The New Year has officially arrived! With that in mind, it can be an invaluable practice to look back over your writing journey and reflect on the things you’ve learnt so that you can start your year with gusto. Personally, I have a notebook for this very purpose: I write down some ideas or snippets of advice when they hit me and then use the beginning of the year as an excuse to crack it open and compile my scrawled notes into something legible.
There is a knack to doing this correctly. You don’t want to just be repeating the same tired old advice you’ve heard from five thousand different writing blogs before, so it is essential to learn from a variety of sources. Take your lessons from the most unusual books and unexpected places! The more you broaden your horizons, the more you’ll find unique takes on the writing process to add that personal touch that is essential to creating your own original work. Plus, we all think and learn differently, so varying your sources will maximise your chances of understanding and engaging with new ideas. Most importantly, though, is the fact that broadening your sources of information will help you avoid getting stuck in the same old genre tropes so that you can contribute something new and exciting to the world of literature.
You could be reading about physics, speaking to a war veteran or watching a documentary on the Amazon, but your learning methods don’t need to be serious. In fact, I personally acquire some of my best ideas from speaking in depth about my favourite anime and video games or attempting to solve some of the many ridiculous issues that arise in my own life. The key is to keep your writing brain on when you’re faced with a learning opportunity. Ask yourself questions like “how does this relate to my story” or “what makes this like my current writing issues” and you’ll find that you’ll have opened up a whole world of original ideas to add to your notebook.
My best advice to you is to start the New Year by using some of your holiday money to get yourself a sturdy notebook. You’ll thank me in the long run! In the meantime, I thought that it would be nice to share my own tips with you. Of course, they came from a whole range of places, and I wrote them down to serve different purposes. Hopefully, they can help you as much as they’ve helped me in 2018.
Tip 1: Your Characters Aren’t Pictures
My first tip came from commissioning my resident artist, ChaoticDeluge, to draw some characters for The Queen of Freaks. Obviously, when I was outlining how I wanted the characters to look, it was essential that I gave him all the details I could for him to create something I felt closely resembled the images I had in my head. It got me thinking, though, that many writers present their characters in a very similar way. This lead me to have a long, hard muse over what made a character introduction exciting or compelling in literature.
It can be very easy to fall into the trap of describing every single physical detail you can think of all in one sitting, which becomes very little more than an exposition dump. I’ve explained in length how this can be terrible for the quality of your writing as a whole, forcing your audience out of the action or creating an extremely boring atmosphere. Some writers can focus way too hard on the eye colour, hair colour, physique, hairstyle and clothing choices at the expense of introducing the readers to how the character acts.
This can leave them seeming much more like a still image than a character that readers will be able to see in motion. Remember that we are supposed to be helping the reader to imagine the scenarios in your book. Stopping the action to provide a character profile makes it seem like they’re standing still and just allowing you to study their physical appearance. You’re forgetting to show their actions, after all! Who wants to look at a mannequin for 50 words?
Instead of forcing every little appearance detail into the same paragraph, try scattering your descriptions throughout the narrative and allowing your reader to discover details as they become relevant to the plot. Incorporating eye colour into descriptions of facial expressions, or having your character physically have to crane their neck to look someone in the eye, says a lot more about them than merely telling us that they have green eyes or are short. Remember: there are very few characters whose worth in the plot revolves around every single physical detail. If your characters are more physical appearance than personality, is it possibly because you haven’t developed them enough to be anything other than an interesting-looking doll? Do yourself a favour and describe who they are way more than what they look like.
Tip 2: Give All of your Characters Motivations
I’ve actually applied this to acting since I was really young. It hadn’t occurred to
When a character’s interactions are dictated by their usefulness in a scene, the dialogue can become flat and fake. It also makes it impossible to empathise with characters! Real people have their own stuff going on in their lives, so you should reflect that when writing. It’s much easier to love someone when you understand them. Your characters still need to feel and act like people, and that means giving them all independent motivations to show that they are free-thinking human beings who act for their own purposes.
So how do you do that? Well, when you’re about to write a scene, pause to do a little bit of planning. Get out a piece of paper or a separate document on your computer and plan away. There are a few steps to getting this right.
Think About the Scene
Before you plot what your characters are thinking and experiencing, you need to consider the situation you’re putting them into. Ask yourself the following questions about the scene:
- Where is it set?
- Who is present?
- What tone are you trying to convey?
- What time is it? (Year,
dayof the week, season, day or night, religious festivals, etc.)
- Are there any other environmental factors?
These are important questions because they can really affect the way a line is delivered and where the characters are in the scene. Allowing yourself time to think about your scene makes the environment a real thing that characters can interact with, which in turn makes your story much more believable.
