Two Easy Ways to Ruin Your Character’s Life

Walnuts with nibble holesIn general, your readers want to see your characters succeed in the end of the story. Whether their end goal is a romantic relationship, a mystery solved, or a victory over the forces of evil, your story’s characters should eventually achieve it in one way or another. However, if you want to make you story really satisfying, your characters will need to encounter some serious obstacles on the way to getting what they want. Part of your job as a writer involves throwing a wrench into your characters’ plans at the worst possible times.

Some of the problems your characters encounter will be products of chance. A storm might strand the characters in a strange place, for example, or a flat tire may cause a delay that leads to disastrous consequences. Although you might annoy your reader with long strings of unlikely coincidences or improbable events, it’s perfectly acceptable to use a chance occurrence as a way to set some of your plot events in motion.

Chance events aren’t the only forces that should come between your readers and their ultimate goal. The schemes and actions of your story’s antagonists should also manage to throw a wrench in the protagonist’s plans for success. These characters don’t have to be chessmasters who plan out intricate chain reactions of events; in fact, something as simple as blackmailing a protagonist or trying to seduce someone’s lover can cause enough turmoil to sustain the plot of a novel.

It might be a little harsh to say that good storytellers have a knack for ruining their characters’ lives, but it’s essentially true. Making it too easy for your protagonists to get what they want can bore your readers and leave you with very little to write about. Instead, use a combination of chance occurrences and antagonists’ actions to make your characters work for the goal they want to achieve.

Setting a Scene: A Creative Writing Excercise

DCP_0039In an earlier post, I talked about using an image diary as a writing exercise. Writing down a scene is a similar process: you pick a scene from your daily life, take a moment, and describe what you see. For instance, you might take a break from cleaning your garage to describe the way that tools and spare bits of lumber are arranged on the far wall next to the workbench.

This exercise is the writer’s equivalent of an an artist drawing a still life for practice. In both instances, you’re fine-tuning the way you communicate a group of images to an audience. Many writers find scene-setting to be a difficult task when composing a creative work. It’s easy to use too little or too much detail, and language can seem like an inadequate tool for conveying a sense of space or form. However, with practice, you’ll find that it gets easier and easier to give your reader a good sense of where the story is happening.

When you practice setting a scene by describing scenes from life, pay attention to efficiency of language as well as elegance of language. You want the reader’s attention to be gripped by the images themselves, not the florid language you’ve chosen to describe them. It may take some time to get settled into a cadence that flows beautifully but still gets the job done. As with all writing exercises, practice really makes perfect when describing scenes from life.

You can complete this exercise in any setting, from a beautiful riverbank to your office’s break room. The important thing is to keep at it until you’ve developed a good sense of what you need to convey when you describe your setting to your reader. Learning to set a scene with efficient and beautiful language is a key step to becoming a great writer.

The Expected and the Unexpected in Archetypal Characters

Pomegranate - texture when splitAvoiding ‘cookie cutter characters’ is a sound policy for writers. At best, your stories will turn out to be predictable and boring if you fill them with characters your audience has seen before. At worst, you’ll be ridiculed for your laziness and branded as a plagiarist for the rest of your career.

However, there’s no need to panic if some of your main characters bear a strong resemblance to the main characters of another story. In fact, many well-crafted and popular works of fiction are built around characters that fit into a well-known mold. We refer to these characters, who have traits that make them unique but still conform to a common profile, as ‘archetypal characters.’

The psychologist Carl S. Jung discusses archetypes heavily in Man and His Symbols. Archetypes, Jung explains, function as symbolic representations of important elements of our personalities. The ‘lone wolf’ archetype, for example, represents our drive to be self-sufficient and free from depending on others who could prove unreliable or untrustworthy. Although John McClane, James Bond, and Batman have unique personalities and will never be confused with one another, they all fit into this same archetypal mold.

Audiences like reading about archetypal characters not just because we can all identify with them on some level, but also because they give us a set of expectations that the writer can play with for our amusement. Some of these expectations are essential to the archetypal character and should not be subverted too drastically, but others are less essential and can be played with more freely. For example, readers may feel a little disappointed if the stoic warrior breaks down and becomes a believer in the Power of Friendship ™ at the end of the book; however, they will be delighted to learn that he has a soft spot for soppy love ballads or a tendency to be extra-cruel to enemies who abuse animals. Subverting some of the elements of archetypal characters makes them unique, and it sends the hopeful message that we’re not as defined as we think we are by the roles we play in our own lives.

