Monthly Archives: September 2014

Creating a Compelling Character

What comes to mind when you think about characters in fiction? How about your characters? How do you reveal them to readers?

Creating characters readers care about is an essential step to creating a successful novel. It’s not only a character’s physical description. In fact, what a character looks like is only a very small part of creating a compelling character, and probably one of the least important aspects to a character. (Think about it. When you and your friends read the same novel and then talk about it, how often do they picture the characters the same way you did? I know my imagination adds to characters. I’ve even had it where a novel says a guy has black hair, and yet I still picture him blond.)

Here are some ways to reveal a character to readers:

  • Voice. What a character says and what they don’t say tells you something about what that character is like. Also important is how a character says what they say. Think about the statement, “I love it.” If spoken flatly that statement means something very different than spoken excitedly.
  • Action. What a character does in a given situation, or what they don’t do. Action is character. Actions carry more meaning than words. People can say anything. It’s easy to speak, but it’s what a character does that’s truly revealing.
  • Background. A character’s background. I.e.- occupation, family, where he’s from, era, significant events of the past and how he handled those situations, culture, religion, economic situation, gender, race, individual skills and society’s evaluation of those skills, his philosophy of the world (how he views the world), etc.

A character’s reaction to significant events in his life is telling. Multiple people can experience the same event, but each individual reacts differently. Most people have lost a loved one sometime during their life, yet not everyone breaks down in tears or shuts down emotionally, or smiles and seems like nothing’s wrong.

There’s a quote a professor once shared with me. It sums up the previous paragraph. “Not every male who’s close to their mother ends up like Norman Bates.”

  • Internal World of the Character. What a character fears or wants in the larger sense. This relates back to last week’s post on internal pressure, where a character weighs his fear of a situation against the possible outcomes or gains from overcoming his fear.
  • Exposition. This is what you tell the reader. Exposition provides context about the character directly to the reader. This is a vital part of creating a compelling character; however don’t go overboard with exposition. Telling a reader something is good, as long as you don’t forget about also showing the character to the reader.

When creating a compelling character, you need something to tie all the pieces together. Characters, just like people, are made up of a ton of different parts. There’s a reason many consider humans puzzles. But just as puzzles can be put together to form a whole, so must a character. If a character isn’t whole, then his actions won’t make sense.

How do you go about creating compelling characters?

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Watch Out! Getting Your Characters Under Pressure

There are many components to successful stories. Voice, language, and story structure are three examples. However, there are certain aspects that make stories.

Probably fundamentally is the concept that fiction is characters under pressure. Without pressure there would be no story.

Let’s take a look at reality for a moment. In reality, the average person likes living in a comfort zone, where he can minimize risk. And when he does take risks, most times they’re calculated risks. For example, if you decide to go skydiving, you’re going to take classes first or do a buddy dive, where you’re strapped to an expert skydiver. You’re not going to say, “Alright, strap a parachute on me and let’s do this!” At least, not your first time out.

Well, fictional characters like being in comfort zones too. It’s our job as writers to force them out of their comfort zones. We apply the pressure. Because, when characters are under pressure, they reveal who they truly are.

The same applies in real life. When people are under pressure, they don’t have time to pick and choose what and how they want to show themselves to the world. They only have time to react.

Also, pressure makes characters compelling.

There are two types of pressure:

  • External Pressure. External pressure is outside pressure that’s placed on the character. So, if Johnny lost his job and now can’t afford rent, that’s external pressure. Johnny’s forced into a situation where he’s got to make quick decisions, or else he’ll be out on the streets, or will have a landlord threatening him with legal action. Add to that his girlfriend ending up being pregnant, and since she’s Roman Catholic, she devoutly believes she must be married before she gives birth…now Johnny’s really under pressure.
  • Internal Pressure. Internal pressure is pressure from within. It’s pressure you put on yourself. You know doing something will make you uncomfortable, but you do it anyway because you believe the payoff outweighs the anxiety you’ll experience. Love is a great example of this. Sally meets Tommy. Sally really likes Tommy, but she’s afraid of falling in love. Her parents fell in love and got married. Then, they had a very ugly divorce, where her dad ending up trying to poison her mom. Sally doesn’t want to be that vulnerable. Ever. But she’s always wanted to be in love, so she forces herself to go for it because, even though she’s terrified of opening up, she believes love is worth it.

External and internal pressure are both needed in a story. Using them at different times will add to your story, and combining them, letting them complicate each other, will up the ante.

Are you putting enough pressure on your characters?

How to Start a Piece of Fiction

Where do stories come from? Are they born from birds with eagles’ beaks and tails of fire? Do they originate from springs with waters so crisp and clear you’d stop aging if you drank from them? Can you reach up into the sky and pluck stories from clouds?

That would be cool. But where do stories come from?

Everywhere.

They can come from an experience you or someone else had. Or they can start with something you heard. What you heard set off a spark. It inspired you.

Perhaps a story began with a character. Or a complication. The exploration of an idea. Maybe the story came from the question “what if.” Toni Morrison got the idea for her novel, Beloved, from an old newspaper clipping of a mother murdering her baby, just before she was dragged back into slavery. Morrison was interested in why the mother killed her child. What would drive a mother to murder her infant?

Twilight came from a dream Stephenie Meyer had.

A story can even begin with a sentence. Whatever causes that first spark, that bit which makes you want to examine an idea. Makes you need to explore it. Obsess over it.

