- Inner Monologue: Dive into what the character is thinking and give the reader direct thoughts. This is also an excellent way to slow or freeze the narrative for dramatic effect if it is a particularly important or poignant moment.
- Dialogue: Convey the emotions through what that character says. Could your character be confused? Were they blindsided? Have them stammer and ask questions. Is your character angry? Have them speak tersely or shout.
- Action: Little ticks and behaviors can convey emotions. A clench of the fists, a gasp of breath, a twirl of the hair, a glance at the floor. I would say that actions are best used in combination with dialogue or thoughts in order to give the reader a full picture of what the character is feeling.
I have strong tastes when it comes to what types of books I enjoy reading. Note the word “enjoy.” Reading is my form of escape, and as much as I can, I try to keep reading as something that I do for pleasure. Due to my personal tastes, one of the biggest categories/genres of books I don’t enjoy is the problem novel. Characters dealing with emotional issues and internal conflict aren’t fun for me to read. They stress me out. Reading about people with serious, real life problems is not how I choose to spend my evening curled up on the couch. Have I still read some of these books? Yes. I’ve read works by Ellen Hopkins (Impulse) and Laurie Halse Anderson (Speak and Wintergirls). Can these books be important? Yes. Do I know students who have loved these kinds of books? Yes. But novels dealing with emotional issues and internal conflict are not my cup of tea.
What I do enjoy: conflict, action, suspense, plots with twists and turns. Give me a quest. Give me a battle between good and evil. Give me dire stakes to save the one you love. That’s my kind of story. And therefore, that’s what I tend to write. I’m a conflict and plot driven writer. I plan out my books by the obstacles and challenges I intend for my characters to face. And I love writing this way. It’s great.
However, the wisdom of one of my professors pointed out that a novel can’t be just action. A novel has an action plot and an emotional plot. Typically, in my first draft, I have the action plot down. It’s my emotional plot that needs some help.
At first, this whole realization of an emotional plot kind of blew my mind. I didn’t really know what to do about it. It makes sense when you look at my reading preferences. Was I a total failure at this emotional stuff? But then I looked at the first drafts of my stories, and I realized that I’d left myself clues as to the emotional plot. Like breadcrumbs I didn’t know I’d trailed behind me as I was munching my way through the forest.
My first step to remedying my weak emotional plot, was to gather the clues I left myself and piece together the emotional journey my character goes on over the course of the story.
I find it helpful to identify both the action plot and the emotional journey. Sometimes it’s helpful to see how they fit together. And if you’re someone who is good at the emotional stuff, then it might help you to outline your action plot.
For example, here is the action plot and emotional plot of my novella “Rebel Angel”:
The action plot is composed of events or challenges in the physical world, whereas the emotional plot should be showing how the character grows and changes over the course of the story.
Identify the action plot and emotional plot of your novel. I find the chart helpful, but you may use any format that works for you.
Return next week for more about emotional plots and more writing exercises!
Links to Previous ‘Behind the Story’ Posts:
Pacing and Description Part 1
Pacing and Description Part 2
Pacing and Description Part 3
Choosing Character Names
Pressing her cheek to the warm, gritty pavement, she was able to make out three sets of yellow boots across the square. An emergency crew. She peeled the door open farther and watched the men–all wearing gas masks–as they doused the interior of the booth with liquid from a yellow can. Even across the square, Cinder wrinkled her nose at the stench.
Cinder, page 17
But she was still five hundred feet up when the first sheets of rain arrived. The cold drops fell diagonally, hitting her dangling feet even under the cover of the airbeast. Its tentacles coiled tighter, and she wondered how long the medusa would take this pounding before it spilled its hydrogen, hurling itself to the ground.
Leviathan, Page 57
“The rule of three is a writing principle that suggests that things that come in threes are inherently funnier, more satisfying, or more effective than other numbers of things. The reader or audience of this form of text is also more likely to consume information if it is written in groups of threes. Similarly, adjectives are often grouped in threes to emphasize an idea. The Latin phrase, “omne trium perfectum” (everything that comes in threes is perfect, or, every set of three is complete) conveys the same idea as the rule of three.”
The first thing my aunt did upon returning from the funeral was take away my bedroom and force me into the small attic room above the boiler room. The space could barely fit a bed, and there were crevices between the floorboards wide enough to stick your finger through. The highlight of the room was a single grimy window.
