(This post originally appeared in a slightly different form on my personal blog in October, 2010. I revisited it recently and decided to share it here.)
Wouldn’t it be great if, when you went to your mailbox today, you found a letter inside from the main character of your work-in-progress, telling you just how she feels about the central conflict of your story? Or maybe she wrote a love letter to another one of your characters, and somehow it was misdirected to you? Imagine what a resource a letter like that would be…
When I do my outlining for a new WIP, I write up a lot of backstory. I also do character sketches, to help me form a clear idea of each of my characters – not just hair color, eye color, and favorite movie, but what they would do on a perfect spring day, where they would go on vacation if money were no object, even how they feel about money, in general. I try to think of the most revealing questions possible. These sketches help me with the essentials of my characters, but they only get me so far.
That’s why I’ve taken to writing first-person narratives – letters to me, if you will – in the voice of each character. These narratives generally address the main conflict faced by that character in the story, and how she or he feels about it. Does she believe that the problem is insurmountable? Does she still have hope? Who is she counting on most to help her? Who does she expect to cause her the most trouble?
I also write first-person narratives by all the individuals involved in romantic relationships in my story. For each one, I ask the character to tell me:
What do you love most about this other person?
What would you miss the most if he or she were taken away?
When did you first feel an attraction and what triggered it?
And, well, I’m sure you can come up with a lot more questions along this line.
These letters are great tools to return to while drafting. They help me to maintain consistency within a character, but they also helped me see that, despite consistency, all well-rounded characters have internal conflicts they are dealing with. People are filled with contradictions. Your characters need to be, too, if they’re going to leap off the page as real people with real complexity.
When you ask your character to tell you how he feels about the central conflict, chances are his answer will be complicated. It won’t just be as simple as, “I hate my father and wish he were dead,” because where’s the true conflict in that? Nothing is ever that straightforward. If it were, in chapter one your character could pull out a shotgun and shoot his father and the story would be done. Instead, your character’s answer to how he feels about the central conflict will be layered, complex, and in some ways, contradictory.
For you, as the writer, the secret to your character’s arc lies hidden in these contradictions. Early in the story your character may respond most to the tug of one attitude toward the central conflict. But as the story moves along, he may feel the influence of another attitude toward that conflict, and he will begin to change. By the time he’s completed his character arc, he may find himself in a place of compromise between these two contradictory attitudes.
Do you think this method might work for you? Do you have any of your own unique methods of learning about your characters? Please share your thoughts in the comments!
Julie Eshbaugh writes fiction for young adults. She is the author of the upcoming Ivory & Bone (HarperCollins, 2016.) You can add Julie on Goodreads and follow her on Twitter and Pinterest.
For some writers, characters pop into being fully formed like Athena from Zeus’s forehead. For others, creating a character is a bit more laborious, filled with uncertainty where to start or what’s needed before they can start writing. Maybe the idea is more plot focused, or more about exploring an idea than a deep character journey, and those writers want to dive in and get started without hours of character development.
If creating characters don’t come easy to you (or even if they do and you just want to try something new) why not make a game out of it?
The Rules (and I use the term loosely, as this is all about the fun):
Choose traits for each category that fit your story. For example, for openness/intellect, you might choose “openness,” “curiosity,” and “independence.”
List six options for each trait, ranging across the complete scale. For example, for openness, you might say “very open” at the top and “not open at all” at the bottom.
Roll a six-sided dice or generate a number for each trait. Write that trait down. Do it for as many traits per category as you like.
Adapt those traits to fit each other and your story.
Create your character.
If you’re stuck on what to pick, here’s a sampling of possible options for each trait. Sometimes you’ll get things that seem to contradict each other, but treat those as opportunities to create an interesting character. The person who loves people but hates large groups has a reason for those two traits to co-exist, and that could make for some very interesting backstory and behavior.
Openness/Intellect: Levels of curiosity and creativity, imagination and independence, how one responds to new experiences.
Loves new and varied experiences or Very curious or Very independent
Open to new experiences in general or Fairly curious or Fairly independent
Open to new experiences that are familiar or Somewhat curious or Somewhat independent
Hesitant about new experiences or A little curious or Somewhat dependent
Prefers not to have new experiences or Not very curious or Rather dependent
Hates new experiences or Never curious or Very co-dependent
Example: I rolled a 2, 5, and 3 and got a person who is open to new experiences in general, but not very curious, who is also somewhat independent. So maybe they like to do their own thing, but if a friend drags them to try something new they’ll usually go along with it.
