MYC: Build Your Main Character

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 covered the Big Idea and using Creativity to help you Create Loglines. This week, I’ll discuss Developing Main Characters.

Character development is critical to your story’s success and one of your most important pre-writing activities. You can probably begin writing your story with only a sketchy plot, but if you start writing without “knowing” your main character(s), it will be difficult to create a memorable story that connects with readers.

Task: Create a main character that readers are willing to root for throughout your story.

Within the first few pages, you must find a way to make the reader care about what happens to your main character. How do you do that? Develop deep, multilayered characters. Even if every detail doesn’t make it to the page, knowing your character as well as you know yourself will make your story stronger.

To create an interesting main character the reader will care about, you need to know the answers to these questions.

  • What makes your character special (talent, ability, difficulty)?
  • What’s your character’s weakness/flaw (what must she/he overcome for the conflict to be resolved)?

To answer those questions, consider the four main layers that make a character whole.

The Layers That Make Up a Character

Think through all the layers of your character before you begin to write. Often my main character comes to mind almost completely formed. Sometimes, it takes more effort. In both cases, I often fix a pot of tea and interview my main character(s) early in the prewriting process.

  • Outside identity:  age, name, gender, race, skin color, quirks, physical features [eye and hair color, birthmarks, teeth, height, body size, voice, teeth (crooked, missing, braces), health status, outstanding features (lazy eye, big nose, ears that stick out, mole, scar, birthmark, lost limb)]
  • Inside identity:  personality, traits, religion, values, sexuality, intellectual ability, gender, fears, mental health, beliefs
  • Frame (what makes up the character’s world):
    • family structure (parents happily married? birth order? dysfunctional family? traditions?)
    • house rules (no opposite sex in the bedroom? shoes off at door? anything goes in this house? strict parents?)
    • foods (ethnic? home-cooked meals? take-out? packaged foods?)
    • Economic status: rich, middle-class, poor
    • Social status: popular, community-minded, philanthropic, troublemakers, elitists, reclusive
  • Voice: How your character communicates the story. This will overlap with all the above and we’ll be focusing more on voice later in the series, but here are a few ideas to jumpstart your character into a bit of dialogue.
    • Consider these together:
      •  Age and birth order: these help shape personality which give your character a unique perspective
      •  Maturity: this will influence your character’s reactions and attitude
      •   Sense of humor: fart jokes or Shakespearean pun
    • Now, consider how your character communicates.
      • Writes notes, letters, poetry? texts? face to face? avoids others?
      • Type of words: short and to the point? flowery?
      •  How does your character convey their message: sarcasm? jokes? direct? indirect?

Final Important Tips About Your Main Character

1. Avoid Stereotypes!

If you chose to ignore this advice (don’t do it!!!), turn the stereotype on its ear or balance the stereotype out by adding many details to give your character depth.

Examples:

  • nerdy smart person (balance: very friendly and outgoing, loves riding dirtbikes)
  • troublemaking poor person (balance: who makes trouble for all the right reasons)
  • sassy black girl (balance: with high values that she’s willing to stand up for)

More tips for avoiding stereotypes: https://litreactor.com/columns/storyville-ten-ways-to-avoid-cliches-and-stereotype

2. Show/Don’t Tell!

Page after page of descriptions is a sure way to turn off readers. You definitely will need some telling, but try to convey details about your character through action or comparison.

Examples:

1. Character is an atheist (using action instead of telling)

Tell: She’d been an atheist from the minute she found out her Grandma left all her money to a televangelist.

Show: Even though her family still said grace before dinner, she’d given up on God the minute she found out her Grandma left all her money to a televangelist.

2. Character is white and artistic (using comparison instead of telling)

Tell: She was a white girl who loved to draw.

Show: She peeked into the classroom door to check out the other students before she walked in. Was she going to be the only white girl in the drawing camp?

I’ll end this post with a few resources. Come back next Wednesday when we’ll discuss Supporting Characters!

