Tag Archives: advice

Characters: Part 1 – Complex Individuals

It’s been much too long since my last update. Well, I got busy this week and just didn’t have the time for much of anything else, unfortunately. So, starting today, I’m going to post a continuing series on characters, how I write them and why I write them the way I do.

Part 1 – Complex Individuals

I’ve written a lot of different characters. Young characters, old characters, male and female. With every single one of them I’ve always tried to make them feel as much like real people as possible. Give them backstories, give them lives, give them goals, and give them struggles. That’s what makes a character interesting. However, there’s a tendency, especially among less experienced writers, to simply write characters who are really “cool” and strong and who dispatch every problem with ease. I had that same problem for a while, but I learned quickly that characters of that nature are simply boring.

A character who can do anything and never has any problems isn’t interesting. More than a story filled with dragons and magic, stories like that are fantasy. Readers want to see a character struggle, to wonder how they going to make it through this terrible trial, and cheer as they push their way through to the goal. Would you be interested in watching a sports movie about a quarterback who never missed a pass, never got sacked, and won ten Superbowls in a row because that’s just how great he was? Of course not, because there’s simply nothing there. But a story about a young quarterback who must overcome personal and on-the-field struggles to finally win the Superbowl for a team that’s been in the dump for years, that’s something people would be interested in. It’s interesting because the outcome isn’t guaranteed.

Another problem that can arise is when you are simply introducing characters to move the plot forward. They don’t have their own lives or personalities, they just exist to do something or say something that the main characters must respond to. Through this, the plot is moved forward. Now, it’s not always a bad idea to use the introduction of a new character to move the plot forward, but does this character exist beyond that brief appearance? The character needs to make sense within the context of the situation, the reader needs to get the feeling that this characters exists within this world and something in their life and their personality has brought them to this point where they interact with the main character. Throwing out something random just won’t do.

Think about the character and what has brought them to this point. Just because they haven’t appeared before and may only appear sparingly from then on, they are still every bit a real person as the main character, we [the reader] simply aren’t allowed a peak into the inner workings of their life. Why did they do that? Why did they sat that? Ask those questions when a character appears. Even though they may not seem important, minor characters aren’t just props that can be thrown out there as needed. Give them some life, let them breathe, and your world will be that much richer and interesting for it.

 

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Trimming the Fat from Bloated Sentences

While working on a draft of book that I wrote some time ago, which I hope will become the final draft, I’ve been focusing on sentence length and sentence readability. This story was written during a phase where I wanted to create more complex and interesting sentence. In some way, this work. In other ways, it left behind sentence that were far too bloated and had too many parts. This wasn’t necessarily a problem when I was only hanging on to the story for my own personal interests, but now I’m thinking about doing something with this story and the quality of the writing is a big factor.

I’ve gone through this process before with another story, where I focused on making the sentences as short as possible, while still retaining their full meaning and purpose. It’s actually a very fun writing exercise and forces you to focus on each individual sentence, rather than reading along in a steady stream and you hunt for mistakes and errors to be corrected. You pick out each sentence and analyse it, look for ways that it can be shortened, written differently, done better. This is actually kind of fun, in that it becomes like a game where you compete against yourself to cut out as many words as possible without losing any meaning. The shorter sentence increase the quality of the writing, too, ensuring that your readers absorb more information and events while actually reading less words. They’ll definitely appreciate you for it.

Of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean that all your sentence need to be as short as conceivably possible, it’s also important to mix things up. Give your readers a few short, curt sentences that get straight to the point, then give them on longer sentence that really digs into the details of what’s going on. That mix will keep them from falling into a dull rhythm and force them to pay more attention to what’s going on.

And it’s not just about shorter sentences, it’s about digging down to the true meaning and purpose of each sentence. Why does this sentence exist? What purpose does it serve? What information does it give my readers? Why should bother reading it? Ask these questions of every sentence you write, that’s how you get better at writing.

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Staying Motivated

The number one problem for any writer is staying motivated. A lack of motivation leads to poor writing, less writing, and a general feeling of malaise whenever writing is occurring. Anyone who has ever written for an extended period of time has been in this situation. It’s not fun and it’s an easy trap to tall into. In a world of increasing distractions [cell phones and the internet, especially], that trap is all the more easily fallen into. So, where does motivation come from?

Unfortunately, there’s no simple answer to that question. Motivation comes from a wide variety of locations and those locations can vary wildly from one person to the next. For me, most of my motivation has come from a desire to take the many stories that I invent in my head and write them down. The joy of creation, of making something interesting from raw materials. That’s gotten me quite a long way.

Recently, however, my goal has shifted from simply creating to an attempt to turn my writing hobby into a writing career. That’s brought with it a host of problems to deal with and added a laundry list of things that I need to do. The joy of creation is no longer the primary motivator anymore. It’s just not enough to write something down and then say to myself “Yeah, that was pretty good.” Now my motivation comes more often from feedback, from hearing the thoughts of the people who purchase and read what I’ve written. And that’s all well and good, because I’ve heard some very positive reactions, but what happens when things slow down and the feedback dries up?

That’s where the malaise hits hard. It’s more difficult to write something good, it’s more difficult to wrote for a prolonged period of time, it’s more difficult to just sit down in front of the computer and work. And that’s what writing, in those unmotivated moments, becomes. Work. It’s no longer that fun hobby that you’re doing for fun, it’s a job that you’re doing because you have to. And that’s why it’s so important to power through those times, so that you can find new motivation and inspiration to keep you going.

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Gaining a New Perspective

I know what’s in Murder at the End of the World, considering that I’ve gone through the story six or seven times and, you know, I actually wrote the thing. But actually getting my hands on the story in paperback, and sitting down and reading through it, really put things into an entirely different perspective for me. It suddenly felt fresh and new, all the little flaws and errors that I’d missed before now stood out like beacons in the night. They’d never stood out to me like that before, despite numerous passes.

