible…except around Kryptonite.

Emotional Flaws

So much of what we do is driven by our emotions. Your characters are no different.

  • baggage (Mother always liked you best — affects every action/reaction)
  • weakness (from dieting failures to adultery — endless plot possibilities)
  • neediness (operating through others’ approval fuels relationships)

The strongest characters in fiction are most successful when they have an emotional weakness of some type. In Game of Thrones, Ser Jaime Lannister is motivated by his forbidden love of his sister, Cersei. Despite his strengths, this one passion affects all of his decisions.

Behavioural Flaws

From obsessive compulsive to egomaniacs, personality flaws drive characters to extremes. And those extremes can form some of the most intriguing characters.

  • focus (sees the trees, sees the forest, sees how it’s all connected)
  • restrictive (painting self into that corner and struggling to escape)
  • creative (artist, scientist, surgeon, magician…endless character options)
  • social (friendly, adulterer, won’t keep their subdivision garden neat)

Sherlock Holmes, anyone? Dozens and dozens of books, movies, television series…all from just one fascinatingly flawed character.

Applying the Flaws

Consider a character that you’ve already started to work with. Add a flaw — physical, emotional, or behavioural.  What changes? Can it affect your plot? Does it enhance your themes? Has the tension gone up a notch? What about relationships — any shifts in how characters interact with each other?

And what if you change up the flaw? A whole new ballgame? Oh, the possibilities are as limited as your ability to experiment.

 

Ten Ways to Get the Most from Writing Prompts

Ten Ways to Get the Most from Writing Prompts

Gwynn Scheltema

At the recent Just Right at Glentula Retreat, we used a number of writing prompts. Most writers have tried them at some point in their writing journeys. Some love them; some not so much. I find them invaluable. I’ve used written, verbal, visual, and textural prompts. I’ve even used smell and taste prompts.

Some writers resist prompts, because they feel that their writing time is limited and they should be writing the “real stuff.” But remember that “completing the prompt” is not the object. The goal is to get you writing, to get you writing what has the most energy for you, and to lead you into your writing project.

How do you do that?

Follow the energy

Often when you begin writing about the subject of the prompt — say swimming in a lake — it can take you  somewhere else — say an experience of drowning or crab baskets in Italy or how your father never believed in taking vacations. Go there. Forget the prompt and go where the energy is.

Prompts unlock memories and experiences, and when you write honestly about them, about how you felt, what you observed, and perhaps even capture some of the dialogue that was spoken, you can take that piece and adapt  it later for your “real” writing.

Prompts are not precise nor prescriptive.

Understand the possibilities of “You”

Prompts often use the pronouns “you” or “your”: “Write about your greatest fear” or “Imagine yourself beside a body of water…” Of course, you can write about your own experience, but you can also approach it as if you are one of your characters. And not just your protagonist or your viewpoint character. Often it is more revealing to pick your antagonist, or a minor character.

Switch it up

Try the same prompt from two different characters’ points of view. If the prompt says “What’s your favourite colour?”, get your character to answer. What colours does she/he have an aversion to? Perhaps you don’t know. Write about the fact that you don’t know that about your character. Why don’t you know? What else don’t you know? Or have characters answer that question about each other. What did your protagonist’s mother think were his /her favourite colours? How did that play out in your protagonist’s life? Did the mother always dress your protagonist in blue for example?

If you are a memoir writer, remember that the people in your life are your characters; they are just called Mom, or Dad or Great Aunt Mabel. And like a fiction writer, you can stretch by writing as if you are another character.

 

Prime the Muse

Prompts take you places you don’t expect, but I’ve also found them useful for getting into scenes that I was planning to write. Start by identifying a scene in your story you want to work on. For instance, you might want to do a scene where one character makes the first show of affection towards the other. Using the prompt “What’s your favourite colour?” as a line of dialogue could take you to a scene at a fair or in a mall where he is buying her something, or in a garden where the flowers are in bloom, or just in the kitchen choosing a coffee mug.

