Stock and Cloned Characters in Storytelling

I was recently reading a novel, and a few chapters in, I realized I had mixed up two of the main characters. In fact, I had been reading them as if they were a single character. I’m a pretty sharp reader, and this has never happened before, so I tried to determine why I’d made the mistake. Was I tired? Hungry? Not paying attention?

I went back and reviewed the text and noticed that these two characters were indistinct. They were so alike that without carefully noting which one was acting in any given scene, it was impossible to differentiate them from each other. They were essentially the same character. Even their names sounded alike.

This got me to thinking about the importance of building a cast of characters who are unique and distinct from each other instead of a cast of stock characters who are mere clones of one another. 

Stock Characters

We sometimes talk about stock characters in literature. You know them: the mad scientist, the poor little rich kid, the hard-boiled detective. These characters have a place in storytelling. When readers meet a sassy, gum-popping waitress in a story, they immediately know who she is. They’ve seen that character in other books and movies. Maybe they’ve even encountered waitresses like her in real life. These characters are familiar, but they’re also generic.

When we use a stock character as a protagonist or any other primary character, we have to give the character unique qualities so the character doesn’t come off as generic or boring. It’s fine to have a sassy, gum-popping waitress make a single appearance in a story, but if she’s a lead character, she’s going to need deeper, more complex development so the readers no longer feel as if they already know her. She has to become fresh and interesting.

Stieg Larsson did this brilliantly in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and the sequels that made up the Millennium trilogy. At first the protagonist, Lisbeth Salander, seems like a surly punk, the kind of character we’ve seen a million times before. As the story progresses and Lisbeth moves to center stage, we learn there’s more to her than meets the eye. She’s antisocial, and she’s a computer genius. She’s bold, brave, and tough. She’s not just some surly punk. She is a moral person with unique challenges — one of the most intriguing characters in contemporary fiction.

Cloning Characters

Stock characters are often taken from source material, sometimes as an homage and other times as a blatant rip-off. Such characters are problematic when they feature prominently in a story and have no traits that differentiate them from the character upon which they are based. Do you want to read a story about a boy wizard named Hal Porter who wears glasses and has a scar on his forehead? Probably not, unless it’s a parody of Harry Potter, whom we all know and love.

You can certainly write a story about a young wizard who is based on Harry Potter, but you have to differentiate your character from Harry. Make the character a girl, give her a hearing aid instead of glasses, and come up with a memorable name that doesn’t immediately bring Harry Potter to mind. And give your character her own personality and challenges.

As the book I was recently reading demonstrates, we also have to watch out for cloning characters within our own stories. For most writers, this is a bigger problem than cloning characters out of other authors’ stories.

Think about it: you are the creator of all the characters in your story. You might have based them on people or characters you know and love (or loathe). You might have conjured them from your imagination. But they are all coming from you: your thoughts, your experiences, and your voice.

While I’ve never mixed up two characters in a book I was reading before, I have noticed that characters who act, think, and speak similarly are common. And while a cast of characters who are similar to each other in every way imaginable doesn’t necessarily make a story bad, a cast of characters who are noticeably distinct from each other is much better.

Nature vs. Nurture: How to Avoid Cloned Characters

Cloning is the practice of making a copy of something, an exact replica. You can clone a human being (or a character), but once the clone comes into existence, it will immediately start changing and becoming different from the original. Its personal experiences will be unique. By nature, the original and the clone are exactly the same, but nurture (or life experience) will cause the clone to deviate from the original.

Here are some tips to make sure your characters are unique and not clones of each other or any character or person they are based on:

  • Give your characters distinct and memorable names. Avoid giving characters name that sound alike. Don’t use names that start with the same letter and are the same length, and don’t use names that rhyme.
  • Unless you’re writing a family saga, make sure your characters don’t all look alike. Try developing a diverse cast of characters.
  • Characters’ speech patterns will depend on where they’re from, but individuals also have their own quirky expressions and sayings. Use dialogue to differentiate the characters from each other. Maybe one character swears a lot while another calls everyone by nicknames.
  • Create character sketches complete with backstories. If you know your characters intimately, you’ll be less likely to portray them as a bunch of clones.
  • To help you visualize your characters, look for photos of actors, models, and other public figures that you can use to help your imagination fill in the blanks.
  • Once you’ve created your cast, ask whether any of them are stock characters. If any of your primary characters feel like stock characters, make them more unique.

Are You Using Stock Characters? Are Your Characters a Bunch of Clones?