Resources: Tips and Worksheets on Building Character

https://www.writingclasses.com/toolbox/character-questionnaire/gotham

http://www.epiguide.com/ep101/writing/charchart.html

http://niemanstoryboard.org/stories/14-tips-for-building-character/

http://fuckyeahcharacterdevelopment.tumblr.com/post/50825149893/character-sheets-and-character-creation

MICHELLE LEONARD is a math and science nerd, a chocolate biscotti baker, and a SCBWI member who writes middle-grade and young adult fiction. Her young adult sci-fi short story IN A WHOLE NEW LIGHT will be published in the BRAVE NEW GIRLS ANTHOLOGY: STORIES OF GIRLS WHO SCIENCE AND SCHEME releasing August 2017. Connect with her on Twitter.

Creativity to the Rescue: Finding BIG Ideas

As a piggyback to last week’s BIG IDEAS post in our Master Your Craft Series, it occurred to me that many of our readers may still be struggling with their concept not being quite BIG enough to commit months or maybe years to writing a story. Or maybe you’ve only got a small nugget of an idea. So what do you do?

First let’s break concept down into bite size chunks.

Inciting Incident: The “what now” that sets your story in motion! This is the scene where something happens to cause the protagonists to change course.

Protagonist: A main character with specific characteristics.

Goal: What must your main character achieve in your story?

Stakes: What will happen if the protagonist don’t achieve his/her goal?

If you have these four ingredients, you can write a logline.

Standard logline: When/After {INCITING INCIDENT OCCURS}, a {PROTAGONIST} must {GOAL}, or else {STAKES}.

But what if you don’t have all those ingredients? Well, it’s going to be difficult to write a story! You need a creativity boost!

There’s been much written about how to maximize your creativity. Basically, you need a method for opening your mind to jiggle loose new ideas. Physical Movement often helps or sometimes a nice long bath does the trick. Sometimes we get ideas through serendipity, like from dreams or watching people, or by cross-pollinating ideas by watching the news or enjoying art. Writing prompts can help too, but sometimes you have to go grab creativity and force it to work for you.

Creativity tricks for writers:

  • Apples to Apples Game: No, I’m not asking you to play it! But you can use the game cards to help you generate ideas. There are 749 red noun (person, place, thing, or event) cards, 249 green adjective cards, and some blank cards.

Example: Say you’ve got a main character {a quiet young boy who’s ignored by his busy family}, but that’s it.

Easy! Pull out three adjective cards and three noun cards and start making some connections. Let’s pretend you get Demi Moore, The Great Depression, and NYPD for your nouns and Scary, Mysterious, and Hard-Working for your adjectives.

So obviously, a story where Demi Moore is the goal, inciting incident, or the stakes is a little bit too weird. But you see the words scary and mysterious and you might remember that Demi Moore was in the movie Ghost. Then your mind starts to pull the other words together to form a bigger idea. Let’s try inserting some of this into the standard logline structure.

After {moving into an old house in New York}, {a quiet young boy who’s normally ignored by his family} must {convince his family that their new home is inhabited by a ghost}, or else {STAKES}.

Okay, this isn’t perfect and I wouldn’t pitch it to an agent, but it’s got your brain working, which was the goal. I ran out of steam with those cards. I didn’t use them all and some of them were just used to generate other ideas (Demi Moore=ghost, NYPD=New York, The Great Depression=the time period just before their house was built). Also, I’m not done. I don’t have STAKES yet. So pull another set of cards and see what you come up with for the stakes. If you completely hate the idea, start over and draw more cards or move on to another trick.

  • The Dictionary: Just turn to a random page, close your eyes, and point to a word. Repeat this until you have an assortment of words to work with and fill in the blanks just like you did with the Apples to Apples game.
  • Magnetic Words: Every writer has those magnetic words that speak to them. (Heck, one of my favorites is the word “magnetic.”) Keep a list of your magnetic words in a handy spot (like a favorite journal or an easily accessible file) and use those to fill in the blanks just like we did with Apples to Apples.
  • Misfortune Tellers and Tarot Readings: Author John Claude Bemis has great creativity exercises on his website that can be used to help fill in the blanks for your logline.
  • Talk it out: Once you’ve used the ideas above to come up with your best possible BIG IDEA, talk it out with a friend or family member. See if they think you’ve come up with a BIG IDEA, or maybe they can help you make it BIGGER!

