5 Writer Challenges

Have you ever questioned the old proverb “misery loves company”? How in the world do you feel better when someone else feels as poorly as you do?

Because you’re human.

Humans have an innate need for social connection and often seek what is familiar. We seek ways to alleviate our feelings, and the best way to do that is by finding people who understand.

Writing is a lonely business. For the most part, writers spend hours on end by themselves. We seek other writers who understand our challenges relating to our writing process.

All writers have their strengths and weaknesses. Let’s take a look at 5 ways writers struggle with their work, and the solutions.

5 Writer Challenges

  • Plot Development
  • Time Management
  • Characters
  • Dialogue
  • Perfectionism

Plot Development

Photo by You X Ventures

Writers are finding several issues accompanying their plots. Some find their entire books happening in the first few pages. They have no idea how to slow it down enough to fill up the rest of their books. Some struggle with certain parts of the story, such as a dragging middle. Some find their entire book is dragging.

Solution:

If you struggle with Dramatic Structure, pick a structure and get familiar with it. Plot your points and base the rest of your work around those. You don’t have to get detailed with plotting, but even I, a pantser, do minimal plotting. My work is better for it.

If you find episodic narrative in your work, cut it. That means unless the day-to-day small stuff is important to plot, delete it from your story. This usually helps with an entire book dragging. What also helps is looking at how many subplots you have. While there is no exact formula for how many subplots you can have, if it doesn’t enhance your plot, cut it. You’ll find there may be things your characters do that don’t enhance your plot. Cut those, too, no matter how much you love them.

If you find your middle dragging, divide it into two sections, making your 3-act structure a 4-act structure. It’ll help you see things more clearly. This is another place where you can cut what doesn’t enhance the plot.

If you find your entire book happening in a few scenes, consider making it a short story or flash fiction piece. Some work isn’t meant to be a full-length novel. Nothing wrong with that.

Time Management

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Perhaps you, like many writers, find yourself surfing the web while it’s product time. Maybe you’re on day 20 of research without having written a single word. Or, maybe you can’t stop editing what you do write, getting you very, very, very slowly to the end of your work. Then, you have straight-up procrastination.

Solution

The best solutions I can offer you for time management comes as a three-fold. One: Limit your distractions. Turn off the internet if you have to.

Two: When you’re supposed to be writing, then write. I know, if it were that easy, time management wouldn’t be a thing. Even if you only can fit in ten minutes, trust that the world won’t (probably) fall apart in that time, and everything else can wait. Tell your brain there is a time and place for all other thoughts, but this isn’t that time. Yes, this takes practice.

Three: Forgive yourself for wasting time. If you’re hard on yourself, you’ll feel guilty. Guilt turns off your creative brain. You literally have no time for guilt. Just get yourself back on track.

As for too much editing and research, know that your story won’t be perfect the first couple drafts. Try to relax and just tell the story you’d tell your friends. Research is super fun, and for me, it lasts the entire writing process. How I navigate seemingly endless research is to use placeholders and leave comments to myself while focused on writing.

Procrastinating…it’s truly an art. It doesn’t make you lazy to procrastinate. It makes you human. Usually, procrastination stems from fear of the thing you’re procrastinating. Dig deep into this and figure out what you’re afraid of. Then #ffear and get writing.

Characters

Photo by GMax Studios

Characters are important to your story, especially if it’s character-driven. Find that you have perfect characters? Flat characters? Too many of the same characters? Not enough of a cast? Too much of a cast?

Solutions:

Give your characters real flaws. These flaws should get in their way constantly. The flaws don’t always have to relate to the lie your character believes, but at least one should. Look back at their childhoods and see what traumatic events could shape a flaw. Then use the hell out of it to create conflict. This goes for both perfect and flat characters. Dig deep into their psyche to figure out who they are. Make a list of possible flaws and choose some.

When you find that you have too many of the same characters, it helps to combine some of them into one or two characters. That also goes for too much cast. Remember that the more characters you have, the more chances you have of confusing a reader. A confused reader is not a good thing. Don’t do it.