Conscientiousness: Levels of organization and work ethic, self discipline and ambition, planning vs. spontaneity.
Control freak or Stoic or Personally driven
Very organized or Very disciplined or Very ambitious
Rather organized or Fairly disciplined or Has ambition
Likes to plan or Spontaneous or Content with the status quo
Rather unorganized or Tough to motivate or Rather lazy
Very unorganized or Very undisciplined or Not ambitious
Example: I rolled a 4, 5, 6 and got a person who likes to plan, is tough to motivate, and isn’t very ambitious. So maybe they like to figure things out ahead of time and have no desire to change those plans once they’re made.
Extraversion: Levels of sociability and enthusiasm, assertiveness and talkativeness.
Loves being around people or Fanatic or Overbearing
Enjoys people or Intense or Decisive
Comfortable with people or Eager or Confident
A little shy or Calm or A little hesitant
Prefers to be in small groups or Reserved or Fears confrontation
Prefers to be alone or Never gets emotional or Meek
Example: I rolled a 1, 5, 5 and got a person who loves being around people, but is reserved and a little meek. So maybe they like being with people (or are scared to be alone?) but prefer to watch rather than join in.
Agreeableness: Levels of friendliness and kindness, cooperative and trusting, how well-tempered someone is.
Puts others first or Team player or Trusts everyone
Cares about people or Works well with others or Trusts most people
Is nice to everyone or Likes to help or Trusts those they know
Is polite to everyone or Does their part or Unsure of strangers
A bit standoffish or Not good in groups or Suspicious
Mean or Total loner or Paranoid
Example: I rolled a 3, 4, 5 and got a person who is nice to everyone, does their part to help out in groups, but is suspicious of those around them. So maybe they’ve been burned a lot in the past, and while they’re still willing to give people the benefit of the doubt, they’re expecting others to pull something or let them down and aren’t going to risk themselves.
Neuroticism/Emotional Stability: Levels of calmness and tranquility, confidence and sensitivity.
Always calm under pressure or Very confident or Overly Sensitive
Hard to ruffle or Believes in themselves or Empathetic
Cool in most situations or Trusts their decisions or Compassionate
Gets nervous when things are bad or Has occasional doubts or Self interested
Overreacts or Second-guesses things or Apathetic
Panics at the first sign of trouble or Can’t make a decision or Insensitive
Example: I rolled a 5, 1, 5 and got a person who overreacts, but is very sure that they’re right, and doesn’t care about what others think. So maybe this is someone who firmly believes things and can’t be talked out of them and doesn’t even want to hear what others might think about it.
Desire/Need: The type of goal they’re after.
To escape something
To achieve something
To reach something
To prevent something
To find something
To change something
Example: I rolled a 2 and got a person who is trying to achieve something. So maybe they want a job, or a promotion, or to become the lead wizard or captain of the next starship.
If I put this all together, I get a person who is open to new experiences in general, but not very curious, who is also somewhat independent. They like to plan, are tough to motivate, and aren’t very ambitious. They love being around people, but are reserved and a little meek. They’re nice to everyone, do their part to help out in groups, but are suspicious of those around them. They overreact, but are very sure that they’re right, and don’t care about what others think. Their goal is to achieve something.
Different people can interpret these traits in different ways, but I see someone who has a small, tight group of friends they trust and enjoy being with, and they have little desire to expand that circle or change the way things are. Once they get an idea in their head it’s hard to change their mind, and that can sometimes cause problems. Since the goal is to achieve something, maybe their problem is they need to break out of this safe environment for the first time and they don’t know how to do that. Or maybe, the group is changing and they can’t deal with that and want things to remain the same.
If I wanted to put this character into an existing novel I’d have more specific details here, but you should be able to see a character who can probably be dropped into any story and adapted to fit that story.
Naturally, add your own traits or change the levels on any of these to suit your story world or personal tastes better. You might even create a basic character template as a baseline for any new characters in the future, or to flesh out existing characters.
Try creating a character now and see what you come up with. Share in the comments!
Janice Hardy is the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now. She lives in Georgia with her husband, one yard zombie, three cats, and a very nervous freshwater eel. Find out more about writing at her site, Fiction University, or find her on Twitter @Janice_Hardy.
