MYC: A Reformed Pantser’s Guide to Character Development

Welcome to this week’s Master Your Craft post! Each Wednesday we’ll discuss prewriting and drafting a new book from the BIG IDEA to QUERYING. Last week, we continued our series on character development with a post on supporting characters. This week, I’ll share tips on fleshing out characters using my three favorite craft books.

A lot of writers start out writing by the seat of their pants (i.e. jumping in to drafting with no prior pre-writing/planning/outlining). After the painful process of seeing just how big of a dumpster fire my first drafts are when I don’t do any pre-writing, I moved toward the planning end of the spectrum and I called in the experts (in the form of craft books).

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I like to pre-write in a way that leaves my creativity room to change course and explore as I draft. So I spend the bulk of my pre-writing time working on character development. Because once that character starts talking to me, I know I can rely on her to tell me what needs to happen next in the story. Getting that character talking can be a challenge though. Here’s what I do…

I will admit up-front that I write character-driven stories, so you’re not going to get a lot of plot talk here. My what-if dreaming sometimes has a plot element to it, but it’s usually character-focused. Even if I start with a concept that is plot-based (for example, my work in progress right now started out as Goonies meets Hoot), the first thing I do is start thinking about who my main character is, what her interests are, how she interacts with her family and friends, and what’s going to make her the best heroine for this particular story. In this case, I knew I wanted the hero of the adventure to be a girl (don’t get me started on the problematic aspects of the girls in Goonies, that’s another blog post entirely), and not just any girl, but a tomboy who wanted, more than anything, to be an engineer so she could develop medical devices to help disabled people like her father.

At this stage I often make lists of hobbies, favorite books, what type of clothes she typically wears, what she loves, what she hates, what she’s most afraid of. I think about tropes and stereotypes and how I can turn them on their head here as I create this new person. This is where I do all the dreaming before I get down to the hard work of putting flesh and bone and soul into the character.

That hard work begins with Lisa Cron’s amazing Story Genius method. It focuses on what she calls the “Third Rail” or the combination of the character’s desire and the misbelief that keeps the character from achieving that desire. The book, and the Author Accelerator course that is based on it, takes you through the process of identifying that third rail and the pieces of the character’s backstory that led to the formation of the desire/misbelief combo. I also develop a third rail for my antagonist and any important secondary characters. [full disclosure: I work for Author Accelerator and help coach writers through Lisa’s Story Genius method, but I have also used it for my past two manuscripts. I promise, it works.]

Once I have an idea of what the character wants and what’s standing in her way, next I go back to my story structure favorite, Story Engineering by Larry Brooks. My favorite thing about this book is that it ties a four-part character arc – Orphan/Wanderer/Hero/Martyr – to the four-act structure of a typical plot (click for more information on story structure). I use broad strokes to identify the main character’s mindset during each of these four acts, so that I have a very high-level view of the character arc.

All POV characters need an arc. Even if you’re writing the plottiest of plotty thrillers. I promise. A few supporting characters should have minor arcs to make the story emotionally satisfying as well. Extras (minor characters that would normally inhabit the main character’s world but who aren’t instrumental to moving the plot forward) don’t necessarily need arcs or they should be very minimal.

The next part is fun, especially if you enjoy torturing your characters. Because I then take my new character through Donald Maass’s Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook. My biggest take-away from it is the idea of complicating the character’s desires and obstacles to inject more tension into the story. Coming up with ways to complicate/deepen the character is usually what helps me figure out what needs to happen in the major plot points.

So that sends me back to Story Engineering. I fill out a beat sheet with the major plot points and then I’m ready to move on next week’s topic, writing a long-form synopsis for brainstorming on plot and character. See you then!

JULIE ARTZ writes stories for children that feature the natural world, folklore, mythology, history, and all that is magical about those things. In addition to contributing to The Winged Pen, she works as a developmental editor for Author Accelerator, is a Pitch Wars mentor, and contributes regularly to From the Mixed-Up Files of Middle-Grade Authors. She is represented by Jennie Dunham of Dunham Lit. You can also follow her on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

Writing Cross-Culturally

Pennies Michelle and Julie meet in real life at last week’s Madcap Retreat

This month, The Winged Pen’s own Michelle Leonard and Julie Artz were lucky enough to attend Madcap RetreatsWriting Cross-Culturally Workshop in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Not only was it a blast to finally meet up face-to-face, but the long weekend was packed with great information and resources. We’d like to share a peek at what we learned with our readers.