The main problem with the book I mentioned at the beginning of this post was that there were two characters who were essentially functioning as a single entity, at least for the first four or five chapters, which is as far as I got in the book. Together, they shared the same purpose or function within the story. The best fix for that problem would have been to combine the two characters into a single character, something I have had to do in one of my fiction projects that had a few too many names and faces.

I can’t help but wonder if the author ever bothered to run the manuscript by beta readers, and since the book was traditionally published, I wondered how the cloned characters made it past the editor.

How much attention do you pay to your characters when you’re writing a story? What strategies do you use to get to know your characters and make sure they are all unique? Have you ever noticed stock characters or cloned characters in a story you’ve read? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment, and keep writing!

By Melissa Donovan

Visit us at First Edition Design Publishing

5 Tips for Spring Cleaning Your Writing Habits

Spring is almost here, which means it’s almost time to spring clean. Spring cleaning isn’t only good for cluttered houses, but for cluttered minds, as well. As writers, it’s important to learn new skills so long as it’s not at the expense of polishing old ones. Spring is the perfect time to do take a look at your writing habits and do some review.

5 Steps for Spring Cleaning

Here are five things you can do to avoid falling into bad writing habits.

1. Get rid of adverbs

As Stephen King said, “the road to hell is paved with adverbs.” If you’ve ever taken a class on writing or read a few articles, you’ve probably heard that adverbs are the devil’s tool. It makes for lazy writing. If a man can walk quickly, he can march instead, or jog, or trot. Expressing those movements with adverbs is a bad writing habit.

If you feel the urge to use an adverb, take a look at your verb and see if there’s a stronger choice available to you, then go with that one.

2. Brush up on your vocabulary

You don’t have to pepper all of your paragraphs with SAT words—in fact, please don’t, as that usually makes your writing look pretentious and turns readers away—but it doesn’t hurt to throw a doozy in there every now and then.

Just make sure your ten-dollar words are well placed, somewhere that will allow them to make the greatest impact. If you call a show, for example, “bombastic” rather than “grand,” it conveys something much different.

3. Simplify your sentences

There’s a fine line between interesting writing and convoluted writing. Yes, make your prose sing, but also remember that what a reader wants most of all is to get right to the point and move on with the story. Don’t dwell on any one thing for too long for the sake of showing off your poetic phrasing or using the aforementioned ten-dollar words.

Don’t flounder. Keep things moving at a steady pace

4. Spruce up your description

There is nothing more boring than reading a tired, cliché description. As a poetry instructor of mine once said, “get weird.”

During a class all about similes and metaphors, he asked us which was more interesting to read: “Love is like a rose” or “love is like a dog from hell?”

Obviously, we all said the second one was more interesting. Why? Because it was weird, unexpected, and creative.

Don’t be afraid to be bizarre. Your writing will thank you for it.

5. Reorganize your workspace

A reliable workspace is important for any serious writer. It doesn’t have to be big or flashy. It can be as simple as a place as your kitchen table. Wherever you write, take a look at that space and make sure everything is in order.

Do some literal spring cleaning by tossing trash where it belongs, putting books back on their shelves, and making your desk as neat and tidy as possible. Orient the furniture differently, if you want. Change things up so you have room to focus and stay refreshed.

Clearing the Clutter

Our minds are full of thoughts, worries, and questions about our busy lives, all the time. With all of those preoccupations racing through our brains, it can be hard to focus on our creative pursuits, but easy to fall into bad habits. Take this as your sign to stop, inhale, exhale, and ask yourself what you can do to improve your writing habits.

What aspects of your writing do you want to polish? What writing habits do you want to develop? Let us know in the comments.

By The Magic Violinist

Visit us at First Edition Design Publishing

Dilemma: 4 Powerful Steps to Make Your Characters Choose

The Spring Writing Contest is coming soon!

If you haven’t heard of them, the Write Practice’s seasonal writing contests are a great opportunity to get published and possibly win fame and (a small) fortune.

Perhaps you’ve entered before, but haven’t found the winner’s circle. Rejection is a familiar badge of honor amongst seasoned writers, but for many of us it can be tiring, and even tempt us to stop entering contests or submitting to publications.

But what if there was one thing you could change about your writing that could almost instantly make it better?

There is! There is a storytelling element that I’ve seen as an entrant and judge of multiple fiction contests that makes stories work and win, standing out above the rest.

And that single, difference-making element is a Powerful Choice.

