I was talking with a friend about writing and the complexities of character development suddenly hit me. We are all on a journey and will be affected by positive and negative events… yes, even those of us who are blessed with good fortune. These experiences shape who we become. With this in mind, since our […]Writing Your Characters by Dennis Scheel￼
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Today I have a guest post from Desiree Villena, who is a writer with Reedsy, a marketplace that connects self-publishing authors with the world’s best editors, designers, and marketers. In her spare time, Desiree enjoys reading contemporary fiction and writing short stories.
A dichotomy is often set up between plot and character-driven stories. In plot-driven stories, plot itself is the most important factor and characters may be interchangeable; in character-driven stories, character takes a front seat and the plot unfolds in a way that depends on their personalities and choices.
But the distinction between plot-driven and character-driven stories isn’t always so clear — and frankly, all the best stories have both exciting plots and well-developed characters. With that said, here are some particular things you can do to establish your characters more firmly at the heart of your story!
1. Get to know your characters
If you’re going to be writing about your characters deeply enough to convince your readers of their authenticity (and of your story’s authenticity in turn), you want to know them inside-out. One great way to delve into the depths of each character’s psyche is to do some character exercises. These need not be long or complicated! For example, you might:
- Make use of character questionnaires or interviews, which require you to think about how your character might answer particularly obscure questions.
- Come up with specific scenarios and write a short piece detailing how each character would think, behave, and react in such a scenario. What would your character do if they got stood up on a date? What if they accidentally locked themselves out of the house?
As well as thinking about what your character is like at the time your book takes place (for instance, do they find it difficult to trust people?) you should also think carefully about their backstory — how they came to be the way they are. This backstory can then be woven into your writing to lend context to your character’s behaviors and make them feel more real.
Carrying out this thorough groundwork as you plan your novel will give you a well-formed understanding of your characters to keep in mind as you write. This will be hugely helpful in terms of guiding the thoughts and actions you ascribe to them — which will in turn guide the overall arc of your story.
2. Remember that nobody is perfect
We all love our characters, and may even want to believe they’re flawless… but when a character is portrayed as completely perfect, they lose that believability and relatability that makes readers emotionally invest in and connect with them. In other words: making a character perfect actually dehumanizes them, and weakens your story.
And for a character-driven story to really come to life, simply giving your character a minor flaw or two won’t cut it. In a plot-driven story — where characterizations may not be as complex or relevant to the story’s action — we might expect the line between characters’ flaws and virtues to be well-distinguished. But in character-driven stories, characters are not just supposed to be imperfect, but a little bit messy as well.
Between their flaws and virtues, the difference might not be so clear-cut, adding to their intrigue. The journey from unawareness to awareness of their flaws and potential for change will make their character arc much richer, like Briony’s journey from immaturity and righteousness to recognizing her mistake and wishing to make up for it in Atonement.
Try thinking about your own characters’ personalities and what their corresponding flaws might be. For example, if they’re a hard worker, one of their flaws might be refusing to ask for help, or ignoring their family and friends in favor of getting ahead at work. Having a handle on these flaws will give you a much better idea of their natural progression through the story.
3. Make your character’s goals clear
As you build this in-depth picture of your characters, you will hopefully identify their desires and goals. To make their goals into focal points of your narrative and really lead the plot, it is important you establish them clearly and early. Goals, after all, motivate your characters to make the decisions they do, guiding the story on its path. Some more examples:
- Emma Bovary’s ambitions for excitement beyond dull everyday life drive her to engage in multiple affairs and excessive spending.
- Jay Gatsby’s desire to win Daisy back leads him to throw lavish parties in hopes of getting her attention, and to make increasingly reckless decisions to gain her love.
Where in a plot-driven story, the story’s ultimate destination would be a piece of action that would occur regardless of characterization, the destination for a character-driven story will be the protagonist’s goal or reaching the endpoint of their character arc. (In both of the examples given above, this is the character’s tragic downfall and ultimate death.)
Of course, character-driven resolutions are not exclusive to plot-driven ones — again, in any great story (and in the examples above), both characterization and plot should manifest in the ending — but in terms of ensuring your story is as character-driven as possible, try to think about character first and foremost. Still, you do want your strong, consistent characterization to feed into an excellent plot! On that note…
4. Don’t lose sight of the external world
Character-driven stories often focus on internal conflict. But while this is obviously very important, you don’t want to get so caught up inside your characters’ heads that you forget about external conflict.
