Monthly Archives: April 2014

Humanize Your Characters

When writing novels or short stories, the main characters have to be someone that the reader can relate to. You have to make them human.

Our favorite heroes are the imperfect ones. Oftentimes, our favorite characters in the story is the villain.

As an aside, this is interesting to me. I find that when dealing with many things, politics, religion, etc., our culture is very quick to demonize or idolize and make people charactatures more than to look deeper to understand them as people. But in our literature, in order to enjoy the plot, we must feel that the hero is an underdog of sorts, has some issues or faults that make him or her relatable to us. For our villains, we want one we can understand, even if we don’t agree with their choices and actions.

As writers, we create these characters for people to love or hate. In order to make that connection with the reader, the writer must know the character intimately. I have to know the history, the motivations, the struggles, the doubts, the pride, the overconfidence, the talents, the weaknesses, the fears, of every character. I don’t tell the reader these things. When I do it well, at least, I show these things in hints of words said and actions taken or not taken. Even in an epic novel, we only see a sliver of a character’s life. Whether antagonist or protagonist or even a “secondary” character or just a quick dude in one scene, I have to know enough to act like that character immediately and communicate him or her at the outset. How do you create those kind of characters?

An easy way is to base them off of people you know. Of course, you do NOT put people you know in your stories … unless you hate them and want to hurt them, then its fine, because I don’t care how much you might feel it is a good thing, it ultimately won’t be. Too much can be misconstrued and people are sensitive. You start with someone you know and then you change enough about that person so that it can’t possibly be anyone you know. Give them an original crazy quirk or something that no one has or you read about online so that the person is familiar enough to you to enter into that role but different enough that the person reading it won’t think it’s them.

But even if you don’t care about them, just want to put them in your book so you can kill them in some sort of gruesome way (not that I advocate for this, by the way), that’s fine. At least change the names so you won’t get sued.

Also, make your characters more interesting. Give them things that people would believe but are abnormal, something to make them stand out. Stay away from cliche characters. Cliche characters can be fine for VERY minor characters, but not for anything as important as even secondary characters. Main characters should be as original as you can make them while still relatable to readers. You don’t have to be outrageous, just original, although outrageous can be fun, too.

We’ll talk about villains next …


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Saying Goodbye to the Rough Draft

I finished the rough draft of a major novel last week. There was a great feeling of accomplishment and achievement. I treated myself to a movie out with a friend. I vowed to take a few weeks off before coming back to it for the first major revision.

But honestly, I miss it.

When writing a first draft, if it is something you care about (and why would you create something you didn’t care about?), there is this obsession with the material, the characters and the story. It doesn’t take much to send your brain back into that world you created in your imagination. And it isn’t always fun. There are other important and pressing things to deal with in real life, even things that take precedence. But that creative addiction needs to be fed.

For a few months, I HAD to finish the story. And when writing epic fantasy, that is no small feat. Once I did, though, I missed it.

I miss the characters, the story, the process, the focus, all of it. I miss it because the rough draft is the fun part. Stephen King says the first draft is you telling the story to yourself, and it is true. When a scene or part of the story comes together, I feel a weight lifted, a burden released. But then I feel a whole new one coming on … because there’s the next scene, the next turn in the journey for these characters I love.

Once it is over, then there is no next scene to write, to wrestle with. There’s no new part of the world to explore with my characters. This causes grief.

One reason for the grief is that I know what comes next. Editing. I’m going to have to go back and look at every line, word, scene, character, and now make sure I’m telling the story to everyone else in a way that communicates themes and emotions well. That takes work. A lot of work. At the end of that work is being able to share it with everyone and get that feedback we creative types both love and hate. So I’m willing to do the work for that, but it is still hard work.

In the meantime I will read. In the midst of writing, especially when I have a fulltime job, a wife, three kids, church family, and other family and friends, I don’t get to read as much as I would like. With that kind of life, you have to say “no” to lots of things, prioritize. So I’m reading some stuff I want to catch up on and will try something new to stretch my creative brain a little. Good writers are great readers.

Soon, however, I’ll need to return to the page, the keyboard, and create my own. That’s kinda what I do. And I’ll fall in love with some of my own characters again and tell their story to myself. Until then is the waiting, the preparing, the rest. The tinges of grief.


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Take an acting class …

I read a great deal, good and bad, and there is one thing that will turn me off to a story faster than anything: a writer’s inability to stay in character.

In writing, we call it “point of view.” And we all have problems staying consistent with it, no doubt.

When you write a scene, you are telling the story from one person’s point of view. Other characters don’t come into play until they speak or act and your character sees or hears those things and interprets them according to his or her point of view. While that limits what you can say, it also humanizes the character you’re writing, makes it universal. Don’t we all have these limitations? It makes your character more engaging and the story more believable, even if it is weird sci-fi, fantasy, or horror.

So here’s my suggestion to you if you want to really work on improving your consistency with point of view:

Take an acting class.

Or get involved in community theater. Or get some copies of great plays and have friends over, drink some wine, and perform the plays in your living room. Mix it up. Have the old play the young, men play women, whatever. It will make you a better writer.

When you write a scene, you are telling the story from one person’s perspective. We’ve all heard actors say, “What is my motivation?” Why do they need to know? Because the more they understand the character, the more natural and convincing their reactions will be in the moment, despite the fact that they’ve read the script and know what everyone is already going to say and what is going to happen in the story. Doesn’t matter. They can still immerse themselves in that character and react as if experiencing it for the first time, night after night, and take after take. We give those people awards.

We’re just like that as writers. If you can write the scene as if you were that character, no matter gender or sexual orientation or role or hero or villan or secondary character, your readers will find that character believable. And that is a great step to finding your story believable.

And the more believable your story, as fantastical as it may be, the more they will enjoy your story. And that is what we all want, right?

Taking on a character and acting as that character in a play, even if it is just for fun in your living room with friends, can help you immerse yourself in your character when you write and not get lost in “omniscient” land that usually confuses people and puts a distance between the reader and the person they are supposed to care about.

More on scene and character and point of view to come.


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