When We Forget “Choice”

Unfortunately, this element isn’t as simple as it sounds. Characters yelling and screaming and fighting and kissing doesn’t necessarily count as a powerful choice. Sometimes it’s just noise, not a dilemma.

Other times writers fill their 1,500-word submission with lyrical prose and vivid imagery, but nothing happens. There are no dilemmas to be found. And though it always saddens me to do, as a judge I had to move on from such pieces.

Stories contains many elements that may be fun to write or read. But a story cannot possibly work without a powerful choice. It is central to any successful narrative.

In the same way, a house may be more valuable if it comes with marble countertops or vaulted ceilings. But without a solid foundation, the house is worthless, regardless of how aesthetically pleasing it may be.

In Aristotle’s Poetics, he defines dramatic tragedy as “the imitation of an action.” And while the stories you write are not all tragic, they are dramatic, in that they seek to create an impression of life.

In other words, they imitate life.

And when we imitate life, we are imitating the most basic act of life: a choice, or an action.

A story without a choice may be beautiful for its language or description. It may be memorable for any number of reasons.

But it won’t be remembered as a contest winner, because it will fail to do the most important storytelling job: To imitate the action of choice.

How to Imitate an Action

Imitating an action may seem like a simple chore. After all, “action” is a lot of fun to write, isn’t it?

But genuine choices aren’t just about the action or motion that takes place. Often most of the energy is potential — it’s in the build-up to the action.

And that is where you need to focus your storytelling energy, at least at first. Then, once your character has made his or her choice, you need to spend time on the fallout from this choice. Consequences are massively important to a well-told story, and your reader will want to know how a character’s choices play out.

So let’s look at the four steps to a powerful choice that will make your story a winner!

1. Desire & Goal

Before any choice is made, the protagonist must have a Desire.

Without desire, a choice doesn’t have any meaning. It is simply an item on a grocery list. And story desires can never be so trite and hope to win over a reader.

Then, the desire must be formed into a Goal, a stated or thought objective in the protagonist’s mind. If it isn’t clear to the protagonist — and therefore the reader — that this goal is the “Why?” behind everything he/she is doing in the story, then the story will be confusing and the reader will struggle to follow it, even if it makes sense to you.

So despite how “deep” we want our stories to be, two things must be abundantly clear: What the protagonist wants (Desire) and how he/she plans to get it (Goal).

2. Resistance & Conflict

The next step in a powerful choice is Resistance and Conflict, two forces that will make your protagonist’s goal interesting and worth reading about.

After all, if the object of desire (money, a lover, a new job, getting home, etc) is easily attainable, then it will fail to produce a story that your reader simply can’t put down.

So there must be a reason, or reasons, why the protagonist cannot achieve the goal and get what he/she wants right now. And those reasons must seem insurmountable.

The resistance and conflict can come from diverse places, too. The setting can push back. Family and society can dissuade and even forbid the protagonist from advancing. And a villainous antagonist (and his/her minions or servants) can make life hell for our hero along the way.

Without brutal resistance and difficult conflict, the protagonist cannot be faced with a tough dilemma and driven to the point of making a powerful choice. Devoid of this pushback, the choice would be easy, predictable, and obvious. That’s the last thing you want!

So make sure that the resistance and conflict push your protagonist as far as he/she can go without completely breaking.

3. Risky Choice

Finally, the moment must come when the protagonist imitates the greatest action in all of humanity: the Choice with unimaginable consequences!

But it requires lots of set-up. It can’t be done without a relatable and clear Desire/Goal, or a highly antagonistic pairing of Resistance/Conflict.

To make the choice work, the hero can’t simply choose between an obvious “Yes” and equally apparent “No.” Choosing to kill the bad guy versus choosing to run away like a wimp isn’t really a dilemma.

No, choosing to kill the bad guy who is the hero’s brother or not kill the bad guy who will probably retaliate anyway is a high-risk choice. It’s powerful because of the implications.

And it will have your reader turning pages like lightning!

Shawne Coyne’s The Story Grid teaches about two types of crises that produce amazing moments of choice: The Best Bad Crisis, and the Irreconcilable Goods Crisis. The “bad guy is your brother” anecdote is an example of the “Best Bad Choice.”

Risky choices are just that because there’s almost always something to lose. There are few moments in life when everything turns out okay, and there are no negative consequences.

Which is why the fourth and final step is so important.

