Blocked? Get to know your characters

It can happen any time: during the outlining, the drafting, the rewriting or the editing process. You feel blocked. No worries, there are a number of ways to get you going again. One of them is getting to know your characters. Here are a few ideas to get you started.

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Character sheets

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I used to love creating character sheets, then abandoned it because “hey, I know my characters, they’re mine”. But I’m starting to do it again, except I don’t write the same things I used to. For example, I used to skip the part about inner conflict. “Why, it’s all over the pages!” I’d think. Except summarizing it is an excellent way to see whether it “holds up”. A story is a bit like a labyrinth: the characters and the reader don’t know its exact configuration, but the writer must know it to make sure it is sound. It wouldn’t do to have holes or too many ways leading to the center (or climax) or none at all.

There are a plethora of templates online, from basic to elaborate. I find the basic ones useful while I’m outlining, but while editing I use one that’s much more elaborate. For instance, in the past couple of weeks I wrote several pages of background story, inner conflict, motivation, and ghosts (aka those things that haunt people). Doing this helped me realize that I didn’t understand my main character quite as well as I used to think.

Character interviews

carouselleriecreative_pinkishblooms_elements_berries-11You get to mimic your own favourite interviewer and ask your characters all kinds of questions. I don’t actually watch interviews, so I use Marcel Proust’s questionnaire to get me started. My characters don’t always tell me the truth… but I know when they’re lying and what they’re lying about tells me a bit more about what they’re ashamed of or how they’d like people to see them. Then I go deep, CIA agent-like, and discover the truth. This might sound weird, but I think reading Get the Truth made me a better writer.

Another way of “interviewing” your characters would be to make them complete a personality test. I have already stated my love for the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (or MBTI), but I know a lot of people like The Enneagram too. If you’re more esoterically oriented, name meanings and astrology can help, too… even tarot cards or runes, if you’re into that. You can even sort them in one of the houses at Hogwarts!

Simulations

I’m not sure whether a lot of writers do this, but sometimes I like to momentarily take a character out of their normal context and see how they react. Write a scene or two of them meeting people they’ll never actually meet in the story, or make them do crazy things that they’d never actually do. Sometimes, those can end up in the actual story as a “fantasy” of theirs. Most of the time it only serves as fuel, but it’s an exercise that I find so fun and entertaining it also provides powerful motivation.

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Finally, we tend to want to focus on main characters, but do not forget to do it for your secondary characters, too. They have their own agenda and can sometimes impact the main plot in unexpected ways (as they should).  In fact, in my current project, it’s a secondary character that helped me get unstuck. I also like to imagine what a story centered on their lives would be like… though that’s dangerous. It can make you want to make them more important in your main character’s story than they should be, or give you more story ideas than you could possibly write in a lifetime. But it’s a good problem to have, I guess.

I hope you enjoyed this post! Feel free to share your own techniques to get to know your characters.

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Spotlight on K.M. Weiland

For the past two weeks, I’ve been working on story structure. Like I said in my previous post, I found a few structural issues in my first draft that needed fixing.Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000035_00015]

Last year, I’ve read Larry Brooks’ Story Engineering, which contains close to a hundred pages on story structure. It was interesting, but I was still a bit confused about a few things, so I figured I’d get a second opinion. That’s when a writer friend from my NaNoWriMo community shared K.M. Weiland’s 5 Secrets of Story Structure (5SoSS), a free e-book. I felt like the book had been written for me, by a friend (unlike Story Engineering, which felt like it had been written by a grumpy and sour creative writing teacher). It explained everything I needed to know.

It can be read in an afternoon, which is great when you’re eager to start getting to work. And it is so packed with information that I’d think it’s easily one of the best free e-books on writing you can get out there.

Because most of the terms in there are linked to the “hero’s quest”, you’ll find terms like “confrontation” that might not be very eloquent for, say, a romance novel. However, the writer happens to have a story structure database, so you can go and see how other novels in your genre have handled this or that particular point.
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Curious, I proceeded to read her other freely accessible work, including Crafting Unforgettable Characters. You have to subscribe to her mailing list to get that one, but if you ask me, you should subscribe anyway. I can’t say that it was as eye-opening as 5SoSS for me because I already knew most of what’s in there, but it definitely is worth the read. This one too is short enough to be read in an afternoon. It also includes a list of pointers to perform a “character interview”.

For podcasts aficionados, she’s also posting one episode a week dealing with varied subjects like “How to Calculate Your Book’s Length Before Writing” or “How to Ace the First Act in Your Sequel”. I’ll certainly listen to those while knitting.

I love how the website is organized: there is a Start Here! page where the author gives you a quick tour of her website and most popular resources, which I find so clever that I might shamelessly steal the idea and implement it on my blog. Then, in the left menu, she has six big categories of resources for outlines, story structure, character arcs, scenes, common writing mistakes and “storytelling according to Marvel”. Each page leads you to a list of the articles in that category, in a recommended reading order.

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If writing isn’t your thing, but you enjoy reading, she also has a free e-book titled Dreamlander. I haven’t read it, but it has great reviews on Goodreads. I might review it myself later…

Last but not least, the website has been awarded 3 years in a row the Writer’s Digest 101 Best Website for Writers. I didn’t know that such an award existed before I saw it on her page, but then I started noticing it on others pages I sometimes visit.