If you think you don’t have enough cast, think hard about it. There is no formula for how many characters you need. You can have one character if it means your story gets told. If you think it’s important to add some, think of character types that help advance your plot or main characters. Don’t add random ones.

Check out the posts on character building.

Dialogue

Photo by Toa Heftiba

A lot of writers find they are either really good at dialogue, or pretty bad at it. It’s definitely something easy to get wrong. Dialogue is one of the best tools you have in your writing arsenal, and if not used carefully, it can ruin your work.

Writers find they have flat dialogue or a simple exchange bit. Too realistic dialogue is also a huge problem. Other problems include: being formal all the time, glaring dialogue tags, no dialogue tags, phonetic spelling, too much or no narrative, using names too often, summarizing important dialogue, and the opposite, writing out everything.

Solutions

Use silence to create conflict. If your character asks a difficult question or gives a difficult statement, either have the other character use silence or try to change the subject. This also ties into the simple exchange bit (on the nose). Don’t have characters ask questions and then give an answer right away. People don’t talk like that.

Speaking of how people talk, skip the interrupters. The “um” “ers” and stutters, for the most part. Some exchanges call for them but cut when possible. Try not to have your characters be too formal, though, unless it’s part of that character’s personality. Keep in mind that people also speak differently based on who they are talking to. Talking to a spouse will be different than talking to an officer who has just pulled you over.

Using the tag “said” is best for most cases, though feel free to mix it up from time to time. Readers will skip the word said, and that’s what you want. You don’t want them to be pulled from the story because of an obtrusive dialogue tag.

For instance, don’t say:

“I hate you!” she screamed.

The exclamation point says it all. Even better than ‘said’ is using action tags instead of dialogue tags. Example:

John lit his cigarette, his gaze level on Steph,. “I hate you.”

In most cases, you’d never place an action in the same paragraph as someone else’s dialogue so this wouldn’t confuse the reader.

Phonic spelling gets to be a problem when it draws your reader from your work. Use it sparingly. Use narrative to enhance your dialogue, and dialogue to enhance your narrative. It’s all about balance. Skip characters using other character’s names unless it’s for emphasis.

Check out more dialogue tips.

Perfectionism

Photo by JOSHUA COLEMAN

Going back to what I said in the plot section. Your first few drafts won’t be perfect. Train your brain to have a switch. There is a time for editing, and it’s not during your first few drafts.

Save your neurotic tendencies for your last draft, and even then, remember the goal is to move forward, not be stuck.

10 Dialogue tips: What We Don’t Say

10 Dialogue tips: What We Don’t Say

According to Paulette Gillig, nonverbal signals make up 60-65% of our daily communication. That’s more than half, my fellow symbol jotters. Most of these nonverbal signals are unconscious, meaning that we don’t think about them, and aren’t always aware we’re conveying them.

In writing, we often hear “show, don’t tell” and body language (aka, nonverbal signals) are one of the best ways to do that. Though you can certainly revise, plan what your character’s nonverbal skills are when creating them.

Take a look at your current work-in-progress. I just did, and holy moly, the amount of “sighed” and “smiled” and “raised an eyebrow” was enough to make me cringe. (Cringing was also overused.) Do you find you overuse your own go-to’s, as well? Let’s dig into nonverbal communication so we can make our writing more authentic.

Context

Photo by James Douglas

When writing nonverbal signals, we have to remember context. In real life, you wouldn’t assume someone is lying because they can’t meet your eyes. You have to look at the bigger picture because there are many of reasons that someone wouldn’t meet your eyes while speaking, though lying is one of them.

Context to consider:

  • Environment- where is the character and who is the character around?
  • Usual demeanor- how does this character typically behave?
  • Nonverbal communication of others present- how is this character picking up on others around them?

The Magic Number 10

  • Facial expressions
  • Microexpressions
  • Gestures
  • Paralinguistics
  • Posture
  • Proxemics
  • Eye Gaze
  • Haptics
  • Appearance
  • Artifacts

Facial Expressions

We all know basic facial expressions and can usually read them quite easily. We can tell when a person is happy, sad, mad, or bored based on how their faces are contorted.

