"I Know You, Al": Getting to Know Your Characters

Saturday, September 29

Photo by Anna DiProspero

In Richard Russo's novel "Straight Man," the main character is a creative writing teacher who has a few tricks to teach his students how to become better writers. Whenever their characters seem flimsy or unbelievable, he says "I know you, Al" to prompt them to elaborate on who their characters are: "I know you, Al. You're the kind of guy who would hold a door open for a woman" or "I know you, Mary. You're the kind of woman who would quit her job to hike across the country for a year."

It's an exercise that could benefit all writers.

How well do you really know your characters? Getting to know the smallest details about them will help you to render them more believable and compelling, even if you never use those details in the story. Here are just a few of the things you can answer about your characters to help you get to know them better (and perhaps can use to make your story better):

A character is more than just white or black, tall or short, fat or thin. Features go beyond blonde or brunette, pale or tan, and pretty or ugly. Think about the smaller details. Does your character have a scar from when she fell off the bed when she was 5? Does he have a mole that grows just under his ear that makes him self-conscious when he kisses a woman? Or does she have a birthmark on the top of her foot that kind of looks like Elvis?
These are the kind of details that can really bring your character to life in your reader's mind.

What your character does -- and what your character wants to do -- says a lot about who he is. Is he an architect who secretly dreamed of becoming a ballet dancer? Or is she a rock singer who really longs for the stability of an accounting job?
Don't limit yourself to picking out a single career. Follow your character's path to where she is now and look at the jobs that led her there. Then think about what she wants to do next and whether her path lines up with her dreams.

Family is a rich source of conflict in any story, and it should be a large part of what informs your characters. Your story doesn't have to be about this family drama, but you should at least understand it to know your character better.
What are the relationships that your character has with family? What does family mean to your character? How often does he talk to his mother? Is she close to her sister? Did they live with their second cousins when they were younger? There is a lot of material to explore here.

The things we like to do in our spare time say a lot about who we are. Does your character enjoy creating miniature pastries out of clay? Or maybe he likes to run marathons in extreme conditions? Perhaps she enjoys foraging for mushrooms and capturing wild yeast to make her own sourdough bread.
Think about the hobbies your character would enjoy, as well as what his or her "favorites" might be. What kind of music does she like? What's his favorite movie? What authors do they like to read? These can say a lot about character.

What kind of a guy or gal is your character? If he was put in a certain situation, what we he do? Is he the kind of guy who opens doors for woman? Is she the kind of gal who keeps working after she has a baby? Or is she the kind who stays home?
Think of hypothetical situations for your characters and think of how they would react. What does this say about their values? Their aspirations? Their integrity? The answers may or may not become a part of your story, but they will certainly help you to understand your character better.

Using these and other strategies to get to know your character better will only help you to write a stronger character that seems more real and more compelling for your readers. You don't have to include every detail you know about your character in your story, but you should certainly know everything you can about your character.

Lisa Shoreland is currently a resident blogger at Go college, where recently she’s been researching medical school grants. In her spare time, she enjoys creative writing and hogging her boyfriend’s PlayStation 3. To keep her sanity she enjoys practicing martial arts and bringing home abandon animals.


Guest Post: Jessica Sunde on Overcoming Writer's Block

Thursday, February 16

Photo by Katie Blair
It’s happened to every writer at some point or another. You sit down at your computer (or, if you are old-fashioned, a typewriter) and all you can see in front of you is the dreaded whiteness of a blank page. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed, but there are steps you can take to help get the creative juices flowing again. The following are a few tips for overcoming writer’s block that have proven helpful to me over the years.

Start in the Middle

Sometimes the hardest aspect of writing is just getting that first sentence on the page. When you don’t necessarily know where you are headed, it can be daunting to start. When faced with this problem, I always remember the advice my eighth grade English teacher Mrs. Sloane gave me: skip it, and start in the middle! This is almost like free writing, but you will eventually edit together what works and emit what doesn’t. Whether you are writing a piece of fiction or a school paper, starting in the middle allows you to write what is foremost on your mind regarding your topic, without your inner censor getting in the way. Once you get a good idea of where your thought process is headed, you can outline paragraphs around your ideas. This will make it easier to write your introduction and concluding paragraphs when the time comes.

Carry a Recorder

A lot of times, seasoned writers advise people to carry a notebook in case inspiration strikes. But the truth is that the mind is faster than the pen. By carrying a small voice recorder with you, you can catalogue your ideas and inspirations instantaneously, as they strike. Because I have a long commute to work every day, I often keep my recorder in my car. While I am driving, I will often get ideas about stories or freelance articles that I am writing. Talking out loud about these ideas helps me gain perspective, and I’ve even come up with character dialogue this way. Best yet, it helps alleviate boredom during traffic. If you are self-conscious about talking to yourself in the car, you can always put a Bluetooth device in your ear and fake having a conversation. No one will notice the difference.

Observe Your Surroundings

When I absolutely cannot write, I go into what I call my “observation mode.” Instead of creating, I am taking things in, whether it’s a good book, a great film, or a couple walking down the street holding hands. Try to heighten your awareness of your surroundings. Go to an art exhibit or a museum, or a ballet production. There is inspiration and art all around us, ready to fuel our creativity.