“Oy! Girlie! You new?” Pushing one of the screeching metal carts was a girl smaller than me. Her brown hair was unbelievably short, cropped to her chin, but she wore a long gray skirt, so I knew she was a girl.
“Has anyone seen a toad? Neville’s lost one,” she said. She had a bossy sort of voice, lots of bushy brown hair, and rather large front teeth.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, page 105
The girl was gorgeous, the kind of girl Clary would have liked to draw–tall and ribbon-slim, with a long spill of black hair. Even at this distance Clary could see the red pendant around her throat. It pulsed under the lights of the dance floor like a separate, disembodied heart.
City of Bones, page 6
Her name was Shay. She had long dark hair in pigtails, and her eyes were too wide apart. Her lips were full enough, but she was even skinnier than a new pretty. She’d come over to New Pretty Town on her own expedition, and had been hiding here by the river for an hour.
Uglies, page 27
This week’s topic:
Being Evil to Your Characters
Why would you want to be evil to your own creations?
- To provide challenges and conflict
- To create compelling characters who grow over the course of the story through the challenges they face
- For suspense and pacing
- As a plotting tool
This is one of those pieces of advice or writing tips that I don’t remember where I heard it. But it really resonated with me, and is one of the first things I do when plotting a section of a novel. I think it is a really, really valuable technique if you struggle with pacing, plotting, or giving characters agency.
Quotes About Being Tough on Your Characters
Editor, Cheryl Klein, Arthur A. Levine Books
Ten Ways to Create Compelling Characters
#6 Put the character in pain, danger, or jeopardy (anticipated pain)
Author, Kurt Vonnegut
8 Basics of Creative Writing
#6: Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
Author, Maggie Stiefvater
Blog Post: Bringing Out Your Inner Sadist
“I have decided that in order to be a good writer, you have to be a sadist.”
“And that’s when I decided that I must have an inner sadist in there somewhere. Because although I love my characters dearly, I have to say, I also love to hurt them. I love to take away the stuff they need and the people they love and shove them outside their comfort zone without so much as a windbreaker. I like to make them uncomfortable, humiliate them, gun down their loved ones in cold blood, and give them pasts that will haunt them forever.”
“I think part of it is because of that saying: ‘Women are like tea bags. You never know how strong they are until they’re in hot water.’ Characters are like women which are like tea bags. You can learn a bit about them when things are going well, but it’s not until the proverbial poo hits the proverbial fan and plagues are raining down that you really see what sort of a person they are.”
“So I guess I figure that if a little pain and suffering will show me more about them, a lot of pain and suffering will do it even better. Basically, as soon as a character lets on what their worst fear is, it’s a pretty surefire sign that I am going to make them come face to face with it at some point in the novel. “
“I don’t think readers like it when you are nice to the characters. They think they want characters to be happy, but they don’t really. At least not until the characters have first been really miserable. I think a good writer finds their characters’ monsters and then resurrects them at the worst possible moment, and that we readers, like Jerry Springer audience members, love the angst and drama of it.”
Author, Janet Fitch
10 Rules for Writers
#10 Torture your protagonist. The writer is both a sadist and a masochist. We create people we love, and then we torture them. The more we love them, and the more cleverly we torture them along the lines of their greatest vulnerability and fear, the better the story. Sometimes we try to protect them from getting booboos that are too big. Don’t. This is your protagonist, not your kid.
The 22 rules of storytelling, according to Pixar:
#1: You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.
#6: What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?
#16: What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against.
#19: Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.
Ari Susu-Mago at blog “A Fuzzy Mango With Wings”
Blog Post: The Sadism of Fiction
(or, What Game of Thrones Can Teach Us About Writing)
“He makes likable, interesting, flawed, human characters. And then he makes their lives suck.”
“Moreover, note that not only does he make problems for them right at the beginning of the story, but he makes things get worse all the time. Rarely, if ever, do things get better. Plans go awry. People turn traitor. People get angry and say things they shouldn’t. People get killed. In general, more problems crop up. The result? A 800+ page book that flies by.”
Examples of Author Sadism:
Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone by JK Rowling
How bad did JK Rowling make Harry’s aunt and uncle?
Rowling made them about as terrible as aunts/uncles can get.
How did the Dursleys keep Harry from his Hogwarts’ letter?
