Uncategorized, Writing, Writing Advice

How to write three-dimensional characters

Characters are arguably the most important aspect of any story, and they’re annoyingly easy to get wrong. Flat, uninteresting characters can ruin a book, no matter how great your plot is. Your readers aren’t going to feel fully immersed in the story if they’re seeing it though the eyes of a cardboard cutout. However, great characters will keep your readers invested in the story, and ensure it sticks with them long after the end. Few things in life are better than experiencing every joy and heartache with a well-written character.

Here are 11 things to think about when developing your characters.

  1.  The basics. Character profiles are the best way to begin filling in the basics of who your character is. They cover things like physical description, home life, work life, beliefs, backgrounds. This character profile template from Reedsy is great. Once you have the basic details of your character down, you can really start to add the finer details which bring them to life. Remember that when assigning traits to your characters, you want them to mesh together. Our upbringing influences our personality, our environment impacts who we are as people. And please, I beg you, don’t make all your characters the same. People come in endless combinations of race, ethnicity, gender, body types, abilities, disabilities, personalities, etc. and your cast of characters should be no different.
  2. A goal. A character’s goal forms the basis of their story. This is particularly important for your main character as it will drive the narrative. Your character’s goal should come from the desire to improve their life in some way. Are they lonely and seeking companionship? Bored and craving adventure? What is holding them back from achieving that goal? What is their motivation? What is the catalyst that will push them towards pursuing it? That’s your story.
  3. Purpose. Every character in your story must serve a purpose. This is often easy to achieve with your protagonist, antagonist, and love interest, but what about the best friend? What about those random encounters with minor characters? If you have no idea why you wrote them, cut them. If the story would still pan out the same way without them, chuck them out. Save them for a story where they serve a purpose.
  4. Flaws. I will die on this hill. Flawed characters are the best characters. I wrote a post about this a year ago. I read so many books where the main character and the love interest are beautiful mannequins, and their biggest flaws are that they’re just too humble, or too selfless, or they just don’t realize that literally everyone they meet is instantly in love with them. NO! Give them a big nose, or crows feet around their eyes. Make their bodies soft, or angular, or give them a bad posture. Make them snap, and sulk and embarrass themselves in front of their love interest. I hate to break it to you, but your main character, no matter how strong or beautiful or wonderful they are, farts. You don’t have to show that, but we do need to feel like they’re a real person.
  5. A unique voice. It should be easy to identify which character is speaking in your story, even without dialogue tags. Give your characters a vocabulary. Do you have characters that swear a lot? Do they invoke deities in times of frustration or relief? Even something as simple as the word “Yes” could be “Yeah,” “aye,” “yep,” “affirmative,” “as you wish,” and so on. Each of those invokes a different voice, a different tone. A character’s vocabulary should fit in with their background, their upbringing, social status and how educated they are. If your character has received no education, hangs around with people of a similar social status and has never picked up a book in their life, then they are unlikely to have a large vocabulary. However, if your character has no formal education, but is an avid reader, then that would make sense for them to have a wider vocabulary than is expected of them.
  6. Conflicting traits. No one is pure good or pure evil. Even the most odious, cruel, malicious person will have some redeeming quality. Let us see it, even if just a glimpse. We need to see a shred of humanity in villains, and we need to see the threat of darkness in heroes. Everyone has differing opinions on morality, and not everyone will agree on everything. Make your characters disagree, give them a personal code of right and wrong, and have them question it now and again.
  7. Something to lose. They may believe they have nothing, but that’s rarely true. We all have something we care about; family, friends, pets, house plants, careers, talents, our senses, limbs, teeth. The threat of losing those things can be a powerful driving force for your characters, and a devastating turning point if they fail to save them.
  8. Failures and mistakes. No one has ever gone through life without making a single mistake. Make your characters suffer, have them run headlong into a trap, or choose the wrong path. Make them say the wrong thing and jeopardize relationships through their own foolishness. Have people be annoyed at them, or tell them they won’t follow them anymore. Readers love to see characters at their lowest, because it makes it all the more satisfying when they crawl out of that pit.
  9. Desires, interests and attractions. Not everyone feels physical desire for other people, but most people want something. Of course, there are big, important things like acceptance, friendship, adventure, knowledge, but often we see something we just have to have. Maybe your brave hero is also an artist, and when all this is over they just want to sit down with some oil paints and lose themselves in a new project? Perhaps your spaceship captain wants to bring about universal peace, and then take their navigator to get one of those golden glazed donuts they saw while fighting back the xenomorphs on B deck? Desires often lead to subplots, and help make our characters more human.
  10. An arc. Some of the most compelling stories are so impactful because of the character arcs. Sometimes that arc is transformative, taking the character from one end of a spectrum to the other (eg. a selfish character becomes selfless by the end of the story.) Other times the character matures, or has their perspective on the world altered, or the character realizes that they are the best person for the job from the beginning, and follows what is known as a “flat arc”. Their are stories, like Hamlet, which center around a declining or negative arc, where a character gradually fails and falls into tragedy. All of these have their merits, and all of them have their pit falls. A a writer you need to figure out your characters’ point A and point B, and fill in the line between those with story.
  11. A life beyond the story. Unless you’re writing a life story, your characters lives shouldn’t begin and end within the pages of your book. If we first meet your main character at the age of 21, then they need to have lived for those previous 21 years. They need to have experiences, memories, things they are embarrassed or proud of, regrets, fears, hobbies, phobias, loves, friendships, dreams and ambitions. If they survive til the end of the book, then we need to believe that they have a future. This is not to say that you need pages of exposition, recounting every memory and life experience of your characters, but they need to feel as though they belong in their world, and that they are “worn-in”.  Let your characters draw from their own life experiences when searching for answers, let them form conclusions based on what they believe about their world.

