Ask Your Characters “Why?”

Flat characters can kill your story before it even gets started, and they’re guaranteed to make an agent or editor stop reading your manuscript long before the end. It can be difficult to allow your characters to develop naturally when you have a wonderful idea that you want to move them through, but it’s important to remember that as exciting as your story may be, there needs to be a reason for your characters to do what they do. You can’t have them act only to serve the story in your head; those actions must make sense both in the context of the story and for the character you have written. And the best way to know what your characters will do in a given situation is to ask them why. Asking “why?” will tell you who they are.

Behind every action lies a motivation, no matter how small. Why do we get out of bed? Because we can’t sleep. Because we have to go to work. Because we’re no longer tired. Because we heard a noise. But when it comes to character building, you want to ask why a character is the way they are. What led them to the start of your story? Why have they reached this juncture? Why have you given them certain personality traits and skills? Why do they work in whatever job you’ve assigned them? It’s not good enough to say “because I said so,” because if that is the only reason for their actions, they are in danger of becoming cookie-cutter characters, cliches you move through the story instead of realistic characters who drive the story.

You create layered, nuanced characters by drilling down and getting to the core of who they are and what they want. Their goals play into the action of the story, but it’s even more important to know why they want those things, because that motivation is what keeps them from giving up in the middle of a quest or throwing in the towel when a relationship requires some work. Likewise, asking why will explain a character’s inability to sustain a romance or tendency to pick a fight when certain subjects arise. If you have a character who is vulnerable in certain situations, you want to know why. What in their past formed that part of their personality? A character with a particular skill set learned those skills somewhere; why are they so good at whatever it is?

Not all of these details will loom large in your story, of course. Some may appear as a detail in a conversation, while others might end up “extras” for your website, but you will know, and that knowledge will inform everything your characters do and say over the course of the work.

You won’t have all the answers before you start to write, either. Some will come to you as the story develops and your characters land in situations that require them to react. Those decisions might be obvious to you, or they might require some thought, but try to understand why they make the choices they do.

Other answers will only work themselves out while you rewrite and revise, in context to the larger picture of the entire story. Look for inconsistencies in your characters’ behavior. Does something happen to change their outlook or their approach? Have they tripped over some trigger that brings their past to the foreground? Or have you pushed them to some point merely to move the story forward? Later drafts allow you to check for consistencies of behavior and motivation, and to make sure your characters are changing over the course of the story in an organic way that fits both their personalities and their experiences.

As with real people, you will never know your characters completely, but if you ask why they are the way they are in respect to the story you’re telling — why and how their pasts affect the present action — you will go a long way toward fleshing them out into living breathing beings who will engage your readers and draw them into the world of your work.


Friday Links

TGIF! I hope you all had a terrific week and made some excellent plans for the weekend! The weather appears to be doing strange things all over the country right now, so it might be a great weekend to stay inside with a good book and/or work on your current writing project. Whatever you’re up to, I hope you enjoy the links I’ve lined up for today. At the very least, they should make for some good Friday-afternoon distraction. Happy writing!

How Will I Live? Fame, Money, Day Jobs, and Fiction Writing – An interesting look at what makes the perfect day job for a writer.

Latino Spec Fiction, April 2015 – A wonderful roundup of new speculative fiction by Latino authors for those of you looking to broaden your horizons and/or diversify your to-read list.

Her Stinging Critiques Propel Young Adult Bestsellers – A profile of Julie Strauss-Gabel, an editor at Dutton Children’s Books and the power behind numerous recent successful YA titles.

Competitions for Writers, May and June 2015 – A list of upcoming contests, prizes, etc. for writers.

Vladimir Nabokov on What Makes a Good Reader – The author’s thoughts on how to get the most out of your reading.

A Happy Birthday to the Bard

We observe William Shakespeare’s birthday today, April 23rd, and since I’m only a couple of weeks back from merry old England, I feel the need to get into the spirit. So, for your listening pleasure, I offer up this video on how Shakespeare’s works would sound in the original pronunciation. I believe I posted this before, but it’s been quite a while and bears repeating. Enjoy!

The Mysteries of Writer’s Block

Put a bunch of writers in a room together and the subject of writer’s block will inevitably come up. Who gets it? How can you beat it? Does it even really exist?

Some people will argue that the concept of writer’s block is merely a crutch, an excuse a writer waves when they’re running late on a deadline. After all, you don’t hear other professionals claiming an inability to work due to a mysterious impediment. Plumber’s block? Dentist’s block? Not likely. But others swear it’s a true affliction that can paralyze a writer and bring the creative process to a grinding halt, and they will do virtually anything to escape its clutches.

At the end of the day, however, writers don’t really care whether writer’s block is an actual thing or not. What writers care about is the ability to write, to move forward on their projects, and to be satisfied with the results. So the important thing, when feeling a little stuck, is to figure out how to get the writing flowing once more.

Diagnose the problem. When writing feels impossible, it’s important to determine what sort of problem you’re up against. Are you facing a blank page? Not sure what happens in your next chapter? Unable to bring yourself to sit at your desk? Figure out what kind of challenge you’re facing, because only then can you unravel the situation to see what might be causing it.

Getting started. Facing a blank page is always a challenge, and it can be difficult to sit down and start from scratch. So many decisions to make. So many ways things could go. And that first sentence is so important, must capture the reader’s attention and draw them into the story. The very freedom of that empty screen or sheet of paper, and the pressure of making a strong start, overwhelm many writers. Because they can write anything, the process seems daunting, and it becomes impossible to write at all.

