February 23, 2015

Create a Believable, Likable Character - Part 1

If I told you I’ve mastered character creation, I’d be lying.  I often wonder what will make my characters come to life on the page for my readers.  After studying characterization from Dwight Swan, Larry Brooks, Michael A. Stackpole, Max Drake, and others I’ve forgotten, I’m still wrapping my head around the concept. 

What I’ll discuss here can be applied to villains, henchmen, and “bit part” characters.  It might be overkill in some cases, but that’s your choice to make as the writer. 

Max Drake taught me that it’s usually better to start by figuring why you need a character and the role that character will play in your story.  Consider this before you develop the character.  If they serve no purpose in the story, or serve a purpose that an existing character could easily handle, this new character isn't needed.  For the characters we do need, we want them to be three-dimensional and (usually) likable for the reader.

In Story Engineering, Larry Brooks tells us a three-dimensional character combines:
  • Outer Affectations – These are things other characters can see.  This might include their clothing, their habits and rituals, their quirks, and so forth.  We don’t know why the character is this way, only what we see.
  • Inner Reasoning – The reasons why the outer affectations are what they are.  Perhaps the character is afraid of water because her big brother tried to drown her as a child.  Note that the character may not even be aware of the reasoning for what they do, but the author should be.
  • Behavior Under Pressure – What does the character do when their back is to the wall?  Will she jump in the lake to save her best friend, or will fear keep her safe and dry on the shore
For Dwight Swain, a likable character embodies one or more of the following qualities:
  • The character is a victim of undeserved misfortune, such as having their home destroyed by a tornado.  It’s important that the misfortune isn’t something they caused or could have foreseen, as this could make them look stupid, self-destructive, or evil.
  • The character is in danger of losing something important to them.  This doesn’t have to mean physical danger.  Going broke is a danger even though it won’t kill you.
  • The character has a likable manner, a good heart, and is well-liked by other characters in the story. 
  • The character has a sense of humor, and the courage to make jokes we wouldn’t be able to make in the same situation.  (Note that this doesn’t mean the character makes inappropriate jokes that offend others, but rather they might poke a finger in the bad guy’s oversized belly and call him a “dough boy”.)
  • The character is a powerful, strong, capable individual.  The character defends what they believe in, gets back up when knocked down, and behaves competently.

If you think about popular fictional characters, you’ll see these in play.  Consider the Indiana Jones character from the movies:

  • He suffered undeserved misfortune.  His mother died when he was young and his father didn’t give him all the attention he wanted.
  • He’s often in danger of losing something important to him, whether it’s a woman he loves, his father’s life, or his own life.
  • He has a likable manner, a good heart, and is well-liked by most of the other characters.
  • He has a sense of humor.  He plays tricks on others, cracks jokes, and laughs at appropriate times.
  • He is powerful, strong, and capable.  He doesn’t back down from the many huge challenges in the movies.

It’s important to note, however, that this doesn’t mean our character shouldn’t have flaws.  No one is perfect.  Despite his courage and heroism, Indiana Jones feared snakes and wasn’t always a nice guy.  Those flaws helped us see him as a real person.

In next Monday's post, I’ll discuss how we create a character with the qualities described here.

February 18, 2015

Character "Agency"

Today, author Chuck Wendig posted a very thought-provoking piece on his blog. Wendig's wants writers to understand the difference between "strong female characters" (who are strong in the sense that they fight, shoot guns, etc.) and female characters who possess "agency".  Agency is defined as:

  • The character makes decisions and affects the story.
  • The character has his/her own motivations.
  • The character is more active than reactive.
  • The character pushes on the plot more than it pushes on the character.
  • The plot exists as a direct result of the character's actions.
In short, characters need to be more than just victims, sex objects, or "action figures" that are posed to fit the situation.

As Wendig said in another post from last year (which I hadn't read before now), "Characters without agency tend to be like little paper boats bobbing down a river of your own making.  They cannot steer. They cannot change the course of the river.  The river is an external force that carries them along -- meaning, the plot sticks its hand up the character's cavernous bottom-hole and makes the character do things and say things in service to the plot.  Because characters without agency are really just puppets."

I've written six (practice) novels now.  You would think by this point that I've mastered this whole "characters drive the story" thing.  You would also be wrong.  As I look back on the novels I've written, I can see that failing to give my characters (male, female, or other) agency has been a big piece of the problem.  I've got some others to fix, to be certain.  This is a big one, though.

