Tag Archives: writing process

Do Everything But Kill Your Characters: Why Struggle is Vital for Character Development

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When we write, we all have characters that we love. We don’t want anything bad to happen to them. They’re our children, and like all good parents, we want to keep our kids safe. However, when characters are safe, they’re not interesting. More so, readers, and ourselves, don’t get to know who these characters are. We can’t discover what lies at their core. It’s only through the tough times that we get to truly know our characters.

Not long ago, I provided feedback on several chapters for a fantasy novel. These chapters were about midway through the novel, and after having read from chapter one to this point, I found myself not knowing who the protagonist was. Sure, she was a princess, the last of her family (the rest of them having died in peculiar accidents), and was on the run from evil fairies and a traitorous royal court. But her two loyal companions were always there to save her from any attack.

So, while the princess constantly thought about how she had to be brave and kind and show that she deserved the crown, I never got to see her in action. She was always standing around, waiting for her companions to fight off various sinister creatures. I got to a point where I asked the author, “What would happen if the princess was attacked, when there was no one around to save her?”

It turned out that the princess could take care of herself.

It’s easy for characters to think or say they’d act/react one way, but eventually something bad has to happen to them. Only when our characters are forced to act do we uncover their true personalities.

And, once characters face hardship—and the more that they confront—they grow. They can only become better people if what they care about is shredded to tiny pieces. Rip characters’ souls apart and they’ll be forced to build more resilient hopes, dreams, and spirits.

It’s not easy to knock down your characters, not only because you care about them, but because it’s emotionally taxing on you. Some of the hardest scenes I’ve written are when I’m ripping apart my protagonist. I become so emotionally invested in the story that I experience what my protagonist experiences, so by the end of stressful scenes, I am emotionally and physically spent.

But, I continue to write those scenes, because of all the books I’ve read, the best ones are usually those where the characters are torn down. Even if the book is fantasy or science fiction, I can relate to the core of the hardships they face, and that makes me care about the characters.

(Photo courtesy of Ewan Cross.)

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Showing Vs. Telling

Show don’t tell is a piece of advice most writers have heard of. But what does this mean in practical terms?

First off, exposition is useful in your writing, as long as you don’t over-indulge.

Fiction is about creating an emotional link between the author’s story and the reader. As the author, we want to help readers create a “suspension of disbelief,” meaning the readers move past the fact that our stories are fabrications.

To do this, we make fiction as plausible as possible and go for the readers’ emotions over their intellect.

One of the top ways to accomplish these two acts is to show the reader what’s happening, instead of telling them.

Telling catalogs emotions and actions. Showing makes the reader feel like they’re in the story. It activates the fives senses, or at least some of them. It’s what the characters do and say that convinces the reader.

Work with immediate physical and emotional actions: wind whipped her cheeks, his face went ashen, a fist curled in her gut.

Use verbs to carry the description. There are so many verbs out there that it’s wrong to ignore them.

Maria walked down the hallway. VS. Maria slinked down the hallway.

The second sentence gives the reader a clearer image of Maria and her mood.

As different verbs can drastically alter the way a reader interprets a scene, sentences can too. Be wary of telling readers how to feel in a sentence. Don’t tell the reader to be surprised, shock the reader with your words.

Think of The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris. With the line, “The tiny insect-crawl of the second hand was the last thing she saw before the lights went out,” Harris focuses our attention before causing something to happen that makes us jump. Harris shows us something unexpected instead of telling us it’s unexpected.

Showing results in more writing than telling does. But that helps to relieve ambiguity. If we say that the house looked old, the reader is left wondering what “old” looks like in this context.

Saying that the house is choked with vines, its paint flaking, a few of its support beams peeking through the cracks, and its heavy, velvet curtains moth-ridden gives a much stronger image.

Dialogue is also a useful tool in showing, not telling. It can suggest a character’s background, self-image, intelligence, personality, etc.

For example, Jace Wayland’s character in The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones:

  • “And next time you’re planning to injure yourself to get my attention, just remember that a little sweet talk works wonders.”
  • Clary: “Don’t. I’m not really in the mood right now.” Jace: “That’s got to be the first time a girl’s ever said that to me.”