Happy Writing!

MICHELLE LEONARD is a math and science nerd, a chocolate biscotti baker, and a SCBWI member who writes middle-grade and young adult fiction. Her young adult sci-fi short story IN A WHOLE NEW LIGHT will be published in the BRAVE NEW GIRLS ANTHOLOGY: STORIES OF GIRLS WHO SCIENCE AND SCHEME releasing August 2017. Connect with her on Twitter.

Master Your Craft: The Big Idea

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. (For more information, see last week’s intro post.) This week, I’ll discuss The Big Idea.

So you’re ready to write a novel. You’ve got a character, maybe a scene, a vague idea of the plot…you’re ready to sit down and start writing, right?

Not so fast.

Even seasoned writers can be fooled by a Shiny New Idea. So before you dive into drafting, take some time to test your book-to-be and make sure your new idea is also a Big Idea.

Here are some of the questions we Pennies ask ourselves at the dawn of a new idea:

  • Do I have passion for this story? This might seem obvious, but a novel takes a while to write, and it’s crucial that you have a deep and abiding passion that can sustain you. Another way to ask this question: Is this a story I must tell the world, or is it just a story I’d like to read? I wrote 20,000 words of my current WIP before realizing that one aspect of my story just wasn’t interesting enough to me to push me through all the research I needed to do. I’d love to read that original idea, but it isn’t a story my heart longs to tell.
  • Do I feel urgency to tell this story NOW? I have an entire file of story ideas. Some of them are really cool! But none of them are begging me to tell them right this second. That sense of urgency is another indication that this is a Big Idea.
  • Do I have a vivid protagonist with an overarching goal? In other words, who is your main character, and what does he or she want? Can you hear his or her voice? This is the foundation of any story, and if you don’t have this, it’s going to be so much harder to spin a full novel out of your idea. I’m not sure The Hobbit would have had such enduring power if Bilbo hadn’t longed with his entire being to be back in the Shire.
  • Can I visualize the entire story arc? Often the beginnings of our ideas are just the flash of a character or a scene. But of course, novels need more than one brilliant scene or one fascinating character. Take some time to consider where your story is going. What sets off the action? How does the MC change as the story progresses? What peak conflict will push your MC to the end of the story?
  • Can I write a logline for this story? If you can write a pithy pitch for your idea before you write a word of the story itself, chances are you’ve got the makings of a Big Idea.
  • Are others excited when I tell them my idea? How do your CPs react when you tell them your pitch? Are there “oohs” and “aahs”? Or are they asking questions and offering “what ifs”? Other writers are especially good at recognizing Big Ideas, and if they’re not sold, chances are you have more work to do. And it’s pretty important to get feedback at this stage, even though we can all be very protective of our fledgling stories. Our agented Pennies have reported sending slews of new ideas to their agents only to be told that none of them quite pass muster as is. Most of the time, this just means you need to do the work of fleshing out the idea and finding a unique way into the story. But it is way better to learn this before you write 60,000 words.
  • Is there a market for my idea? Although this question can put a damper on your Shiny New Idea excitement, it’s really important to do this research. Don’t be the author trying to sell a dystopian after the market flood of apocalyptic fiction!

Sadly, some story ideas are flawed from the get-go. Stubborn writers can spend years working on stories that will ultimately go nowhere…and a lot of that heartbreak can be avoided if you take a few days or weeks to really road-test your story first.

And if you can answer “YES!” to all these questions? Congratulations! You’re still not quite ready to write, but you’re one step closer to seeing your Big Idea become a Big Fat Novel.

(Need help coming up with a Big Idea? Check out this earlier Winged Pen post about creative cross-pollination, this one about writing prompts, or this one exploring where ideas come from, to get your creative juices flowing.)

Come back next Wednesday where we’ll discuss Main Character Development.

Introducing Master Your Craft: A New Series by the Winged Pen

The last month has been an exciting time here at The Winged Pen as Pennies have been hard at work behind the scenes coming up with a surprise for you.

Today, to coincide with Camp NaNo – the virtual writer’s retreat that helps you fit writing into your busy life – we’re excited to launch our new blog series: Master Your Craft with the Winged Pen (#WPMYC).