Write what you know  

The facts of your life may not be the stuff of wild imaginative novels, but your human reaction to events is as valid as any character in any novel. Perhaps you haven’t been in a dugout canoe in the Amazon Jungle, but you know how it feels to sweat. You also know how helpless you can feel in a strange place. Could the feeling of being swept down the river with the jungle crowding in also feel like being swept along in a crowd at a frenzied rock concert or at busy subway station? It’s not the facts from your life that connect with readers, it’s the emotions and commonalities.

The Senses

Like the things you feel, what you see, hear, touch, taste and smell also relate to what we all know. When writing from prompts, the senses will always ground you and lead you forward. Make use of ALL five senses. Also consider the temperature, the quality of the light, time of day, the weather, the seasons, the historical period.

Move into Metaphor

When you have considered the senses, move into metaphor. Ask yourself: What does this remind me of? What is it like? What is it not like? Explain it to someone who’s never seen, heard, touched, smelled or tasted it before. What would a child relate it to? What would your character compare it with?

Be specific

As you write, imagine being in your scene. Notice and write about specific sensuous details: not “a car” but “the dented yellow Edsel-Ranger taxi.” Write about unusual details, incongruous details. Write about what’s missing. Imagine the scene with and without people — general people, specific people. Listen for snatches of remembered or overheard conversation.

 

Opposites

Turn the prompt around and do the opposite. Substitute “hate” for “love”, try “old” in place of “young”, use “like least” instead of “favourite”. Write using both approaches and consider the similarities or juxtapositions created. If you can’t remember, start with “I don’t remember.” If you’ve never experienced the prompt, say singing for a crowd, start with “I have never sung in front of people because …” or “I have never sung in front of people but I have …”

Lists

Sometimes a topic seems too big to approach with authenticity. For instance, if the prompt asks you to write about someone you fear, and you’ve always feared your father, you may not feel comfortable diving into writing about him. Instead make a list of all the people you fear. Try to make the list really long. The items you add to the list last are often the ones buried deep. At the end of your list may be a kid from grade school. Write about him. Chances are you’ll find you feared him for many of the same reasons you feared your father.

Or make a list about all the emotions you feel about your father, and write about any one of them.

Give it a go

Prompts have been the source of many of my “keep” scenes. I may end up only using a portion of what I wrote, perhaps just one paragraph, but the prompt usually takes me where I’ve been resisting going and anything that gets me writing is a good thing.

Need a prompt now? There are lots of online sites. Here are a few for fiction, non-fiction and poetry:

Now, go and write, write, write ….

DID YOU KNOW

At Writescape retreats, we provide optional creativity sessions to tickle your muse and a companion work book full of prompts and ideas to take your writing to places it hasn’t gone before. Join us at our next retreat: Turning Leaves 2017.

What’s in a Name?

What’s in a Name?

Gwynn Scheltema

I have a one-syllable name—Gwynn. It’s a fairly common Welsh name although my spelling is a little unusual in that it doesn’t have an “e” on the end. And, no, no-one was drunk on the way to the registry office, or misinformed or forgetful or anything else. The story goes that I don’t have an “e” because my brothers (who got to choose my name) couldn’t decide between Gillian and Lynn so they smooshed it together and added a “w” for easier pronunciation to make Gwynn.

Growing up, I didn’t know this story; I only found out in my twenties. However, my father’s family had emigrated from Wales in the late 1800s and the name means “bright, white, fair, pure, blessed” and I’m blonde, so it’s a good fit. I like it. I like that it’s different. I like that it can’t be shortened. I like that it fits my history.

Names affect the way we feel

How a person or character feels about his or her name can affect what they feel about themselves. I love the way this excerpt from Margaret Atwood’s short story “Hairball” sums up the idea. So much character and back story is packed into the paragraph. Sometimes it is the character’s own view of herself, and sometimes how others see her.