 

I hope this helps. Thank you so much for reading.

Instagram

Writing, Writing Advice

The New Year Self Sabotage Monster

Happy New Year one and all!

This time of year is good for one of two things, setting goals and sneering at people who set goals. I’m a goal setter. I want to lose the weight I’ve gained since moving to the US, drink less caffeine (I got into the habit of drinking diet coke or pepsi before bed and wondering why my heart felt like it was exploding out of my chest), and I want to be nicer to myself.

I also have writing goals. I want to finish and polish my 2nd book, The Ash Prince, which is a companion novel to The Thief’s Pardon. I would love to find a publisher for them both. I’m still working away on writing prompts for my #365prompts challenge on my Instagram page.

Oh, and I want to read more.

I know a secret though. I know I’m going to screw up at least one of those goals… probably all. I’m going to have days where I fall off the diet wagon and eat sooooo much food. I’m going to have days where I tell myself I’m good for nothing (Actually, I did that on New Year’s Day because I filled in my planner on the wrong day). I’m going to have days where I don’t write, or I think about deleting the whole thing and giving up. And that’s fine.

It’s fine because I know I’m going to have those episodes. We all do it. How many people do you hear say “I’ve ruined my diet” or “I’ve broken my resolution.” They haven’t. They had one slip-up.

New Years resolutions give us the perfect opportunity to wuss out. But the secret to succeeding is to know that slip-ups are normal. Between 2015 and 2017 I lost around 8 and a half stones in weight (about 120lbs). It was hard. It felt like it took forever. I exercised, I ate healthily, I said “no” to so many treats, but sometimes I said “yes”. I had to learn to climb back on that wagon so many times. Then I moved to America and then America happened and I gained some weight back. The wagon is kind of rumbling off towards the horizon but I know I can catch it again. I’m fine with it. Losing all that weight in the first place taught me to be patient and to believe in myself, because at the start I could barely walk, and by the end I ran for 10 miles. You can do more than you think.

Life never goes the way you intend it to, so you have to be flexible and cut yourself some slack. Giving up on your goals because of one mistake is like buying 365 eggs and throwing them all away because one egg has a crack in its shell. You might even have a run of bad days, a week of binge-eating, not writing, and all round hedonism. So? You still have 358 perfectly good eggs.

So, no matter what your goals are, work through the slip-ups, keep pushing to achieve the dreams that make you happy, and accept that every success worth celebrating is built on the bones of past failures.

 

Thank you for reading. You’ve got this.