Every Wednesday for the next several months, we will take you through the entire process of writing a novel – everything from getting the Big Idea, all the way to the final, ready-to-query manuscript.

Our Pennies will share with you all of our best techniques and tools, starting with pre-writing tricks, including character development, research and world-building, to make your drafting as painless as possible.

Of course, writing a novel is going to include some pain, so we’ll walk you through the drafting process, too. We’ll help you fight that terrible enemy of the drafting novelist: the fear of the blank page. And we’ve got a host of tips and tricks to help you overcome the stalls, blocks and annoying plot bunnies that threaten to derail every first draft.

And once you’ve got your story down on paper, we’ll give you all of our favorite techniques for making a story shine until it positively gleams.

Each of our Pennies has a slightly different process and does each of our steps in a different order, so don’t feel like you have to follow this formula exactly. Instead, think of it as a compendium of writerly advice designed to help you on your novel-writing journey.

Writing a novel can be a lonely, demoralizing process. But it doesn’t have to be. Let us help you – and help each other – to shape the vibrant and enduring stories that are living so vividly in our heads into the best manuscripts we can possibly make.

We can’t wait to start sharing this treasure trove of posts with you! If you’re not already following us, go ahead and sign up so you won’t miss a single tip. And if you know someone struggling to write a novel, tell them to sign up, too. The fun starts next Wednesday, so don’t miss out!

Finally, if you have questions, comments or just want to cheer us on (sometimes we need cheering, too!), comment away here or on any of our Master Your Craft posts. We love to hear from you!

Spark a Story with the Setting Exercises in The Rural Setting Thesaurus

Book covers for The Urban Setting Thesaurus and The Rural Setting Thesaurus

Book covers for The Urban Setting Thesaurus and The Rural Setting ThesaurusAngela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi do it again! Introducing The Rural Setting Thesaurus!

Disclosure: I received a review copy of The Urban Setting Thesaurus in exchange for an honest review.

I also bought a copy of The Rural Setting Thesaurus because it has GOOD STUFF for #kidlit.

You know, SHINY settings, like Backyard, Basement, Birthday Party, Child’s Bedroom, Halloween Party, Outhouse, and *cough* Secret Passageway, Abandoned Mine, Ancient Ruins. Did I mention Secret Passageway? There’s also a WIDE variety of school settings.

You might think having a list to choose from would make everyone’s stories the same. But I’ve noticed that a list frees up my mind to play. 

The best thing about Angela Ackerman’s and Becca Puglisi’s books? They make writing more FUN!

And they make writing more productive. Their power writing tools help you write better, faster, stronger stories with less effort. What’s not to like?

Today I want to talk about the deceptively simple power tool called “Setting Exercises” that is in both Thesaurus books.

A few months ago, I went into a Korean grocery store before a writing meet-up. Just for fun, I filled in the Setting Exercise tool when I got to the café. I didn’t have high hopes. I was really just going through the motions to see how/if it would work. Here are my thoughts and my unexpected results.

Feeling brave? Try out this new Setting Exercise tool. We can do it side-by-side. Hey, it’s Friday–what have you got to lose? I’ll share my results here. Feel free to share yours in the comments.

[Note: the actual tool has more tips than my shortened version here.]

Choose a place and list two sensory details for each of the five senses.

SIGHT: electric lights, colorful packaging, orange/white/red. Long cases, cash registers, lines, colors of veggies: green leaves, purple eggplant, peppers

SMELL: soap, fish, rice bags? green leaves–basil? mint? lemongrass?

SOUND: Ding of register scanner, hum of refrigerators. Korean? Voices. Words I don’t understand.

TEXTURE: crinkly packages. Hard frozen fish, tofu in buckets of water, shrink-wrapped octopus?

TASTE: toasted sesame

This was more interesting than I thought. I don’t do well with lists for character. But will it get me a story? How’d you do?

Write a paragraph through the eyes of a character who has never visited this place before. Weave in quality of light, time of day, season and use at least 3 of the 5 senses from your list. Try to show us who the character is and what he or she feels.