Microexpressions

Microexpressions are voluntary and involuntary emotional responses that often occur simultaneously and conflict with each other. The amygdala processes stimuli and then the person quickly tries to hide the reaction. Think of someone flinching and then straightening their shoulders to show they aren’t phased.

Gestures

Photo by Hannah Busing

Gestures are cultural, but they are some of the clearest ways for us to decode how a person is feeling. Be sure when using gestures, they are true to your character’s culture. For example, some Native Americans will not use finger pointing to draw attention to someone else. It’s rude.

Paralinguistics

Paralinguistics refer to vocal communication. Think tone of voice, pitch, inflection, and loudness. Someone saying “I love you” for the first time will be different than if those same words are said in desperation to keep a relationship going.

Posture

Photo by Alexandre Lecocq

Open posture indicates friendliness, whereas closed posture indicates hostility or anxiety. Posture tells us a lot about how a person is feeling as well as can indicate a demeanor. Think military style.

Proxemics

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez

Anthropologist Edward T. Hall discovered meaning behind the distance between people as they interact. Four levels to be exact.

  • Intimate distance— 6 to 18 inches
  • Personal distance— 1.5 to 4 feet
  • Social distance— 4 to 12 feet
  • Public distance— 12 to 25 feet

Imagine that a couple dating are close, touching, but around the possibly-someday in-laws, there are at least 4 feet between them. (Note: this will differ in cultures so do your research if needed)

Eye Gaze

Excuse me for this cliche, but the eyes are the window into the soul. Cool, you say, but no one really ever explained how. Fear not, I’m going to remedy that!

Imagine you’re in a conversation, and the other person makes eye contact. Naturally, you assume the person is interested in what you have to say. Too much eye contact, and you may feel this person is a bit intimidating. What kind of monster stares at you for so long?!

Or the other person looks away. Are they even listening? What else has their attention? Are they uncomfortable or trying to hide how they really feel?

Blinking incessantly is another tricky one. Or, for that matter, not blinking enough. Uncomfortable people tend to blink more, where people who are trying to control their eye movements blink less. (Think poker face.)

Pupil size can actually convey attraction or interest. Next time you’re flirting, pay attention to their growing pupils.

Haptics

Haptics is communication via touch. This is another one of those culture-sensitive things. Think someone who is offering sympathy. They might reach out to lay their hand over someone else’s or hug them. People also use haptics as displays of aggression. Someone in a fight might shove another person to get them to back off.

Appearance

Believe it or not, there is such a thing as color psychology. Research shows that what a person wears not only says something about their personality but also can affect someone else’s mood. I like to wear blue because it makes me feel calm, but it also has the same effect on others. People also experience synesthesia (one sense is simultaneously perceived as if by one or more additional senses. Think Taste the Rainbow.)

This brings me to a book I thoroughly enjoyed reading by Dr. Joel Salinas called Mirror Touch.

Artifacts

This fits into appearance, but also includes images since we are in an ever-growing digital world. Notice my header picture is of a feather and this blog is about writing. Doctors wear scrubs. Police Officers wear uniforms. All these artifacts tell us something nonverbal about the person connected to them.

There you have it, fellow symbol jotters. Take these 10 nonverbal signals into account when writing dialogue. Remember, conflict is plot. Don’t be afraid to rely on all the things we don’t say.

Take a look at the other character building posts in the series.

Characters: How Beliefs Shape Reality

Characters: The Lie They Believe

Characters: Getting in their head: Part One

Fun reads and research

Nonverbal Communication in Psychotherapy

Understanding Body Language and Facial Expressions

Types of Nonverbal Communication

Nonverbal communication speaks volumes

Nonverbal Communication

https://www.silentcommunication.org/

Non-Verbal Communication in Writing

Cheat Sheets For Writing Body Language

What are some of your go-to nonverbal signals? Leave a comment below!