4. Consequences

Readers want to know “What happens after …” your protagonist’s risky choice. And if they don’t get a satisfactory answer, they’ll leave your story feeling cheated and bitter.

This doesn’t mean you have to give them an ending that rivals Return of the King, but you need to make it clear exactly what the Consequences of the risky choice were.

  • What did he/she gain? At what cost?
  • Did he/she commit any sins or grievous offenses in pursuit of his/her goal? How were these paid for, if at all?
  • And what did he/she gain, and how is it affecting life now, after the story journey?

You don’t have to tie up every single loose end the story may have — especially if you intend to pen a sequel! In fact, leaving one plot strand dangling while all the others are snugly knotted can be a great way to keep readers around, ready for your next release.

Make sure you thoroughly address how the action ends up, though. Because this, too, is a part of the imitation of an action. Every action has a reaction, and readers know it. They’ll be expecting it your story, too.

Time for Action!

Whether you’re planning to enter the Spring Writing Contest or not (though you really should!), I hope that the value of a well-written action will be central to your stories.

Not only is it solid storytelling, but it’s exactly what readers want. And the best part is that this isn’t genre-specific. This is precisely the kind of journey that readers crave, whether they’ve picked up your Cowboy Romance novel or your Sci-Fi Horror short story collection.

So plan your next story with these four steps in mind. It’s time for action!

What’s the toughest choice you’ve ever made your characters make? Let us know in the comments.

By David Safford

Visit us at First Edition Design Publishing

Poetry: Rhythm and Meter

Rhythm is everywhere: we hear it in the hum of vehicles and appliances. We feel it when we walk or run. We see it in the very rising and setting of the sun. Even our hearts beat to a rhythm. Rhythm is built into the way we experience and perceive the world.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary offers several definitions for rhythm:

  • an ordered recurrent alternation of strong and weak elements in the flow of sound and silence in speech
  • the aspect of music comprising all the elements (such as accent, meter, and tempo) that relate to forward movement
  • movement, fluctuation, or variation marked by the regular recurrence or natural flow of related elements 

Poetry encapsulates all of these definitions of rhythm. But what about meter? 

The words rhythm and meter are often used interchangeably, but their meanings are slightly different in the context of poetry. Perinne’s Sound and Sense describes this difference clearly and simply: “rhythm is the flow of sound; meter is the patterns in the sounds.”


In poetry, meter is determined by accented (stressed) and unaccented (unstressed) syllables. Silence (or pauses) also contributes to a poem’s meter. Scansion is the practice of marking up a poem to reveal its meter. Here is a traditional method of marking up a poem, using Edgar Allan Poe’s “Annabel Lee” as an example:scansion annabel leeThe character that looks like the bottom half of a circle is called a breve. The breve indicates unstressed syllables, and the slash indicates stressed syllables. You won’t find the breve on your keyboard, but it is available in Microsoft Word by using the Insert –> Symbol function.

However, working with breves and slashes on a computer in this manner is tedious and time consuming. Fortunately, there are some other methods available to us.

Some dictionaries include pronunciation guides, which indicate stressed and unstressed syllables. Dictionaries often use quotation marks for stressed syllables and apostrophes for unstressed syllables: PO”e’try’. This isn’t easy on the eyes. Another option, which is much clearer, is to use all caps for stressed syllables and all lowercase letters for unstressed syllables: POetry; and we can add hyphens to further denote each syllable: PO-e-try. Ah, that’s more like it: easy to read and easy to type.

Metrical Units

We now know how to show meter with scansion, but we also need to know how to talk about it. Here is some special terminology that helps us communicate when discussing meter:

A metrical foot is a unit of metrical measurement that includes stressed and unstressed syllables. Here are a few types of metrical feet:

  • Anapest: Two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed syllable (da-da-DA). Example: un-der-STAND.
  • Dactyl: One stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables (DA-da-da). Example: PROM-i-nent.
  • Iamb: One unstressed syllable followed by one stressed syllable (da-DA). Example: be-LONG
  • Trochee: One stressed syllable followed by one unstressed syllable (DA-da). Example: O-ver

We also use special terminology to refer to the number of feet in a line of poetry:

  • 1 foot: monometer
  • 2 feet: dimeter
  • 3 feet: trimeter
  • 4 feet: tetrameter
  • 5 feet: pentameter

Let’s return to the first line of “Annabel Lee” and show its metrical feet:

it was MA|ny and MA|ny a YEAR | aGO ||

This line consists of three anapests followed by an iamb, or a combination of anapestic and iambic feet.