In fact, external conflict is necessary to create internal conflict. As a writer, you have the joy of creating an interesting and challenging world for your characters to live in. By allowing your characters out into this world you have created, they will be faced with the inevitable complications it presents.
These external challenges then serve as a stage on which your characters’ stormy internal conflicts can play out. When they’re forced into making a hard decision, the push-and-pull factors that give rise to their internal conflict(s) will be brought to light. The focus on these internal struggles takes your story further towards the character-driven end of the spectrum while, again, not sacrificing plot.
5. Give consequences to actions
One tell-tale sign of an overly plot-driven story is when a character mysteriously gets away with something they probably shouldn’t. Here it becomes apparent that what the characters think or do is of little consequence to the plot, because the plot is pre-established and the characters are simply instruments that enable the progression of events.
To keep a hold on your characters’ actions determining your story, try to ensure that all your characters’ actions (no matter how small) have consequences. Be these consequences that hinge on other characters’ reactions or simply consequences that make sense based on the way our world — or the world you have built — works, doing this will ensure you don’t end up contorting your story just to hit a plot point.
For a final example, one of my favorite instances of this is the ending of the 2019 blockbuster Uncut Gems. Those who have seen it will remember that Adam Sandler’s character gets what was coming to him — a resolution that’s surprisingly satisfying for viewers because it’s absolutely realistic for his character.
Writing more character-driven stories comes down to how well you know your characters and remaining conscious that your plot should be built around them, rather than the other way round. I hope this helps, and best of luck with your writing!
If you would like to get in touch with Desiree, you may email her at email@example.com
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To publish or not to publish…
That’s a good question!
Unfortunately, I don’t know the answer. Making the decision to publish a book is very personal, and many factors need to be taken into consideration.
You spend months, maybe even years working on writing a book. You slave and bleed over every word, every detailed description, every conversation and interaction between characters until you finally type the last word. But the journey isn’t over yet. It has only just begun.
Once the final word is put on paper, the arduous process of revising and editing begins. However time consuming, stressful, or mind-numbingly mundane the editing process can be, it is a necessity in the writing process. Afterall, you want your book to be the best it can be, right? So you sit for hours on end rereading, rechecking, and correcting, over and over again, errors, inconsistencies, and word choices to make your book “perfect” (for lack of a better word). You instill the help of others and ask for a second set of eyes to read through the manuscript you’ve put your whole heart into. They will criticize. They will correct. They will cut and shred and rip apart every aspect of your work. That is their job. You will tear this manuscript to shreds and read it over so many times that you are tired of looking at it. It’s all part of the the creative process.
Ok. So now that you have the perfect story, what are the next steps? Do you take the plunge and publish it, or do you sit on it and never show another living soul as long as you live?
Before you make that decision, there are many things to think about. First off, how open are you to criticism? How well do you take feedback? Do you have the time and patience to contact agents and publishing companies? Do you have thick enough skin to handle rejection? Are you willing to change your book’s content or sell off the rights to someone else? Do you have the resources available to seek alternative publication options? Have you researched these options? Have you considered every option and not limited yourself to just one path? Do you have the funds available, should you choose the self-publishing route, to cover the formatting, editing, and marketing costs of publication? All of these are important questions to ask. Publishing a book involves many things. Things I had no clue about when I first began this process.
Over the last five years (Has it really been five years?), I have learned many things about the publishing world. First and foremost, book publishing is an extremely competitive environment. There are millions and millions of books out there, and in the scheme of things, the author is merely a tiny minnow just trying to survive in a much larger ocean of bigger fish. Unless you stand out in the crowd, no one will even know you exist.
Many writers are under the misconception that they can publish a book and the sales will come. This is a load of BS. Sales don’t just come. Marketing involves a whole other layer to book writing that I knew nothing about when I began this process.
The whole “sell your book” process begins well before publication even happens. Marketing must be on the back of your mind from the minute you begin writing. Who is your target audience? How will you reach this audience? Where will you find people who might potentially buy your book, and how do you get them interested without constantly shoving your book in their face? (That is a huge turn off, by the way).