Highlights

We were surrounded by many talented writers of various backgrounds and made many new friends for life. The faculty (pictured below) included Leigh Bardugo, Daniel José Older, Nicola Yoon, Adi Alsaid, Danielle Clayton, Tessa Gratton, Heidi Heilig, Justina Ireland, Julie Murphy, and Natalie Parker. Dhonielle Clayton

Your characters should have several layers of description that comes through in your story.

  • Outside identity:  race, skin color, physical features, names
  • Belief system:  religion, traditions, sexuality, gender, fears
  • Frame:  family structure, house rules, foods

Cultures are not a monolith. Be as specific as possible about who your character is on the outside, inside, and the frame around them.

When describing skin tone and hair, use make-up and hairstylist hair terminology (google is your friend!) to avoid character description pitfalls like “pale” (pale compared to whom???).

DJ Older

To get past good vs evil, to a more nuanced view of conflict, you have to understand the power dynamics of the characters in your story world.

Some examples of types of power:

  • Institutional power (posse of armed men)
  • Community power
  • Magic – the physicialisation of power
  • Health/ability
  • Spirituality/religion
  • Economic
  • Education
  • Acceptance
  • Beauty
  • Heteronormative/Gender
  • Reproductive
  • Race
  •  Age

The crisis of your book must be determined before you develop your character. The crisis can be anything from your character “needs a hug” to “he’s gonna die.” Ultimately, all stories are about who has the power and how it’s used. Check out DJ’s Buzzfeed article about writing about “other” characters.

Justina Ireland

Microaggressions are indirect, subtle, or unintentional discrimination against members of a marginalized group. They are often transparent to you, but not to others. Microagressions remind outgroups that they are outside the norm or social standard.

Example: A store owner following a customer of color around the store.

How do you prevent microaggressions?

  • Write with savage empathy by seeing the character like an individual.
  • Write for your entire audience.
  • Consider how people from outgroups will consider your depictions.
  • Acknowledge your blind spots and get help from others in writing characters unlike you.

Resource for sensitivity readers and more: Writing in the Margins

Another good resource good on microaggressions (not shared by Justina, but relevant) from The Atlantic.

Tessa Gratton

Metanarratives are an overarching account or interpretation of events and circumstances that provides a pattern or structure for people’s beliefs and gives meaning to their experiences. Metanarratives are repeated until they seem like facts, but rarely reflect reality or what we want for future generations.

Basic western fantasy coding

  • Good: white, European Christian, pure
  • Evil: black, non-European, non-Christian
  • This comes from history
    • Medieval recreation of West v East (greeks v Persians) by Christian historians
    • Crusader ideology

Because this is the default, you must actively work against this metanarrative.

Nicola Yoon

It’s hard to hate what you understand. Avoid stereotypes because they’re not the truth. They are lazy. (Examples: sassy black woman, nerdy Asian, overbearing Jewish mom, demonization of poverty.)

How to write cross-culturally?

  • Diversify your life. Specificity is the key to building real characters. OK, they’re sassy. And then what?
  • Empathy + craft
  • When you engage in stereotypes, people see it as a moral failing but it’s really a failure at the craft level. You did not inhabit someone else.
  • When you write characters, be specific, write against stereotypes, and do no harm.
  • Use sensitivity readers.

Heidi Heilig

Cultural appropriation is adopting or using the elements of one (usually minority) culture by members of another (usually dominant) culture. Often the original meaning of those elements is lost or distorted, and this is disrespectful and oftentimes harmful to the members of the original culture.

Julie Murphy

Things to avoid in body representation:

  • Applying moral value to food and fat vs. thin.
  • Nobody “feels” fat. It’s not a feeling!
  • Just because you write a fat character in a book doesn’t mean that you need to explain why that character is fat.

Leigh Bardugo

Good worldbuilding:  playing god and not being a jerk about it. You should read work by “marginalized authors to learn how to build worlds that don’t make people feel like shit.”

N.K. Jemisin’s work is an example of excellent worldbuilding with diverse characters.

Adi Alsaid

Start your story as close as possible to the event that throws the main character off footing. Watch this very important TedTalk by Chimamanda Adichie on the Danger of a Single Story.

