Character Category Archive

On Plotting (Downloadable Plotting Doc Attached!)

There are a thousand-and-one ways to plot. To write. To draft and edit and tell stories. I’ll be the first to jump on the no-way-is-the-right-way train, that all ways are valid. In fact, I’ll argue that the way I write now isn’t the way I’ve written before and is not the way I’ll write later. It will always be in flux, and I think this is healthy! It allows for growth and change.

Being aware of the above has meant that over the years, I read craft books and explored techniques on plotting (I’m a reformed pantser), and through it all I’ve taken notes to refer to later and to share with friends. A few weeks back while on a writing hiatus, I started to combine those notes into a Google Doc, which turned into a fill-in-the-blank doc for myself for future works, which turned into a question of, “Huh, why on earth don’t I make this available to others?”

So, if you’re curious about my process, please check it out! I would like to emphasize that nothing you see in it is set in stone. I’m not arguing that this is how you should plot or draft or edit, it’s simply a few things I like to keep in mind when I write. I’ve found that drafting often often includes the willingness to forget certain elements now, and the necessity of remembering them later. This doc is one way I’ll help myself to remember elements for later. I very much hope you find it helpful! Please feel free to download it and use it in whatever way you’d like.

Without further ado, here’s my Plotting Overview doc, as well as an EXAMPLE Plotting Overview doc of how one might use it (I’ve used the book example HOWL’S MOVING CASTLE).

Cheers for your writing! Whatever you’re working on, may the writing-gods provide you with a day of joy.

Character Psychology

Once upon a time, I was going to double major in psychology and political science (actually, once upon a time, I was going to double major in religion and political science. It didn’t take long for me to realize I didn’t actually want to do any three of those, wipe my hands of the “double major” part, and graduate in three years with a mostly-useless degree in poli sci).

Anyway, my point isn’t that I jumped around in majors, but more that human psychology is fascinating. It’s multifaceted and confusing and full of twists and turns. One of my favorite classes from college, back in the day when I was still under the psychology-umbrella, was abnormal psych. A favorite phrase of our teacher’s was something along the lines of, “At the end of the semester, everyone is usually convinced they fall under at least three diagnosis.” Why? because we all have strange behaviors and we all have inner motivators that come out when we least expect them to.

Story is Conflict, and some of that conflict should come straight out of your main character’s psyche. No one wants to read about a perfect MC. We all have flaws, so we need to read about people who have flaws. We need characters who struggle, who have to dig deep inside themselves and face their inner demons to reach the resolution of the story. Hello character arc!

It’s pretty easy for me to say that and not always so easy to follow through with it in writing! A few tips:

Tip 1: Research
As I’ve spent time researching my current WIP (contemporary YA set in the Appalachians with the backdrop of a closed down mental institution), I’ve learned my way around the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), and hot-damn does that make for some interesting reading. If a character in your book has a diagnosed disorder, research it. Talk to people who have that disorder. Talk to people who might be caretakers. Not everyone with a diagnosis will have the same experience. The more people you can connect with, the more you will be able to discover who your character really is and stop them from falling flat (this is a no caricature zone!).

Tip 2: Talk to a psychologist
Not joking in the slightest. Find a psychologist who would be willing to spend a few minutes talking about emotions and how they motivate people, about how a person’s past can influence their future, about how people can be transformed (and they should be–by the end of your book, your MC shouldn’t be the person they were when the story started). If you don’t have any psychologist connections, talk to your friends. Me? I recently shot off an email to a host of family and friends with questions on guilt as a motivator. I got back some incredible answers.

Tip 3: Dig deep
Don’t be afraid to ask dark questions of your characters and to treat them like real people. Everyone is three-dimensional, which means our characters should be too. No two people (even if they had the exact same past) would react to a situation in the same way. What is it that differentiates us? What is it that sits at our core that leads us to operate in the way we do? Don’t just skim the surface of your main character. Dig deep.

What are your character’s inner demons? What lays behind the scenes in their psyche?  What unknown/hidden motivators push them forward?

What techniques do you use when trying to get to the root of your MC’s motivations?

Show vs Tell: The Pain Lexicon

Now that November is over and your NaNo is finished, it’s time to move on to the next step…QUERYING!

Uhh…wait. That’s not right. Once you’ve taken a step back from drafting your NaNo and given yourself a moment to clear your head, it’s time to edit your WIP until it shines.