But what about the number of feet? How do those factor into the language we use to talk about meter? Let’s look at a line from Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 18” (please note that I have changed the capitalization to accommodate scansion):

shall I | comPARE | thee TO | a SUM | mer’s DAY? ||
Thou ART | more LOVE | ly AND | more TEM | perATE:

Each line consists of five metrical feet, so this poem is written in pentameter. Each line also includes five iambs, one stressed syllable followed by one unstressed syllable. These lines are therefore written in iambic pentameter.

Silence (Rests, Pauses)

In poetry, line breaks, stanza breaks, white space, and punctuation provide cues for pauses. We’ll pause a little longer between stanzas than we will between lines. We’ll hold on a period longer than on a comma. Sometimes breaks and punctuation are part of the aesthetic design of a poem, but their placement will almost always affect a poem’s meter and rhythm, because they instruct the reader to pause.

End-stopped lines contain a complete grammatical phrase (or clause) or terminate with a period, closing parenthesis, colon, or semicolon. Enjambment occurs when a line break occurs in the middle of a complete phrase or clause or when terminal punctuation marks are absent. The first two lines of “Annabel Lee” (above) are enjambed; the first two lines of “Sonnet 18” (above) are end-stopped.

Let’s Get Back to Rhythm

Rhythm is best understood as the flow of sound, whereas meter is a pattern of sound. If we mistakenly equate rhythm and meter, we might assume that free verse poetry lacks rhythm because it doesn’t use metrical patterns. Let’s look at the first stanza of “Spelling” by Margaret Atwood, which is written in free verse:

My daughter plays on the floor
with plastic letters,
red, blue & hard yellow,
learning how to spell,
how to make spells.

There’s no discernible pattern in the meter, which is why the poem is called free verse. Yet the poem still has a flow, a rhythm. If the rhythm isn’t coming from the poem’s meter, where is it coming from?

Even though there aren’t repeated patterns, the accented and unaccented syllables still inform the rhythm. But so do the pauses. Consider the pause after “spelling” and before “how to make spells.” This pause influences the musicality of the poem. But the poem uses some other tricks to create rhythm. Look at the rhyme of “yellow” and “spell” (not a perfect rhyme, but a rhyme nonetheless). And look at how it echoes into the next two lines with “spelling” and the repetition of “spell” in the final line. There’s a pattern of sound there, which creates rhythm.

As we can see, meter is not the only contributing factor to rhythm.

How Rhythmical is Your Poetry?

If meter is a pattern of sounds and rhythm is the flow of sound, which of these elements is more important in poetry? When you write poetry, do you check for meter or rhythm? Do you prefer metrical poems or are you drawn to poems with vivid rhythm? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment, and keep writing poetry!

By Melissa Donovan

Visit us at First Edition Design Publishing

How to Develop Story Ideas Into Amazing Stories

I often hear practicing writers ask, “What if I can’t think of anything to write about?” Sometimes they even have notebooks full of observations, but they feel like none of them are good enough for a full story, and they’re not sure how to develop story ideas into amazing stories.

I’ve felt the same way, but there are more opportunities or seeds for story ideas in our notebooks than we think. It might be an image, a snippet of a conversation we overheard at lunch, or a social issue that grates against us. Once we have the seeds, how do we take those seeds and develop them into stories?

How to Develop Story Ideas

I love hearing the different ways writers develop story ideas into full length projects. It’s one part of the writing process that often remains cloaked in mystery. Sometimes, a writer isn’t sure how an idea develops, so they’ll say, “Oh I just write,” which makes the rest of us feel like failures when we sit down and nothing comes.

Sarah Gribble shared a great way to outline fiction in a post earlier this week, but what do you do in the space between “I noticed this thing” and “outline the story”?

Some might say, “Oh that’s the magic. You can’t teach that. It’s too formulaic. It just happens.” That might be true, but I can’t have my classes of fiction writers sitting around waiting for the magic to happen. I have to teach them how to make magic. (Do I have an amazing job or what?)

Here’s one way I help my students develop a story idea into an outline and draft.

Choose Something Specific

When students begin trying to find story ideas, they inevitably pick something too big.

“I want to write a story about the way technology makes us less human!”

“Global warming!”

“True love!”

“Space opera!”

These are all topics and themes that could yield great stories, but they are too broad and too general. We need to get much more specific to capture the humanity of these themes.