On Saturday morning, as I was scrolling through my Twitter feed, I came across an article written by another author, describing the great lengths she had gone to to track down and, I guess, expose a reviewer she felt was too harsh and inaccurate in her review of this author’s work. The author describes the supposed harassment she received from this reviewer in the weeks that followed, and, after some “light stalking” (there is no such thing as “light stalking,” just stalking) of this reviewer’s social media, she ultimately showed up on the reviewer’s doorstep to confront her. I think we are all in agreement that this act was 100% unacceptable behavior and terribly, horribly frightening for the reviewer who had every right to protect her identity online. I’m fairly certain you all know what I’m talking about, but rather than link you to the essay, I will point you in the direction of posts from Dear Author and Smart Bitches, Trashy Books for a better, balanced discussion.
What I want to talk about today are ways to cope with negative criticism as an author. We all receive it. We all see it. And if you haven’t reached that step of your career yet, well, you should expect it and start conditioning yourself to handle it now. It’s easy to think that you can take a rational stance when it comes to getting feedback about your work, but there are so many emotions at play here, that I think many authors are surprised by how gut-deep they feel negative words (and how easy it is to ignore the positive). I’ll be the first to admit that I was not great at coping when my first book was published in 2010. I stalked my Google Alerts and the book’s GoodReads page. Every good review was like a hit of wonderful sunshine-y rainbows, and I’d keep coming back for more… but then I’d see a critical review and it would smack me down into this dark “maybe I do suck” place. So what formed was a cycle and I knew I was going to have to break it if I wanted any sort of career. Here is what has helped me:
1) Don’t read reviews. Plain and simple, do not read reviews, good or bad. This is the only thing that has ultimately saved my sanity and allowed me to be productive. It’s obviously easier said than done, especially when a book is first coming out and you’re dying to hear what people think. You will never be able to stop with just one review. I recommend staying off GoodReads entirely, but I actually do think it’s important for authors to have a presence there so they can update their books’ information pages and respond to questions and messages. If you find you need a hit of GR, I recommend bookmarking the Readers Questions page for each book or your author dashboard and really keeping to just those pages. You can also add books you’re currently reading without looking at your own books’ pages–don’t sneak a peek. If you find yourself with a crippling addiction to checking on the average or seeing if anyone new is reading it, block GoodReads on your browser.
My one exception to this rule is that I do read professional reviews from trade publications like PublishersWeekly and KirkusReviews, because those publications are used by librarians to see if they should purchase the books for their libraries. But you can always ask your editor to hold the reviews back if you really don’t want to see anything.
2) Remember that not every reader is on GoodReads. GR is a fantastic community of book lovers, but if you were to ask the average person on the street what they thought of it, a lot of people would just blink at you in confusion. Bad reviews may feel like someone is trying to mock or humiliate you (they’re not) for public consumption, but that public is actually just a fraction of the number of people reading your books. Don’t believe me? Check your royalty statement against the people who have marked the book as ‘read.’
3) We are all students. The goal of any writer should be to improve and grow with each book. No matter how perfect you think the story is, there is always room for improvement. Embrace that idea, and, if you must-must-must read reviews, learn to recognize a real critique someone is giving you versus a statement about their personal taste, the latter of which is completely out of your control. (eg “This author didn’t spend enough time developing the secondary characters.” versus “I didn’t like XX character. I thought they were annoying.”)
4) Trust reviewers to know their tastes. One thing I’ve learned over the years of getting to know book bloggers and reviewers is that they know what’s going to work for them and what’s not going to work for them. They can read another reviewer’s negative review and recognize, oh, s/he doesn’t like this element in books, but I do, and still purchase or request it. They can even recommend a book they, personally, didn’t like to another reviewer/friend who they think will.
5) Bad reviews are better than no reviews. Trust me.
5.5) THREE STARS MEANS “I LIKED IT.” THEY LIKED IT. THEY DID. IT’S NOT LIKE GETTING A “C” GRADE. THEY LIKED IT. GETTING THREE STARS IS ACTUALLY NICE, OKAY? REMEMBER THAT.
6) Keep the old adage in mind: taste is subjective. Think of your group of friends and family. Think about a movie you all saw, or a book you all read that you, personally loved. Not everyone agreed with you, right? Everyone found their own problem with the story or characters that they fixated on. Readers bring their own world with them to a story, and that informs how they read it and how they enjoy it. I think it was Dita Von Teese who said, “You can be the ripest, juiciest peach in the world, but there’s still going to be someone who hates peaches.” I will repeat that to myself over and over if I have to until it clicks in my brain. My epiphany moment came, again, with my first book. I was deep down into the GR rabbit hole, torturing myself by looking at all of the negative reviews, and had a moment of, “Well, what else has this reviewer hated?” Reader, this reviewer hated a lot of books that I myself had given five stars to.
