This post is under construction, but will launch soon with more robust and useful content.
The gist of my graduate lecture for the Vermont College of Fine Arts Writing for Children and Young Adults Masters program is this:
As writers and artists, to make art, we need all aspects of our psyche working together. It is when we fail to attend to the challenges of each aspect of ourselves that we can run into fallow periods and writer’s/artist’s block.
Carl Jung conceived of alchemy, a proto-science, as a useful metaphor for self-transformation.
I use the 5 elements of Alchemy to talk about each aspect of the self:
Air – the mind and belief system, where we can revise negative beliefs and replace them with a belief system that supports us as artists
Fire – the passion, will, and inspiration we get from all kinds of art
Water – emotions and the challenge of healing fear with love for our inner child – our greatest creative ally
Earth – the body, and daily habits. The needs exercise, and just taking regular walks can help clear our minds and let new ideas through. Creative people benefit from doing their creative work daily, and they can greatly improve their work by targeting their weak spots using the techniques of Deliberate Practice.
By attending to all these aspects of ourselves we can shorten fallow periods in our creative productivity. Another way to say this is, we can beat writer’s block.
I’m going to post much more on how this works, including practical actions to take.
For now, below is the PDF of the lecture hand-out. More information soon!
I love going to local children’s book festivals like Pasadena Loves YA. It’s a small event, but mighty in author power.
Now, I have a massive packet due to my advisor at Vermont College of Fine Arts on September 20th. I got me some serious writing and revising to do. So why would I take the time next Saturday to attend this festival? Why should a writer who doesn’t currently have a book to promote spend precious time at an event like this?
The Power of Small Book Festivals
Inspiration: I look at the authors on the panels. They did it. They got there. So can I. I use the panels as a chance to practice my self-supportive affirmations. I pay attention to my inner monologue, and if any kind of negative thoughts come in, I revise them right away. Yes, I can. I will. I am doing it.
PanelTips: Not every writer gives good panel, and you can tell the pros. Public persona is a vital part of being an author, especially for children. We are our own press agents most of the time. Striking the right tone of approachability, cool, humor, subtle self-promotion, and safety is a fine art. Kid lit authors like Margie Stohl, Brendan Reichs, and Veronica Roth have mastered it. I go to panels at book fests to watch and learn, and imagine myself sitting on those panels and being just as awesome as those guys.
Check Out the Market: What just came out? What did publishers buy about two years ago? What has been done, and where are the gaps? What do the latest book covers look like? What is the copy on the cover? Going to book fests helps me keep track of all this.
Check Out Your Target Audience: Teen and kid book fans go to these festivals. Many of them get up and ask fun and interesting questions that show you where they’re coming from. Wait on line with tweens and teens for book signings, and you’ll overhear some great stuff. If you don’t have regular contact with the target audience of your books, here’s a way to see and hear them in action.
Because I love YA, too. I keep lists of what to read next on Evernote, and maybe it’s obvious, but going to book festivals is one way to find out about that book I may not discover otherwise. See below for three great books I wouldn’t have read if I hadn’t gone to festivals.
Great Topics: Children’s and YA Authors are smart folks, and they care about what’s happening in the news. At kid lit festivals you’ll typically find panels about newsworthy topics: diversity, bullying, abuse, and gender equality. Sure, there are also usually talks on unicorns and magic. Anything goes in YA, and Middle Grade is pushing the boundaries, too, so you are in for some fascinating panel discussions that are fun for writers and non-writers alike.
Great Books I Found at Book Fests
Here are some great books I may not have read if I hadn’t gone to book fests:
A great near-future dystopian sci fi with an awesome romance. Terrific high concept, and unforgettable action from a master.
This heroine must tell the truth to her family in order to get back her power. A dreamy and evocative tale with razor sharp characterization.
The truth is a moving target when hindsight is twenty-twenty. Who are the mean girls, and who are your true friends? This book challenges assumptions.
Book Festivals I Love
If you have the chance to attend any of the book festivals below, do it! These are in my area in Southern California.
Yallwest: from the amazing folks who brought us Yallfest. Don’t miss your favorite bestselling authors reading their juvenalia. You can pick up some free ARCs here, too. Usually happens in April. Yallfest is in November this year (2017).