As I search through my notebooks, I look for a vivid image, event, or conversation. Here’s an example I found recently:

So good to have my sister here. Odd conversation tonight that stuck with me. She said her kids might not need to learn to drive the way self-driving cars are advancing. She said, “They use information from satellites, traffic cams and even other cars to minimize user error and fatalities.” It’s hard to imagine.

The thing that interested me was this idea of minimizing fatalities. Who gets to decide which one person can be “minimized” to allow the others to live in a car crash? I pulled the idea of self-driving cars along with that one phrase from our conversation: “Minimizing fatalities.”

Find the Heat

Once you choose a specific idea, find the hot spots in it or create one. A hot spot is a place where the temperature is higher or “a place of significant activity or danger.” It might be the inherent conflict in a conversation or the oddity in an image that could lead to or expose disaster.

Again, specificity is your friend. Some examples:

You overhear a conversation: “So help me if you leave with the hamster and espresso machine, I’ll …”

Or a headline from the news with an odd (and heartbreaking) image: “Woman who gouged out her own eye found standing next to church.”

Both of these moments hold immense potential for stories because they prompt us to ask, “Why?” and “What if?” The emotions behind these small hot places can be great places to develop an idea. If you can capture the emotion behind a moment, you can build any world you like around it.

A Character as a Hot Spot

Maybe your idea isn’t an image or event, but a person. If you start with a character, you can follow the same process by asking a few specific questions.

What does this character want from the moment we meet him?

How far is he willing to go to get it?

How can this character’s fears, anger, or insecurity get them in trouble?

You can short cut this by building from someone you know or using an actor or type. Then get specific. I can start with my Uncle John, because he is curmudgeonly and outspoken against technology, but I’ll need to change it up and give the character some details that belong only to him.

Also, remember you aren’t writing about a character’s life, you are writing about his or her problem. Specific, vivid details will make the character leap off the page.

An Example

The thing that interested me most in the conversation with my sister was this idea of minimizing fatalities. Who gets to decide which one person can be “minimized” to allow the others to live in a car crash?

I asked some questions: Who is responsible in a car crash involving a self-driving car? The driver or the car company? The tech company who built the algorithm? The satellite company reporting the data?

What if a new IT graduate buys a self-driving car and her grandfather disapproves? What if that same girl is in a fatal accident?

There are a number of hotspots in this idea that could create conflict, because there are so many emotions surrounding a crash and the element of responsibility. From here, I’m ready to outline the goal of my character, the conflict, and the climax that will guide my story.

Once you’ve explored the possibilities, you can outline the main beats of your story and get to drafting.

Do you have a method for getting from seed to draft? Do you have any tips for how to develop story ideas? Let us know in the comments!

By Sue Weems

Visit us at First Edition Design Publishing

37 Questions to Ask Your Character

Pretend you are an interviewer for a newspaper, a secret agent, or a novelist, and you are interviewing, or interrogating, a character for your story. Imagine the character is sitting in front of you, you have a new fifty-sheet yellow writing pad and your favorite pencil your cat chewed, and you are about to ask them a list of questions.

Create a character by conducting an interview. Interview your character before you start writing so you can immerse yourself completely in who they are and what they stand for. Interview them and find out who they are.

Why Interview Your Character Before You Start Writing?

When you completely know your character before you start writing, you will have a better understanding of how they will react in different situations. Your character will be more three-dimensional if you know who they are before you start writing.

Your character will be three-dimensional and not flat if you spend time thinking about how they think and feel about life. If you know your character’s worldview it will be easier to keep their personality consistent throughout the story, and you will have a better understanding of how your character will grow and change as they deal with conflict.

37 Questions to Ask Your Characters

These questions will help you find out if your character is kind, honest, loyal, or trustworthy. These questions focus on how your characters think, not what they look like. We will develop their appearance later when the photographer arrives to photograph your characters.

10 Questions

  1. What did you eat for breakfast? Did you make it yourself? What time do you eat breakfast? Do you wash the pan after you cook the eggs or do you leave it for the maid to clean? Do you have a maid?
  2. Do you have a cat? How many cats do you have? Do you wish you were a cat? How many litter boxes do you have? Do you clean the litter boxes every day? Or does your maid clean the litter boxes?
  3. Do you go our for lunch or bring a sack lunch? Do you
  1. take an extra long lunch break and charge the company?
  2. Are you an only child? How many siblings do you have? Are you close or are you estranged?
  3. If you are adopted, do you know your birth parents? Do you want to find them?
  4. Do you call your mother every day, or only on her birthday, Mother’s Day, and Christmas? Are your parents alive?
  5. Do you like to cook? Do you use recipes or make up your own recipes? Do you eat out every night?
  6. Do you put both socks on first, or one sock, one shoe?
  7. Do you have a dog? Is the dog a rescue dog or bought from a breeder?
  8. Or perhaps a hamster? Or do you have any pets?