Think About the Character
Now it’s time to think about the character. You need to go deep into their mind and discover their motivations. You need to be able to do this to every single character in a scene, no matter how small. This is because characters make a story, so their interactions should be the most pressing issue in your mind. Ask yourself the following questions about the character:
- Why are they there?
- How do they feel about the location?
- What’s going on in their personal lives?
- How do they feel about the other people in the scene?
- Do they know something important?
- Do they want to find something out?
- What is their personality like?
- Is there anything they want to happen?
- Is there anything they don’t want to happen?
- What are they expecting to happen?
- Do their motivations clash with anyone else’s?
- Do their motivations align with anyone else’s?
There are probably thousands of other questions you can ask yourself, but this is a good starting point for you. As you develop your own writing style, the questions you need to ask will become more obvious.
Considering the circumstances of your characters when planning your scenes is essential. The more you think about them, the less they seem like mindless dolls only made to interact with your protagonist(s). Stop thinking of your characters as a means to an end and start thinking about them as people.
Put Your Characters in the Scene
This probably sounds self-explanatory, but trust me on this one. The next stage is combining your planning to make something useful. Many authors can forget to add the information they planned into the scene. What I mean is that we can write scenes knowing what the characters are thinking without letting the reader into the conspiracy. Readers aren’t psychic! If we’re writing a story, it’s our responsibility to tell our audience what’s going on! Of course, I know that my character snapped for a reason! If I don’t show the build-up, though, the anger can seem really sudden and random.
If you’re lucky, the worst this will do is make the reader a little bit confused. They’ll question a character’s actions, but move on from that quite quickly. However, it could also make them hate all the wrong characters or pull them out of the action completely. We want to be able to see that there’s something going on in the character’s mind! The more we understand from context, the smarter we feel as readers.
You can’t make educated predictions about a character’s actions if they’re emotionless. Very few people can invest in a plot with walking, talking plot devices. So how do you solve that? Well, here are some things you should consider:
- What do they say?
- How do they say it?
- Why do they say it?
- What do they react to?
- How do they react?
- Why do they react like that?
- Do their lines have double meanings?
- Do they get what they want?
- How do they react to their
Once you’ve got all this down, you’ve created characters who seem like real people. They act as you’d expect real people to act and they have genuine reasons for what they do. Your characters will no longer exist for the purpose of propping up your protagonist. Let’s face it: that doesn’t just help the side characters. A protagonist who is the centre of their universe can seem like a boring Mary-Sue. We don’t want that! We want to see other characters who could be the hero of their own
Tip 3: Character Arcs Should Make Sense
I came about this tip when I was watching anime, interestingly, As I’ve said many times before, characters make your story. The more you develop your characters, the easier it is for readers to engage with your writing and enjoy the story you’re creating. We are humans, after all, and so we are naturally attracted to a narrative that focuses on other human beings. Or other humanoid species. Or animals that have been given human thoughts and feelings. Whatever works for you. The most important thing is that your readers can relate to your characters.
It is very easy for young writers to treat characters like unchanging entities, though. Once writers realise that inconsistent characters force readers out of the story, they often decide that the best solution is to stop them from experiencing growth at all. It’s a hard balance to strike! On the one hand, it is important that characters are consistent enough to allow readers to see them as real people. On the other hand, real people grow and change their views over time. So how do we get that balance right?
Well, you need to be able to show to your readers that your characters are changing over time. In order for an evil character’s good deed to not be really out of character, readers need to be able to see why they did it. Character arcs are essential for creating a believable story. So how do you make believable character arcs? Well, there are hundreds of things you can do. A lot of it involves making the reader understand characters and giving them real motivations. Here are some tips to help you:
Self-Awareness of Flaws
The most endearing characters are the ones who realise they have flaws and work to improve themselves. When done properly, flaws can be a great way to humanise your characters and make them relatable. In terms of your whole story, they also give your characters understandable reasons for what they do. If the readers know that the protagonist is a coward, they’re going to understand his failure to fight for what’s right. If you have a hot-headed lady in your story, readers are going to accept when she screams at people. Both flaws and strengths help to highlight how characters will most likely act.
However, if done badly, flaws can make us hate a character. Have you ever read a story about a coward who just frustrates you so much? I certainly have. Sometimes you just want to shake them and tell them to act in the way that you want them to. Just do something that isn’t completely dictated by your flaws! Stop letting them cripple you! That’s because we, as humans, aren’t 100% controlled by our flaws at all times. From time to time, we bite the bullet and do what we have to do, even though we have that frustrating part of us trying to stop us. Watching a character who never tries to look past their flaws? It can be so, so annoying!
