Friday Links: Thoughts for the Writer’s Brain

Happy Friday! This particular Friday has me thinking about the end of summer, even though we still have weeks to go. There’s something about a weekend in August that feels slower, more laid back, especially if you live in a city that tends to empty out, with people heading to the beach or off on vacation. Things are a little quieter, more serene than usual. It feels like the last chance to relax before gearing up for the fall. I find my thoughts are already turning toward September, and what I need to accomplish between now and then. A mental house cleaning, if you will. The list is long, which makes this weekend my last shot at summer fun before I start kicking into high gear.

This week’s links are a mix of think-y and action provoking. Some will give you a quiet read that should set your mind working, while others might spur you on to get some writing accomplished, depending where you are in your seasonal cycle. Either way, I hope you find them interesting and entertaining, and that you find some time for reading and writing over the next few days. Enjoy!

Can the Academic Write? – Part one of an article looking at style, and how a career can impose a writing style upon you.

What ‘Stranger Things’ Can Teach Us about Characterization – A look at the new Netflix series, and some informative takeaways.

$6,000 Grants for Writers & Artists with Children – Great for any parents looking for some support for their art. Applications due by September 2nd.

The Pros and Cons of Getting Inside a Villain’s Mind – Tips on how to avoid giving up too many details when you investigate the villain’s POV.

Your Ultimate Summer Reading List – If you’re still searching for books to take on your vacation or something to dive into this weekend, this list has a nice balance between light and serious titles and ranges from fairly recent to older reads.

Does Fiction Actually Makes Us More Empathetic? – A look into the recent claim and whether it actually matters.

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.


Kicking Your Characters into High Gear

As an agent, I look at a lot of different things when I’m reading submissions — strong writing, engaging story, excellent build up of suspense, and compelling characters. These are all important, but that last one in particular can really throw me out of a read if you haven’t managed to create a realistic, believable protagonist, or if your villain comes across as flat. It would be impossible for me to compile a comprehensive list of all the ways I see characterizations go astray, but I will focus on some of the most frequent issues to give you a place to start.

One of the most common problems I see with characters — especially the protagonist — is that they ultimately come across as far too perfect. Because they are often driving the story, they succeed too easily in order to allow the author to move the plot forward. Whatever obstacles pop up, the protagonist miraculously has all the skills required to solve them and keep going. The result is someone who is just a little too smart, a little too action-oriented, and just plain boring. A perfect character is an unbelievable character, and very difficult to identify with because, as much as we’d all love to ignore our own faults, we know that we have them and that everyone else has them, too. Make sure your character needs to struggle; if they’re intellectual give them physical obstacles to overcome; if they’re a loner, force them to work in a team situation. Take your character’s major characteristics and mix them up, making sure that they are better at some things and not good at others. Not only will you have a more believable and interesting character, but you’ll allow room for growth along their character arc. Just be sure they don’t end up perfect at the end, merely ahead of where they started.

Another issue writers have with characters is developing a believable range of emotions for them. Too often, each character seems to represent a certain level of emotion — a happy or sarcastic character who provides quips and comic relief, the grumpy character who dwells on the worse-case scenarios and points out all the problems, the smart character with the dry wit and the quick answer. Even if characters have their roles and their strengths, they should not fall into these sorts of ruts, and their emotional arcs need to be more complex. Particularly with the protagonist, it’s vital to communicate the character’s emotions in a way that the reader can understand them, because often they drive their decisions and actions. Your reader might not always agree with how the character feels and what they do, but if you can put them inside the character’s emotional state, you can allow them to understand those choices and continue along for the ride. In some cases that will mean not showing the emotion itself, but instead focusing on how the character struggles with their feelings. Not everyone is willing to allow their emotions to show in their expressions. In fact, many people work very hard to keep those things to themselves. But something always leaks out and gives them away. Think about how that applies to your characters in your given situations.

The folks at the Writing Excuses podcast have a series of episodes focusing on character development, and I highly recommend you check out Three-Pronged Character Development and Showing Emotion in particular for additional thoughts and a few writing exercises to help address these issues. Happy writing!