A few tips on starting a novel:

  • Get it down. Whether the idea or words are good or not, write it. Put it on paper. Any negative emotions that come up (“This is stupid,” “No one thinks I’m a real writer,” “This is such a waste of time,” “I suck at writing.”) shouldn’t stop you because emotions change. Something you hate now, you may love later. The opposite also applies.

There’s a quote a professor I once had said. One of his former students said it to him. I’ll say it to you guys.

“It’s amazing what you can do as a writer, when you don’t care about what others think of you as a writer.”

  • Write what you know and don’t worry about what you don’t know. Many novels are written piece by piece, and then put together. Write the parts of the story you can picture clearly. You’ll figure out what you can’t see down the road, if you need to.
  • If you hit a roadblock, jump over it. There’s really nothing in fiction you can’t get away with. You make up the rules, the laws. If everyone is blue and can fly, then so be it. And if you get stuck, skip over it and come back. Whatever you do, don’t stop writing (Unless you feel like your head’s about to explode, then take a short break. Go for a hike. Watch something that makes you laugh).

In the end, you can get an idea for a story anywhere and start a story with anything. The key is to persist and not get overwhelmed. Don’t talk yourself out of completing a story, or even starting it. Get an idea, write it down. Flesh it out. Mold it. Sculpt it. And when you do get another idea, jot that one down too, so when you’re finished with the one you’re working on, you have another idea to build with.

Where do you get your ideas?

5 Ideas to Support an Author’s New Novel

Everyone can help support the release of an author’s new novel. It doesn’t have to be a big gesture. Small things help too. And authors will appreciate the help, especially debut authors.

  1. Buy the book. Obvious? Yeah, but there are some people who’d pirate books online. Buying the book helps with sales statistics and with getting that author a royalty. Also, if you’re interested in a soon-to-be-released novel, pre-order it. The more books are pre-ordered, the more attention publishers tend to give them.
  2. Review the book. Book reviews range from a few sentences to multiple paragraphs, sometimes pages. Read the book, write a review, and put it up on Amazon, Goodreads, etc. (You have to add your review to Amazon and Goodreads separately.) Heck, even if you just choose a number of stars to rate it, that’s better than nothing. Because, on some level, book ratings and reviews affect us as readers. For me, there are certain people on Goodreads whose reviews do influence whether or not I choose to read a novel (We’ve got very similar tastes, so if they didn’t like it, I most likely won’t. But if they loved it, I’ll definitely add it to my wish list).
  3. Use Social Media to Your Advantage. Social media is here and it’s staying, so use it. Facebook. Twitter. LinkedIn. Google plus. Pinterest. Blogs. Spread the word. Let people know you liked a novel. Word of mouth is really important. It makes a difference in whether or not a book is successful.
  4. Press the “Like” Button. The more “likes” a book receives, the more it appears when someone is searching for a similar title.
  5. Set Up Connections. If you know someone in the publishing or media world, help out a debut author. This one applies more to friends than total strangers, but if you read an author’s new novel and loved it, don’t be shy with contacting them. Authors love making connections.

Any ideas to add?

7 Things You Should Know About Agents

Agents may seem like an elite society, one that’s closed off to the general public, but they aren’t. They’re very busy and have individual interests, and will only select novels they enjoy and think will sell, but they are looking for that next novel. Here’s some things you should know:

  1. Complete manuscript. Make sure your manuscript is complete before you query an agent. If an agent requests a full manuscript, it’d be a major bummer to not have one ready. It’s rare for an agent to even request a full, so if and when it happens, be ready.
  2. Do your homework. Know what the agent represents before you send them your query. If they’re into comedy, don’t send them a dark and gritty story that has no comic relief. Also, try to keep up to date with what agents want. What they were looking for last year, they probably aren’t still looking for this year
  3. No fees. You don’t pay agents. They look at your submission, decide if they’re interested, and then choose to either represent you or not. They get a slice of your book deal. If an agent asks for a reading fee, don’t give it to them. In fact, don’t continue to contact them. They’re either a scam artist or are really bad at their job.
  4. Be professional. Your query needs to look good. No spelling errors. No grammatical issues. Make sure to include word count, genre, book title (in all caps), and a way to contact you. And don’t send an angry email to an agent when they reject you (and if you are like most people, you will get rejected). It’s not personal. The agent doesn’t know you, and they know very little about your book. They just weren’t interested in what they read.
  5. The Reminder. Sometimes you’ll send out your query and hear nothing from an agent. Most agents will give an estimated response time (i.e.- 6-8 weeks). If you don’t hear anything from them in that time frame, send a very concise and polite reminder email. (Waiting a week or two after the estimated response time doesn’t hurt either.) However, if you don’t hear anything after that, then it’s time to write the agent off.
  6. Social Media. In today’s world, social media is important, whether you want it to be or not. Agents are on social media, which is a good thing. You can follow them on Twitter, see what they up to in agent interviews, find out how to query them via their website, and find out if they’re going to be at any upcoming writing conferences. Also, get active on social media. It’s very unusual for an author to not be an active member of today’s social media scene.
  7. Agents aren’t required. You don’t need an agent to get published. You can self publish or go straight to a publishing house (though this is more for small publishers). Agents may make your life easier (I said may), but you won’t be ostracized for getting published without an agent.

All in all, the relationship between an agent and an author is give and take. If the relationship isn’t synergetic, then that agent may not be right for you.