Rowling didn’t just hold Harry back from reading the letter, she took it to extreme levels by the Dursleys trying to hide on a rock in the middle of the sea. By throwing so many obstacles in Harry’s path to reading the letter, it made us more invested in the story and increases suspense and tension.
Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
Everytime Ender became comfortable, Card threw him into a new challenge or worse situation.
Ender makes friends in his launch group and starts to be successful at the Battle School.
But then he is moved to Salamander Army where he is the smallest and most inexperienced, and Bonzo won’t even let him practice.
They make the audience care…
Then very briefly give them a glimpse of what they want…
Then they ruin or take it away…
(Examples: Anna/Bates or Matthew/Mary)
The Way I Incorporate this Technique in My Own Writing
Usually at the start of a work (or at the start of a new setting) I brainstorm a list of things that could go wrong either in the story or in that particular setting.
The list forces me to think of things that could go wrong and sets my brain thinking in that direction. And I have a resource to refer to later if I need to.
When I sit down to start writing, I try to begin a chapter by resolving a previous problem or setting the stage for a new problem.
I try to always end a chapter in the midst of a low point for the protagonist. It can be a physical low point or an emotional low point.
Brainstorm a list:
- Of things that could get in your protagonist’s way of their goal.
- Of terrible things that could happen to your protagonist.
- Of characters your protagonist needs in their life, and how they could disappear.
Don’t worry about how your character will get out of it, or how they’ll overcome it.
Don’t worry about how it will fit into your plot.
Don’t worry about how extreme it might be.
Links Quoted in this Post:
Maggie Stiefvater, Blog Post: Bringing Out Your Inner Sadist
Maggie Stiefvater, Collection of Posts on Writing
Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 Basics of Creative Writing
Janet Fitch’s 10 Rules for Writers
The 22 Rules of Storytelling According to Pixar
Blog Post: The Sadism of Fiction
(or, What Game of Thrones Can Teach Us About Writing)
Ava Jae, of “Writablity: Tips, Tricks and Thoughts from One Writer to Cyberspace”
This week’s topic:
Choosing Character Names
In this week’s post, I’ll delve into how I go about choosing names for my characters. There’s a lot of things to consider, and I definitely think certain authors have a gift for choosing the perfect names. Two authors that come to mind are J.K. Rowling and Charles Dickens. Here’s what I’ve learned so far, but by no means am I an expert!
My own tips and tricks for choosing character names:
- Baby name websites: Best resource ever for finding character names. My favorite website is Behind the Name. You can browse or search for names, and each entry is organized much like a dictionary with pronunciation, origins, meaning, history, and popularity. I love when my names have special meaning, and I’ve used this website more times than I can count!
- Using sounds to your advantage: Certain sounds have certain connotations, whether you are conscious of it or not. A sharp sound is going to be more serious than sounds that long. Sorry to keep using Harry Potter for my examples, but Rowling was a wiz with names. Voldemort = Both the V and T sounds are sharp and bookend the name with their sharpness, plus the added meaning of mort as death. Severus Snape = Both the V and P sounds are sharp, and the S sound makes his name slippery to say and perfect for a spy. Whereas Neville Longbottom uses several sounds that are long and slow, particularly the O sound which is one of the slowest vowels. And his name ending in the “UM” sound just makes the poor bloke sound unsure of himself just simply in his name. I’m not an expert on this sound stuff, but as I become more aware of it, I’ve found it helps me in choosing the right names for my characters.
- Coming up with a list for later reference: I like to have a list of stock names that I can grab from later if a new character announces its arrival. Especially if I’m in a certain time period, I’ll make a list of names I like from that period, and make short notes regarding my own reactions to the name “evil” or “sounds strong.” Usually our own first impressions come with our own subconscious connections to root meanings and sounds. My lists so often come in handy when a character pops into my head fully-formed and needs a name, and usually one from my list will jump out at me. It saves me the time of pouring through websites again, especially when I’m in the throws of writing and would rather not stop.
Behind the Story posts will be about what goes on behind the scenes as a writer creates their story. I’ll be writing about my own writing process and sharing any tips or advice I’ve discovered on my own or gathered on the topic. Hopefully both readers and writers find these posts fascinating!
This week’s topic:
Creating a Villain
Unless you’re writing a novel that revolves completely around an internal conflict or a natural disaster, chances are good that your story requires a villain.