For this mini blog series, Lauren Spieller, Charlie N. Holmberg, and I have put together a few (hopefully helpful) tips on how to pump up your writing. Our goal is to help you avoid a few simple pitfalls when describing characters who are experiencing pain.

To kick us off on Show vs Tell, a quote from Anton Chekhov: “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”

The idea behind “show, don’t tell” is the thought that, believe it or not, readers are pretty darn smart. They are very capable of taking cues and figuring things out on their own. As an example: when a character frowns, most everyone will know (or assume) that character is feeling something negative. Our goal is to take out the moments when we write, “Suzie is mad,” and change them to, “Suzie frowned.” Though, of course, this is very simplified.

Often, there are simple clues that hint that you might be telling instead of showing. Scour your writing for the following words. If you find them, there’s about a 90% chance that you are telling something that would be much more powerful if you would show it instead.

  • thought
  • knew
  • wondered
  • realized
  • decided
  • wished
  • hoped
  • smell
  • see
  • hear
  • feel

Also check for forms of to be (is, are, was, were…), which are clue words that you might be using a passive voice instead of an active voice.

Instead of this these weak words, as writers, we want to choose strong words! Words that have pop, that allow a reader to experience the story along with your characters. This is exactly why Charlie, Lauren, and I created the Pain Lexicon (found in a link at the bottom of this post).

Since this post is supposed to be directed toward PAIN, here’s an example of using “telling” words to describe what a character might feel if they are in pain:

Suzie realized her stomach hurt as pain ran through it.

In the sentence above, we know Suzie’s stomach hurts, so writing the word “pain” becomes redundant. Also, do you see the clue word “realized”? Take it out! If it’s happening to your character, they won’t have to “realize” anything—their response to it will be automatic.

To help make this moment more clear for a reader and show instead of tell, think about what else might be happening to Suzie’s body: is she sweating, or experiencing shortness of breath? Is she bent over and clutching her abdomen? Or perhaps she’s rubbing her skin, trying to make the feeling go away. To fix this sentence, I grabbed a few words off the lexicon: clench, wheeze, and lurch. So, “Suzie’s stomach hurt as pain ran through it,” turns into,

Suzie clenched her fists and wheezed, doubling over as her stomach lurched.

When you show, your reader will be intimately drawn into your character’s experiences, rather than being on the outside. If we look at the science behind storytelling, it seems that with good showing, our brains can’t actually tell the difference between reading about an experience and having it happen first hand.

If you are working on this very thing in your writing, the next time your character has a tummy ache, is shot, or falls and breaks an arm, I challenge you to forbid  yourself to write the word pain. Try it! Use the Pain Lexicon to identify words that pop and zing. It might be difficult at first, but the end product will be powerful writing that your reader will be able to experience right along with your character.

What tricks do you use when trying to show rather than tell? I’d love to hear about any struggles you might have, or if you’re especially good at this!

Pain Lexicon

Visit Charlie’s website for her post: The Pain Lexicon: Using Physical and Emotional Descriptors in “Painful” Passages.
Visit Lauren’s website for a post: The Pain Lexicon: Let’s Make It Hurt.

Here are some follow up posts that might help if you still need clarification on this:
 Don’t Tell Me Why–by Janice Hardy
Show, Don’t Tell–by Grammar Girl
In Six Seconds–by Chuck Palahnuik 


Can You Relate?

I’m in Charge?

I have this character.
Let’s call him Joe.
He has taken my story
And won’t let it go.

When I tell him to pray,
He goes to a bar.
I forbid him to stray-
Oops, he just stole a car.

It’s making me crazy,
His idea of fun.
I said, “Be a cowboy.”
He came back as a nun.

He knows I’m in charge,
For I’ve made that quite plain.
Did I just hear him chuckle?
I’ve been under a strain.

But we reached an agreement,
At least I think so.
I’ll lead him wherever
He tells me to go.

-Bob Hargrove

What’s in a Name?

Usually, I don’t spend too much time on character’s names.  This is usually how it goes:

Me: Cale, I need a girl’s name!
Cale: Kayln.
Me: Sweet, I like that one.

Or:

Me: Porsha, Helena, Mirial, Natalie, Victoria, Sophie, Jeannette, Shell.  Hmm, yeah, Shell sounds good.

Anyway, this is my current problem.  I really don’t like one of my MC’s names.  I’ve never liked it, but it’s been his name since 7th grade when he came into existence.  Do I take the time to figure out a different name or leave it as is?

How do you guys come up with your character’s names?