11 More Questions

  1. Do you iron your clothes? Who does your laundry? Do you do it yourself or do you send it out?
  2. Are you married? Are you divorced? How many times have you been married?
  3. Do you brush and floss your teeth before you go to bed? Do you use an electric toothbrush and a water pick?
  4. Do you have any cavities?
  5. Are those your real teeth, or are they dentures, or are they all capped?
  6. What do you throw into the garbage? Do you recycle?
  7. Do you live in an apartment or a house?
  8. Do you own your own home or rent?
  9. Do you mow your own lawn or use a landscape service?
  1. Have you ever had a garden?
  2. Have you ever eaten a carrot right out of the ground?

16 More Questions

  1. Do you pick your nose?
  2. Do you bite your fingernails? Do you have any bad habits?
  3. What is your earliest memory?
  4. Do you hold the door open for the person behind you or do you let it go and slam in their face?
  5. Do you take chicken soup to your elderly neighbor when they are sick?
  6. If you had a dog, would you pick up your dog’s poop when you go for a walk or sneak off and hope no one saw your dog poop on their lawn?
  7. If your boss asked you to cheat on your invoice and bill your client for extra hours, would you do it?
  8. On Monday morning, are you excited to go to work, or are you sad?
  9. If you could go back in time for one day, where would you go?
  10. You can cure one disease. Which one would you cure?
  11. Do you honk at the car in front of you if they didn’t see the light turn green?
  12. Do you exercise or are you a coach potato?
  13. If a Boy Scout comes to your door selling popcorn, do you hide in the kitchen or buy popcorn?
  14. Have you ever served in the military?
  15. What is your greatest fear?
  16. Would you like me to get you a glass of water? Or would you rather have soda? Wine? Whiskey?

Know Your Characters

Questions like these can help you know your character better. If you’d like even more, read this famous list of 35 questions French novelist Marcel Proust was asked by a friend when he was fourteen years old.

Think of other questions you would like to use in your interview. What questions will help you understand your character’s personality, motivations, and goals?

I wonder how your characters in your current story would answer these questions?

What questions would you want to ask your character in an interview? Let me know in the comments section.

By Pamela Hodges

Visit us at First Edition Design Publishing

Writing Prompt: How to Choose Your Own (Writing) Adventure

When I was a kid, I loved reading Choose-Your-Own-Adventure novels that had alternate paths written into the story. If you aren’t familiar with them, they were elementary or middle grade chapter books that begin a story and at key moments, offer the reader a choice: “To go through the portal, turn to page 37. To run away, turn to page 45.”

I loved seeing the story change with the choices, and I reread the books making different choices each time to experience a new story. I’ve channeled my inner adventurer to put together a fun writing prompt.

The Choose Your Own Adventure Writing Prompt

Today, I have a writing exercise that puts some choices in your hands. Have fun with it. If you get stuck, go back and swap out one of the elements and try again. The joy is in the journey, not in the destination (although a finished story is an accomplishment, too).

To build your own writing prompt, begin by making choices from categories. I teach my students to write a simple premise before they begin writing a draft, even if they haven’t outlined before. Here are the key components, and they should look familiar if you’ve been following Sarah’s great series on writing and publishing a short story:

A character {usually with a problem}
wants {goal}
But {obstacle / conflict / complication}
So {action he or she takes to overcome obstacle to get goal}

Build Your Writing Prompt

Now, here are the choices. Choose one thing from each category and make your character act to get what he or she wants!


Choose one and decide whether you want them to be a hero or anti-hero. (A too-reductive hint: hero — admirable; anti-hero — not so admirable.)

  • A sailor
  • A bartender
  • A teacher
  • A musician


  • To contact an old friend / partner / lover
  • To become anonymous
  • To avoid arrest / detection
  • To accept an inheritance


  • A flat tire or bus / car malfunction
  • Missed an important meeting or rendezvous
  • Exposed secret or miscommunication
  • Attacked by villain / bees / bears / barracudas


No choices here; let the action follow the other choices you made!