So you need them to change over the story — or at least try to change. If you just have them do something out of character without any explanation, though, the readers will be confused. So what do you do? How do you stop those frustrating characters from garnering hate from the readers without ruining the idea that they’re people? Self-awareness. The first step is realising you have a problem, after all. Once the characters become aware of their problems and express a desire to change, their development becomes believable. Even better: they’ll probably become endearing! It’s admirable to try to change yourself for the better. It will help your story improve by miles.
Sometimes we need to fail in order to change. It’s easy enough to say what your flaws are, but will you really bother to correct them if they’re not hurting you? You can go for decades without your flaws crippling you. A character who has never needed to be brave has no reason to stop being a coward. It doesn’t matter if he knows he’s a coward! He’s probably got real issues to deal with. Changing a personality trait that doesn’t hurt him isn’t high up on his list of priorities.
Failure is a natural part of human life, so should definitely be included in your story. I don’t just mean the large, story-defining failures. I mean the small ones, too. All of your characters should have motivations, and they won’t always achieve them. That’s just how life goes! So you do need to show that in your story. It will make your novel seem a lot more realistic — and your characters more relatable. Experiencing set-backs allows your characters to take a deep breath and evaluate their circumstances. It ties in nicely with self-awareness, and shows (instead of tells) your readers why the character is changing.
Kindness is like a drug — a healthy one. It’s extremely addictive! When we don’t get it, we seek out substitutes that can be very damaging. At an extreme, people may turn to hate groups for the sense of camaraderie they offer. Kindness can, therefore, be a powerful tool in your stories. It can change a character’s perspectives and make them see the world in different ways, or just give them the encouragement they need to change.
In her talk about leaving the Westboro Baptist Church, Megan Phelps-Roper discusses the power of kindness. She states that one of the main things that made her change her mind (or go through her real-life character arc) was getting kindness from the people she was throwing hate towards.
Kindness can make you stop and think just as much as failure! If you pair it with self-awareness, you can arm kindness to take down any character. It can be used to help someone stop using drugs, or to realise that racism isn’t the way forward. One of the best ways to show that your characters are human is to show that they need humanity.
Tip 4: Don’t Chase Themes
When I was going through the Wattpad forums, I noticed a thread asking people how to add themes to their stories. It was an interesting question form me because I really didn’t know how to begin answering it. My first reaction was “I don’t know. You just do!” After spending a good ten minutes trying to answer the question, I realised what the issue was: you shouldn’t chase themes. Themes
You can’t write without including themes. As soon as you make your story about something, you’ve given it at least one theme. I do understand what the problem is, though. When we’re in English Literature classes at school, our teachers make it seem like writers think about their themes in great detail. We are so used to thinking like a critic that we forget to think like a writer. My English teacher said something useful to me when I was at school:
Writers don’t think about every single letter they put in their story. They don’t make sure that each word is loaded with thematic meaning. They write. They’re writers. They do it naturally.
When a footballer makes a goal, he doesn’t analyse his techniques there and then. He kicks the ball where he thinks it would work. He’s a footballer. He does it naturally.
It’s up to the critics to analyse the technical parts. Maybe the writer or the footballer will look back at their work later and do the same.My teacher
Inthat moment, though, they just feel what’s right.
This really stuck with me. It takes a lot of pressure off you as a writer when you think of it like that. Of course, no one is born knowing how to kick a ball or write a sentence. When you start writing, your themes will probably be all over the place. I understand wanting to sit there and work out the theory behind scoring or writing, but that’s not as useful as just doing it. It is much more helpful to analyse what you’ve done in hindsight than to sit there and be a critic of something that doesn’t even exist yet.
So what do you do? Well, you stop chasing those themes. When you’re doing your first draft of a story, don’t even think about what themes you’re including. Leave that for a later date. Analyse your efforts once you’ve finished. If you can, get someone else to have a look for you. There are times to be a critic and times to be a writer.
Tip 5: Show and Tell
I’ve mentioned how people misinterpret show, don’t tell a few times on here before. It can be very easy to fall into the trap of thinking that adverbs are evil and should be purged from your writing, but is that really helpful? While you might be tempted to only show when you learn this new tip, it’s not always appropriate. The truth is that you need to learn when you should show something and when you should simply tell your reader what happened. There’s no hard and fast rule to show, don’t tell, so it can be terrible advice if given to confused writers.