Los Angeles Times Festival of Books: This mammoth event at the USC campus hosts so many panels on kid lit alone, you can spend all weekend listening to your favorite authors. See them all for free, or buy a VIP pass and register for your favorite talks in advance, avoiding the lines. Usually in March or April. I didn’t go this year because Yallwest was so close to it in time, and I know folks at Yallwest. Because I’m fancy like that.
Pasadena Loves YA: This is the smallest and briefest of the three, and the easiest to get in and out of. Great authors, too. At the Pasadena Central Library, where the architecture is lovely. Happens in September.
What are your favorite book festivals? Any you’d like to try? Comment below.
Myth: You Need Talent to Be Great Truth: Deliberate Practice is the Only Path to Greatness
Common Sense and the Talent to Be a Great Writer
Recently, when I shared the title of Colvin’s book with an art student of mine, he made a “You crazy!” face at me. He was sure the only thing he needed as an artist was talent, and without it, he was sunk. I don’t think he is alone. It seems to be common sense that only talented people succeed as artists, as writers, as cyclists, as chess masters, as business moguls, as great leaders, as anything. So many people believe this. Maybe you had a teacher who told you to give up on your dream because you didn’t have the talent. Everyone knows getting good takes talent.
Turns Out, Everyone is Wrong
Don’t you wish people trusted science more than they trust common sense? I do. Look around. Watch the news. I really wish… but, anyways….
In Talent is Overrated, Colvin, building on the work of psychologist K. Anders Ericsson, debunks the role of talent. He says that even Mozart, that poster child for the power of talent and divine inspiration, got great through something called “Deliberate Practice.” After all, Mozart started making music at the age of three, and his father was not only a highly respected musician and composer in his own right, but a taskmaster with crazy high standards, and an astute teacher.
In the world of psychology and business, there is a field of study called the “Science of Expertise.” It has already upended the eminence of inborn talent. Experts in this field have studied not only sports figures and chess masters, but musicians, artists, and writers. What they found is that early ability did not yield greatness.
What did? Deliberate Practice.
What is Deliberate Practice?
People say “Practice makes perfect,” but it’s not just practice that yields great work. (Plus, there’s no such thing as perfection, and I think it is a damaging concept for artists. I’ll probably do a future post on this.)
Art teachers like me say you have to make a thousand bad drawings before you can start making good ones. But it isn’t just making a ton of crappy work, or playing the same set of scales every day that does the trick. It’s a particular kind of practice. Colvin describes these key characteristics of Deliberate Practice:
It is focused specifically on improving performance. This means working on the stuff you don’t do well. You need feedback to figure out your particular weak spots . If you’re playing tennis, you may already know the forecourt backhand is your Kryptonite. But as a writer, you need a critique from a trusted source to know that dialogue or character development, or plotting, or sentence structure is not your strong suit. Designing your practice to improve your performance also means breaking down skills into their component parts. Only by breaking it down can you improve. For example, if my main characters are weak, I have to go micro to figure out what isn’t working. Is it my POV voice that doesn’t feel specific enough? Is it that my character is always reacting instead of taking action? Does their dialogue sound wishy washy, or like every other’s dialogue? Does my word choice make the reader feel patronized, or is my tone too distant, creating a big psychic gap between protagonist and reader? Do I have the real sense of what the character is feeling, all of it, in all its complexity? Once I know what isn’t working, I have to design a repeatable practice that improves those skills. More on that below.
It must be done repeatedly. This is the part where the Carnegie Hall cliché is correct. Where it’s about putting in the work and stacking up the hours. O, Grit, why is there no substitute for you? There just isn’t. We know it instinctively as storytelling creatures. A tale with a hero who doesn’t have to learn, to try repeatedly and fail, well, that story doesn’t feel real to us; it lacks gravitas. We know anything worth getting takes work.
It requires continuously-available feedback. Feedback can come from a teacher, or from a source that is easy to interpret. Benjamin Franklin, seeking to improve his essay writing, studied a publication called “The Spectator. ” He read an essay from it, then put it aside, summarized the main points, rewrote them in his own style, then compared his version to the essay, noticing specific aspects of his writing that needed improvement. Franklin used “The Spectator” as his master teacher, and his own well-honed objectivity. Not all writers, I find, have that objectivity. Franklin was also a scientist. Personally, I love having a mentor. I also love having feedback from other writers whose work and opinions I respect. And there are particular craft books that I keep rereading.