During her childhood, she was a romanticized Katherine, dressed by her misty-eyed, fussy mother in dresses that looked like ruffled pillowcases. By high school, she’d shed the frills and emerged as a bouncy, round-faced Kathy, with gleaming freshly washed hair and enviable teeth, eager to please and no more interesting than a health-food ad. At university she was Kath, blunt and no-bullshit in her Take-Back-the-Night jeans and checked shirt and her bricklayer-style striped denim peaked hat. When she ran away to England, she sliced herself down to Kat. It was economical, street-feline, and pointed as a nail.

What’s behind a name?

Playing with names is a useful and powerful tool to add to your writing toolkit. Names have meanings, ethnic histories, associations with myth and stories, famous people, gods and family ties. Choosing the right name is the key.

Finding out what’s behind a name can be fun (and addictive). The web is full of sites that give the etymology, history and meaning behind names—first names and last names. There are sites for choosing baby names, for seeing the popularity of names over the years and even “character analysis” based on names.

Choosing a name

Devyani Borade blogged in Writer’s Digest about a quirky method to choose character names for fantasy characters: “Eyes closed, I randomly open a dictionary. Then I run a finger down the middle of a column while mentally keeping a beat, and stop at the count of six. (Why six? Because on this occasion, my story has six characters.) “Macamba: (n) Tropical American feather palm having a swollen spiny trunk and edible nuts.” Interesting. I repeat the process and come up with “Tabes: (n) Wasting of the body during a chronic disease.” Ah, just sublime. Then I switch the last letters. Et voila! Tabea Macambs. Pretty exotic, eh?

Names and Personality

I went to Quizony and did a quiz called “What Should Your Name Be?” based on personality. Apparently, my name should be Camilla. The quiz tells me: “Camilla is the name of a legendary female warrior… can make tough decisions… never afraid of taking on responsibilities… always has new ideas and new goals.”

Actually, I like it. And it’s a pretty accurate assessment of me. So it got me thinking about a character I’m working with whose name I’ve changed several times during the writing of my novel. I did the quiz again, only this time I answered the questions as if I was my character, Emily. According to the quiz, her name should be Victoria: “… powerful and forceful… determined… people respect and look up to you.” Hmmm. It fits her. I’ll think on it.

If your character is young, you might like to try a similar site where all the questions are geared to YA.

Over to you

Do you have a character whose name you aren’t quite happy with yet? Perhaps a character that needs naming?  Spend some fun time looking up names, their meanings and histories, their connections and personality traits.  And let readers know in the comments below how you pick names for your characters.

DID YOU KNOW

The name of the Rice Lake resort where we hold our annual Spring Thaw retreat is Elmhirst. It means “the elm-wood hill”, from the Olde English pre 7th Century “elm”, with “hyrst”, wooded hill. Join us there to focus on your work in progress and receive feedback from two skilled editors.  Come for three days or five, April 21 to 25 for an all-inclusive escape to write.

Been there: Using real-world settings in fiction

Been there: Using real-world settings in fiction

Gwynn Scheltema

I’m always fascinated by the worlds that writers create for fantasy and sci-fi novels. I think I’m fascinated by the sheer complexity of creating an entire culture from its laws and religion to its people, plants and landscape.

But basing our stories in the “real world” we all know (or think we know), can be just as complex.

Keeping facts straight.

krzywy-las-641507_640Using real settings—real towns or cities, real street names, real landmarks— can seem easy because you have everything created already. You don’t have to invent culture, landmarks or names. If you mention the CN Tower or Westminster Abbey, you need only give a few details, and readers can fill in the rest.

Provided you get it right.

You can be sure that if you get it “wrong”, someone’s going to tell you. Or your reader will be aware that you made a mistake once, and be on the alert in case you do it again, so now there is a subconscious element of distrust as they read. At the very least, it will kick them out of the narrative momentarily.building-72225_640

Your Impressions

Sure, you can control facts to a large degree with good research and careful editing, but what you can’t control is readers’ reactions to your perceptions of real places. If, like facts, readers think that you got the impression “wrong”, it will be noticed, and have the same effect as getting facts wrong. If, as a narrator, you describe a particular real neighbourhood as “dangerous”, or “upcoming” or “ugly”, that might be your interpretation, but your reader may not agree. Your perceptions of real places are valid, but so are your readers’impressions of the same place.