February 16, 2015

Editing and Tightening Your Writing

In my day job, I'm considered prolific but wordy.  My former employer taught me to answer the question someone asked and the questions they should have asked.  This training makes my writing verbose.  When I recently read Ken Rand's The 10% Solution, I decided to try following its advice.

Rand’s advice condenses to finding ways to make your writing more accurate, clear, and brief.  He provides a list of phrases you can search for in a word processor to highlight possible problems in your text.

What to search for
Why you’re searching for it
Adverbs can be redundant (as in “he ran quickly”) or indicate that a stronger verb is more appropriate (“he raced”).
A phrase like “out of the room” could be “from the room”
Change things like “was helping” to “helped”
This word is often unnecessary and can be eliminated
Look to eliminate this word where it’s not needed
There is usually a better verb. For example “ran” instead of “was running”
A phrase like “he was hit by the pie” could change to “the pie hit him”
A phrase like “He had a smile on his lips” could become “He smiled”
This is a weak modifier.  Consider a phrase like “He died inside” instead of “He was very sad”
When used to describe quantity, it’s better to be accurate.  Instead of “about a dozen,” tell the reader how many.
Most of the time, words that end in “ing” are just fine.  A small percentage of the time, the slow down the action or make the meaning unclear. Those are what you need to fix.
Don’t use at the beginning of a sentence.  It can sound pompous.
As in “like a spotlight” – is there a better way to say that?
Words ending in “ion” tend to be less clear.  For example, “intoxication” = “drunk”
These tend to “tell” rather than show in many cases

Microsoft Word users can easily implement Rand’s suggestions by using the Find and Replace feature, combined with highlighting (look under the "Format" drop-down).  For example, here’s how to find all the “ly” words in your document:

Click “Replace All” and Word highlights the relevant words in yellow, making them easy to spot:

 For each highlighted word, ask:
  • Is this OK as-is?
  • Is it unnecessary or redundant?
  • Is this the most accurate word?
  • Is there a clearer word or phrase?
  • Is it brief?

If the word (and phrase it’s part of) pass the tests, leave it alone. 

Next, consider:
  •  Long words – Often, a shorter word will better convey meaning
  • Commas – These show what can be cut from a sentence, or where to split it.
  • Contractions – These shorten the text, but must be appropriate for the document
  • Widows – These are single words alone on a line or page.  Shortening the text eliminates these.
  •  Print the Text – Seeing text in print can sometimes reveal flaws not obvious before.
  •  Read the Text Aloud – Reading aloud helps point out awkward passages that aren’t obvious when read silently.
  •  Get a Reader – Ask a trusted friend to read the material and give feedback.

All these steps aren’t necessary for every document.  It’s probably overkill to do this for an email to a friend.  A report to your CEO, or a short story you're trying to sell, might warrant all of them.

After mastering the techniques above, you may want to check out Textalyser.  For any document or web page provided, Textalyser calculates statistics on its readability, word frequency, word length, phrase frequency, and other aspects.  This information may help identify the phrases you should add to Rand’s list above.

February 9, 2015

How to Be a More Productive Writer

I've written as many as 13,000 words in a single day during National Novel Writing Month.  Some days the words just won't come.  Recently, I've read and listened to professional authors share their advice for cranking out more words.  This post combines all the things I’ve learned or tried.