Book Recommendations

There are so many amazing things happening in kidlit, it’s hard to narrow down a list of recommendations. But here are a few:

Angie Thomas – The Hate U Give

Daniel Jose Older – Shadowshaper

Leigh Bardugo – Six of Crows

Heidi Heilig – The Girl From Everywhere

Nicola Yoon – The Sun is Also a Star

Julie Murphy – Dumplin’

Alex Gino – George

Donna Gephart – Lily and Dunkin

Additional Resources

Take Gene Luen Yang’s April Reading Without Walls challenge.
NaNoWriMo’s Preparing to write about diverse characters
Justina Ireland’s blog about writing about people unlike yourself.
WNDB We Need Diverse Books resources for writers
Writing With Color
Intersecting Axes of Privilege
Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC) statistics on children’s publishing
Disability in Kidlit Tumblr and website

The best part of our weekend–all the amazing friends we made! ❤️

We hope you’ll enjoy a few blogs from our new writing friends so you can see different takeaways from the MadCap Writing Cross-Culturally Retreat. Please feel free to share any resources or questions you have for writing cross-culturally in the comments!

Subscribe to The Winged Pen and never miss a post, including our monthly #FourOn400 writing contest for middle grade and young adult. Click to SUBSCRIBE!

Aimee Davis’ blogBroken Girl Cured by Love: On Tropes and the Lies They Tell

Anna Jarvis’ blog: The Wonderful World of Writing and Friendship

Jordan Kurella’s blog: We Could Be Heroes, For Every Day

Sarah Viehmann’s blog: Favorite Quotes from MadCap

Carrie Peter’s blog: MadCap Retreat: March 2017

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Happy Release Day to The Outs!

Today, I’m thrilled to welcome my friend and critique partner E. S. Wesley to The Winged Pen to talk about the release of his debut, The Outs.

JA: Congratulations on your debut! Can you tell us a little bit about The Outs’ journey toward publication? 

ESW: Sure thing! The Outs was the culmination of other work I’d done in the past, developing this idea and exploring what a world like this would look like. When I finished it, I threw it into the mix with an online contest called Pitch Wars, and the manuscript landed me an awesome mentor (JA Souders—go read her stuff!). Throughout the process, I got some really great agent interest, but Curiosity Quills saw the pitch as well, and asked to have a look. I’d heard great things about CQ, and when they offered on the book, I was happy to take them up on it.

JA: This story is a great mashup between a psychological thriller and a comic book-style adventure story. Can you talk a little bit about what gave you the idea and what other works from those genres inspire you?

ESW: I love, love, LOVE psychological thrillers. Something about having an author toy with my mind really adds a nice punch. As the story of The Outs began to form, I knew that it was the perfect vehicle for something like this.

As for the comic-booky thing: Kitzi (one of my two main characters) pretty much demanded it. In fact, Kitzi made herself come to life and demanded stage time. When I wrote my first draft of the story, she wasn’t even in there at all, but once she entered the scene she took center stage. And she demanded to be a superhero all her own, with her disability forming the core of her superpowers (can’t say much more about that, because SPOILERS!). From there, it was just a matter of seeing where she took the story, and I couldn’t be happier with her.

I’ve always loved the idea of people whose weaknesses double as their strengths anyway. There’s something so amazing about seeing someone take a rotten deal and turn it into something good that gets me where it counts, you know?

Also, if you love superhero stories and haven’t read Brandon Sanderson’s The Reckoners series (starting with Steelheart), then you’ve got some catching up to do. Go ahead. I’ll wait.

JA: You also write middle grade. How is MG different than writing YA and which do you prefer?

ESW: I totally love both, but for different reasons. Writing YA, I get to explore what it’s like to step into adult decisions for the first time, and take your life into your own hands. Middle grade can get some of that, but only so far. The strength of middle grade writing lies in the freedom to explore EVERYTHING. I think YA readers tend to have certain expectations—romance, angst, sequels—but middle grade readers haven’t come up with those limitations just yet. And besides, who doesn’t love stories about friendship?

The Outs does that, too, though. It shows a grittier version of life, more like what we discover when we see for the first time that our actions can have far-reaching consequences. And Caleb and Kitzi’s actions have really far-reaching implications.

JA: I know you work with children and teens. How does that reflect in your writing, and in the voice of your characters?

ESW: I think a lot of people have this idea that teens don’t have deep thoughts, or they don’t look beyond themselves. Having spent time with them and heard their deepest struggles, I know that’s a load of garbage. Teens think about all the same things adults do, but their thoughts and feelings about those things are heightened because they’re learning to handle life for the first time. Adults are jaded; teens are fresh. They see the world with new eyes. They allow themselves to feel their fears and make mistakes, and there’s something cool and honest about that.

JA: What does your writing day look like? Any tips or tricks you’d like to share with our readers?