So what can you do?

Impressions vs. facts

As you write be aware which setting details are facts and which are opinions. Characters only should express all the impressions or opinions. Characters in this instance include the narrator in a first person story. In sections of exposition, stick to facts. This is a good rule of thumb for any details actually, not just for setting. Essentially, setting opinions expressed through exposition become “author intrusion” and open that door for “getting it wrong”.

Manipulating impressions

The moment you move impressions of real places to the realm of character, you have the opportunity to manipulate setting to support other elements like character development and theme.

By choosing to focus on the details the character notices in a setting and what they think and how they feel about it, says as much about the character as the setting. Characters usually notice the things that align with their emotional state and with their level of understanding. You can set or heighten mood and sneak in details that will be important to plot or speak to theme.

midway-game-983385_640

Think of a child and his mother entering a fairground. The child is likely feeling excited and looking forward to fun, so will notice details that are colourful, fun and energizing: whirling rides, flags and balloons, stalls full of prizes to be won. The mother might be jaded by years of attending fairgrounds, aware of potential danger and cost. She will notice questionable people, machinery that looks or souman-1283576_1280nds dangerous and the crush of crowds that make it hard for her to keep track of her child.

Another manipulation is to purposely describe factual details “wrong” to establish an unreliable character.

Fiction and reality fusion

Perhaps the best way to use real settings is to create a fictional piece within the real one. A fictional town in real Northern Ontario. A fictional bar in Paris. You still get the advantages of the “real world” settings, but not the disadvantages. Your fictional component should be similar enough for believability, but you have the freedom to create your own “impressions”’ of the place. You get to decide if the place is “dangerous”, or “upcoming” or “ugly”, and your readers will believe you.

 

The Power of Cameo Characters

The Power of Cameo Characters

Gwynn Scheltema

“Even the smallest person can change the course of the future.”

~ The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien

Incidental characters, walk-on characters, cameo characters—call them what you will—they have an important part to play in a novel. Do you remember a scene where a character appears just briefly and then we never see that character again? 

When a writer includes a walk-on character, is that a good thing or a bad thing?

The answer depends on what kind of novel you’re writing, where in the novel the character appears, and what the character does in the scene.

Mister Pip

Mister_Pip_(Lloyd_Jones_novel)One of my favourite “cameo characters” is a woman known only as “Daniel’s grandmother” who comes to share her wisdom with Mr. Watts’ class in Lloyd Jones’ book Mister Pip:

Daniel’s grandmother, stooped and old on her canes, peered back at our class with her weak eyes. “There is a place called Egypt,” she said. “I know nothing of that place. I wish I could tell you kids about Egypt. Forgive me for not knowing more. But if you care to listen, I will tell you everything I know about the colour blue.”

And so we heard about the colour blue. “Blue is the colour of the Pacific. It is the air we breathe. It is the gap in the air of all things, such as the palms and iron roofs. But for blue we would not see the fruit bats.

You can find blue squinting up in the cracks of the wharf at Kieta. … It is trying to get at the stinking fish guts, to take them home. If blue was an animal or plant or bird, it would be a seagull. It gets its sticky beak into everything.

But blue also has magical powers,” she said. “…Blue crashes onto the reef and what colour does it release? It releases white! …A final thing, children, and then I will let you go. Blue belongs to the sky and cannot be nicked which is why the missionaries stuck blue in the windows of the first churches they built here on the island.”

What is achieved with the character of Daniel’s grandmother?

Now on the surface, she seems just a quirky character who says some strange things about a common thing we think we know about already. Rebels have invaded the island and they are all living under very strained conditions. She has been invited to teach the children something, and yet she speaks “only” about blue.woman-1031000_640

She appears about a quarter of the way through the novel, just as things are taking a new and frightening turn. Perhaps her only purpose in the novel, therefore, is to provide some colour (pardon the pun), or perhaps some comic relief from an otherwise serious situation.