So instead, the most important thing to do is identify whether you’re showing the reader the action or just telling them about it. There are going to be times when either one could work better for the story! Being able to identify showed text from
I will be doing a blog post about the difference between showing and telling in the future. If you do want some more information on the topic and can’t wait for my post, I recommend checking out Understanding Show, Don’t Tell: And Really Getting It by Janice Hardy. It is a great book if you want to sharpen your story-writing skills!
Tip 6: Write the Same Event From Different Points of V
This one helped me when I found myself stuck when writing The Queen of Freaks. I was supposed to be describing an argument between two characters! I was hoping for authentic and interesting, but instead, it just seemed stunted and awkward. To be honest, the protagonist was fine. The other character, though, just didn’t seem very realistic.
I must have spent about five hours trying to write that exchange. By the end, I had a massive headache, but no extra words on the page. I had all but given up on writing the scene when I realised something: I hadn’t considered the situation from the other character’s point of view! Wow. That’s a huge task to take on all of a sudden! How was I going to go about changing that when I had spent so much time seeing the story from Evanna’s point of view? I knew I couldn’t just fall into the trap of explaining why my other character reacts in a certain way. I needed to show the reader what he was thinking, rather than tell them.
So I tried writing the scene from his point of view. It worked really well! I was able to finally see the scene from his eyes and the effect my main character has on the people around her. It can be very easy to only see the world from the eyes of the POV character. There is a huge issue with that, though: you may start to treat the other characters like objects. Their ambitions and goas in a scene will stop mattering. They won’t have have any aims other than to help or hinder your main character. The narrative will be stripped of their reasons for acting.
Writing a scene from other points of view helps in so many different ways:
- Gives you the chance to explore why characters act.
- Shows that other characters have goals, motivations and personalities.
- Prevents the whole world from revolving around the protagonist.
- Helps you spot when someone is acting out of character.
- Is a great exercise for when you have writer’s block.
So do yourself a favour and try writing your hardest scenes from other points of view. You won’t be disappointed!
Tip 7: There are Different Kinds of S
When discussing “weak” characters online, many people have the same definition of strength in their minds. They forget all about emotional or intellectual strength. The most important thing to them is being able to beat up everyone around them — but only if they needed to, of course. When people write stories like this, all of their characters become nothing more than muscle men. That’s really sad, if you as me. Who would want all of their characters to be strong in the same way?
There are so many different kinds of strength you can write about. You don’t need to stick to the masculine stereotype of physical prowess. We’re in the 21st Century, for pete’s sake! Maybe it’s time to show that we value “feminine” traits, too. Maybe it’s time to stop acting like they’re feminine in the first place.
So many people I know struggle to write strong female characters. Why? Well, because they’re stuck thinking that strength means muscle. Then, they think that the women in the story need to be unusually macho just to be strong. Boring! If I wanted to see someone punch through all of their problems, I would watch WWE. If I’m reading deep fantasy fiction, I care a lot more about what the characters are doing and thinking than how hard they can punch. Heck, even WWE realises this and has storylines that show character development.
So what kinds of strength can you write about? Here are a few to help you:
- Mental strength
- Emotional strength
- Physical strength
- Strength of resolve
- Intellectual strength
- Strength of faith
I’m sure you can come up with some others, but this is a great place to start. Just make sure that you introduce your readers to all different kinds of strong characters. You don’t need to make every character a warrior! Just make them good at something. Make them care about things. Make them interesting. Use their strengths to help them get out of a problem or two. Show that you understand the complexity of human beings. It will help you massively.
Tip 8: The Narrator’s Personality Affects Worldbuilding
There are many different types of narrators. First person and close third person narrative both rely on a character’s personality to tell the story. It’s interesting to see the story told through their eyes. Of course, the reader knows that they aren’t 100% reliable, but who said that you have to read through the eyes of a reliable narrator? No one! We read fiction for pleasure. I feel sorry for anyone who reads for an objective view of the world. That just doesn’t exist.
So when you’re writing through the eyes of a character, you have their personality on your side. Make their personality filter what they see and what they don’t; what they talk about and what they avoid. After all, we all experience the world differently. The same should be true for your characters, too! If I’m a human rights activist and I walk into the slums of a city, what am I likely to notice first? Probably all of those human rights violations. What about if I’m a clean freak? I’ll probably be too busy freaking out about the dirt to notice the poor conditions.
Use this to your advantage! Give your writing that flair. I would love to read a story told by someone I can’t trust. Spice up your writing by recontextualising the way you write your scenes!
Get Yourself That Notebook!
Do yourself a favour this year: pick up a notebook. Fill it with all of those tips you pick up. Of course, I’ll be doing the same and sharing it with you here, but don’t rely on me! You’ll be surprised where you’ll find writing tips.