It is highly challenging mentally. Learning builds new neural connections in your little gray cells, which means it is mentally taxing. Therefore, most people can’t do Deliberate Practice for more than 5 hours per day. Often, they do it in sessions around an hour to ninety minutes, say the scientists. For writers, who often need day jobs to stay solvent, this is good news. Five hours per day is a lot, but it’s doable with a day job, or with a family (probably not both).
It isn’t fun. This is the bad news, but it’s an important point, because if a skill is fun for you to practice, it means you are in your comfort zone. And you don’t learn in your comfort zone. You also don’t learn in the panic zone, where the task is hard enough to strike fear. You learn in a special zone where the task is difficult, but still doable, with a bit of work and grit. This is called the Learning Zone by Professor Noel Tichy. I’ve heard it called the Growth Zone, but whatever you call it, you know you’re there when you are more satisfied having done it than you were while you did it.
Nobody Said it Was Easy
Maybe the reason people persist in believing in the myth of talent is because hard work is hard. If getting great were really all about talent, then you either got it or you ain’t. Done and done. Go watch Game of Thrones and pop a cold one.
Deliberate practice is difficult. But the hugely good news is, it can be done. And, since it is hard to do Deliberate Practice, not everyone will do it. That gives those willing to do it a competitive edge.
Deliberate Practice for Writers
So what would deliberate practice look like for a fiction writer? Veteran writing teacher Barbara Baig has an incredible set of lessons on her blog. She has based them on the precepts of expert performance studies like Ericsson’s. Definitely check out her lessons, and her books. They can help you build your own writing Deliberate Practice regimen.
Here is my brief summary of the Deliberate Practice steps I am testing out as a writer. Try them for yourself, and see what you think:
What do you need to improve? Get feedback on your work from a trusted source: a mentor, an editor or author who is willing to read your work critically and give you details. I don’t think there is any substitute for experience here. Find a master, if you can. It’s worth it. That is part A. Part B is being able to take that sage advice. Taking feedback is a special skill in and of itself, and it’s worth a post on its own. For now make a list of the skills you want to improve.
Design your practice. My practice has a warm-up, which I do every day, and when do it, I put a sparkly sticker on that day in my wall calendar. I kid you not. Rewards are important, and my Inner Child enjoys sparkly stuff. The warm-up is the morning pages, which is 3 pages of free-writing. Morning Pages come from The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. This book should be required reading for anyone who wants to be creative. After the warmup, I work on exercises focused on improving my character development. I do side writing, in which I speak directly with my characters. I ask them pointed questions. I ask them about what I need to do next. I brainstorm ideas with them. I also hang out and ask them about the meaning of life. Really. I have this one vampire character who is so wise about many things. I do all this in addition to getting words on the page that are meant for my draft. Cool things can happen. Sometimes I’m writing scenes in my morning pages. I let it happen. I type them into my side writing in Scrivener. Or they might even end up in my draft. Why not?
Make a schedule, commit to it, set up rewards, and do it! Since talent doesn’t matter, why should inspiration? Life is unpredictable, so I get my writing done first thing in the morning. Every day, with very few exceptions. I get up, grab coffee, and start my morning pages.
Get feedback. I review my work critically a few days after I have drafted it. I know my weaknesses by now because I’m getting expert feedback in my MFA program. Once I graduate, I will be in a weekly critique group. I take the feedback, cry if I need to, give myself a bit of time to recover, then try again.
This is how I do it. How do you make sure you are improving? Comment and share below.
Also, next time your inner critic tells you you don’t have the talent to do this, tell them that Barbara Baig, Anders Ericsson, Geoff Colvin, and I said they’re full of it. Because you don’t need talent to do this, or anything, with excellence!
What’s the most important thing in your story? What do readers bond with more than any other aspect of a story? The characters. How do you make yours unforgettable? Please enjoy the tips below gleaned from some of the best books and thinking I could find.
David Corbett says something in his The Art of Character that rings true for me. To write great characters, first know yourself. How? My advice is, go into therapy and start examining your own motivations. It will have lots of side benefits in your life. It will also stir up your emotions which, for an artist, is great fodder. Also, read lots of psychology books.