And that would be fine, because those are two good reasons to have a walk-on character.

 Is Daniel’s grandmother really just incidental?

Lloyd Jones’ character seems incidental—indeed, she could be removed altogether with no effect on the plot line—but she definitely adds to the novel.

This scene supports one of the themes of Mister Pip, which is the examination of the power of the imagination and words, and how they can achieve what is seemingly magic.art-Mr-Pip-620x349

She is also foreshadowing what Mr. Watts will do: SPOILER ALERT: to delay execution, he will weave a “magic” tale from what seems at first to be ordinary things . Daniel’s grandmother has told the children in a kind of metaphorical code or allegory what will happen. She has told them to “listen” and to believe in the magic of ordinary things.

In fact, when Mr. Watts thanks her, he says, “…while we may not know the whole world, we can, if we are clever enough, make it new….We just have to be as imaginative as Daniel’s grandmother.”

 Memorable and effective incidental characters…

  • add local colour
  • provide a break in mood or pace so readers can breathe
  • do something “complete” in their own scene so that removing them from the book seemingly doesn’t affect the main plot
  • can be used for wider purposes such as theme, foreshadowing and comparison to emphasize other characters
  • are often best left unnamed
  • should only show up when other main characters have been established

So cameo characters can enrich, elucidate, or refocus a novel, or they can simply entertain. Good ones usually have more than one purpose—and are always memorable.

Share a cameo or walk-on character that you remember in the comments below.

 

How to Pack for a Writers’ Retreat

How to Pack for a Writers’ Retreat

Ruth E. Walker. Every time we organize a Writescape retreat, we email participants a “Useful Information & What to Pack” list. It’s full of practical advice. We remind them to bring comfortable clothes and outdoor wear for spring or fall. After all, Ontario weather can be as unpredictable as a newly discovered character for your novel. We suggest that they can bring munchies but not too many as we provide regular snacks and our 24/7 beverage stations are always ready to serve.

compass & mapWe provide maps and directions to the resort. And we remind writers to pack anything they need for writing.  Most importantly, we suggest they remember to bring their work in progress or ideas they want to develop. But if they forget those, Writescape retreats offer creativity sessions and other inspiration opportunities. We even have a companion workbook and an on-site inspiration station for those 3:00 a.m. inspiration needs.

Gwynn, Heather and I sometimes joke that anyone coming on a Writescape retreat just needs a change of underwear, their toothbrush and jammies.

But there are some other, more subtle things that don’t fit into a suitcase but that a writer should remember to bring on retreat. And these important items are needed no matter where you are heading:

An Open Mind
I’m not talking about how you see the world, your politics or your ethics. I’m talking about some internal housekeeping — owoman-readingpening your mind to possibilities. It’s a form of mindfulness. It’s you, paying attention to what your muse is suggesting. You, being open to the five senses — taste, touch, sight, smell, sound. You, bringing those senses into your writing. When your writing includes a range of sensory elements, your readers’ memories are tickled. And that results in writing with physical and emotional resonance.

A Plan
man writingHaving a plan may sound contradictory to what I just said about mindfulness but the two are companions on any successful retreat. Gwynn reminds us in every opening session to be S.M.A.R.T. in our retreat objectives: set plans for the weekend that are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and that can be Timed. In short, if you don’t have a plan, how will you know what you have managed to accomplish?

Coming on retreat to “write something beautiful” is not as powerful as coming on retreat to “finish three vital scenes for the climax.” By the same token, planning to “write a complete novel” is not realistic unless you are on a 30-day NaNoWriMo retreat. Be reasonable. There’s nothing unrealistic about a plan that includes “relaxing with a daily lakeside walk and writing in my pajamas for two hours every day.”