Keep a Dream Journal

Before you go to bed, tell yourself that you are going to dream about the next chapter of your book. It may seem strange, but this actually does work. When you wake up in the morning, make sure to have your journal (or better yet, your recorder!) next to your bed. Often the superficial aspects of a dream will seem irrelevant to your book. But take note of the imagery and general “vibe” of your dreams.

I don’t believe that dream interpretation is something that can be applied across the board. A dream about a cat can mean something completely different for two people. Ask yourself what your dream symbols mean to you, and see if you can apply them to your writing. If, for instance, you dream about a tidal wave washing over you, you could interpret that feeling as one of helplessness or overwhelming emotion. Try writing a scene with your main character based on the dream – even if you don’t end up using it in the end. By putting your character in different situations, you will better understand how they would react, and ultimately, they will become more real to you.

When it comes to writing, the best way to keep a steady creative flow is to try to write something every day, whether it’s a few sentences, or ten pages. Understand that there will be times when the words don’t flow as easily, and don’t despair when this happens to you. Keep your mind open, turn off your inner censor, and remember that you can always edit later.

About the Author
Jenni Sunde is a freelance fashion writer and pop culture junkie. Jenni specializes in all things lifestyle-related. From home and design to health and beauty. With her love of art and all things beautiful, she delights in sharing her sense of style from her life to your computer monitor. Her title pegs her as an editor at a website that specializes in providing people with car insurance quotes, but her passion leads her into writing with a little more substance and a lot more heart.


Guest Post: Celtic Traveler on 'The X Factor'

Tuesday, January 3

When I say that I'm a fan of books and movies, what I really mean to say is that I'm a fan of stories.
I love stories. The whole world seems to be made up of them, they seem to be in the very air we breathe.
But why do only some stories achieve fame and others not?
I thinks it's because of The X Factor.

The X Factor is where the author/screenwriter actually cares about their story. Too many writers today are just in it for the money, which I find terrible. You should love what you write. You should enjoy it, and be interested in your own story. If you don't care, nor will your audience. Writers nowadays just seem to focus on what's "cool" at the moment. Like supernatural romances and dystopian society novels.

J.R.R. Tolkien, in his essay On Fairy-Stories, spoke on how writing should involve what you desire. We all desire to be heroes, and that's why we write about them. We desire to witness magic, ride dragons, be brave in battles, and find friendship. The X Factor means taking a piece of your soul and putting it in your story. Like Red Smith once said: "There's nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein."

Learning how stories work and how to write them are extremely important as well. But the key element is your soul; it's the spice of the story.

If you love what your doing, chances are your audience will, too.

About Celtic Traveler
An avid blogger and story connoisseur, Celtic Traveler has a passion for all things movie, music, and chocolate related. When she's not writing her own stories, she can be found at her blog, The Grey Traveler's Inn.


The Three-Part Writing System

Wednesday, November 30

Photography by Alex Mazurov

In returning to my blog, after a six-month limbo, I'd like to introduce The Three Part Writing System, something I've been perfecting during hiatus.

It is simply this. There are three parts to writing: Plot, Story, and Craft.

What's the difference between Plot and Story? The Plot is composed of the events, by themselves, with no added decoration. The Story is made up of the color and emotion of things. If you took out a piece of the Story, it might not affect the events, but it might damage the atmosphere you're trying to create.

Let's see if I can make it simpler.

Let's say your protagonist is a young soldier in the trenches of WWI. He has crucial information that he must deliver to his commanding officer, but to do that he must cross enemy lines. He decides to bribe an enemy soldier into stealing him an extra uniform.
Those are the events. That's your plot.  That is the logical sequence of events.

But let's add a little flair. Your protag has been wrestling with his conscience throughout his enlistment. He believes the war is futile, and even considers that by not delivering the information, the war would be shortened. As he walks through the trenches, he sees the men around him, singing songs half-heartedly and clutching letters from home, photographs of wives and children.
There. That's your story. It doesn't affect the fact he has crucial information to deliver. It doesn't affect the Plot. But it does add some delightful drama and conflict.

And, finally, Craft. These are the words that you, as an artist, choose to weave together. It's all good and fine if your plot and story are amazing, but if you write in a jerky "See Spot run. Spot runs fast" prose, the book will fail. Craft is how you write it. Don't we all love those writers who write cleanly, whose words flow along, who make us not want to put the book down?

Take Frances Hardinge; "By day the villagers fought a losing battle against the damp. By night they slept and dreamed sodden, unimaginative dreams. On this particular night their dreams were a little ruffled by the unusual excitement of the day, but already the water that seeped into every soul was smoothing their minds back to placidity, like a duck's bill glossing its plumage." Mmmm. She has a way with words.

And there it is, ladies and gents. The three things that make up a book. The three things to focus on, to improve, to hone to perfection. Learning how to write won't be instantaneous. But nothing that ever came easily was ever worth it.


29 Ways To Stay Creative

Friday, June 10


And if Vimeo hates you at the moment, you can always use this picture for reference, or print it out and add some lovely color to your wall.

Much thanks to the creative efforts of Paulzii of Tumblr and TO-FU of Vimeo.

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