7) Don’t respond to reviews, good or bad. Do not respond. DO NOT RESPOND. If someone includes you when they tweet out the link to the review, you can say thank you, but do not leave comments on their blog, do not leave comments on the GR review. Reviewers are reviewing the books for other readers, not for you. Not even for your publisher. Other readers.
8) Know that you can still be friends with bloggers, even if they didn’t like your book. You are not your book(s). You are an awesome person, and awesome people can be friends with other awesome people. Much like you can be friends with other authors never having read their books or not liking them very much. A negative review isn’t a sign that you’re being shunned, just that your book did not work for that reviewer. But, hey! You both love Sleepy Hollow, so why not chat about that on Twitter instead?
9) Make it so the people who love your work can find you and you can banish the negative voices. The best thing I ever did in this regard was set up a PO Box and an author email account for readers to contact me. Because the ones that are taking the time to write to you are the ones who either are thinking critically about your story enough to have pressing questions or because they love it. You might occasionally get a message from someone who has strong beliefs that contradict what you’re saying in your books, but those will always be fewer than the chorus of sweet, awesome voices of the readers you reached and affected on a personal level. If someone is being a troll on Twitter to you, block them. Done. If you track Tumblr tags of your name or book title, install an extension or plug-in like Tumblr Hatred that lets you hide posts you’d rather not see each time you check the tags.
10) Shake it off. Yes. Like TSwift is telling you to. One of my favorite lyrics in that song is Just think while you’ve been getting down and out about the liars and the dirty, dirty cheats of the world/You could’ve been getting down to this sick beat. Basically, your energy is WAY better spent thinking and caring about the people who like your book. As I said above, don’t ignore a hundred voices telling you they like your stuff in favor of the one or two voices who are basically just saying “eh… not my cup of tea.” There are certainly going to be reviews that are way harsher than that in your lifetime, ones you think go too far. The best response is still no response. It’s getting up from your computer and going to do something you love. Or, you know, turning off the internet and writing. Anything that affects your productivity isn’t worth your time.
Alex lives in New York City where she writes like a fiend and lives in a charming apartment overflowing with books. She is the New York Times bestselling author of The Darkest Minds and Never Fade. You can visit her online at her website, Tumblr, or Twitter.
But what about those times when it’s just plain ol’ laziness that’s keeping you from the productivity you want? What about those days where you spend four hours at the computer and write all of 4 words because OMG! Look at all the pretties and shinies on the internet? And ungh, I’m hungry…and hey, when did that squirrel move into the tree outside my window?
Yeah, it’s kinda like that.
On those distraction-heavy days, my friend, it’s time to seek help elsewhere. It’s time to find SOMEONE ELSE to hold you accountable.
I mean, think about it: when you were in high school, you got your work done (or I hope you did…). Maybe it was at the last minute or maybe it wasn’t always your best work, but you finished. Why? Because someone else expected you to.
I’ve talked at great length about this with my author and solo-entrepreneur friends. We have no bosses! We have NO ONE to look over our shoulders and make sure we’re getting the work done.
Another thing we don’t have are people to validate us when we do make progress. So what if you had a great day writing–there’s no one there to be impressed or to pat you on the back or to say, “Great job! You deserve a raise.” We simply slog on, all alone.
But what if we put a dose of SOMEONE ELSE in our writing lives? What if we find (or start) a Twitter hashtag so we can make accountability partners? Or cheerleader/validation partners? Or what if we interact in forums or via email chains or Facebook groups? Writing is solitary, but it certainly doesn’t have to be.
I think camaraderie is one of the reasons that NaNoWriMo is SO successful for people! They’re all writing together, interacting, sharing, and keeping each other motivated.
So if you’re finding you need a bit more motivation in your life, I challenge you to find another writer who’ll hold you accountable and send you lots of smiley faces when you need ‘em. Heck, come join me in my forums–I’m definitely in need of some writing buddies!! Or add me as a friend for NaNoWriMo!
You tell me: Is this something you would ever do? Or do you already have someone like this in your writing life?
Before she settled down as a full-time novelist and writing instructor, Susan Dennard traveled the world as marine biologist. She is the author of the Something Strange and Deadly series as well as the forthcoming Witchlands series (Tor, 2015), and when not writing, she can be found hiking with her dogs, exploring tidal pools, or practicing her tap dance shuffles. You can learn more about Susan on her blog, Twitter, Facebook, or Pinterest.
