Monthly Archives: May 2014

Creating Likable Characters

When someone likes your character, they’ll follow him into the evil witch’s castle, to the center of the earth, and through enemy lines. If someone likes your character, they’ll be invested. They won’t just read your novel, but get sucked into it. They feel – ache – for your character(s). And hopefully, they’ll become a fan, and read all your novels.

Creating a likable character isn’t as easy as it sounds. You can’t simply snap your fingers and be done with it. The character has to be believable and compelling.

Here are some traits found in most likable characters:

  • Selflessness. The protagonist is willing to put others before himself. Sometimes the willingness to do so is reluctant, but it still happens. Characters that are willing to risk their lives to save others is an instant likeability trait.
  • Actions. Action is what gives breath to a character. The protagonist doesn’t sit around and watch or wait for a resolution. He resolves the situation.
  • Kindness. Your protagonist can be rough on the outside, maybe even seem cold, but underneath there’s the desire to help others.
  • Others love him. Many heroes have loyal sidekicks. Many novels have romance arches. When the protagonist is loved and/or has earned the loyalty and respect of other characters, readers’ get more attached. Having other characters show their affection validates the character.
  • Morality. The protagonist represents the morals of the community. He stands up for those that do not have a voice. He fights those that would conquer and kill good people. He is the vision people want to live up to. Do this, and readers will root for your character.
  • Competence. Characters need to get the job done. Sure, they can stumble around, make mistakes, or be a klutz. But at the end of the day, they win, whether by luck, skill, superpowers, an army, or the help of a few, loyal friends.
  • Determination. Yes, your protagonist can have moments of doubt, but he continues to get back up every time he gets knocked down.
  • Bravery. Characters must move forward and face terrible and horrifying odds. They can’t see a dragon and curl up into a blubbering ball. They see a dragon, and fight it to protect the village it’s about to burn.
  • They’re relatable. Protagonists come from all over. They can be women or men, boys or girls. They can be from the slums or be part of the one percent. But no matter where they come from, they have an element that relates to readers. This can be a goal, a belief, a dream, or a desire. We may not be able to relate to a girl from District 12 going to compete against other children to the death, on television nonetheless. But we can relate to her need to protect her younger sibling (a loved one).
  • Humor. A little wit can go far. Think James Bond, Jack O’Neill, Elizabeth Bennet, Han Solo, Tony Stark, or Jack Sparrow. Jack Sparrow isn’t selfless, and he isn’t the smartest individual. But people love him. He’s entertaining. He makes us laugh. And he’s got great comebacks in the face of danger.

A few other tips:

  • Characters that whine, that don’t care they broke a promise, that play dirty, or that see themselves as superior to others aren’t going to win any likeability awards.
  • Beware of making a character too good or too bad. If a protagonist is pure and noble to the point of flawlessness, they’ll become too saint-like. They won’t be relatable. If the antagonist is completely evil and doesn’t have a single redeeming value, they become stereotypical.
  • Protagonists are both ordinary and extraordinary. It’s the character’s ordinariness that creates the first strings of attachment. The protagonist seems real. But then the protagonist rises out from the ordinary to do something extraordinary. I like to think of Kenzi from Lost Girl. Kenzi is witty and loyal, but she’s got no physical strength because she’s so tiny. She’s not the type you’d expect to win any fights. But as Hale (also from Lost Girl) says, “Nah. I’ll play it just like you, all right? General cowardice with moments of crazy bravery.” (S1E13) Kenzi, despite the odds, is willing to do anything for those she cares about. That is extraordinary.

Who are some likable characters you can think of?

From Mountains to Forests: World Building in Fiction

World building is an essential part of novels, especially for fantasy and science fiction. A detailed and clear world (setting) makes the plot and characters feel more real. World building also creates consistency within the story.

Many times fictional worlds borrow pieces of real locations. J.R.R. Tolkien used ancient Norse mythology to help build his world. However, the way he put his world together was original and interesting. It felt real. By having such a detailed foundation and history of Middle Earth, Tolkien’s plot gained power.

Though creating a history for your world is something you have to do on your own, there are some things to consider:

  • Climate. What’s the type of weather? Is it hot or cold? Dry or wet? Are there seasons? People live different lives depending on where they reside. If you live in Alaska, you’re not going to dress like someone who lives in South Africa. You may even have different morals. Climate (and setting in general) affects what’s considered normal.
  • Animals and Plants. What kinds of plants grow in this world? Are they purple stemmed with red flowers? Is the grass orange? What types of animals live there? How about food (it’ll differ depending on local animals and plants)?
  • Industry, Economy, and Resources. What types of jobs are there? Where do people live? Is it an agricultural world or is the world littered with cities? Are resources readily available? Are they only available to certain socioeconomic classes? Is the air polluted from industrialization? What’s the usual mode of transportation?
  • Government. What’s the political system governing your world? Is there a centralized government or is it a fractured system? Is it more like a monarchy or a democracy? Has the government been warped over time?
  • Religion. What’s the religion? Is there a religion? How about religious tolerance? Is there one god or many? Are there multiple religions? Do they contradict each other?
  • Education. How do people learn? Are there elementary, middle, and high schools? Do you learn only what you need to survive? How about higher education? Is education restricted to only certain socioeconomic classes?
  • Entertainment, Art, and Architecture. How do the people in your world express themselves? Are music, dance, and art allowed? How are the houses decorated? What materials are they made of? What do people do for fun? Often acceptable and unacceptable types of entertainment show the morals and ethics of a people.