ESW: For me, it’s all about routine. Getting up at the same time and putting my butt in the chair to work is all it takes to get started, and I won’t let myself whine about writer’s block or anything like that. Always move forward, you know? I typically work from around 7:30/8 in the morning to 5 in the afternoon. Sometimes I go a little longer, but not often. Gotta rest sometime!

JA: Congratulations and thank you for joining us!

E.S. Wesley is an author and advocate for the safety and mental health of young people. A long-time mentor and counselor, Wesley has worked for years to protect, encourage, and empower young adults to navigate a life that rarely makes sense. He believes all people are just waiting for someone to relate to their stories, so he makes up stories in the hope that someone will read and find a home there.
His stories are often strange and twisty.
Wesley lives with his wife in Texas, where he’s always writing. Texas has a lot of things that he likes, but Shelly is the best of them. Second best is his son, who introduced him to his wife. Sometimes we do things out of order—that just makes life more interesting.
Connect with him on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, or subscribe to his mailing list.

 

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Our Holiday Wish List – Craft Books!

Many of us will spend at least two weeks in December hiding from our children with our nose in a book. At The Winged Pen, our wish lists are full of books that inspire our creativity or deepen our craft. So here’s a peek at the writing books we loved and the books we hope to receive this holiday season. If you have a writer on your gift list, you might just find the perfect gift below:

 

Rebecca: Story Engineering by Larry Brooks pushed my writing to the next level. It impressed upon me the importance of plot points in the structure of a story. Moreover, I love the framework it uses for tying your main character’s arc to the plot points so they are learning and growing into a hero over the course of the book, and their heroic win at the climax is earned.

And Writing Irresistible Kidlit by Mary Kole is next on my TBR list.

 

 

Julie: My favorite discovery this year was definitely Lisa Cron’s Story Genius. We teach this method to writers at Author Accelerator and I now use it every time I plan a new book or story.

 

And I’m hoping that I’ll get to read Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg sometime soon because so many of my writing pals have recommended it!!!

 

 

 

Laurel: Libbie Hawker’s Making It In Historical Fiction is a very straightforward discussion of tropes in historical fiction.

 

Lately, I keep finding myself turning back to Rachel Aaron’s 2K to 10K: Writing Faster, Writing Better, Writing More of What You Love.

 

 

Halli:  I recommend On Writing by Stephen King because it not only gives great writing advice and tips, but reminds us all even famous authors were once where we were.

Note: Another Penny pointed out that you could read the transcript of the speech King gave when he was awarded the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contributions to American letters, which is like a condensed version of On Writing.

And Story Genius is on my Christmas list! [See, I might have been evangelizing it just a wee bit–Julie]

 

 

Sussu: I love The First 50 Pages by Jeff Gerke, absolutely fabulous. I love the way he tells us to write the first chapter as a short story independent of the main story. Light bulb moment!

 

 

On my wish list, I have The Magic Words by Cheryl B. Klein.

 

 

 

Karin: I love Story Genius and Story Engineering, but as they have been already accounted for, I will add one that isn’t heard about so much but had a big impact on me: From Where You Dream by Robert Olen Butler. He brings his former experience as an actor to the writing process and calls it “method writing.” Writing is about dreaming your way into the character and the scene and feeling the underlying yearning.

 

 

 

 

 

MichelleThe Plot Whisperer was the perfect companion read for a PlotWriMo class I once took on revision. The book is a bit philosophical, which appealed to me, and I highly recommend it because of Martha Alderson’s thorough explanation of how to integrate plot with character transformation.
I’m a fan of Matt Bird’s Cockeyed Caravan blog for writers, and I’m excited about his new craft book The Secrets of Story: Innovative Tools for Perfecting Your Fiction and Captivating Readers.

 

 

 

Gita: My favorite take-away from Robert McKee’s Story is his “principle of antagonism,” which is guaranteed to deepen and complicate your WIP.

 

Still Writing by Dani Shapiro is for my wish-list for writing craft and wisdom.

 

 

 

 

 

 

JessicaWriting The Breakout Novel & The Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook by Donald Maass. The workbook is a terrific resource to turn to when you’ve completed one or more rounds of revising and know your story needs work but can’t figure out what’s missing.

 

And I’m planning to read Getting Into Character by Brandilyn Collins next.

 

 

 

Kristi: I love Plot vs Character because I can never write my first draft from both perspectives. Once my first draft is done, I crack open this book to the page where the author has made a two sided map showing how the emotional plot and the action plot ebb, flow and merge. It’s magic!

