My Characters Are Flat as Cardboard! How do I Make Them Real?

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Apr 182018
 

Like many beginning writers, I started my fiction career by simply sitting down behind my computer,  happily typing away, without knowing where to start or finish.
I didn’t know about plot or structure, let alone ever hearing about ‘plotters’ and ‘pantsers’. Neither did I know that characters need to be real, as otherwise they become as flat as cardboard cut-outs.

I was lucky that I ‘only’ wrote 50,000 words before a friend told me that my stories lacked depth, conflict and structure and that my characters were boring.

Of course, I wanted to strangle her at first for telling me all this, but I soon realised that she had more experience with fiction writing then I did, and what’s more, that she was setting out on a career as a developmental editor.
If she said something was wrong with my stories, then something was wrong!

I was glad that she also saw lots of good things in my stories. ‘Real potential’ were the words she used, and that kept me going.
I still had to go back to the drawing board, but that was okay. At least she had stopped me from publishing bad books that, even with real potential, simple weren’t good enough yet to be read by other people.

I decided to start again – at the beginning, building a world and populate it with characters. And this time around these characters needed to be interesting as hell.

Characters become interesting when they feel real to the reader

Funny enough it was participating in an Indie Blog Hop that made me think about my characters as living creatures with lives they had lived before appearing in my story.
One of the things to do that week of the blog hop, was interviewing a character. I chose Paddy the Rat, a character that wasn’t even a major character in my stories at the time, just a rat freaking out the humans.

By interviewing Paddy, I was suddenly forced to think like him and I loved writing his voice so much that soon afterwards I decided to make him one of the heroes in my newly re-invented stories.

It was not only the start of a completely new world that I needed to add to the already existing human world, but also the start of two complicated storylines that run through the complete series of nine books, one for the humans and one for the rats.

Those complicated storylines couldn’t see the light of day without backstory and some knowledge on my side of what the characters should look like, how they act and why they act like they do.

To write characters that feel real, you need to delve into their backstory and the reason why they do things

I asked my friend, who by now had become my developmental editor, how to create interesting characters and she advised me to read Story Engineering by Larry Brooks, where he explains the creation of real characters in great detail.

Main characters need backstories, which comes down to figuring out what has happened to them before they appear in the first chapter of the story.

  • Where did they go to school?
  • Who were their friends?
  • How was their home life?

Questions like that. These don’t have to be answered in excruciating detail, but the writer does need to get an idea of what shaped the character and how they turned out to be who they are in the stories.

Asking questions about the character might give you an idea of who they are, so you can make them real

There are many ways to get to know your character. Personally, I combined a few techniques to come up with a list of 35 questions I ask myself about the character. Questions such as:

  • What matters most to this character and why?
  • What does he resent?
  • What lessons has your character not yet learned in life?
  • What lessons has he experienced but rejected or failed to learn?
  • Does your character have secret? Who would he least like to discover it? Why is this secret so important?
  • What is your character’s most secret yearning?

It takes a lot of effort to answer all of the 35 questions, but by the end of it I know my character inside and out.
That’s when I can start thinking about what he believes he wants, but also about what he actually needs. I can also figure out the lie he tells himself to keep the status quo, and the emotional wound that he carries around, that makes him act like he does and who he is.

It’s the answers to all of these questions that make a character real.

Giving the character some positive and negative traits makes him complete

Then comes the most fun part of it all: figuring out which traits your character has.

Everyone has things they like and don’t like about themselves. These are the positive and negative traits.
The characters in a story are the same. They need positive and negative traits, in order for them to react to the situations the writer throws at them.

I couldn’t figure out these traits without the help of two excellent thesauruses: The Positive Trait Thesaurus and The Negative Trait Thesaurus, written by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi.
Both books provide long lists of traits, each of those explained in detail.

I scroll through the lists and write down the traits I think suit my character best. I then choose the four most important positive and the four most important negative traits, to get a really good idea of what makes my character tick.