Characters: The Lie They Believe

Photo by Mike Erskine

Humans crave stories because it makes us feel as if we have control over the world. There are scientific benefits to reading fiction, according to Joseph Carroll at the University of Missouri-St Louis. He states that “It teaches us about other people and it’s a practice in empathy and theory of mind.”

More than that, there has been research done to see how reading or hearing stories affect our brains. The amygdala and medial prefrontal cortex are activated during these times, increasing cognitive thought that lets us empathize with other people.

The key to empathizing with other people is the use of themes in stories. Themes tie in with the lie your character believes, and often can’t be torn apart because this theme creates the plot. It creates the point of your story.

The Lie

Photo by Marc Kleen

A good way to define the theme of your story is to look at the lie your character believes, and vice-versa. Most characters have a change-arc, whether it’s a positive arc or a negative arc. There is a huge lie they’ve believed most of their life, and it’s affected every choice they’ve ever made, large and small scale.

It’s hella (I’ve always wanted to use that word) important to make sure your character’s false belief ties into the theme into a hella way (Okay, that’s out of my system).

Most of us have a lie we believe in real life. Examples include, but are not limited to:

  • We are unworthy of love
  • We are bad
  • We are better than others
  • Relationships will always turn out badly
  • Marriage is a scam
  • You can’t trust anyone
  • You don’t need anyone

Check out K.M. Weiland’s site for more on the lie, and a few more examples.

The lie your character believes is just that…a belief. Now, not all characters have a changing arc, but the majority do. They start off believing something, a flaw or a downright lie they were once told about themselves, regardless of how well off they are or how happy they seem to be.

It’s the little voice in the back of their head telling them they can’t do it, or they don’t deserve it. Your character will kick in scream their way out of change because change is uncomfortable. It’s scary. They’d rather believe their lie than go through the growth it’ll take to change.

And it’ll stop them from achieving their biggest plot goal.

Chances are, your character won’t see their lie as a lie. If it were that easy, they’d have attempted to change it long before the story-time, knowing it held them back. It’s a coping mechanism, something felt deep inside to keep them safe. They’re going to hang onto it by the teeth if they must.

Without the Lie, there is no story;

K.M Weiland

It’ll take the experiences your character is going to have throughout the rest of the book for them to confront their lie and therefore, confront the antag. Or not. In negative arc changes, the character fails at confronting their lie, and losing their fight with the antag. Or the lie gets bigger.

The lie teaches the reader something. Not in a preachy way, but humans crave stories with lessons they can relate to, that makes them feel and think.

Cause and Effect

Photo by Bas Emmen

To figure out your character’s lie is not enough. You must figure out the reasoning behind the lie. Brain-storm what could have happened to your character that would make them believe it. This wasn’t a concept they were born with, but rather an experience they had that was so damaging, they refuse to believe anything else.

Think about a time an experienced shaped your beliefs. It can be good or it can be bad, but imagine how strongly you felt during the experience. If it was a bad experience, you probably sought reasoning for it, even if there was no valid one. We all know things sometimes happen that we have no control over.

It’s normal to want to understand why bad things happen to us. In fact, it’s ingrained in our DNA to put a reason to it. Cause and effect. We did this, and this happened as a result of it. Sometimes there is a logical reason behind us. We were ticketed for speeding. We now try not to speed. Some events that happen have no good reasoning, like childhood abuse. Chances are, though, if this happened to you, you believed it was your fault. Now you believe you are innately bad, and when adult abuse happens, you aren’t too surprised.

The lie will affect every aspect of your character’s life once it’s ingrained in them. It’s sad for the character, but it’s all too real. Use it to create conflict and tension. Because it happens in real life, your readers will empathize with your character. And when/if they stop believing in the lie, readers will likely find strength in these moments.

What are some other character lies you’ve read about or viewed? Leave a comment below, and don’t forget to like, share, and follow!

K.L Reeder is an aspiring author. She studies Creative Writing at SNHU, with a minor in Psychology. She resides in central PA with her toddler son and little dog.

Characters: How Beliefs Shape Reality

Photo by Evie S.