These two examples show Jace’s arrogance and charisma, and that he’s a bit self-centered.

However, there are a few arguments for telling instead of showing. One is briefness. As stated earlier, showing shoots up word count. If an event in your novel is relatively unimportant, it might be better to tell it. Two is recounting events. If your character is retelling an event that readers are already familiar with, don’t spend a ton of time on it. Gloss over it and get to the next big surprise.

For the most part, stick with showing, not telling. Vivid writing grabs readers’ attention. It draws them into the story.

Showing is a vital component of creating vivid stories that suck the reader into your world. So, remember these points when writing:

  • Don’t tell readers how to feel, evoke their emotions
  • Use strong and specific verbs
  • Use expressive dialogue that shows off characters’ attitudes and emotions
  • Use well-placed details to activate the senses

One last thing: If there’s a moment in your story or a story you’re reading where you don’t feel convinced, those are moments that are being told instead of shown.

Any specific novels that come to mind that tell instead of show? How about show instead of tell?

The Birth Of An Idea

There’s one question writers tend to get asked universally: Where do your story ideas come from? 

There’s no one response to this question. There’s no correct answer that will help those searching for inspiration find it. 

Ideas can flow from anywhere. Many times they simply materialize out of the writer’s head. But there are some ways you can spark or jog ideas into something greater:

  1. Daydreams or nighttime dreams. If you remember what you dreamed about, you can often find inspiration. You just have to notice the details and pay attention to what can be used and what can’t.
  2. People, places, images. You could be sitting at the beach and notice a girl running along the sand. Something about her starts your mind churning. You could be visiting an ancient castle, once great but now in ruins. You could see an old woman, sitting at a kitchen table, holding a stack of half burned letters in her hands.
  3. Disagreements. Is there something you don’t agree with in the novels you read? How about in TV series? Is there something you believe is missing in these novels and TV shows?
  4. Ask yourself “What if…” type questions. What if you woke up and found yourself in a forest, naked?  I wonder what is behind that locked door. If only I could step into the trunk of a tree and find myself in another world.
  5. Experiences and emotions. Are there any experiences you’ve had or someone you know has had that stuck with you? Are there certain emotions or a combination of emotions you want to explore?

Ideas can sprout from anything and any moment. Finding ideas isn’t the hard part. The challenge is figuring out which ideas are worth pursuing, and then giving those ideas form on paper, fleshing them out enough to create an engaging and believable story.

Where do you get your ideas?

Burning That Midnight Candle

You’ve heard of writers who stay up half the night (or the entire night) writing in a fevered state. Their minds are working so fast their fingers can’t keep up with them.

You’ve also heard of writers who write for fifteen minutes, then jump up and do something else for thirty minutes before sitting back down to write for another fifteen minutes.

I find myself somewhere in between these two scenarios. When I sit down to write, I can pump out thousands of words, utterly forgetting about time. (The longest I’ve written for in one sitting is about twelve hours. I’ll admit I forgot to eat.) I can also sit and stare at my computer screen watching the seconds tick by.

There’s a ton of advice on the Internet about how to write. Many pros state you should work on your novel every day. Be it a hundred words or a couple thousand, working on your novel every day keeps it progressing forward. That way you’ll have a novel draft finished in a month to several months.

Sometimes I struggle with this advice. Not only am I working on getting a novel published, I have a job, I exercise, and I write this blog (add in Twitter and Facebook and you’ve got a party). Bottom line: it can be difficult to squeeze in working on my novel every single day.

But many famous writers – Garth Nix and Nicholas Sparks are two examples – started out with day jobs and found the time to write. The key is organizing your day. If you’re serious about writing, make it a priority. If you can’t possibly write every single day, then select certain days that will be dedicated to your novel.

The important part is keeping the momentum flowing. Writing an entire novel isn’t easy, which is why many say to work on it every day.

The payoff to keep chugging along? Holding that finished manuscript in your hands.

Do you write every day or can you go for months without writing and then haul it into high gear for a few weeks?