Archetypal characters make a writer’s job easier, but they are not as effortless to use as a character that’s simply been stolen from another work. When writing an archetypal character, writers should be observant of not only what the reader expects of these characters, but also what the reader does not expect.

Beware the Wild Thesaurus!

Primrose clumpNow and then on the internet, I find that some well-meaning soul has put together a helpful list of synonyms for some common word such as ‘said’ or ‘walked.’ The idea behind these lists is that these words have been ‘abused’ and that readers are bored by writing that uses them frequently. While there is some truth to the notion that ‘walked’ or ‘said’ isn’t always quite the right word, it’s a grave mistake to assume that the simplest, most commonly used word should be your last choice.

My main issue with lists of ‘alternatives’ is that they encourage beginning writers to weaken, rather than strengthen, their writing. Using compact words like ‘said’ and ‘walked’ helps you develop an efficient style that can be understood by a wide range of readers. Your job as a writer of prose is not to lead your reader through a winding maze of syllables, but rather to get them to understand whatever series of concepts makes up your story. We understand concepts better when they are presented simply. This is why some of the most vivid, powerful writing is composed mainly of short, simple words.

In addition to leading novice writers down the primrose path of flowery, elaborate prose, the list of alternatives fails to help writers cope with the real problems in your writing. If your readers are bored with your dialogue or your descriptions of action, it’s not because you keep using ‘said.’ It might be because the readers learn nothing from the dialogue; it might be because there’s no cadence to the conversation; it might even be because your characters are speaking in unnaturally florid language. Whatever the diagnosis is behind dull dialogue or action sequences, the issue can rarely be fixed by stuffing the scene with synonyms.

Now, this is not to say that you should never (or even rarely) use synonyms. If you’ve got a character struggling to speak because of illness or emotion, for example, you’d better pick a synonym for “said” or you’ll waste ten words getting that image into your reader’s mind. A rich vocabulary is an essential tool for every writer. However, with a great vocabulary comes a great responsibility to know each word so well that you can spot the moments where you really need it.

Perfect Realism Means Imperfect Characters

Split pomegranateLike everyone else who started writing by composing fanfiction, I was conditioned by my early teens to recoil and cringe at the phrase “Mary Sue.” While many writers (especially very young ones) love writing about beautiful, brilliant, well-loved characters who get everything they want with minimal effort, very few readers enjoy reading about them.

In all kinds of fiction, readers want to learn about realistic, well-rounded characters who must face their own inner demons as well as whatever external conflicts await them. Portraying your characters’ personal flaws is an important part of developing them. Although some of your characters might overcome some of their flaws over the course of the story, many of these foibles will remain part of their personality throughout the narrative.

When deciding what kinds of flaws your characters will have, try to include at least a few flaws that will impede their ability to get what they want over the course of the story. This will make your characters’ development crucial to the progression of the plot, and your readers will find themselves even more engaged in both your story and your characters. For example, the plot of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice hinges in part on Mr. Darcy’s ability to overcome his upper-class pretensions and help the Bennets out. The reader has a strong motivation to get invested in Mr. Darcy’s personal development because it is essential to his and Eliza’s getting what they want at the end of the story. It may be his good characteristics that attract Eliza, but it is his flaws which endear him to the reader and make him such a beloved character centuries later.

Flawless writing does not feature flawless characters. Develop your characters to be fallible creatures with well-rounded personalities, and make sure that their flaws function in some way as obstacles to the successful resolution of your story. This will keep your readers engaged with your story and help them get invested in your characters.

Carefully Trimming Your Writing

Road after strimmingIf you haven’t edited a long piece before, then tackling the first draft of a novel can look like a nigh impossible task. You’re not just making sure four or five paragraphs flow together coherently – you’re analyzing a lengthy narrative and shaping it into its final form. A critical part of this process will be deleting language that does not work or does not matter to your reader. However, it takes some practice before you develop a sense of when and where to cut language. In the meanwhile, try to ask some or all of these questions about every paragraph you read.