To write great characters, first know yourself.
A lot of what you’ll find below comes from Alexandra Sokoloff’s Screenwriting Tricks for Authors, a book that gets right to the meat of storytelling. I recommend it very highly. Buy it here.
ONE-SENTENCE DESCRIPTION OF A COMPELLING MAIN CHARACTER:
Characters don’t exist without story. Story can’t work without characters. The whole plot-driven or character-driven dichotomy is a false one to my mind. A character reveals himself through his reactions and actions in a story. A story moves forward on the actions of its characters. To me, when people describe a story as character-driven it just means that story has realistic, surprising, three-dimensional, compelling-as-hell characters.
Below is an awful sentence in terms of prose elegance. But it’s great at describing the scope of a main character’s journey through a story.
A TYPE OF HERO/INE (e.g., 16-year-old prep school student, reclusive Hobbit, young justice-minded scion of an Italian-American crime family syndicate, plucky Southern Belle just before the Civil War) experiences an INCITING INCIDENT, and wants OUTER DESIRE, but ANTAGONISTIC/ANTAGONISTIC FORCE throws up roadblocks at every turn. Despite FLAWS, and HERO/INE’s WOUND/GHOST, HERO/INE GOES TO EXTREMES to get OUTER DESIRE with the help/hindrance of ALLIES and MENTOR, mapping a CHARACTER ARC from STARTING STATE to ENDING STATE and, after fighting their FLAWS in a WORST NIGHTMARE climax, having the INNER DESIRE beat out the OUTER DESIRE in tense internal conflict, and succeeding or failing to get OUTER DESIRE, HERO/INE discovers that they really wanted INNER DESIRE all along and heal their GHOST/WOUND/CORE TRAUMA or at least learn to live with it better, unless it completely destroys them, in which case your story is a tragedy, not that there’s anything wrong with that, unless Hollywood is right.
So what does all that jargon in the sentence above mean? I break it down below.
INNER DESIRE (usually selfless and noble, aka what the character needs to learn, or what they really need deep down). Some authors call this the character’s “Need.” The INNER DESIRE expresses who the main character really is in their best self. Example: Clarice Starling’s desire to protect innocence. Scarlett O’Hara’s desire to save and preserve Tara, her home.
OUTER DESIRE (usually selfish) Clarice’s Starling’s ambition to rise quickly in the FBI. Scarlett’s desire to marry Ashley because he’s the perfect noble Southern gentleman, which would ennoble her, except she’s not really all that noble, so if she’d gotten him, it never would have worked.
HOW DO YOU SHOW THAT THE INNER DESIRES AND OUTER DESIRES ARE IN CONFLICT? In LA Confidential, Bud White talks to his lover Lynn Bracken about wanting to be smart enough to solve the Night Owl case, even though his outer goal is to protect women and get even for his dad’s physical abuse. (When he solves the Night Owl, that puts Lynn in danger, and because the bad guys want to destroy him, they use his hot-headedness against him so he ends up punching Lynn.) His desire to be seen as smart and to be taken seriously as a real detective is his INNER DESIRE.
HOW DO YOU SHOW THAT THE INNER DESIRE IS WINNING OUT OVER THE OUTER DESIRE? Example: Scarlett makes it back to Tara, and even though she wants to run off with Ashley, she sees how bad things have gotten (and she must save and preserve her family home (INNER DESIRE) so she helps her sisters and everyone there pull it together. At the midpoint of the story, she vows to “never be hungry again.”
CHARACTER ARC: there are several options: HERO/INE doesn’t change like Shane or Candide. Or HERO/INE accomplishes goals through good, but stays essentially the same, like Forrest Gump. Or becomes stronger like Clarice Starling. Or learns that her role as family matriarch is ennobling like Scarlett O’Hara. Or like Michael Corleone, goes from good to corrupt and also from weak to powerful.
GHOST/WOUND/CORE TRAUMA: (repetition compulsion): Clarice couldn’t save the spring lamb but she is compelled to try to save Katherine, another innocent about to be slaughtered. Hamlet’s father’s ghost is literally the GHOST/WOUND/CORE TRAUMA. It represents his desire for revenge and justice that drives him to destruction. In A Wizard of Earthsea, Ged is literally being stalked by his own shadow self, which he unleashed in an act of vainglory.