Writing, Writing Advice, writing challenges

2019 Writer Challenges.

New Year’s is right around the corner, and with it comes the drive to push ourselves further. This year has been a tumultuous one for me. My dog and I moved from the North West of England to the middle of the east coast of the USA. To say it has been bonkers is an understatement.

But, I’m settled in now and ready to start next year full of gusto, aplomb, and vim and vigor and really challenge myself to grow as a writer. In this blog I will list a few you can attempt if you fancy it.

  1.  365 Prompts: I’ll be posting a new writing prompt on my instagram page every day next year. It’s entirely up to you how much or how little you want to write, but my hope is that by the end of next year, I’ll have 365 pieces of writing that I can build ideas from.  If nothing else, getting into the habit of writing every day helps vocabulary, voice, flow etc.
  2. 1 Million Words: My awesome writer friend Kristy Westaway is aiming to write 1 million words by the end of next year. Sounds impossible, right? Well it’s certainly not for the fainthearted, but it is possible if you write 2740 words per day. Even at 1370 words per day you would have half a million words down by the end of the year. It’s a tough challenge and sounds really impressive!
  3. The Genre Explorer: step out of your genre comfort zone, both in terms of reading and writing. I for one tend to stick to fantasy for both, and I would love to expand my literary palate. I plan to make a list of books in different genres that I want to read, and then dip my (writing?) toe into each of them. You never know unless you try it!
  4. The Finish That Damn Book Challenge This is a simple one. If you’ve been sitting on a half finished manuscript, or have an idea for a story that just won’t go away, then do yourself a favor and just finish it. Make 2019 your year. Make it MyNoWriYe (Not quite as catchy as NaNoWriMo, but the sentiment is there and I tried really hard.) Whatever, just finish your book.
  5. 12 Short Stories: Write a 5000-10,000 word short story every month. By the end of the year you’ll have your very own short story anthology. A wise woman (Kristy Westaway again) once said, “That’s a very good way of documenting your writing journey, even if you don’t publish it.”

 

I hope some of these will be useful and fun. The most important thing with writing is that you enjoy it. Good luck to all of you with whatever you decide to challenge yourself with next year!

Thank you for reading.

Writing, Writing Advice

Start Taking Yourself Seriously as a Writer.

Writers, like all creatives, often suffer from low self esteem. But there are also times when we feel unstoppable.

John Lennon put it best when he said “Part of me suspects that I’m a loser, and the other part of me thinks I’m God Almighty.

This quote probably feels as personal to most writers as it does to me. Sometimes we’re on top of the world, and we imagine ourselves watching the trailer for the movie adaptation of our book. We’re proud of ourselves for the stories we’ve created, the characters we’ve given life to, the thousands of words we’ve written, deleted and re-written until the point of madness. We dedicate a huge portion of our days to work hard on something which might never amount to anything for anyone else. But we did it for ourselves. Because we have to write.

And then there are the days when we question everything. There are days where figuring out how to describe a scene feels like trying to see through pea soup. Sometimes we feel crushed by the fruitlessness of our passion, and how it seems like everyone around us is progressing through life, reaping rewards, while we’re still stuck on the tutorial. What successes we do have feel like mistakes. We convince ourselves we just got lucky that one time, and we shouldn’t get our hopes up. That soon someone will realise that they praised the wrong person, and you’ll have to return that moment of fulfillment. Almost everyone feels like this at some point.

And for writers, the best way to combat this is to read.

It sounds so silly, but I promise you it works. Reading will do two things:

a) Teach you how to be a better writer

b) Prove to you that you are not the worst writer

Good readers make good writers.

I would go so far as to say that there’s nothing a writing class can teach you which you can’t also teach yourself simply by reading. This only works if you pay attention and analyze, but it is entirely possible. Look at the way other writers structure sentences, evoke emotion, set the scene, describe characters etc. And look at what you could have done better. If you find a scene which you can visualise clearly and you feel as though you’re being swept along by the story, try to figure out how the author is achieving that crazy brain magic. If you’re re-reading sentences, trying to understand what’s happening, or you’re bored out of your mind, try to figure out why the language isn’t inspiring you.