Content is your main selling point. What is your book about? Is it unique with content no one has written before? Can you summarize it in 30 seconds or less and make it interesting enough that people will want to buy it? Is the title catchy? The book blurb on the back is probably one of the most important things you will write. It can either make or break sale potential. Choose your words carefully.
Although people say you should never judge a book by its cover, they do. Does your cover look professional? Does it match other books in the genre and have “eye-catching” appeal? Is it colorful, but not cluttered? Does it pop and make people want to pick it up? These are all factors to consider. And if you don’t have the skills to do this sort of thing, where can you find someone who does? Do you have the funds available to pay for their services, because they will not and should not do it for free. To me, this is an art, and a skill I don’t possess.
The outside of the book must look great, but formatting the inside is just as important. Different book formats require different formatting and file types, something I know next to nothing about. Kindle versions require one file type with specific formatting requirements, whereas paperback books require a completely different type of formatting. It’s confusing, and unless you are an expert on this and know precisely how to do it, your book could end up in the Kindle store with the spacing all messed up. If not done correctly, the margins in your paperback could be off or words and paragraphs could be cut off or sized incorrectly. I hired someone to do this, which goes back to my previous statement of having available funds. Hiring out for these services is costly.
You now have solid content, an eye-catching cover, and proper formatting. Now what? Selling! How do you sell this book that you’ve slaved over for months? Pricing your book is definitely something to seriously consider. Remember that the publishing world is highly competitive, and in all honesty, who wants to purchase a $20 book from a no-name author? Most people don’t. If you want to compete in this world, you have to offer something no one else has. You have to give people a deal and make the price they pay worthwhile. This has limitations. It costs publishers money to print out copies of your book. The price you/they charge has to be enough to make a profit. And unless you are Stephen King, JK Rowling, or James Patterson, there is absolutely no guarantee that your book will sell enough copies for that to happen. You are a writer no one has ever heard of. Buying a book written by you is risky. Consider your cost carefully. Lower is better; there is less risk involved.
How comfortable are you with social media? These days, you can’t get attention (although I HATE being the center of attention) without being active on social media. Everyone uses social media in one form or another: Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and a handful of others that seem to be popular today. You might be able to reach some potential readers through social media, but don’t count on it. Most people don’t use social media to look for books to read or discover new authors. They use it to socialize, in a sense. If you don’t have the time, energy, or patience to manage multiple social media accounts, no one will even know you exist as an author. I would strongly advise you NOT to constantly post your book online. Quite frankly, no one cares, and you will lose engagement and followers if you are constantly shoving your product in their faces. Think about it. Do you like it when people push products on you? Do you like the presence of ads constantly flashing in front of your face? Well, your followers and people you interact with on social media don’t like it either. Use the internet to make connections, not as an advertising agent.
Are you comfortable speaking or reading excerpts in front of an audience? Are you able to set up an appealing author table and talk about yourself and your work at events? How do you sell yourself at book signings? What “brand” do you have? (Yes, that’s a thing). Do you have the support, resources, and connections needed to sell books at events? Joining local writing groups can sometimes help with this. They tend to have an “in” with local agencies and know about upcoming events. Some even work together to set up booths and tables as a group to sell books. You can also research events through media sources and find upcoming events through local agencies and news articles or speak with other authors, if they are willing to share that information. Making your presence known and getting yourself out there is a full time job in itself.
Then, once you sell your first book and find your first reader, you face the fear and uncertainty of whether or not they like your work. What kind of review will they give you? Will readers spread the word about your writing? Will you sell more books? Will the months you dedicated to this offer any sort of financial compensation? Will others enjoy your work? They might. They might not. As writers, we live in this world of constant judgement. Our writing lives hang on the opinions of others.
While you’re debating and contemplating all of this, you are probably working on writing your next book, where the process begins all over again. But by this stage in the game, you are feeling so overwhelmed and have so much self-doubt, not only in yourself but with the entire process, that lifting a pen can sometimes be a challenge. Yet you keep at it, and one way or another, you find the energy to write.
So the question remains, should you publish that book you’ve written? That depends on you. Are you willing to dedicate the time, money, and energy needed to do so? Are you willing to face criticism, rejection, and judgement? Are you willing to do the necessary research and find the proper resources needed to publish and sell your work? Are you willing to make your presence known to the world without any promise of results? If you are, then go ahead and publish.