FLAWS. These often come naturally from the ghost or core trauma. Or they might be a function of personality. In Ember in the Ashes, Laia is spying for the Resistance because they have promised to get her brother out of prison, but she’s shy and not apt to take risks, not courageous like her brother and parents, so at first she makes a terrible spy. She will have to overcome her flaw of cowardice if she is to get her OUTER GOAL, which is to save her brother. Michael in Tootsie has a major flaw: He’s a great actor, but he overthinks everything, which makes him impossible to work with. This flaw becomes a strength when he harnesses his perfectionism and creates a flawless female disguise, which lands him a lead on a soap opera. Katniss’s abrasive directness becomes an asset when she becomes a Tribute in the Hunger Games, and it makes her a fantastic figurehead for rebellion. Look for ways your characters’ greatest flaws can become a great strength in your story.
CHARACTER INTRODUCTION: The first time you see each of your characters should be memorable, and this is especially important with your HERO/INE. The way you introduce them should be a layered reflection of the main character’s state of mind and their character arc. Use everything: where they are, what they are wearing, what they are doing.
Example of Character Introduction:
“The first time I laid eyes on Terry Lennox he was drunk in a Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith outside the terrace of The Dancers. The parking lot attendant had brought the car out and he was still holding the door open because Terry Lennox’s left foot was still dangling outside, as if he had forgotten he had one. He had a young-looking face but his hair was bone white. You could tell by his eyes that he was plastered to the hairline, but otherwise he looked like any other nice young guy in a dinner jacket who had been spending too much money in a joint that exists for that purpose and for no other.”
–Raymond Chandler, The Long Goodbye
“Captain Ahab stood upon his quarter-deck. There seemed no sign of common bodily illness about him, nor of the recovery from any. He looked like a man cut away from the stake, when the fire has overrunningly wasted all the limbs without consuming them, or taking away one particle from their compacted aged robustness. His whole high, broad form, seemed made of solid bronze, and shaped in an unalterable mould, like Cellini’s cast Perseus. Threading its way out from among his grey hairs, and continuing right down one side of his tawny scorched face and neck, till it disappeared in his clothing, you saw a slender rod-like mark, lividly whitish. It resembled that perpendicular seam sometimes made in the straight, lofty trunk of a great tree, when the upper lightning tearingly darts down it, and without wrenching a single twig, peels and grooves out the bark from top to bottom, ere running off into the soil, leaving the tree still greenly alive, but branded.”
—Herman Melville, Moby Dick or The Whale.
WHAT BITS OF BUSINESS IN YOUR SCENES REVEAL THE HERO/INE’S PERSONALITY, BOTH STRENGTHS AND WEAKNESSES? Clarice stumbling over her words at the autopsy. Chief Brody trying and trying to master the bowline knot. Scarlett making a dress out of the curtains and gargling with eau de cologne to hide the alcohol on her breath. These bits of business add a lot of richness. They are the essence of Showing (not Telling).
EXTREMES: HOW DOES YOUR HERO/INE GO TO EXTREMES TO GET WHAT THEY WANT? Clarice telling Lecter her most painful memory. Michael in Tootsie disguising himself as a woman to get a part.
SPECIFIC ACTOR WHO WOULD IDEALLY PLAY THE ROLE: Helps you visualize the character, and speak in their unique voice. Pick an actor you know well. Choose wisely and you will start to hear your main character’s dialogue in that actor’s unique voice. Dialogue is one of the strongest tools for creating vivid character.
MYTHIC RESONANCE: HOW DOES YOUR MAIN CHARACTER’S JOURNEY REFLECT A FAMOUS MYTHIC STORY OR SHAKESPEARE PLAY (the Bard himself retold classic myths and folk tales)? Star Wars and the Hero’s Journey. Moby Dick/Jaws and Battling the Monster as in Hercules and the Hydra. Clarice Starling visits Lecter in the dungeonesque prison basement like Theseus visits the Minotaur in the labyrinth. Katniss Everdeen faces trials like Hercules and other mythic heroes do. Katniss resembles Artemis, the avid archer Goddess of the Hunt, and the Amazons with their bows and arrows. O Brother Where Art Thou and Cold Mountain are both retellings of the Odyssey. Adding mythic elements to your main character gives them resonance that hooks the reader. Why not? There are no new ideas, just new twists on old ones. I like to play a game when I read or watch any story: What famous old chestnut does it most resemble? Believe that I was geeking out on how Sons of Anarchy is like Hamlet, and how House of Cards is basically Richard III. Isn’t that cool? I know!