You’ve probably heard “change your beliefs, change your life”. There is real science behind this saying. Your beliefs actually influence your actions, which creates your reality. Our characters are no different.

Our belief systems are one of the main driving forces of our every decision, along with personality, genetic make-up, and habits. Each of these factors affects us deeply. We are who we are because of them.

Before we dive in, let’s define exactly what belief systems are and how they shape reality.

The Oxford Dictionary defines them as:

A set of principles or tenets which together form the basis of a religion, philosophy, or moral code.

Your beliefs influence your behavior. For example, if you believe you can’t do something, you either won’t try, will fail, or succeed but believe it was a fluke.

Beliefs also influence how you interact with others. If you believe you’re awkward, the chances of successful social interactions will diminish because you either, again, won’t try, or could be too nervous to think straight. You’ll be known as shy. (We’ve mostly all been there.)

Your beliefs can influence your health. Negative thoughts lead to negative emotions. An onslaught, constant flow of negative emotions can cause depression, among other conditions. It’s been proven that depression can then affect you physically.

At the other end of the spectrum is healthy living. If you believe your body is a temple and enough that you treat it so, you’ll probably exercise, watch what you eat, that type of stuff. People like this are generally happier. This is science-based, too, because exercise combats depression, anxiety, and an array of other conditions.

Eating right keeps the toxins out of your body. Meditation has numerous health benefits, including mental health. Most, if not all, real healthy living increases your dopamine level, the “happy hormone”. Hence, happier life.

People who know self-defense, because they believe it’s essential to their safety, feel a bit more confident. People who exercise, because they believe in mindfulness, are less anxious and less depressed.

Nature Vs. Nurture

Photo by Kayla Maurais

No doubt you’ve heard of this argument. Existentialists believe that free-will plays the biggest part in what shapes a person, that their actions as they live make them who they are. On the other hand, there is the concept of wrapping it all up in a more simple explanation: it’s in our genes. We are the way we are because our DNA tells us so.

I believe it’s a bit more complicated than that. I’m sure you know by now that I stand strongly behind trait heritability (the way we’re raised forms us) and how strong the influence of our society is on us, but it would be unwise to deny that our genes play a part.

After all, it’s the one thing we don’t have control over.

Beliefs Influence Behavior

What your characters believe will influence their every action, but it will also influence every connection they have. From how they treat the other characters to their communication style. Your character’s belief will limit them or make anything possible.

Think about your primary characters. How spiritual are they? Their level of spirituality will influence their decisions and their behavior. What are their traditional beliefs? Has their society conditioned them (probably) and in what way? How does this way form what they believe? Do they believe there is a clear line between gender roles? Is the society they grew up in more or less accepting of individuality or conformity?

Now, for the bigger questions concerning your story. How do your character’s beliefs play a part in your story? Overall, it should be in a big way. Your character’s beliefs created their reality. Many stories are about the hero’s journey, and this often leads to a new type of society. A new type of society will probably challenge every single one of your character’s beliefs, leading to reality-shaking changes.

These beliefs will affect everything from theme to dialogue. Think hard about each of your main character’s belief systems, how it affects the story, and how it affects their interactions.

Think about what your character will learn by the end of the story (which ties into theme) and this will help you figure out your character’s belief system in the beginning and how it shapes their world.

Beliefs Influence Health

Maybe your character as a negative outlook on life because of how past experiences has shaped them. This causes tension in your story between them and other characters. Long-term mental suffering usually creates a chronic physical illness, which plays a part in your story.

This can range from sleep deprivation, which will negatively affect every decision they make, to chronic headaches. This could be a contrast to their almost always happy mood compared to other character’s moods (tensions!). Broken bones will limit your characters for some time, self-inflicted injuries and mind states will make other characters treat that character differently.

We also have non-physical suffering. Stuff like financial problems, loss, and esoteric suffering. All of this can be connected to beliefs, and it can all be useful for tension and conflict in your story. Just make sure it’s authentic to your characters.

What are some of the ways your character’s behave due to their beliefs? Let us know in the comments, and don’t forget to like, share, and follow!