Your grammar and vocabulary will thank you. Your self esteem will grow, even if just by fractions. It’s a long and difficult journey, but even tiny steps forward edge you towards your goal.

And remember, no author, and no book has ever been unanimously loved. Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s (Sorcerer’s) Stone has over 5 million ratings on Goodreads, and 1% of them are 1 star. That’s a tiny portion, but that’s also over 50,000 people who found it completely unreadable (And that’s just the Goodreads users).

That quote by John Lennon is great because many people would argue that he is a loser, or that he is God Almighty. So many of the most recognisable figureheads  in our culture, the people we aspire to be as influential as, are polarising.

All art is subjective, but as reading is the most time consuming for audiences, disgruntled readers can be brutal with their negative reviews. The easiest way to avoid getting hurt by reviews is to not read them. Reviews aren’t for authors to torture themselves with, they’re for readers so they can figure out if they want to invest time and money in your book. Besides, once they’re on there you can’t remove them, and you can’t change the reader’s mind. Just don’t look. Get on with reading and writing and taking care of yourself.

It’s important to find balance. Low self esteem is harmful, but over-confidence can be just as bad. We should never think of ourselves as infallible. Mistakes, and recognition of mistakes, is crucial for our development as writers and as human beings.

Focus on growth, and accept that you will never know everything. Try not to think of your success as a pedestal, but rather an ancient tree with tangled, knotted branches. You can always climb higher and in different directions. The tree will never stop growing. There is always something new to learn and accomplish.

Whether you’re just starting out as a writer, or you’re writing your 20th book, you should be proud of yourself, and if telling stories makes you happy then keep doing it.

Thank you for reading.

NaNoWriMo, Writing Advice

Writing is for life, not just for November

December is finally here! Some of you have completed NaNoWriMo, some of you didn’t make it, and some didn’t attempt it. Today I want to look at what comes next for novel writers. What do we do with ourselves now that the official Novel Writing Month is over for another year?

 

Option 1: You Won NaNoWriMo!!!

Holy crap, you should be so proud of yourself. You wrote fifty thousand words in a month (or less) . Remember in school when you would get assignments to write 1000 words in six weeks and you’d moan, “That’s impossible!!”? Well, you just did that fifty times over for fun! You beautiful weirdo!

So, what comes next? You have two options here. If you reached 50k and your story isn’t over yet, try to keep rolling with the momentum and get it written. Or, if the story is done (or you’re feeling burned out) stick that masterpiece in a drawer for a few months. Wait for all the mistakes and instances of bad writing to mature and ripen like stinky blue cheese. Distance yourself from your project after you have reached a stopping point, and come back to it with fresh eyes for the first of many rounds of redrafting. I like to leave at least a month between rounds of editing, just so I forget what I’ve written.

Also, it isn’t uncommon for Nano participants to feel a little slumpy when all the hype has died down. But don’t worry, your inspiration will return. Rest, relax, bask in your victory, and try to read and do a couple of writing exercises when you’re feeling up to it.

 

Option 2: You Took Part But Lost NaNoWriMo

I’m in this category. My laptop died a glorious death halfway through. I was disappointed, but I’m not too upset, because I know that I can write any time I want to. And, I have 23,000 words of a new novel that I can continue working on now!

Novel writing doesn’t have to be an activity saved just for November. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter that NaNoWriMo is over. You can keep going. Be your own inspiration, and push yourself to achieve your goals.

Whether you wrote 1 word, or 49,999, holy crap, you should be so proud of yourself. Life gets in the way, and committing to something as intensive as NaNo isn’t always possible. But you should be so proud of yourself for trying.

Keep going. Keep writing. Set yourself a deadline, or gather your writer friends (if you don’t have any then I’m more than willing to help – find me on Instagram @marielipscombwriting ) and keep yourself, and each other, accountable. Sometimes we can bash out a story in a month, sometimes it takes a decade. However long it takes, know that you’re contributing something to our culture and that in itself is amazing.

 

Option 3: You Didn’t Participate

Perhaps NaNo just didn’t appeal to you this year. Perhaps it never has and never will appeal to you. Perhaps you’ve never even heard of it (in which case this has probably been a confusing read for you, and I apologize). Whatever the case, just keep doing your own thing. You’ve got this. And holy crap, you should be so proud of yourself. Going it alone isn’t easy, but you’re doing it.