Villain is the popular term. The literary term is antagonist. An antagonist is a person who actively opposes the protagonist. (Protagonist being your leading character.)
There are lots of questions an author might ask themselves as they create their villain, but one of the most important ones is:
What is my villain’s motivation?
- What do they want?
- Why do they want it?
NPR published an article about Amanda Hocking’s amazing success story:
I already knew her amazing story, but there was a great piece of writing advice at the end of the article that helped validate the resolution I made to make time to write everyday:
Before we leave her story, however, Hocking has some advice to share. She says she got it off a video from Mark Hoppus of the band Blink-182.
“He said that it’s not enough to have a passion — you have to have a work ethic,” she says. “That’s been the most life-changing advice that I got, because I had a passion for writing — and I know a lot of other people do, too — but it’s not enough to just want something, you have to be able to work for it, too, and put in the hours and the time.”
Not only will putting in the hours get words on the page, but hopefully the more hours you put in, the better writer you will become. Great advice from someone who’s found a happily ever after in writing.
And if you haven’t read Amanda Hocking’s Trylle series (which was previously published only in e-book form), the first book, Switched, came out in paperback this week. I adored this series (click here for my review) and you should definitely check it out!
Back into writing exercises!
I’ve hopped back into doing writing exercises from Ursula K. Le Guin’s Steering the Craft.
Today, I did exercise five which involves writing a paragraph of descriptive prose without adjectives or adverbs.
Here’s what I realized:
- I need to brush up on my grammar. Throughout the exercise I was asking myself, “Is this an adjective?” And because I was actually sitting down and writing for the first time in ages, I really didn’t want to substantially interrupt the flow of writing to look up grammar rules. So I didn’t. But it made me realize that since I’ve been teaching Reading instead of English for the last two years, I’ve been neglecting my grammar knowledge. I think I might start by re-reading a little Strunk and White.
- The point of the exercise was to make you more conscious of choosing strong nouns and verbs and making use of simile and metaphor instead of adjectives and adverbs. I definitely concentrated on that, and more than once found myself trading out weak choices for stronger ones.
- My biggest dilemma in avoiding adjectives or adverbs was in describing color, material, size, and time. You can see below in my sample that I slipped up quite a few times. I figured I still got what was intended out of the exercise, and didn’t want the end product to read weird. Maybe I shouldn’t care about the product if I’m just doing an exercise, but personally, if I’m making the time to sit down and write, then I want to be at least a little happy with the result.
The last time I’d traveled to London was well before my parent’s death, at least six or seven years ago. I believe I was just ten years old. The first shock that bombards my senses is the noise. The din of the carriage that I’d thought was so deafening on the journey is nothing compared to the onslaught of sound that pours in as we open the carriage door. Whistles of steam, the clanging of metal, bellows of men, and the clicking of gears surround me. My head whips around as I try to find the sources of such noises.“Come, Anne. Or we’ll leave you behind,” my aunt snaps.I hurry after her, already several paces behind after standing mesmerized by the cacophony.As I weave between women wearing corsets and men in top hats, I run my hands over my own wool dress. The color reminds me of a gray field mouse. The plainness of it must stand out amid the jewel tones that are so clearly in fashion–I push through a sea of people in emerald silks and purple velvet.Just as the crowd is beginning to be too much, just as my head becomes light and my eyes have trouble focusing, my aunt turns and climbs up a short flight of stairs to a rowhouse.
Feel free to try the exercise for yourself. It’s harder than it looks 😉
In my writing fantasy class, author Ellen Kushner came in for a visit and talked about characterization. She shared with us a fun and amazing little game which she dubbed “The Character Game.”
The Character Game is a way to get inside a character’s head particularly if you’re starting a novel or feel like your characters are flat and not fleshed out enough.
Very simple. Only two people required to play, though you can have many more.
Author-Player decides on a character and will then have to answer all questions as if they are that character.
Question-Player then proceeds to bombard Author-Player with questions. These questions CANNOT be plot questions. Think more like “first date” getting-to-know-you type questions.
“What’s your favorite color?”
“What do you eat for breakfast?”
“What’s your least favorite smell?”
“What’s your favorite holiday?”
Those types of questions.
Rough game time is 20-30 minutes, and by the end of that time, most authors have an epiphany type moment where their character is suddenly a fully actualized real person.
Trust me, it works!
And it’s fun!
Anyone want to play?