WORST NIGHTMARE: WHAT IS YOUR HERO/INE’S WORST NIGHTMARE, AND HOW DOES THE CLIMAX OF YOUR STORY BRING IT TO LIFE? Indiana Jones hates snakes and ends up in a huge pit of them. Luke fights his greatest fear: Vader and finds out he is his father. Think of a massively climactic set piece that could put your Hero/ine in a physical manifestation of their worst nightmare. What’s Quint’s worst nightmare? To be eaten by a shark. What’s Michael Corleone’s worst nightmare? To lose his soul like his father did.
ANTAGONIST: A dark mirror of the protagonist. Sometimes it would take very little for the protagonist to become like the antagonist. (Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader, Will Graham and Hannibal Lecter in Red Dragon, Holmes and Moriarty.) Sometimes they have the same goal, but the protagonist won’t use immoral means and the antagonist will.
ALLIES: They often reflect different sides of the protagonist’s personality. They sometimes help, sometimes hinder. Sometimes they betray and change sides. They can have common constellations like Kirk, Bones and Spock: gut, heart and head, for instance. Harry, Ron and Hermione: gut, heart and head again. Look for these kinds of character constellations in your favorite stories and see how you can use what works about them, with a new flavor in your own work.
Here’s an excerpt showing a famous Ally. Notice how the description of the ally is also a description of the feelings that lead to one of the OUTER GOALS of the main character:
“It was Toto that made Dorothy laugh, and saved her from growing as gray as her other surroundings. Toto was not gray; he was a little black dog, with long silky hair and small black eyes that twinkled merrily on either side of his funny, wee nose. Toto played all day long, and Dorothy played with him, and loved him dearly.”
–L. Frank Baum, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz
MENTOR: They act as a kind of superego and hold the key to the lesson the Heroi/ine is meant to learn. Obi-wan Kenobi and Yoda, Morpheus in The Matrix, and Jiminy Cricket
LOVE INTEREST: In Romantic Comedies, the love interest is often also the antagonist. One of my favorite kind of romances is the “sparks fly” kind of romance in which the two main characters instantly bug the crap out of each other. The LOVE INTEREST often represents the qualities that the main character needs to be whole.
A list of traits is not a be all and end all in creating characters. You want to become these characters as you write and feel what they feel from the inside, then report on it. This can take time and lots of backstory work. If you don’t know how a character will react to things, how they will behave, then write a scene that poses the questions and see what they do. More on this below.
Still, I think if you want to keep all the information of your characters consistent, even simple stuff like birthdays, place of birth, and so on, you will probably want to fill out a character questionnaire and keep it somewhere you can find it quickly while you’re writing.
Here’s a pretty exhaustive Character Questionnaire that you can put into a grid so you can keep the info on each character side by side. I include in it some of the elements from the checklist above so it’s all there at your fingertips.
Date of Birth
Place of Birth
Role in Story
Astrological Sun Sign
Meyers Briggs Type
Age in Scene 1
Appearance details: Overweight, underweight, clean or untidy, shape of head face limbs
Frequently used metaphor or descriptive tags
Movement: clumsy, elegant, plodding, meticulous, shuffling, graceful, etc.
Ethnicity and race
Education: Degrees and majors. Also, extracurriculars.
Home life: What makes up their family at home and how are those relationships?
Mom: Name, alive or dead, best day with her, worst day with her, overall relationship.
Dad: Name, alive or dead, best day with him, worst day with him, overall relationship.
Siblings and birth order. Relationship with siblings? Good days, bad days?
Place in social group: leader, follower, outcast
Which table would they sit at in the high school cafeteria?
When they were 7 years old, what did they want to be when they grew up?
Mannerisms: specific gestures. What does the character do when they are nervous?
Verbal mannerisms: What words or phrases does the character use a lot? What is their voice like? Do they speak quickly or slowly? With an accent?