By spending time on developing your world (even details that won’t play a big part in your story), your world will better stand up to scrutiny, and there will be less plot holes. Plus, creating obstacles for your characters will be easier.

What’s your favorite fictional world?

And the Morning Sky was Red: The Art of Foreshadowing

Foreshadowing increases dramatic tension within a novel. It builds anticipation, adds suspense, and drops hints to readers. With small details we can indicate that things could go wrong. Sometimes those things do. Sometimes not. The point of foreshadowing is to help keep readers interested.

There are a few things to be aware of when foreshadowing:

  • Don’t be overly obvious. Heighten expectations, but keep readers guessing. You can also mislead readers (as long as it’s justified) by making them believe that one thing will happen, when something else actually occurs. For instance, instead of person A shooting person B, person A shoots himself.
  • Don’t break your promises to readers. When you foreshadow that something big is going to happen, you can’t back out. For example, if you lead readers to believe that a major character will escape death, readers will be disappointed, and probably mad, if you kill off that character.

There are many ways to foreshadow effectively. Here’s a list of some of the ways:

  • Name a coming event. Not the most subtle technique, but by naming an event and indicating why it’s going to be problematic, readers will anticipate the upcoming event, and will want to see how it’ll play out.
  • Use symbolism. Something as simple as “the leaves fell early that year” (A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway) implies something is going to happen. Having a group of kids playing “Ring Around the Rosie” could be another sign. What’s great about symbolism is it can be very subtle. The character(s) may not pick up on the foreshadowing, but readers will.
  • Prophecies. In real life, a lot of people don’t believe in crystal balls, horoscopes, and the like. But in novels, nothing is meaningless. If something is included in a book, it’s important.
  • Apprehension. Describing someone as sweaty or tense, or with shaking limbs, or having an uneasy look all indicate to readers that a big event is about to occur. Seeing that the characters are apprehensive, will make readers apprehensive.

Foreshadowing allows us to guide readers’ expectations. It helps us to prepare them for what’s to come. Heavy foreshadowing is used for the biggest events within the novel. This type of foreshadowing starts early on in the book and continues throughout, until the major event. Light foreshadowing is used for smaller events, and can be used to “poke” readers, reminding them that the big event you foreshadowed in the first chapters is finally about to happen.

Just remember not to go overboard with foreshadowing. Let the reader do the work. (Readers are usually very good at interpreting information and reading between the lines. They’ll get bored if you point out every little thing to them.)

What do you think of foreshadowing?

Take The Reins: Controlling Your Novel’s Pacing

Pacing is about building the thrill. It’s about keeping readers intrigued for the entire novel without exhausting them. This tends to be especially true for young adult novels, where events occur at a faster pace than adult books.

Pacing is the speed of your prose. For example, shorter sentences increase the pace, while longer ones slow it down. So, for action scenes, shorter sentences work better. For those languid, romantic ones, longer sentences will do.

Good pacing has an ebb and flow. There’s a balance between slower scenes and high-speed scenes. If you have a breakneck pace for the entire novel, readers will burn out. So much will be occurring so quickly that everything becomes a blur, and nothing, or very little, will be remembered. However, have too many slow scenes, and readers will be more likely to put down the novel. And not pick it back up.

Here are some tips to reach that right balance:

  1. Begin the story at a critical point. The protagonist is at a crossroads. Difficult choices must be made immediately. Doing this will instantly draw readers in.
  2. Cut the boring bits. Novels aren’t like real life in many ways. One of those ways is that only the most tension-filled and vital moments are included. Readers don’t care what random dreams character A had, or the three different outfits character B spent an hour trying on, or the multiple paragraphs on character C’s elementary school crush that moved away in the third grade.
  3. Dialogue vs. Description. Dialog tends to be read more quickly because the sentences are usually shorter. Descriptive scenes are denser, and so read more slowly. But, you need to be able to put both dialogue and description together to truly keep readers interested. Description that quickly sets the mood and shows that something’s about to happen, will lead readily into important dialog, and give readers a clear picture of what’s going on.
  4. Start each chapter with a crucial moment. Chapters allow for breaks in the story. However, many readers will read the first sentence or two of the next chapter to see what’s coming up. If those first sentences grab them, they’ll keep reading, instead of putting the book down.
  5. Don’t put all the action in one scene. By splitting the action up into several scenes, readers will be left with cliffhangers that will keep them reading. And when finishing off a series of scenes always include something that makes the story move forward.
  6. At times, slow it down. Sometimes pacing needs to slow down to keep balance in the novel. These times are when you add in relevant description. What people look like, what the weather is like, or where the events are occurring. This allows people to build images in their minds, and to add to those images later as more description is added throughout the novel.
  7. Unpredictability. When readers see what’s coming, they’ll assume and anticipate what happens. This takes a lot of power away from your scenes. If readers can’t guess what’s about to happen, then scenes become fascinating.

What kind of pacing do you prefer?