Setting: Invoking Responses

Photo by Ivana Cajina

One of the best tools in a writer’s arsenal is setting. Setting is so much more than where the story takes place.

How come? Why should we waste so much time on where the story takes place? It’s just their home, their city, their farm, their childhood home. Right?

Wrong.

Setting is more important than just for visualization (which is huge in itself. Try getting immersed in a book where you feel like you’re floating in air with nothingness). Setting, to me and many other writers, is classified as character.

What is setting?

Setting consists of a number of factors. Weather, place, mood, time, season, and the characters. The characters react to all factors of setting. My main character would not act the same if the place of time happened three hundred years before the twenty first century. Everything would be different. Winter would cause different challenges than Summer. It would incite a different mood. A snow storm would incite a different mood than a hurricane would. The dangers would be different. Characters would react differently to those dangers. Even something as simple as night and day is important.

Setting used as theme.

Most stories have themes. Most of those most have a few. The last thing we want to do is hit the reader over the head with moral speeches or writer interference (we’ve all done it in that first draft. We preach.) Setting is another way to hit themes subtly.

Let’s take a look at an example.

In my WIP, one of the themes is prejudice, incited by fear. One way I show this is through action. There’s a scene where groups gather to celebrate a peace treaty between two different races that share Earth (werewolves and humans). Many don’t agree with the peace treaty, as both sides are still reeling from the bloody 5-year war that ended in a cease-fire. Humans hate werewolves because they don’t understand them. They have no tolerance for things they don’t understand. A sort of riot ensues, kicking off the key event for the story. Bam. Action.

Let’s break it down a bit more. In this scene, it takes place in the MC’s home town. It’s an old town, complete with a historical section. This is a prideful town. It’s also the center seat of the county. It’s not huge, but big enough. Advanced enough. The feelings are mixed because the openness of people’s minds are mixed. This is not a town that consists of farmers who never leave their farms (forgive the blanket generality).

As stated, setting also consists of weather and mood. When the scene first opens, our MC takes note of the wind kicking up. There’s a storm brewing on the other side of the mountain. She dislikes storms with a fierceness, but it’s not clear yet whether this storm will reach the celebrations happening here. It’s foreshadowing (which is another post for another time.) That foreshadowing mixed with her fear of storms invokes feelings. Uncertainty. Will the storm reach them and rain on their parade? Anxiety. We’re all afraid of something and we empathize with the MC.

You miss the opportunity to invoke memory when you don’t use setting. Invoking memory takes the reader deeper into your story through their own feelings. It creates empathy, it creates that connection. They are invested because they understand.

Less subtle is another scene in the opening of the second act of my WIP. My point of this scene is to move Plot B forward, but I’d miss that opportunity to increase theme through setting if I’d chosen just anywhere for my MC to go.

Instead of the mixing pot of her home town where there is more tolerance, she travels to a Native American Reservation to meet with some people, one who happens to be a known werewolf. When they arrive, they find said werewolf cleaning off graffiti from the side of his trailer. It’s a brief conversation about where this graffiti came from, because here the intolerance is as known as the werewolf. Here is a superstitious town full of fear. Here is theme through setting in a subtle way.

This scene also sets up a later scene where MC returns to the Reservation to help the werewolf, whose family member was murdered by an unknown person. Someone who lives on the Reservation? Possibly. Possibly it’s not as “simple” as that.

Setting as mood.

Depending on mood, one could see the left picture as a haunted house, and one could see the right as the same house, only what it could be with a little TLC.

No matter what genre you’re writing, the setting of your story is another way to portray mood. You don’t want to spend a paragraph describing the smell of a robust brew and the new cinnamon bun in a coffee shop if the story is of the horror genre (unless that’s important to the “sanity” of your murderer or something like that. Cinnamon makes me unhappy, too, when it’s combined with apple and spice.)

Don’t set the wrong mood with your setting by accident. Details matter, but they must be true to the type of story you’re writing. The way your character reacts to the setting is just as important as the details. A man who just lost his family will notice different things compared to someone who just was promoted to her dream job.