You'll need to consider this the same way you do any writing advice.  Try it for a while.  If it works for you and makes you more productive, use it.  If it slows you down or makes you less productive, ignore it.  
  • Keep records:  Make detailed records of your writing activity.  When did you start and finish?  How many words did you write? What project did you work on?  You discover a pattern.  Perhaps you write more at night than in the morning.  You may produce some stories faster than others.  The records will help you when you try out new productivity tips.  They’ll show if the tip helped or hindered you.
  • Become self-aware:  Learn what distracts you, what makes you more productive, and what gets you into a flow state.  Avoid what makes you unproductive or wastes your time, and try to cultivate things that make you better and more productive.
  • Dare to be bad:  Your writing won’t be perfect at first.  It may not even be good.  That's OK.  You probably weren't born being able to ride a bicycle or do many other things you find easy now.  You probably failed a lot at first.  Instead of walking away, you stuck with it and got better.  Writing is like that.
  • Don't wait on the muse:  You can't sit around waiting for the muse to strike.  You need to sit down a write something daily.  If all you manage is two sentences, you’re now two sentences closer to a finished book.
  • Use the time you have:  Most fledgling writers wonder what it would be like to have an uninterrupted 8-hour block every day to write in.  Few have that.  If all you can manage to find to write is a few minutes here or there, use them.  John Grisham reportedly wrote only 10-15 minutes a day while he was a lawyer, yet he still turned out a great novel.  If he made it work on 15 minutes, so can you.
  • When you're stuck, shift your focus:  You are stuck on your vampire story, switch to a love story or non-fiction book.  Get your mind off the thing you're stuck on, and work on another project.  That way you're getting some words written instead of spinning your wheels.
  • Separate writing from editing:  The mindset needed to edit and revise a story is an analytical one.  The mindset for creating a story isn't.  Try to mentally separate writing from editing.  In writing mode, crank out text and don't worry about errors you're making.   When you've finished the story, it’s time to put on the editor hat and revise.  Constant switching from writer to editor will tire you.  
  • Give yourself a realistic but challenging goal:  Measure your word count during a productive hour or day.  Set a goal to write just a bit more.  When you consistently hit that goal, raise it.  Challenge writing friends to see who can write the most words in a week (loser buys dinner).
  • Reward yourself:  Set a realistic goal and a reward you'll give yourself when you reach it.  Perhaps you have had your eye on a new watch.  Tell yourself you'll buy the watch when you finish the current novel, or when you send it to a publisher.  Make sure the reward comes as soon as possible after the goal is reached, so help keep yourself motivated.
  • Figure out your ideal writing environment:  Do you know when and where you write your best?  Do you need noise and activity, or quiet and serenity?  Are you better indoors or outdoors?  Once you figure it out, carve out time there and guard it carefully.  
  • Look for alternatives to the keyboard:  You may find that you do better dictating your story to a digital recorder, or telling it to speech recognition software.  Maybe you write faster or better in longhand on paper.  You may find that you're more productive using some other way to get the words out of your head and onto paper (or the screen).  
  • Know when to stop:  It's possible to revise a story to death and never finish it.  No one buys half a novel or two-thirds of a short story.  Write it, take a few passes over it to revise it, then move on.  Realize it will never be perfect and accept that.
  • Skip it:  If you're stuck on a sentence or scene in your story, pretend you've already written it and start on the next one.  Maybe it will be a scene you don’t even need in the story.  Come back to the problem area later when you've finished, or when inspiration strikes.
  • Plot it out:  My first National Novel Writing Month entry sucked, but hit the 50,000 word goal.   I actually thought I could take a vague idea I had in my head and turn out a complete, ready to publish story.  What I wound up with was something like what you'd get if you followed a random stranger around with a video camera.  (Oh, here he is brushing his teeth.  Now he's reading the newspaper.  It's time to take the bus to work...)  The next year I did much better. I plotted that story down to individual scenes, which I described in short one or two-line notes.  Hitting 50,000 words that year was a breeze.
  • Don't plot it out:  Maybe you aren’t a plotter.  If you outline the entire story down to individual scenes (as I just suggested) it sucks the life out of the story for you.  If so, throw away the outline and write organically.  
  • Research (some):  If you're stuck while writing a story, you may need to research more.  For your science fiction epic, maybe you need to learn about certain kinds of stars, or find out how NASA calculates the optimal launch time for a mission to Mars.  Be careful not to let research become an excuse not to write.
  • Unleash your enthusiasm:  Take a moment to think about a scene you’re going to write.  What excites you about this scene?   How could you surprise the reader?  What details about the scene are most interesting?  Taking a moment to do this will help you get motivated to write that scene.
  • Consider your motivation (or lack of it):  If you're finding excuses not to write, ask yourself why.  Why am I not writing?  What's wrong with the story?  What don't I like about it?  Don't beat yourself up.  Just identify your reasons and deal with them.
  • Go analog:  Draw a map of the setting.  Point out where the props you'll be using (light switches, television, phone, books, magazines, breakable flower vase) are located.  Write out a list of the scenes you'll need in the story.  This visual “analog” activity may break you out of a block.

  • Break it down:  If a writing project seems too big or too complex, start breaking it down into smaller sub-projects.  Break a non-fiction book into topics and sub-topics.  Break an epic down into three smaller novel-sized stories, and those into chapters.  Then focus on one of these pieces instead of the whole.
I hope these tips and tricks help you.  If you have some tips I haven't mentioned here, please share them in the comments.