I don’t know if her resources are going to “help me become an author”, but they’ll certainly help me edit my novel!

Rewriting a novel: self-critique

A nice reader told me my previous post How to rewrite a novel using scene cards, was more about “why” than “how”, and I agreed. I wanted to show everyone my new technique, thinking somehow that everything surrounding it was a matter of course… which it isn’t. So I went and renamed that post and will make this a series as I progress in the rewriting process.

In this post, I’ll focus on the first step: rereading and filling my scene cards, then critiquing each scene and the story as a whole.

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Rereading

girl-5-copieWhen reading my first draft, I like to pretend I’m a creative writing teacher providing constructive criticism to their student. This accomplishes two things: 1) it allows me to focus on what’s wrong rather than going straight into problem-solving mode and 2) it puts some distance between me and the draft.

The first point helps me move forward and not get stuck on individual scenes: at this point, the goal is to see the story as a whole, not to troubleshoot each individual scene. That’ll come later.

The second point allows me to see the scenes as they are written and not as I first imagined them or as I remember them. For example, I can see then that even though my narrator doesn’t notice her surrounding much, with next to no setting description she and all the other characters are just talking heads.

For some reason, it also allows me to judge my main character mercilessly. I love her, so I tend to be too compassionate towards her… like a mother who doesn’t see their kid’s flaws. I muffle her harsh words, soften her acts… like her being perfect could somehow make me closer to perfection. It can’t. All it does is make her unreal and boring. It’s not that I didn’t give her flaws; she has plenty of them. But she never acts on an impulse; she’s never conflicted about her own actions; she never let her flaws get in her way. She’s nonhuman.

Distancing myself from the book also helps me tell whether the plot works or not. I had a fairly solid outline for this book, but… either I never looked at it as a reader, or I couldn’t tell before writing the thing that it wouldn’t work.

I kept on throwing obstacles on my MC’s path, not realizing that I shouldn’t have made it so straight and clear to begin with. The result was that she had it too easy AND the obstacles looked like I’d stolen them from a B movie.

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Filling scene cards

After I’ve read each scene, I fill the corresponding card. As an example, here’s my first scene (featuring Ingrid Sunberg’s scene cards and my terrible handwriting):

Scene 01a

The notes in the margin were written as a quick-reference. I wasn’t sure whether I should rewrite the thing or delete it, but either way, I knew it didn’t work.

Most boxes are fairly straightforward, but I’d like to add a word on scene goals. A scene must always have at least one concrete goal, and one more abstract. For example, in my first scene I want to introduce my main character (concrete) and create empathy, i.e. make the reader care about what happens to her (abstract). For this, I’ll have to set the stage, introduce my MC’s external and internal conflicts, thereby hinting at some of my story’s themes.

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Critiquing

Right after I’ve read the scene, I go ahead and point out its faults in free form. It’s actually halfway between critique and brainstorming. As an example, here’s the back side of my first scene:

Scene 01b

Because it was the very first scene to be reviewed, I didn’t want to come to the conclusion I had to delete it. I tried saving it as much as I could… in vain. It simply didn’t fit in the book anymore. It had value all through the drafting process, because every time I had interrogations about my MC I’d go back and reread this scene to remember who she was, but that was it: it belongs in my MC’s character sheet, not in the book proper.

That being said, some issues relate to a whole bunch of scenes or even the entire book. For those, I have a separate binder divided into as many sections as needed. Currently, it contains notes and improvement ideas on story structure (especially “beats”, i.e. opening image/hook, inciting incident, first plot point, etc.), character development and 2 particular story arcs that don’t work.

It’s important I detach myself emotionally from my draft and not think in terms of how long or hard it would be to change this or that, which would only discourage me. I focus on what’s in front of me, what works, what doesn’t, whether a passage is too long and boring or whether it feels rushed, etc. Then I’ll have to focus on the baby steps I can take to reach the goal, which is a structurally sound and entertaining manuscript. Of course, I probably cannot avoid some degree of emotional ups and downs, but I want to avoid the downs to go so low I get writer’s block (which in my case is almost always due to performance anxiety).

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Notes for the rewrite

Now, this step is about finding problems, not fixing them. But if, while tossing and turning in bed at night or while reading a book on writing I suddenly see how a scene should be, I take notes.

In this case, I realised I didn’t want my book to start in my MC’s head, nor did I want her to introduce herself through narration. I wanted to introduce her by showing what she endures to make her dream of being a professional musician come true (external conflict), and how her issues with appearances and gender identity and double standards have an impact on her life (internal conflict). I might even hint at her total lack of social skills while I’m at it. “Show, don’t tell” as they say. A good example of what this might look like would be the short story Programme by The Loyal Brit.

With that in mind, I printed and filled a new scene card, which I stapled on top of the old one:

Scene 01c

Now I have a place and a date and even a mood, implied in “rough conditions of life”. We get to skip the introduction and go straight to the action and, shortly after, the hook. The card mostly serves as a reminder, so it’s okay if it’s a bit vague. I’ll figure out the details when I rewrite the thing.

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The next step will be to fix the story and fine-tune my characters. Only when that’s done will I actually start rewriting.

First post in this series: Rewriting a novel: the scene cards technique