Attitude towards life: resigned, militant, defeatist
Worst Nightmare – be detailed
Ghost/Wound/Core Traumas. Describe what happened. Write it as a scene.
Psychological disorders, and if they had a Personality Disorder, which one would it be?
Extravert, introvert, or in the middle
Archetype, Fairy Tale, or Mythic Character Comparison (Hercules, Medea, Wicked Witch, Odysseus, Cuchulain, Dracula, Baron Samedi, Icarus, Baba Yaga—lots of options!)
What if anything would they die for?
Best day of their life before story starts.
Worst day of their life before story starts.
When things go wrong, how do they react? How do they cope?
What does this character see as their life purpose?
How does the character see themselves?
What is their favorite thing about themselves?
What is the one thing about themselves they would change if they could?
FINDING YOUR CHARACTER IN BACKSTORY SCENES
These should be fun ways to get to know your characters. Write a scene about your character’s:
First kiss (if it happens before story starts)
First sexual experience (if it happens before story starts)
Worst day in middle school (if it happens before story starts)
Best friend. How did they meet? (if it happens before story starts)
Love interest: When did the character know they loved them?
Worst day before story starts
Best day before story starts
REASONS YOUR HERO/INE MIGHT BE FORGETTABLE
No sense of humor
Dialogue is flat or on the nose
Behaving like a plot puppet and not like a three-dimensional person.
A SECRET WEAPON (ALL THE WORLD’S A STAGE)
Take an acting class. The way an actor prepares a role is also the way you want to prepare to write in the voice of your characters. Many actors write reams and reams on the history and backstory of their characters and make specific choices about key moments in the person’s life. They go way beyond what is in the text. This is what it often takes to know your characters so well that they come to life.
Read the best writing on acting: Stanislavsky’s works are a great place to start. I love his description of how he created the character of his own inner critic.
Take an improv class in which you learn to create characters. Some of your favorite SNL skit characters were born from this process. Improv will loosen you up in all kinds of ways.
Here’s why I think some training in acting is fantastic. When I write, I become the POV character, and if I’m doing it right, my language choices change according to who she is. I experience the events of the story through her personality. To get into that dream-like state, sense memory exercises can really help.
Even if you would never publish it, write your own memoir. Focus particularly on the key moments in your life — the things that are most emotional for you, that have juice. Then change names and just enough of the details to protect the innocent—or the guilty—and pop them into your character’s backstory, or even into the story proper. When you reach a moment in your character’s story that is emotional, dig into your own story for an event that brought up similar thoughts and feelings.
Great advice to actors is also great advice to writers. Use yourself. As Mrs. Which said to Meg Murray in A Wrinkle in Time, “I give you your flaws.” Use them to make realistic characters with lots of shades of gray.
I hope you enjoyed this post. Please share your comments here. I’d love to hear what you think. Also, share your tips on building characters.
Kami Garcia has an unusual author success story. She and friend Margaret Stohl were teaching high school and running a teen reading group. They started noticing that the books they were reading weren’t as good as they could be. At the time, it seemed every YA novel involved a love triangle between a girl, a vampire and a werewolf. So Kami and Margaret decided to write their own, and it turns out, they had a bestselling idea, and a built-in teen focus group to help hone it. Essentially, their story was a Southern Gothic family saga with Witches. Nothing quite like it had ever been done before.
She told the story of their apparently accidental success at the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators 2015. Kami and Margaret started by serializing their story and sharing it with teens. It quickly gained almost viral popularity in their town, and they got feedback, and kept revising. They were planning put it on the internet as a free PDF when their friend, the author Pseudonymous Bosch, passed their manuscript along to his agent. It became the bestselling Beautiful Creatures series.
I am a big fan of Kami’s blog. She regularly provides amazing resources for writers.
She does a weekly roundup of great writing posts she finds on the internet. There’s so much useful stuff, I find myself wanting take days off and just read and explore. She posts her inspiration boards. She shares the way she builds her worlds. She lists her favorite books on writing. During the last NaNoWriMo, she posted a video a day to her YouTube Channel, no small feat. Watch her posts and you’ll see she is busy, smart, organized and devoted to the writing process, just like you’d expect a great High School teacher to be.