And I want Cheryl Klein’s The Magic Words.

 

 

 

Readers, what craft books are on your must-read or holiday wish lists? Weigh in via a comment below–we always need more recommendations when it comes to craft books!

Breaking Through Writer’s Block

Last month, one of my editing clients emailed me a panicked plea for help with writer’s block. And although we’ve talked about this a bit on the blog already (How Do You Tune Out Online “Noise”?, Ideas to Hack Down Writers’ Blocks, 4 Ways Winged Pen Writers Get WordsPerfectionism and Pomodori), it can’t hurt to share the tips I gave my client for breaking through writer’s block:

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1. Writing exercises can help. NaNoWriMo started on November 1 and the @NaNoWriMo and @NaNoWordsprints Twitter feeds will be full of daily inspiration and prompts. I have used these in the past to map out aspects of my story that I know need to be written even if it means writing out of order. Sometimes just writing a scene or a short sketch will get the creative juices flowing in other areas.

2. Don’t be afraid to write out of order or to use brackets to leave place-holders when you feel stuck. My first drafts often say stuff like [Something needs to happen here so that MC feels this or does that] and then I go back and fill in the blanks on revision, or later on whenever I have an ah ha moment.

3. If you know, for example, that you need to write a love scene and you’re not feeling inspired, read a few of your favorites from other authors. I was struggling to add life to my Seattle-based setting in my current ms (some of my other settings have been more far-flung or exotic, so the urban scene felt blah to me) so I read some urban fantasy to get a good feel for what I could do. Even though my MG is a far cry from gritty urban fantasy, it really did help shake some things loose.

4. Just keep writing, even if you know what you’re writing is bad. You can’t wait for inspiration to come to you–you have to write yourself into inspiration. And that only happens with regular sessions of butt-in-chair.

5. Have a conversation with one or more of your characters. This often goes something like this: “OK, MC, I don’t know what’s supposed to happen here. How would you react if Love Interest does X? What if he does Y? What do you WANT him to do?” It sounds cheesy, but if you can get out of your head and into your gut, I think that’s the place from which your characters will start to tell you what needs to happen to move the story forward. Some writers call this getting into “flow” and it’s a truly beautiful feeling (although I spend hours writing when I’m not in flow–it’s not something that you can maintain for an entire draft).

I asked the rest of the Pennies for their tips and here’s what they said:

Richelle Morgan: Fresh air! I find walking the dog to be my most productive “writing” time most days — as long as I remember to write down all my insights when I get home! Sometimes I even record them into my phone as I walk…there’s something about using my whole body that gets my sluggish brain moving.

Also, when I was in college, I took some random class that ended up being primarily about lucid dreaming and how you can make your brain work for you when you’re asleep. Ever since then, if I’m stumped about something, I tell my brain to find an answer right before I go to sleep. Usually, within 24 hours or so, I’ll have it figured out. Works like a charm with writing — though sometimes my brain wakes me up mid-sleep to tell me the solution!

Gita Trelease: Once, when I was working on a hard part of my dissertation (19th century British lit), I took a nap. In my dream, I saw a hand writing out, in perfect 19thC boilerplate script, a paragraph in which the argument I needed to make was made with exemplary clarity. Woke up and wrote it down! I just want to make this happen more often.

Reading something truly excellent (regardless of genre) or watching a movie set in the place or time period I’m working with. Here’s something new I discovered: When I’m struggling to uncover what my characters are feeling, I find I can access the thoughts and emotions more authentically if I write them out by hand. Maybe this connects to the feeling of writing in my journal, which I’ve been doing since I was in 4th grade? Or maybe it connects to the unconscious, like walking or dreaming does?

Gabrielle Byrne: Long walk. Long shower. Stop pushing and read a book. Give yourself permission to breathe for a day.

Mark Holtzen: I love the quote about writers block that says simply “lower your expectations.” And for me getting outside it is vital. Going for a bike ride we’re going for a long walk. Also reading something completely out of genre is really helpful for me. Even if it has nothing to do with my topic it always shakes something loose.

Laurel Decher: Motion! Getting your brain to relax is key. Asking the “boys in the basement” to send up the answers (like Richelle’s lucid dreaming up above.) Lowering expectations.

National Novel Writing Month can be a transformative experience because you learn to feel the abundance of words and story and inspiration. Being amazed at how much you can write makes you hold those precious words much more lightly.

How do you cope with Writer’s Block? Have you tried any of these tips?