Permission

Giving yourself permission — permission to experiment and explore, even permission to fail — offers you a delicious freedom from your inner critic. Most of us struggle with that quiet voice whispering in the background, telling us we’re not real writers. At one of our retreats, a participant told me she didn’t think she really was a writer, that her work “wasn’t good enough.” We talked about what makes “a writer” and how we all are on a continuous journey with the writing process. When she finally was able to read her work in one of the sharing opportunities, she was thrilled by the response. She got past her inner critic, gave herself permission to risk sharing her words and discovered validation when other writers responded to her work. And she’s grown so much since as a writer, seeing her work published in anthologies, winning writing contests and submitting her novel manuscript to agents and publishers. And all that happened because she gave herself “permission” at her first writing retreat.

Lisa and Andrea web largeOn April 22, a group of writers will be heading to Elmhirst’s Resort on Rice Lake. They will bring casual clothes, walking shoes, bathing suits for the indoor pool, and rain gear, just in case. They will also bring their works in progress or ideas folder, laptops or notebooks, and their pens or pencils. They will have packed a writer’s suitcase full of optimism, plans, outlines, rough drafts, objectives, hopes and dreams for their annual Spring Thaw retreat.

And Gwynn and I will do everything we can to help them achieve their plans and their dreams. Because, after all, that is exactly what they will expect of us.

Let’s Get Practical:  Packing your suitcase can be a real challenge, especially when you want to lug along your laptop and flash drives and chargers cords. Rolling clothes suitcase overflowinstead of folding can get you more space. But what about keeping it all organized and quick to pack and unpack?

Here are some amazing “packing hacks” In a YouTube video from “Dave Hax”. You’ll gain some space for those extras and keep your clothes neat and tidy. Do you have any packing tips?

Recipe for Great Characters

Recipe for Great Characters

Ruth E. Walker.

Sometimes you need to cook up a new character. Sometimes, you just want to add depth to a character that could use a little spice. Here’s my quick and easy recipe. It’s open to all kinds of substitutions, so feel free to experiment and season to taste. I’d love to hear how it worked for you. By the way, if you are missing any of the “ingredients” email info@writescape.ca and I’ll email you a starter.

MAIN INGREDIENTS:

  • 1 cup of ‘real’ person (a neighbour, a picture from a magazine or someone from your past, for example)
  • 1 cup of a story idea (choose a theme or a question that begs for an answer)
  • 2/3 cup setting (browse through travel brochures, coffee table books or stare into your own backyard)
  • ¼ cup back story (this one’s entirely up to you, writer!)
  • Flavour bouquet (mix 3 positive and 2 negative traits, such as cheerful, friendly, kind and boastful, envious…)
  • 1 tsp of a line of dialogue (overheard on a bus or at an event, or some line you really like)

DIRECTIONSCharacter

  1. In a quiet room, mix together the first three ingredients. Allow them to simmer over a low heat. Stir occasionally to see what changes.
  2. Add back story. Continue to simmer.
  3. Choose contents of your bouquet. Loosely tie ingredients together and add them to the pot.  NOTE: Don’t worry if any bouquet ingredients seem too strong at first; you can always spoon some out for now. Remember to reserve your removed ingredients in case you need them later on.
  4. Carefully insert the line of dialogue.
  5. Bake in your pre-heated mind for 2 minutes.

INGREDIENT LIST — brief notes here, just the bare bones. This will be your reference point as you write your character scene later on.

1 cup of real person

  • Name
  • Gender
  • Age
  • Appearance Basics

1 cup of a story idea

  • Kind of story and genre
  • Loss/Gain
  • Theme(s)
  • Emotional connection for character?

2/3 cup setting

  • Place
  • Year
  • Season/temp
  • Time of day
  • Smells, sounds

¼ cup back story

  • Childhood
  • Old losses
  • Old gains

Flavour bouquet

  • Positive
  • Negative

1 tsp of a line of dialogue

“Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah-de-blah blah!”

Additional spices

You are the cook; what else do you want to add?