I’ve published five books over the last five years. Would I do it all over again? Yes, I would. I have no regrets. In fact, I’ve gained much knowledge over the years and learned many hard lessons about the publication process. That alone has been worth the ride. As a result of all this, I have changed a few things with every book I’ve published. I’ve used the knowledge I’ve gained about the process, taken advice from others, and changed my thinking to make the experience easier and less stressful for myself.
To publish or not to publish…you decide.
Does any of this look familiar to anyone? Sums up my life to a tee. Heehee. 😁
Tip1: “My first rule was given to me by TH White, author of The Sword in the Stone and other Arthurian fantasies and was: Read. Read everything you can lay your hands on. I always advise people who want to write a fantasy or science fiction or romance to stop reading everything in those genres and start reading everything else from Bunyan to Byatt.” — Michael Moorcock
Tip 2: “Protect the time and space in which you write. Keep everybody away from it, even the people who are most important to you.” — Zadie Smith
Tip 3: “Introduce your main characters and themes in the first third of your novel. If you are writing a plot-driven genre novel make sure all your major themes/plot elements are introduced in the first third, which you can call the introduction. Develop your themes and characters in your second third, the development. Resolve your themes, mysteries and so on in the final third, the resolution.” — Michael Moorcock
Tip 4: “In the planning stage of a book, don’t plan the ending. It has to be earned by all that will go before it.” — Rose Tremain
Tip 5: “Always carry a note-book. And I mean always. The short-term memory only retains information for three minutes; unless it is committed to paper you can lose an idea for ever.” — Will Self
Tip 6: “It’s doubtful that anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction.” — Jonathan Franzen
“Work on a computer that is disconnected from the internet.” — Zadie Smith
Tip 7: “Interesting verbs are seldom very interesting.” — Jonathan Franzen
Tip 8: “Read it aloud to yourself because that’s the only way to be sure the rhythms of the sentences are OK (prose rhythms are too complex and subtle to be thought out—they can be got right only by ear).” — Diana Athill
Tip 9: “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” – Anton Chekhov
Tip 10: “Listen to the criticisms and preferences of your trusted ‘first readers.'” — Rose Tremain
Tip 11: “Fiction that isn’t an author’s personal adventure into the frightening or the unknown isn’t worth writing for anything but money.” — Jonathan Franzen
Tip 12: “Don’t panic. Midway through writing a novel, I have regularly experienced moments of bowel-curdling terror, as I contemplate the drivel on the screen before me and see beyond it, in quick succession, the derisive reviews, the friends’ embarrassment, the failing career, the dwindling income, the repossessed house, the divorce . . . Working doggedly on through crises like these, however, has always got me there in the end. Leaving the desk for a while can help. Talking the problem through can help me recall what I was trying to achieve before I got stuck. Going for a long walk almost always gets me thinking about my manuscript in a slightly new way. And if all else fails, there’s prayer. St Francis de Sales, the patron saint of writers, has often helped me out in a crisis. If you want to spread your net more widely, you could try appealing to Calliope, the muse of epic poetry, too.” — Sarah Waters
Tip 13: “The writing life is essentially one of solitary confinement – if you can’t deal with this you needn’t apply.” — Will Self
Tip 14: “Be your own editor/critic. Sympathetic but merciless!” — Joyce Carol Oates
Tip 15: “The reader is a friend, not an adversary, not a spectator.” — Jonathan Franzen
Tip 16: “Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. If you have the knack of playing with exclaimers the way Tom Wolfe does, you can throw them in by the handful.” — Elmore Leonard
Tip 17: “Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.” — Neil Gaiman
Tip 18: “You know that sickening feeling of inadequacy and over-exposure you feel when you look upon your own empurpled prose? Relax into the awareness that this ghastly sensation will never, ever leave you, no matter how successful and publicly lauded you become. It is intrinsic to the real business of writing and should be cherished.” — Will Self
Tip 19: “The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like. (That may be a rule for life as well as for writing. But it’s definitely true for writing.) So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it honestly, and tell it as best you can. I’m not sure that there are any other rules. Not ones that matter.” — Neil Gaiman
Tip 20: “The nearest I have to a rule is a Post-it on the wall in front of my desk saying ‘Faire et se taire’ (Flaubert), which I translate for myself as ‘Shut up and get on with it.’” — Helen Simpson