For example, Paddy the Rat’s positive traits are: loyal, adventurous, perceptive and imaginative. His negative traits are: nervous, obsessive, irritating and impulsive.

It can sometimes take me a day or more to answer all the questions and get the traits right. I know this might seem like a waste of time, but I have noticed that doing the job thoroughly, specially at the beginning of a new series, creates a very strong foundation on which to build the story.

Of course it’s not necessary to do this for all your characters. Only the major ones, like the hero and his sidekick, but also for the antagonist or the villain.

In four years I have come a long way from simply sitting down behind my computer and believing that typing away was the way to go. I have learned about structure and plot, but above all I have found a way to make my characters as real as possible. Whatever way you chose for yourself to create interesting characters, remember that it takes a lot more to make them jump of the page than just a bit of backstory .

 

What techniques do you use to make your characters real? I’d love to hear about them in the comments below.

 

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We Writers are Good at Worrying!

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Apr 162018
 

Every writer knows what it feels like. One day you wake up and looking at your Work in Progress you realise that it’s crap. It isn’t, of course, but that’s what it feels like. You’re writing is crap, it will never get better and people will never want to read it.

I must admit that some writers suffer more from self-doubt than others. But at some point in our careers we have all thought that our work was bad and that it was perhaps better to find a ‘proper job’.

Eva Kattz, my co-writer and friend wrote a fantastic blog post about this very subject last Friday (the 13th of all days…). So, read it and get inspired! Writers Who Worry

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What do you worry about as a writer and how do you get over it? I’d love to hear about it in the comments below.

My Chapters Need to End, But How?

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Apr 092018
 

Nothing lasts forever and neither do our chapters. At some point they have to end, all writers know that. But what are the best ways to end a chapter and what do you absolutely want to avoid?

I must admit that when I started writing I thought it normal to end my chapters in the following way.

‘I’d better get going.’
‘Yeah, I’ll see you next week.’
‘Will do!’
‘Bye.’
‘Bye.’

As I type this I even realise that I used it as such a few times in my first narrative non-fiction book. (Note to self: really should re-write and re-publish that thing…)

Of course, there are far better and more engaging ways to end a chapter and as luck will have it, my co-writer and friend Eva Kattz, wrote a whole blogpost about it the other day: Chapter Endings to Hook Your Reader.

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What chapter ending faux pas have you made in the past? I’d love to hear about it in the comments below.

A lesson in Backstory from Friends

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Mar 272018
 

The other day, while I was watching the umpteenth rerun of Friends, I suddenly saw something I had never noticed before. During the episode called The One with Rachel’s Other Sister, a single 3-word sentence showed me the best way to convey a whole lot of backstory, without falling into a host of writer’s traps.

Backstory is the bane of every writer’s life. Your stories can’t really do without it, but using too much of it will at best bring your story to a screeching halt and at worst insult the reader’s intelligence. Neither of which you want to happen.

But as your characters usually will have lived a life before they appear in the first paragraph of your book, some of that life will be important for the story you are telling. After all, it made them who they are on page one.
So how do you let the reader know about this without the aforementioned things happening. This is tricky and therefore a trap we writers often fall into.

Flashbacks take the flow out of the story

Many writers are tempted to use flashback to let their readers know about what went on before in their hero’s life. Sometimes these flashbacks are printed in italics, sometimes they are a dream or daydream sequence. But in whatever form they come, in general they will take the flow out of the story.
In other words, the story is halted to explain the reader something about the hero and what effect this had on them.

When the story is halted to explain something to the reader, you’re on the wrong track as a writer.

My developmental editor taught me never to use flashbacks, but even so, I sometimes feel the need to let my readers know something about my hero.
In order to do that without taking the flow out of my story, I use a different tactic in my Jacob Hicks Murder Mysteries. I resort to short separate scenes, which are set completely in the time I want the reader to know about.