  • Which parts of the story would be hard to understand without this information?
  • How is this information leading the reader through the story?
  • What kind of information are you giving the reader here? Is it plot exposition? Character development? A description of a cake that the heroine is having for dessert?
  • Where else in the narrative can the reader get this information?

If you are not able to answer the first two questions, then you should probably delete the passage you’re asking about. Half the purpose of editing is the removal of unnecessary information which adds nothing to the story.

It’s not so simple to evaluate a passage based on your answer to the last two questions. Sometimes, we need to convey information like the rich chocolate flavor of the cake, even if the handsome stranger already told us about it when he ordered it for her from across the room. The latter two questions are more useful for comparing the importance of two passages than for quickly flagging unneeded language for removal.

Examining all of your paragraphs this closely may seem arduous, but you’ll be surprised at how quickly you learn to scrutinize your writing and spot passages that it doesn’t need. By analyzing your paragraphs’ role in your story and evaluating their importance, you can make great progress on editing even a very lengthy work.

Do You Keep a Commonplace Book? (You Should.)

Image2It’s almost a cliche that great ideas tend to come to us when we’re least ready for them. Whether it’s in the middle of the night or the middle of a meeting at work, writers frequently find themselves dashing for pen and paper at the most inconvenient of times.

This tendency goes back in human history for hundreds of years, and it has given us one of the most valuable tools still used to educate writers today. The commonplace book, which has been in frequent use since the Early Modern era, started out as a memory aid for students, scholars, merchants, writers, and other lettered people. These volumes were used to record recipes, proverbs, passages from great authors, and other ideas that might come in handy. They became more organized as their use became more widely adopted; John Locke’s essay Concerning Human Understanding advocates a particularly rigid system of organizing one’s commonplace book.

Although some avid fans of Locke might find it interesting to adhere to his method, the best way to organize your commonplace book is the one that makes the most sense to you. This is not a diary, but rather a tool that you’ll use over the course of years to record the thoughts and impressions that matter most to you and your work. A romance author may have a section devoted to things they notice about cute couples walking in the park, while an aspiring sports journalist might keep different sections for personal play-by-plays of basketball and hockey games. You might even find (like I have) that your commonplace book is better organized by project than by subject.

However you choose to organize your commonplace book, you should make an effort to use it frequently. Soon enough, this will become a habit, and you’ll find yourself reaching for this tool whenever you’ve got an idea that you want to set down on paper. The process of writing your thoughts down doesn’t just help you remember them – it helps you give them a logical structure that you can communicate clearly to others. Getting into the habit of writing what you think will help you get your ideas across clearly, both on paper and in person.

Numerous accomplished writers throughout history, from John Milton to H.P. Lovecraft, were well-known for keeping commonplace books. Modern writers should keep them as well; they offer an unparalleled opportunity to unpack your thoughts, develop your ideas, and record the ideas that occur to you throughout the day.

What They Mean when They Say “Clarify This Passage.”

Dcp_0334Clarity is something that every writer strives for. However, directions to “clarify this passage” or “make that passage easier to read” can be anything but clear. Each individual writer has their own particular strengths and weaknesses which can affect the clarity of their writing. Here’s a handy checklist that you can use to see what you need to do when you receive this particular criticism.

  • Go on a hunt for long sentences. As you advance, you’ll be able to wield longer and longer sentences without sacrificing clarity. However, there’s always something to be said for closely examining any sentence over 25 words in length and seeing if you can’t divide it into smaller, clearer sentences.
  • Highlight the noun phrases in your writing. Frequently, in our desire to bring our sentences’ subject to life on the page, we accomplish the opposite by burying the subject in a heap of modifiers. Shorter noun phrases (and shorter verb phrases, and shorter adverbial phrases) will help you clarify your writing.
  • Look for the logical flow. It need not be as simple and stilted as “All men are mortal. Socrates is a man. Therefore Socrates is mortal,” but you do need to be building your paragraphs’ ideas in a simple, easy-to-follow format.
  • Look for words you don’t need. Adverbs and adjectives are typically first to the wall when you start editing for clarity. Although clear writing has some descriptors to distinguish the characters and objects it describes, there is rarely a need to use these words for mere decoration.
  • Make a checklist of everything you want the reader to take away from a given passage, and then highlight the areas where you think you’re communicating this information. You’ll often surprise yourself with missing or garbled information when you take this step.

