Writing Shortcuts: (Part 4) Characters

This is the fourth post in the Writing Shortcuts mini series where I discuss all the things I learned in the second draft that I wish I had known (and done right!) during the first draft of my current WIP. Check out post #1 and #2 (setting) and #3 (pacing) to catch up!

Apparently everyone in the world besides me knew about this handy little writing trick. Even the non-writers of the world (I polled a few, so it might be an unreliable sample) knew. And when I mentioned my mind-blowing, brilliant, life-changing writing idea to them, even the non-writers paused and stared at me like I was crazy. “. . .  you don’t already do that?” some asked. “Doesn’t every writer do that?” others asked, inevitably referencing some world-famous writer who had admitted to the practice in an interview/magazine article/memoir.

Apparently, this is obvious to the logical people of the world.

But in case some of you out there never had this idea occur to you before (like me) and (like me) just go at a manuscript and writewritewrite 50,000, 60,000, 70,000 words with no real character knowledge, just kind of expecting each word to get you a little closer to the character having life breathed into them, I have news for you:

Characters back stories are the most amazing thing in the world.

Character back stories are a get-to-know you opportunity. They’re generally only one or two pages long and in them they include first impression information (what you’d notice right away if you met them for the first time), self-introduction information (the quick-and-dirty sort of elevator speech every person has when introducing themselves to someone you want to get to know. Think back to how you introduced yourself to your college roommate), and the deep dark stuff you’d only pull out of someone past 2:00 am when you’re laying on a trampoline together, staring up at the stars, and talking about life.

These back story write-ups were inspired by MG/YA authors Kit Grindstaff and Jennifer Hubbard, who gave this great session at the NJ SCBWI conference back in April that completely rocked my world. It was about dirty little secrets. About how important it is to know those secret, dark things about each of your characters. Only once you understood them like that, could you then throw them on the page, like I had been blindly doing, and expect any magic to percolate.

After reading the first draft and giving the first few chapters to a critique partner, I knew one of the greatest weaknesses of the manuscript–and one I didn’t yet know how to fix–was the main character. She was the most important person in the book, by definition, especially because I was writing the book in first person, but she almost barely existed. She had no personality and was overshadowed by the much clearer secondary characters. I was having her do all these things and say all these words, but she was not a fleshed out person with flaws and feelings and fears, and it was really obvious that I just didn’t understand what made this character tick. What was her motivation? Her favorite things to do in her free time?

I came up with nada.

The other characters were also pretty flat, so I systematically began approaching each character with a homework assignment: each one had to have this entire form filled out completely and satisfactorily before I could dive into revisions.

CHARACTER BACKSTORY

[Full name, occupation]

Motivated by: [i.e., truth, justice, fear, guilt, secret crush, etc.]

Instant description words: [i.e., adventurous, devoted, controlling, bubbly, lone wolf, etc.]

Biggest mistake ever made in life: [usually a flashback memory scene to a regret]

Biggest obstacle: [The thing the character finds most challenging, the thing they’re constantly trying to work on. Example: needing to fit in, mending a frayed relationship with a loved one, getting over fear of heights]

Least likeable quality: [Flaws are so much more illuminating of a character than why I like them. This question helped me figure out that one character was meek to a fault, for example. If I had just focused on her likeable qualities, I would have had a pretty flat character who was friendly, polite, and a loyal friend. But with that meekness shining through, she has an added depth and becomes more real.]

These are the basic things I always answer. A lot of other stuff gets written down and crossed out and doodled, but these are the bare bones I need to understand every character’s personal history. I write these out by hand, so they’re pretty much a hot mess of scribbles in a notebook that only I can decipher.

It took me about two weeks to do a character sketch for each of the secondary characters. I learned a lot of things I didn’t know about each one. But I kept returning to that blank page for my main character. I’d jot down ideas, tid-bits of the main character’s history, anything to get to know her better.

After a few weeks and a lightbulb moment thanks to a brainstorming session with my sister, I finally finished her character sketch. I understood her. I got her. And it made revising her scenes, her dialogue, her actions, and writing new scenes for her so much easier. I was able to edit away all the crap in the first draft that, it was very clear to me now, was simply not this character’s MO. If only I had done these character sketches to begin with, before I ever started the first draft! Writing that entire first draft over the course of about four months didn’t help me get to know the characters better. I wandered through that world and through that plotline as lost as any of my characters. It wasn’t an effective method for me. The characters just foundered for pages upon pages and even when I wrote “The End,” I was still lost.

Lesson learned? Always write character sketches for each and every character before the first scene they appear in. It’ll help make them consistent and it’ll help the scenes write themselves. Now, off to squeeze in some character sketches to prepare for the secret NaNoWriMo project…!! I can’t wait to spend the month practicing writing a speedy and much better first-draft process! Join me?

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Reading Material, Including a Little Known Harry Potter Short Story

Every once in a while I need to step away from my latest creative writing project and get some fresh perspective on the craft.

On Writing by Stephen King

I’m not a huge fan of Stephen King–I know, I know, this fact outrages a lot of people–or his writing style, this book included.  I was required to read it for Creative Writing seminar and didn’t learn much that impacted my writing quality.  However, I do appreciate the part of his book where he undermines the allegedly “practical” choice for writers of getting a teacher’s certificate.  He “enter[ed] College of Education at UMO and emerg[ed] four years later with a teacher’s certificate…sort of like a golden retriever emerging from a pond with a dead duck in its jaws.  It was dead, all right.  I couldn’t find a teaching job and so went to work at New Franklin Laundry for wages not much higher than those I had been making at Worumbo Mills and Weaving four years before.”  Pursuing teaching for the sake of practicality has been a mistake a lot of my friends made and a lot of adults tried pushing me into.  So if you like Stephen King and want to know his long and winding personal success story, or you don’t like him and just want to feel better about your own experience by learning how long he failed for before he got published, I recommend it.  Does anyone disagree with me and found some true value between the covers?