A little boy named Chi-won asks for something at the butcher counter. Ignored because too small, using the wrong word. Wilful lack of respect: I am stronger than you so I can do what I want and no one will stop me. Big knives and muscles in arms slamming knife through fish. Put more fish in on purpose so it will be more expensive. Sloppy packing up shows no respect for food or for child. Chi-won thinks: Too embarrassing to ask for some to be put back. Counts money. Not enough. Oh no! Chi-won sneaks out of store without paying.

Huh. Well that isn’t a paragraph of a story, but it sure looks like a hero and an antagonist. This might work even though I didn’t follow directions. Only took five minutes. What did you get?

Rewrite, using foreshadowing. Something bad is going to happen. Concentrate on building subtle mood of unease or hone in on a detail that does not fit.

Now what? When Chi-won got home, he had to give the change to his sick grandmother. If he gives all the money back, he’ll have to confess that he stole the fish. Sneaks into room and takes money out of piggy bank for the “change.”

The handy list of details I made for this setting will make this easy to do when I’m actually drafting. If I run out, there are buckets more in The Urban Setting Thesaurus and The Rural Setting Thesaurus.

Time to ramp up the tension. Rewrite to show character interact with setting as he flees, fights or hides.

Grandmother needs something else from the butcher and sends him back again. Oh no! Can’t go in there again! Goes to dirty-looking butcher shop six streets away. Buys fish there even though it smells funny in there. They cheat on the change and the fish smells. Has to keep grandmother from sending him shopping any more. Tells her he’s sick. Grandmother cooks him toasted sesame and special food but he feels guiltier. Friend at school invites for playdate. So excited until he finds out it’s the son of the first store owner. Oh no!

This story is developing right under my eyes! I’m definitely trying this tool again. I added it to my Novel Spare Parts file and put my “results” in my Setting ideas folder. I really liked the way this exercise focuses on emotions and gives me fresh ways to reveal them.

Did this tool spark a story for you? If not, try another. The Rural Setting Thesaurus includes a Setting Planner. The Urban Setting Thesaurus includes an Emotional Value and Triggers Tool. Both books include the Setting Exercise above.

Angela Ackerman gave us generous permission to share them here. You can also find them at Tools for Writers:

Setting-Planner

Tool_Emotional-Value_and_Triggers is a bit more complicated, according to Angela Ackerman. There’s a filled-out sample in the Appendix of The Urban Setting Thesaurus.

Warning: If you’re a tool person like me, I recommend limiting yourself. Don’t fall into Writers’ Home Depot and forget to come home to your manuscript.

Challenge: If you’re not a tool person, I encourage you to give one of these a try. Don’t force it. But how great would it be if you found a new way to spark your imagination?

You can find The Rural Settings Thesaurus on:

Goodreads

Kobo
Amazon
Barnes and Noble
Indiebound

More for you on The Winged Pen: We went a little nuts about The Emotion Thesaurus, The Negative Trait Thesaurus and The Positive Trait Thesaurus and the magical Reverse Backstory Tool in earlier posts on the Winged Pen. And Rebecca J. Allen has a new post on The Urban Setting Thesaurus here.

LAUREL DEphoto of Laurel DecherCHER writes stories about all things Italian, vegetable, or musical. Beloved pets of the past include “Stretchy the Leech” and a guinea pig that unexpectedly produced twins. She’s famous for getting lost, but carries maps because people always ask her for directions. You can read THE WOUNDED BOOK, her adventure story for young readers on Wattpad. Or find her on Twitter and on her blog, This Is An Overseas Post, where she writes about life with her family in Germany. She’s still a Vermonter and an epidemiologist at heart. PSA: Eat more kale! 🙂 Her short fiction for adults, UNFORESEEN TIMES, originally appeared in Windhover.

Wait, there’s MORE! Rebecca J. Allen has more about The Urban Setting Thesaurus here on the Winged Pen. Over to Rebecca:

Photo by Pam Vaughan

REBECCA J. ALLEN writes middle grade and young adult stories that blend mystery and adventure. Her best story ideas come from her two crazy kids. She’s on Twitter and her website is here.

 

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