This list should by no means be considered a complete guide to clarifying your writing, but it can certainly provide you with a good start. Whether you’re working on an academic paper or an experimental poem, clarity is essential to strong, powerful writing. Editing for clarity is a career-long task for any writer, and although the challenges are great, the rewards are even moreso.

The Call of the Overwhelming: American Naturalism and the Wild Setting

Abruzzo - lakeThe American Naturalists differed from the Romantics in the way they responded to a challenging setting. When you see snow-capped peaks and gaping chasms in Romantic literature, the characters are generally being offered at least an opportunity for redemption.

American Naturalism, despite its name, does not look so kindly on the natural world. The builders of this genre, such as Stephen Crane and Jack London, did not share the Romantic opinion that an encounter with the natural world would necessarily make a protagonist better. On the contrary, the natural world of the Naturalists is a threatening force. Although nature promises to change the protagonists of Naturalist stories, the change is almost always for the worse. Although the characters may start out as civilized people with little connection to nature, the natural world invites the characters to give in to their most basic instincts and urges as they become one with the setting.

We cannot read the work of the Naturalists without acknowledging the genre’s roots in the Industrial Revolution. At this point in history, civilization (even with all its ugly trappings) promised to save humanity from the nasty, brutish, and short lives promised by an agrarian lifestyle. Naturalist stories present us with the conflict between the civilized and the uncivilized; while the uncivilized world might tempt the characters with its mystery and vitality, it ultimately promises them a nasty end that can only be avoided through contact with civilization.

Today’s authors, unlike the American Naturalists, are not working in the shadow of the Industrial Revolution. In fact, literature these days is more focused on mourning the loss of the natural world to the civilized world. However, like all literary movements, Naturalism leaves us some handy narrative techniques that we can put to good use in contemporary prose. The conflict between humanity and nature provides us with a simple yet powerful framework for thrilling adventure narratives, and it gives us the spicy backdrop for romance narratives where one heroic character is “tamed” by the other’s affections.

There are as many opportunities for you to be influenced by the American Naturalists as there are opportunities to use natural settings in your writing. Although the conflict between humanity and nature need not be the driving force behind your narrative, it can always help characters learn new things about themselves and get the motivation to bring about a story-changing event. Allowing your setting to be part of your story’s conflict can bring depth to your setting and help you move your plot along without adding a multitude of extra characters.

In Praise of Outlining

Purple salsify seedheadThere’s been a nasty rumor going around the world of creative writing for years. People have been saying that if you do it right, a work of prose will just come to you. The plot will flow through your mind, the characters will spring to life of their own accord, and your role in the whole process is simply to provide the “creative energy” – whatever that means.

It’s untrue that a piece of creative writing will never flow to you like this. However, it is just as untrue that you can expect such a wonderful thing to happen every time you sit down at your desk. A large part of the craft of writing is learning how to get through those dull, mundane days when the vivid story in your head does not want to effortlessly transform itself into a written work. Outlining is one of the most valuable tools available when this happens to us.

Every writer completes their outlines a little differently, but most writers begin their outlines by deciding to send their characters on a journey from Point A to Point B. Point B doesn’t have to be the end of the book; it could be the end of the chapter, or the next sex scene, or the next big plot-driving revelation. Once you have a Point B in mind, it’s a little easier to track back and write down events that need to happen to get you characters there.

It may not come quickly, and it may not come easily, but you will eventually have your outline – that is to say, you’ll have a list of small, sequential steps that your story needs to take between Point A and Point B. If you’re having a good, easy day of writing, you might find that a sparse outline is all you need to guide you through your day’s work. If you’re having a not-so-easy day, then writing a detailed outline and tackling steps one at a time can help the task of composition seem a little less daunting.

Although many of us are most familiar with the outline from our days composing essays in the schoolroom, this tool has its place in creative writing as well. Outlines can hep you flesh out your ideas, strengthen your plot, and help you overcome writer’s block one bullet point at a time.