On the other end of the writing book spectrum (in my opinion) is Hooked by Les Edgerton.  I haven’t finished reading this, but the first half of the book alone has changed my life and drastically improved my writing.  I’ve already rearranged and rewrote my first three chapters and they’re definitely  A LOT more interesting.  The whole book is about how to write the best first sentence, the best first paragraph and the best first page physically possible to hook your readers (and potential literary agents).  According to Edgerton, this introduction is the hinge off of which the rest of your plot hangs.  The checklists and recommendations apply to both short stories and lengthier novels.  If you’re not won over by this summary, take this challenge:

Go read the first sentence of some of your favorite books and short stories.  Compare them to the first sentence of your current writing project.  See any shocking differences?  How each work?  Are they both engaging?

And for those of you who think writing textbooks are boring, inappropriate summer reading, then read J.K. Rowling’s short prequel she sold a couple years ago for charity (earning 25,000 pounds!) to give you your Harry Potter fix until tomorrow morning’s Pottermore announcement.  (Thanks for the links, Oliver!)  I’ll post the video in the morning so stay tuned :]

Elementary: You Don’t Need to be Sherlock Holmes to Figure Out What’s Wrong With Your Manuscript

You just need to be Extremely Patient.  In the Ungodly Long-Term sense.

I have this middle-grade historical fiction novel about Joan of Arc that I’ve been working on for what feels like forever.  I researched for a year and a half.  Towards the end of that research process, I simultaneously wrote the first draft in a couple months.  Then I rewrote it and extended it from its original 75-page form to a more genre-appropriate length of 113-pages, again requiring a few months effort.  Since then, I’ve set it aside, reread it, edited it, rewrote and rearranged chapters several times.  After each really serious overhaul I consider it strikingly flawless and take a break to type up a few query letters.

Let me just tell you, my query letter must be beast because it gets some good responses.  A few agents were interested.  But after reading the first few chapters–or even the whole thing–everyone inevitably says “no thanks.”  I don’t take it too personally.  I know that many successful authors have gotten hundreds of rejection letters, to the point that they could wallpaper their living rooms with them.  I celebrate the small victories: I’ve gotten three “good” rejection letters.  However, the most recent rejection letter made me think about my manuscript a little differently.  It made me reconsider my entire querying process.

The agent claimed that it was “beautifully written,” but that they “had not connected to the story as deeply as they had hoped.”  Vague, yes.  But it gave me pause.  Is my story really not engaging?  Is it even interesting?

“Maybe I should just rewrite the whole thing again,” I said, presenting my woes to my mom.

“But I love the way it’s written,” she insisted.  “I don’t understand what everyone’s complaining about.”  (Thanks Mom).

I accepted the cup of tea she offered.  “Everybody thinks the words are pretty–they like the presentation–but apparently I suck at the storytelling part.  My sentences are well-constructed, but they don’t make readers care about the plot or the characters.”

“Just try a different agent.  Somebody else will love it as much as I do.”

[Deep Sigh]

It’s not that I’m giving up.  It’s just that, well, maybe my book isn’t good enough yet.  And spending all this time and effort sending out query letters should rather be focused upon an up-close-and-personal manuscript evaluation.  But I’ve done that before, and apparently it hasn’t been a serious enough intervention.  How to I change the way I approach the next edit so that this time it finally makes my manuscript worthy of an agent’s attention?

I brainstormed about this and came up with nothing.

Then I went on vacation.

And listened to The Sherlockian on iPod audio-loan from my local library (I love that the library lets me do that now!!!!  Continue to support the Bucks County Library System!)  Maybe it’s because I haven’t read a historical fiction novel in quite awhile.  Maybe it’s because I haven’t been able to find a good historical fiction novel in forever.  But this one was eloquent and organized; the characters multi-faceted and the mystery riveting.

I realized it was much better than my manuscript.  Obviously, my manuscript needs to take some lessons and beef up on its literary skills.  Particularly the fiction part.  Upon hearing the Author’s Note, for The Sherlockian, and learning how much was completely made up, I was shocked.  Very little in my novel is made up.  In fact, even Joan’s daily activities in the Middle Ages is straight out of some research books that I read about what a female child would do during the time period.  Every major event is documented in The Trial of Joan of Arc.  It makes the whole manuscript seem…thin, like it’s on a diet or something.  I am coming to realize that there would be absolutely no harm in fabricating a few more discussions, family disputes, and minor events as long as I stay true to Joan’s character and stay within the possibilities of the era.  It would help flesh her out a little more and provide some more connective tissue to the story arc.

It might be because I was a History and Creative Writing dual major.  The history department burned the importance of historical accuracy into me to the point that I was hesitant to fictionalize enough in my Creative Writing project.  Now it just needs a little more fiction added to the mix too.

Don’t get me wrong, I am SO GLAD about everything I learned about writing and research in the history department.  I think it’s important that my manuscript–that all historical fiction–has historical integrity.  In my opinion, historical fiction–especially for younger readers–has the responsibility to give an honest presentation because, whether you like it or not, historical fiction teaches readers.  Even if it’s only through the osmosis of setting.

Graham Moore, author of The Sherlockian, offers further input to the discussion of the ethics of writing historical fiction, if you’re interested.  I feel that it also kind of applies to the ethics of memoir writing, which has been undergoing some intense abuse recently from both the deceptive author and outraged media camps.  What do you think?  Where is the line dividing the appropriate amount of fictionalization and the inappropriate amount?

Even if your book or short story doesn’t occur back in time, some recommend that you still consider playing with the setting.

Keep submitting!