Every year around this time, we look back over the previous year, evaluate our successes and failures, and we resolve to improve ourselves. Around this time of year, if you don’t see NEW YEAR, NEW YOU somewhere, on a magazine cover, or as the headline of many articles, maybe you don’t know how to read.
But can we ever really hope to be different? Can people change? Or are we kidding ourselves and wasting all of this New Year’s motivation?
Can we really be different this year?
I want to say to myself and to you, “Of course we aren’t wasting our time.” Hoping to be better people is one of the things that makes us human. And if adding one to the number of the year makes us rethink things, get perspective, set goals, strive for more, then, God bless it!
But I do think there are pitfalls in resolving to be different. I have definitely fallen in before.
The Pitfalls of Resolving to Be Different
Discounting our previous successes, and
Setting ourselves up for failure.
So how can I avoid those?
The trouble with resolving to do things differently in the New Year is that it suggests that no matter how many great things we’ve done in the past year, it’s somehow not enough. WE are somehow not enough.
To send myself a healthier and kinder message, I am doing this:
List/Mindmap 2014 Wins
Find a way to take stock of 2014’s wins, and appreciate them. Write them down in your journal, and once they are there, re-read them. Then highlight them, maybe draw a mind-map about them. I am updating my list as I think of more wins. Then, when I feel it’s a nice long list, I can take a look at it. Breathe in some gratitude about all that. Remind myself that if I just did as many amazing things as I did last year, I’d have a great 2015.
Reframe the Tough Bits
But what if you look for those successes in 2014 and you have trouble finding them? Not all of us had our greatest year, and that’s OK. If that is you, then, fair enough. Remind yourself that you made it through 2014. When life is tough, muddling through is hard. And it is an accomplishment. So try to make an adjustment inside yourself and see if you can simply be grateful for that. Simply be grateful for being here. Great things can start from the place you are now.
Setting Yourself Up For Failure
I’m prone to these things that I’ll list. Maybe you are, too:
Committing without examining the consequences or letting my very good instincts do their job.
Just plain overcommitting. Trying to do too damn much, which leads me to another biggie.
Setting unreasonable demands on myself. That leads to…
Denial about all of the above. And that, eventually, leads me to…
Seeking oblivion in shopping, eating, drinking, daydreaming, and awfulizing.
What is Awfulizing?
It’s a weird addictive process in which I start thinking about how other people and other groups of people do many bad things. I focus on all of that, and I can use it not to look at myself. In this way, I can avoid unpleasant truths about my own bad behavior. Or, if ‘bad’ sounds too, well, BAD to you, then I’ll just call it behavior that doesn’t get me where I want to be.
The thing about awfulizing is that it keeps my mind off me and my responsibility for creating the life I choose to live.
So How Can I Avoid All These Set-Ups for Failure?
I have a few ideas. Let’s see how these sound to you:
Delay committing to anything until I can sit down and consider the consequences. A key tool in this quest goes something like this: “Hold on, I’ll have to check…with my husband…with my calendar…with my spiritual advisor…with my Tarot deck…with my Higher Self…with Obi-wan Kenobi’s ghost…with my cat.”
Pick one thing as my primary principle. So for me that would be this: Remind myself that this is the Year of Writing for me. So yes, I want to lose weight. I want to run lightly, like Atalanta before she went after the Golden Apple. I love buying makeup. I love seeing theater, and I love traveling. I love lots of things. But this is the Year of Writing and Full Commitment to Writing. So all other commitments must be judged by this measure: How does this serve my Year of Writing? Will this interfere with my Year of Writing?
Set fewer goals, no more than 3-5 major goals, for example:
Write an average of 1000 words per day
Finish Second Novel First Draft
Get to 140 lbs and love reclaiming my skinny self wardrobe. Hipster black jeans, here I come!
Gather more writer friends into my world. Let’s all become awesome and published and giving our full gifts to the universe!
Clean out the Hoarders Blue Room (don’t ask).
As I resolve to be different, I’m going to keep those guidelines in mind.
I hope this was helpful. Personally, I feel good about all this. I’ll check in with you around the Spring Equinox and let you know how it’s going.
Thanks for coming to my site and reading this post!
Please let me know what you are thinking about in the comments below. Share your wisdom! Ask questions! Free associate!