So you’re writing that sweeping historical novel full of war and political intrigue, and you maybe need some inspiration. Where better to turn than to history books? Only problem is that they can be a bit dry, and at times the forced impartiality (“I must present this as facts uncoloured by my opinion!”) can make the prose frustratingly ambiguous. Then there’s the whole “history is written by the victor” thing. The phrase reveals the difficulties readers face when approaching historical writing. Not to mention, it’s practically impossible to write about a historical event in a completely detached way without it sounding like a recipe.
Honestly, it makes me glad I write fiction. The pressure of writing a history book is terrifying. What sources you include, and where you include them, and why…no matter how you organize them, there will always be an expert disagreeing with you.
Enter Gregory of Tours. He was a 6th century bishop of (you guessed it) Tours, France, and is our best contemporary source of the Merovingian dynasty in modern-day France and Germany. He wrote history, but it’s only in very recent times that we started giving him more credit as an actual historian. Why did it take so long? You only need to take a gander at all the wild stuff he says in his most famous work, The History of the Franks.
Here’s the deal. Remember the whole “no such thing as no bias” spiel? This is very apparent in Gregory. A lot of people read the Histories assuming they’re a moralistic work about how those who aren’t Catholic will suffer the demons of hell, and those that are will be saved in heaven. To be fair, it’s not a hard conclusion to reach. There’s one story of a priest conspiring against his superior, and as alleged punishment from God, on the morning the priest is getting ready to betray him, this happens: “He went off to the lavatory and while he was occupied in emptying his bowels he lost his soul instead.”
Lost his soul on the can. He quite literally shit himself to death. There are fewer effective ways to teach someone a lesson about going against a saintly authority.
But then, in another story, Queen Deuteria is afraid that her husband might “desire and take advantage of” their maturing daughter so she puts her in a cart drawn by untamed bulls and the daughter crashes into a river and dies. And this happens in like three sentences with no moral. No ceremony, no “The shadow of sin is cast upon the loveless mother!”, no “Don’t lust after your own daughter or else your wife might kill her (and also, sin)!”, only a few nearly parenthetical phrases, perhaps just to explain what happened to the daughter when the King later takes a new wife and refuses to take Deuteria back. I wonder why he’d do that.
So you have this one priest’s story taking up a few sizable, memorable paragraphs about him conspiring against his bishop, and then you have this other one of a horrific filicide told in a measly three sentences. That’s the fascinating thing about this work. It’s a bunch of to-the-point recitations of facts mixed together with wildly moralistic tales where common sicknesses and coincidences are explains away as God’s doing. In some sections it even reads like fantasy. It’s as full of people having prophetic dreams and being warned about the dangers ahead as it is of short side notes about a perfectly Christian king being poisoned just because…well…he was king, and he was poisoned.
But the reason the Histories are so valuable today, aside from being a long and spectacular feat of story-telling, is because there really is a genuinely massive amount of historical information within them. Every so often you’ll find entire letters Gregory directly transcribed so he could give us the primary source rather than rephrasing an event in his own words. Some of these letters survive in different forms and can be used to cross-reference events in the book. Others only survive through his writing. There is a ton of specificity about the Church, and especially about the history of the bishopric of Tours. There’s stuff in there about the actual daily lives of people living in the 6th century, their traditions, habits, and gossip, written by a person living in the 6th century. That is absolutely invaluable.
Not to mention a freaking amazing read. Merovingian kings and queens meant business. The backstabbing, the stealing of territory, copious amounts of regicide, broken alliances, queens abandoning their husbands for other kings because others were manlier and held more promise as conquerors… These people were ruthless. Contrast that with the general thread of what it means to be a good Christian weaving through the work, and you’ve got some damn awesome dichotomies going on.
So move this baby up your to-read list. Not only is it full of events that actually happened, making it an excellent book to read for personal research, but it’s also a great literary window into the workings of 6th century Continental Europe.
Biljana Likic is working on her fantasy WIPs and has just started her MA in Medieval Studies, from which she can’t wait to graduate so she’ll finally have all the time in the world to write. You can follow her on Twitter.
Julie Eshbaugh is the author of the upcoming Ivory & Bone (HarperTeen, 2016). Early on, Julie focused her artistic energies on filmmaking, creating two short films and also producing an award-winning online video series for teens.