I clearly indicate these scenes by using a specific date or ‘X years earlier’ in bolt at the beginning of the scene, to let my reader know that they’re about to enter a different timeframe. Then for the next ‘proper’ scene I use ‘Present day’ to show them that the original story continues.

Although perhaps not the most elegant of solutions, by using these ‘look back’ scenes very sparingly, perhaps one per act, I feel I can get away with it. Especially, as I use plot and pace to make these scenes part of the structure of the story.

Backstory in dialogue can insult the reader’s intelligence

Another easy writer’s trap to fall into is using dialogue to explain backstory to the reader. A good example of this is the ‘as you know’ dialogue.

John and Pete are having a conversation about their Uncle Mark, in which John says, ‘As you know, Pete, Uncle Mark likes to hit the bottle every now and then.’
But as John says, Pete already knows this, so why on earth would John say something like that? People don’t talk like that in real life, so why would they in a story?

It’s insulting to the reader that you as a writer seem to need to explain something to them in such a simple way.

If you want your reader to know that Uncle Mark likes his tipple, then you need to find another way to convey that to them. Or perhaps it turns out that you don’t even need to say it is so many words, as readers are very good in reading between the lines and don’t need to have everything explained to them.

Another example of using dialogue for backstory in the wrong way is the ‘did I ever tell you?’ dialogue.

Pete says, ‘Did I ever tell you, John, that Uncle Mark and I had a great adventure when we were in Switzerland all those years ago?’ John says, ‘Yeah, I’ve heard the story, but remind me.’
Enter a great expositional dialogue about something John already knows, but that is apparently important for the reader to know as well.

Dialogue is not always bad to use as exposition about backstory

So having tried to avoid telling the reader my character’s backstory through dialogue, I was surprised that in the Friends episode it was used to great effect. But that was because it was done in the right way.

Rachel and Ross are in Ross’ apartment, where Rachel now also lives with her new baby. Someone knocks on the door and Rachel goes to open it.
‘Who is it?’ she says.
‘It’s me, your favourite sister,’ says a female voice through the still closed door.
‘Jill?’ Rachel asks.
‘No, Amy!’’
Hearing that, Rachel turns to Ross and says, ‘Hide my rings.’ Then goes to open the door.

That little sentence ‘Hide my rings’, tells the viewer everything they need to know about the relationship between Rachel and her sister Amy. Clearly she can’t be trusted. But instead of beating the viewer over the head with it and explaining what happened before to make Rachel react like this, there is only that simple 3-word sentence that says it all.

That fact that Amy used to borrow things from Rachel and apparently not returning them, is never touched on again in the whole episode. Neither does it need to, as it only needed to tell us viewers about how Rachel thinks about her sister. We don’t need to know what happened before. We just need to know what effect it has on Rachel now.

Discovering the above, showed me two things. Firstly there is this very simple way to let readers know about backstory. Secondly that you should never stop watching Friends. Well, let me rephrase that. Secondly, that we writers can learn so much from other writers and that you never know where you can pick up tips about writing.

 

Are there any writing tips you picked up from watching TV? I’d love to hear about them in the reactions below.

 

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Fun interview about Fiction Builder!

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Mar 162018
 

Publishing a new book is always great, but even more so when you get to do fun interviews. Yesterday Fiction Builder!, the book I co-wrote with Eva Kattz, came out, and today you can read all about it in the interview Mariëlle Sophia Smith did with us for her writer’s blog mswordsmith.nl.

Mariëlle asked us some probing questions, among which:

  • Why did you decided to write Fiction Builder!?
  • How is this book different from any other wiring book out there?
  • Who will benefit from reading Fiction Builder!?

So please make you way to www.mswordsmith.nl/fictionbuilder to get an answer to those questions.

 

Curious to see what it’s all about? Then download the Free Cheat Sheets and start using the Fiction Builder method right away!

 

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