If you didn’t take part because you couldn’t think of anything to write, then try to do as many writing exercises as possible. Try flash fiction, free writing, write about anything, but try to do it every day. Even if it’s just a sentence. Keep a diary of your little ideas and exercises, and I promise you that eventually you will have an idea that sticks in your head and becomes a full story. And the best thing is, you don’t have to wait until next November to start working on it. Any month is Novel Writing Month if you write a novel in it.

 

 

Thank you for reading, and I hope this helps you feel good about what you’ve achieved. And you should feel good, no matter how last month went for you. Keep writing.

Writing Advice

Deeply Flawed Diamonds.

“And what would you say are your worst qualities?”

It’s the question we all dread when it comes to interviews. Pointing out our flaws to someone whose job it is to scrutinize our character is almost impossible to do honestly.

“I work too hard,”

“I’m such a perfectionist,”

Come on. No one believes the standard answers. If we’re really truly honest with ourselves we’re kind of lazy, we daydream, we’re bad-tempered  and snippy, sometimes we’d rather dig our eyes out with a spoon than go to work, we pick our noses, we fart, we’d rather spend a little bit too long in the toilet cubicles than go back to that god awful desk…

I honestly don’t know why interviews bother to ask, because they never get a real answer.

It’s the same with literary characters. We know that to create well-rounded characters we have to come up with flaws. Bad habits make characters more relatable, because none of us are perfect, but it’s all too easy to give the “interview friendly” responses. We love our characters; they’re our babies, and we want readers to love them too!

“My character is deeply flawed. They’re too humble, too kind and adorable, and they have a weird defect whereby they poop solid gold…”

No.

Sure, your readers have to want to spend time with your characters, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be royal pains in the arse from time to time. If anything, when done correctly and balanced with good qualities, it just serves to make your characters more interesting and fun. Readers like to see themselves between the pages, and making your protagonists perfect just makes them seem alien, untouchable, and honestly, dull.

Flawed characters are wonderful!

Take, for instance, that lovable rascal Hannibal Lecter. He’s charming, funny, well-traveled, intelligent, a renowned forensic psychiatrist… oh, and he’s a cannibalistic serial killer. As character flaws go, that one’s a biggie, but I don’t know many people who aren’t captivated by him. Your examples don’t need to be as extreme as chowing down on long pig, but you get the idea. He’s the antagonist of the story, but he’s certainly the most memorable character.

Harry Potter might be the only one who can stop Voldemort, but he’s by no means the most intelligent, or the most perfect student at Hogwarts. He can be arrogant and impulsive, sulky and clueless, and that’s why we love him- because aren’t we all?

The protagonist of my current work in progress is a thief. She can be callous, stubborn, cruel, cowardly, she drinks, swears, and steals. And yet she’s witty, charming, she cares for the people closest to her and will endanger her own life to save them. She’s been through a lot, and putting on the mask of a rotten little shitbag helps hide her vulnerabilities. I absolutely adore her, and simultaneously want to throttle her, and writing her story has been the most fun out of anything I’ve written before.

Look at your friends, your loved ones, and be honest with yourself. Sometimes they drive you absolutely nuts. It doesn’t mean you don’t love them, it just means that they’re human, and that’s how your characters should be. Maybe you have a friend who is grouchy and hard-faced until you get to know them and realize they actually run a shelter for unwanted puppies and just have little faith in humans anymore? Or someone who won’t spend a penny to do anything nice, because they’ve been financially ruined before and never want to go through that hell again?

A writer’s job is to “collect” interesting people (figuratively speaking- please no kidnappings). Observe the douche-bags, the pushovers, the people who have you rolling your eyes one minute and grinning ear-to-ear the next. Those are the interesting characters. None of us are perfect. We’re deeply flawed diamonds.

For ideas of character flaws I highly recommend Now Novel’s character flaw list:

Character flaw list: 30 intriguing character flaws

I’m also on instagram @marielipscombwriting

Thank you for reading if you made it this far, and have fun creating your own beautiful disasters.