A lot of writers forget that they have five senses (6, depending on the type of story you’re writing) and largely depend on sight and hearing. What about touch, smell, and taste?

In one of the opening scenes in my WIP, my MC has never experienced fireworks, so when she smells that powder, the charcoal, and sulfur, it excites her. We, as readers, are taken back to our own experiences watching the fireworks. We feel the explosions in our chest, we smell the same thing she’s smelling. We’re right with her seeing those colorful bombs going off against the night sky. We’re tasting the food from vendors, remembering the joy of spending time with loved ones, the awe of the beauty of the entire moment.

Then, just as quickly as real life, she’s brought back to the current state of affairs as thunder claps. There’s arguing not far from her. The awe of the moment fades away as another clap of thunder is felt in her bones. Lightening strikes the sky, adding to the color against the black. Do you smell the rain? Feel the charge in the air? Are you thinking about your own experiences with powerful storms? Do you have that same rude awakening as she’s feeling now?

That is mood.

The moral of the setting story.

Don’t overlook something as powerful as setting. Use it. Spend time thinking about it. Develop it as you would develop any other main character in your story.

What are some of your favorite settings in stories, including your own works?

Stay tuned for characters part 2!

Characters: Getting in their head: Part One

Photo by Yeshi Kangrang

What makes you who you are?

The simple answer: your experiences. Every little thing you’ve done or been through shaped you into who you are. The complicated answer…well, that’s a story full of chemicals, synaptic transmissions, and science.

Why is this important? Authentic characters create believable plot. Well-rounded characters keeps the plot moving in a direction true to the actions and reactions of those characters. Your characters, even your antagonist, must be relatable. We don’t have to like them, but we do need to have empathy for them.

We, as readers, want to get lost in your work. We want to forget that these people don’t exist.

To do this, your characters can’t be mechanical. They have to make mistakes. They must be contradictive in their beliefs and actions. They must have flaws, and goals.

Real life is crazy. We want to read about that crazy. We want to know that we are not alone is our unpredictable reactions to unpredictable circumstances.

So, the big question then is: how do we create authentic characters?

Personalities

To get to the core of your character’s personality, you need to go back to the beginning. Sometimes this means going back generations, especially when we’re looking at core values and story goals.

What are core values? Some examples are:

  • Religious views
  • Family views
  • Gender roles (or lack of)
  • Honesty
  • Integrity
  • Loyalty
  • Compassion

What are story goals? We have our major story goal, which is the main plot. What do your characters want and why do they want it? Your characters are going to want different things throughout the story, and many of them cause conflicts with other characters (hint: subplots).

Every upbringing is going to influence your characters traits and personality. No upbringing is the same, not even to siblings. Even if parents treat their children the same, no two people are alike. Even identical twins will have different experiences with the same event because they have different perspectives.

According to Vanessa Van Edwards (who is an idol to me) everyone has five core personality traits. Depending on which end of the spectrum you end up at depends on your personality. She even has a personality test you can take here for yourself or for your characters.

Let’s take a look at her five core personality traits.

  • Openness- how easily a person adapts to change, how someone takes in experiences, and how someone reacts to new ideas.
  • Agreeableness- how easily a person cooperates with others and gets along with them.
  • Conscientiousness- how well a person desires to complete tasks and whether or not they focus on the big picture rather than smaller details.
  • Neuroticism- how emotionally stable someone is.
  • Extroversion- how people react emotionally around others. Do they get energy around others or are they drained?

Your character’s upbringing, again, will influence each of these traits. These are the positive sides of the traits but negatives can certainly be instilled. This is not to say that new experiences after childhood and their teenage years won’t influence a change in their personality, but the early years of your character’s life is going to be the foundation for the building blocks of their core beliefs.

Changing their personality is going to take emotional work on their part, so don’t have your characters start off one way and change to another without showing the work they put in. Chances are, you’re going to have to dig deep into their childhoods to explain their beliefs.