The paperback is a physical thing, something I can hold in my hands and read by lamplight as I’m lying in bed. Suddenly, I’m not reading through it because I have to do another editing pass, I’m reading because it’s a paperback book and I want to read it. Errors notwithstanding, the story pulled me in and I struggled to put the book away to go do something else. What I gained from reading my story in paperback, lying in bed with the lamp on, was confidence in my own abilities. Because it is different when you’re reading something for fun and not because you have to, even when it’s your own story. I no longer feel nervous about whether my story is any good or not, I know it’s good. Is it a great story? No, I wouldn’t go that far. I recognize that there are things I could do better and turns of the story that I might have done different and points I might have expanded on if I were going to start over.

Publishing my stories for people to see, holding my story in my hands, these things have given me a much different perspective on things. I’m no longer just writing for myself, I’m writing for all the people who have read my stories, are reading my stories right now, and who will be reading my stories in the future. I owe it to my readers to write the best I story I can, that’s interesting and fun and free of even the most minor mistakes. I have an obligation now that I never had before.

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And Yet I Keep Coming Back: The Martian Empire Trilogy [Part 3]

Alright, so I’ve got my characters under control and I’ve flogged them a bit. As the story goes along, they slowly become less like the characters from a book and more like people. People have flaws, people have unfulfilled desires, people often do things that they know will hurt themselves. People aren’t perfect. Lesson learned. But what now? Now I have to learn the next lesson and that lesson is the answer to a question: Why are my characters important? They’ve got an entire book devoted to them, so they must have done something that matters. Are my characters just goofing around doing nothing worth thinking about or are they the central figures in an intergalactic war? I had to find the aspect of the story that made my characters worthy of being the main characters of their own story. Perhaps it’s a story about personal growth, with no far-reaching implications. Perhaps it’s a story about how two kids from Earth end a war that’s put the entire galaxy at risk. Why is anyone reading their story?

At last I find the answer to that question. My characters are important because they do something important. They get sucked into a brewing war and must somehow come through all these trials alive. So, not only did I learn that my characters needed a few flaws and a few trials along the way, they also needed to do something worth taking note of. Now my characters have personality, now my characters have purpose. The story I’m writing expands beyond a simple adventure and becomes something more. The original idea was for a book that might have been, at most, 30k words. About 120 pages. The first book in the series clocked in at 75k words.

Suddenly I had something real in my hands, not just a little piece of fluff that I could pat myself on the back for having written, but an actual novel with a story, twists and turns along the way, that was building towards something even bigger. It was in that moment that my limitations began to fall away and my horizons expanded. It didn’t just have to be for me, it didn’t just have to be a pastime to fiddle with when there wasn’t anything else to do. I was working on my future.

But there was still one more lesson to learn and it was going to be the toughest so far.

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The Importance of Detail

Writing is a rather unique medium. It lacks the visual punch of movies and videogames, the auditory delight of a classical symphony or rock concert. Ever bit of information is absorbed directly into the mind, where the mind produces images and sound to accompany the action described. No two people will “see” and “hear” the exactly same things, because no two people have the same mind. Yet everyone reads the exact same words. In a movie, you can see everything in a room in a matter of seconds. A novel can take ten to a hundred pages to intricately describe everything in that room. The unique aspect of the novel, that no other medium can match, is detail.

Take this line, for example:

“Bob opened the door and went into the room.”

This could easily be a line from a book. But doesn’t it feel like there’s something missing? It’s missing detail. We don’t know anything about the door, anything about the room, or anything about what Bob is thinking. A man opens a door and goes inside. It’s a story, but a story in it’s most basic, most simplistic form.

“The door was made of solid cedar, thick and imposing. Effort had been made to carve a series of griffins and serpents into its surface, accompanied by spirals and whirls that seemed without beginning or end. Bob could smell a faint scent that reminded him of boyhood days when he’d gone into the forests of northern California with his Scout troop. His hand lightly touched the handle of the door, almost afraid to open it. For a moment, he hesitated. This was what he’d been waiting for, right? He twisted the handle, the door opened. Beyond was a room almost impossible to believe. Shelves of books from floor to ceiling, a floor of polished marble that glistened wetly, and a ceiling that was a wide dome, perfectly round. Sitting beneath a chandelier that glimmered with a high polish, was the man himself: Mr. Dwight Alan. He held a Calabash pipe, exactly like the kind used by Sherlock Holmes, in one hand and Bob’s novel in the other.”

Notice the difference here? The basic story is unchanged, a man is opening a door and going inside, yet the second version is also so very different. We see a vivid image in our minds, of a grand study that’s clearly owned by a man of wealth. And a man who loves books, as he has so many. He’s also holding “Bob’s novel,” suggesting that Bob is a writer. It is also implied that Dwight Alan maybe be a literary critic of renown, perhaps this is why Bob is nervous.

In the first version we have no questions, because the line is so bland and ordinary that we are not drawn into the scene enough to wonder at what it’s about. The second version is so vivid and detailed that we have many things to wonder about and it is this wonder that leads us to read more. This is what novels offer: details that lead to questions, questions that lead to interest.

Is more detail always better than less detail? No, not always. A hundred pages describing the looks, feel, and inner-workings of a clock might only serve to utterly bog down the story to the point where readers become totally disinterested and stop reading. But perhaps this is somehow necessary to the plot and in line with reader expectations? As such, it need not be unnecessary. Several questions must be asked: What does my story demand? What do my readers expect? What do my writing skills allow? Ask these three questions of yourself and ponder how they relate to the story your writing. More detail can bog down a story, but less detail can leave readers disinterested. There is no right answer for everyone and every work.

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