The thing to remember here is that first drafts are meant to be terrible and are destined to be rewritten. It is far easier to revise a shoddy piece of writing or to revamp a boring opening than it is to write a beautiful first paragraph on the very first try. So write anything that comes to mind. Jot notes, character ideas, bits of dialogue. Start in the middle, start at the end, start with a scene that might never be included in your final version. Get your fingers moving and words flowing and don’t worry if it feels like gibberish. Put down what you need to so the page in no longer blank. Eventually your ideas will start to pump again and something useful will appear.

Lost in the middle. You’ve been writing along for days or weeks and your story or novel is taking shape. Then suddenly one morning all progress screeches to a stop. You have no idea what happens next. Perhaps you’ve written your protagonist into a sticky situation and you don’t know how they’ll solve it. Or someone new has shown up and you haven’t planned for them in the action to come. Or maybe you just feel like the story has gotten boring and you’re losing interest in it yourself.

When you’re stuck in the middle of your story, you generally have two choices: go forward, or go back. If you want to keep moving forward, your best bet is to skip ahead to the next point in the story where you have an idea of what’s going to be happening, or throw something exciting and unplanned into the mix, and write that section next. Ask yourself “What if…?” and go from there. You can go back and tackle your stuck storyline later. Of course, the risk with this approach is that when you return to the earlier point in the story, the fix might upend everything you’ve written later on, but if the result is a better story it will be worth all the work.

Your other option, going back, means backtracking from your problem point to see where you might have taken your story in the wrong direction. Did you add a twist that has caused the issue? Your protagonist make a move that was out of character? Or do you need to insert some more clues leading into that problematic section to make it possible to move ahead?

Things to keep in mind, whether you move forward or backward in your story: Are the character motivations consistent? Does each scene serve the protagonist’s goal? Have you allowed another character to hijack the plot? Is this still the same story you intended to tell?

Reluctance to write. Some days, just the idea of writing might feel too difficult, and when this happens you need to take a close look at your feelings. Are you just a bit burnt out and needing a day off away from your keyboard? Go to the movies, visit a museum, hang out with friends and let your brain clear out a bit. Are you feeling overwhelmed and/or anxious in other areas of your life beyond your writing? You might need to talk to someone about potential depression or anxiety, especially if you’ve been feeling this way for a while. Creativity dries up pretty quickly when a person is extremely stressed or suffering from depression, so be kind to yourself and seek the assistance you require.

Writing is not an easy endeavor. Regardless of your level of skill and/or experience, you will face days when the words flow even less easily than usual. Try poking at your project from another angle, write a different scene or determine if you need to backtrack, and give yourself permission to write something bad. Other ways to tap into your inspiration include working on another project entirely for a few days, doing warm up exercises such as writing prompts, or brainstorming ideas for future stories. It can also help to step away from your desk and do something completely unrelated to writing. Take a walk or a bubble bath, garden or hit the gym. Be sure you’re eating and sleeping properly; your brain will work better when you take care of yourself. And accept the fact that, no matter the writer, some days the writing must be coaxed.


Friday Links

Happy Friday! Another busy week, though mostly busy in good ways, for which I’m grateful. It was also a good week for gathering links; I feel like I have some particular goodies in this Friday’s batch, so I hope you enjoy them as much as I have. It’s a nice balance of readerly to writerly, and there should be a little something for everyone.

I’m looking at a working weekend, but with a little luck I’ll be able to squeeze in a bit of personal reading time. What are your weekend plans? Enjoying spring weather? An outing with friends or family? Regardless of your schedule, I wish you some reading time as well, not to mention a bit of quality time with your writing. Happy weekend, and enjoy!

A New ‘Wrinkle in Time’ – A look at the recently discovered passage that was cut from the original manuscript of Madeleine L’Engle’s classic novel.

Six Tips for Improving Your Dialogue – Great advice from author Eileen Cook.

Publication Opportunities for Writers: May and June, 2015 – A list of places to submit your work in the next couple of months.

The Radical Vision of Toni Morrison – Wonderful profile of the award-winning author.

At the Biggest Writers Conference in the World – One writer’s experiences at the recent AWP conference.

Friday Links

TGIF! The only problem with taking a vacation is coming home and needing to catch up with everything that happened while you were away. I’m still digging out from beneath my email-and-manuscript mountain, so I apologize for the state of quiet here this week, but I do have Friday Links, and with a little luck by next week it will be business as usual.

I feel like there’s been quite a bit of uproar in the publishing world the last couple of weeks, which is reflected in these links, but I did try to balance all the hoopla out with some other sorts of things. Regardless, I hope you find them interesting and entertaining. Wishing you a wonderful weekend, and some good writing/reading time. Enjoy!

Ursula LeGuin at 85 – A wonderful BBC Radio interview with the author.

The 2014 VIDA Count – A look at how many women’s voices made it into periodicals last year.

Why Keeping a Journal Is so Important for Writers and All Creative Types – An interesting look at how to use a journal for inspiration and to organize ideas.

The Hugo Awards Were Always Political. But Now They’re Only Political. – A look at the kerfuffle regarding this year’s Hugo nominations, with links to additional material.

145+ YA Books for your April – June 2015 Radar – A wonderful wrap up of new YA titles due out in the next few months.

Friday Links

Happy Friday! I am in London on vacation right now, so I’m afraid this is rather an abbreviated post. However, I hope you find it entertaining and informative regardless. Wishing you all a wonderful weekend, filled with books and writing and sunshine. Enjoy!

An Argument for Reading in Chronological Order – A look at what’s to be gained by reading books based on their pub dates.

Eight for Eight: A Literary Reader for Passover – Interesting reading suggestions for the holiday, whatever your religious inclinations.

Randomized Dystopia – Suggestions for those of you having trouble coming up with an original setting/scenario for your sci-fi WIP.

T.S. Eliot’s Old Summer Home May Become Writer’s Retreat – What it says. Beautiful and inspirational location to keep in mind.