For instance, my personality has changed since I started therapy. Simple things such as making phone calls give me anxiety because my mind would go to the worst possible outcome in ten seconds.

I had to call the IRS for a copy of my tax return. My fear of asking for my copy of my tax return turned into fear that I could end up in jail. So, yeah, that escalated quickly and quite illogically. I eventually got the nerve up to make the call. I’d never been more happy for an automated machine to answer or felt sillier because it was so easy to get a copy.

But my work with facing my fear of asking for things for myself led me to getting a job I’ve wanted for a long time. My therapist and I made a small goal after the tax situation for me to go into my local bookstore and ask for an application. Turns out I can do stuff like that when I don’t think too hard about it and just go for it. I start working at the bookstore next week.

The point is, without making that call (which made me almost throw up due to panic), I would have never had the confidence to seek that job application. I would have never realized the key to face my fear was to not think too hard. If I’d never identified that core belief (that I expected the worst to happen) I could never have recognized when my thoughts were leading me astray.

I had to go back to the beginning to understand that belief. My dad gave me up for adoption when I was 10. I had no control over the circumstance, and there my need to take outcomes to extremes was born.

Awareness was the answer.

Hanan Parvez says on his site that, “Because of the experiences that people go through in life, they develop certain deep-seated beliefs, needs and ways of thinking. In order to fulfill their needs, they develop certain personality traits. They might not be aware of the reason why they have certain personality traits, but their mind is working in the background continually seeking ways to satisfy its needs.”

Understanding is key

I mentioned my current WIP, a novel called Kit. I wrote draft upon draft trying to figure out who she was. I couldn’t seem to get her personality quite right. I couldn’t make her pop on the page. Looking back at it, I see that while I knew her, I didn’t understand her.

I went back to the beginning. I knew a few things already, such as where Kit spent the last 15 years, including some early childhood. But I didn’t know how she spent it. How she was raised. I knew her life wasn’t easy. She was abused and terrorized by a man who kidnapped her when she was 4.

That kidnapper is the antagonist. In order to understand how Kit was raised, I had to understand how he “parented”. That meant going back to see how he was raised. I knew his story goal, so I had to figure out what led him to that story goal.

Though Kit is science fiction, it’s also an urban fantasy. Werewolves, shape-shifters, magic, and the like. The antag, an old werewolf, wants children, and Kit is his ticket, being a shape-shifter. He was born in a time where women were viewed as property, so even though it’s the 21st century now, that’s how he treated Kit. That’s how he was raised.

Though I dug deeper into his past to understand both him and Kit, his need for children who would not die in a human life span makes him relatable. Everyone wants a family. Old, crazy werewolves are no different.

Digging deep

I have many ways to get to know my characters. One is the simple backstory file or questionnaire. But I don’t feel as if that makes me know my characters. I know about them, but they are still just words on a page. Two dimensional.

My three favorite ways to get to know them are free writing scenes to see how they act in odd situations, journal entries, and interviewing them.

Free writing scenes entails putting my characters into situations to see how they react. I don’t force them to react the way I would, but instead I just let them be. If something doesn’t feel right, it means that I influenced them. I learn a lot about my characters by letting them react in free writing scenes.

I plan to include some varying journal entries in the beginning of each chapter (that relates to the chapter) in my novel Kit. Writing them helped me understand why Kit later reacts the way she does to events.

For instance, she hates parties. They make her anxious because the antag would throw her a party every year in celebration of her captivity. He’d lace the cake with drugs as a way to terrify her more when he forced her to eat it. She’d wake later with no recollection of what had taken place. She uses a party as a way to draw him out later in the novel, but a willing party is one of the hardest things she’s ever done.

Interviews are probably my favorite. I clear my mind and then envision I’m sitting across from my character. This is helpful especially when I feel stuck. I literally ask them what happened and they (mostly) fill in the blanks for me. I ask multiple characters the same questions, getting it from different perspectives, and come up with some great plot that way.

Stay tuned for part two.

What are some ways you get to know your characters? Comment below to share any tips or odd ways you dig deep to get into their heads.