Two Sample Writing Prompts

I’ve put these elements together to show you what a premise might look like. Try these out for size:

Sample prompt premise: A bartender wants to become anonymous but her ex-boyfriend exposes her real name, so she quits / seeks revenge / runs off to . . .

Swap it out: A hometown hero bartender wants to avoid arrest after he’s caught in a drunken brawl, but he accidentally overhears his boss on the phone reporting him. He . . .

As you can see, there’s incredible variety to be found even in these short lists of characters, goals, and obstacles. You’ll likely come up with something completely different. And even if the elements you choose are the same as mine, the actions that follow will make your story unique.

Sometimes working from a few choices gets the creative juices flowing. Where will your Choose Your Own Adventure writing prompt take you?

What’s your favorite combination of the elements above? Share in the comments.

By Sue Weems

Visit us at First Edition Design Publishing

How to Publish a Short Story: Get Feedback and Edit Your Final Draft

A month ago, I urged you to come on a publication journey with me, one where I walk you through the process of planning, writing, and submitting a short story. This is the third post in the four-part series on how to publish a short story. By the end, you’ll have a story ready to send out to publications!

If you’ve been following along week by week, by now, you have a complete first draft. Just getting started? Look back at part one and part two to find your publication and draft your story. Then, rejoin me here.

This week, we’re going to concentrate on getting feedback and completing your last edit.

NOTE: Throughout this series, DO NOT post your work in the comments. I’m going to ask you to submit to a publisher at the end of this series, and posting it here would be considered publishing it. Our Becoming Writer community is a great place to workshop your story before you submit it.

Almost Done

By now, you should have a second draft. We’re in the homestretch now! Wipe your brow, pat yourself on the back, have a little dance party. Celebrate. A lot of writers don’t make it this far.

Ready to dive back in? Here’s what to do next:

6. Get Feedback

Stephen King has what he calls a “closed door” policy up to this point, meaning he writes his first couple drafts just for himself. Then he opens that door and lets others in to read it.

It’s time for you to open that door!

I know you’re all cringing right now. You mean I actually have to show this to someone? Yes. You do.

Feedback is the most important part of writing. Seriously. There is no substitute for getting someone else’s eyes on your work. You can go over it a hundred times and you’ll still miss things. Trust me. I see it all the time with pieces I post in our Becoming Writer community.

Whether it’s something simple like a missing word or misplaced comma, or something glaring like a character snafu or a world-building misunderstanding, your beta readers will catch it. But they can’t catch it if you don’t show it to them!

I recommend finding people other than family and friends to read your work. People who know you are less likely to give you any real criticism. Mostly you’ll just hear, “Oh, I like it!” and that’s it.

This isn’t only because they’re afraid of upsetting you, but they’re also probably not trained as an active reader. They might like or dislike your story, but can’t find the words to tell you why they feel that way.

If you can’t find a writing group, that’s fine, but make sure you try to push your beta readers to give you useful feedback. If you’re not sure how to ask for useful feedback, try taking a look back at the short story musts and mistakes I listed in the first post to get ideas on what questions to ask your betas. Specificity helps here, so don’t go with something simple like, “Did you like it?”

Pro tip: Don’t watch them while they read. I know it’s tempting (Are they going to laugh at that funny line? Are they going to tear up when that character dies?), but don’t. That’s too much pressure on them, and WAY too nerve-racking for you.

During this stage, just like I suggested between drafts one and two, you need to put your story away. You’ll be tempted to rewrite as your feedback comes in. A quick word change there, a sentence deleted here, and then you feel like you’ve got a whole new draft. Which makes you want to send all your friends your “new” draft.


There is nothing more annoying than having to start reading something from the beginning when you’re in the middle of critiquing. Sharing every little edit is a great way to lose beta readers. Let it lie.

Whether you have a writing community like Becoming Writer or you just have friends and family read your work, you MUST open that door.

7. Edit (Yes, AGAIN)

You’ve lived through the torment of waiting on betas. Congratulations! Now it’s time to take a look at all that feedback.

Your first instinct is going to be to get defensive and do a lot of groaning about how stupid your friends are and how they just “don’t get it.” Get that out of your system. Throw a toddler fit and jump up and down in frustration if you must. Then reread their feedback.

I’m going to tell you something you probably don’t want to hear: Your betas are most likely right.

Remember you’re writing for people to read it. That means your readers have to like it. If they don’t, you’ve got a problem.

Reread their feedback with an open mind and apply it as needed. This is often a frustrating and disappointing time for writers, but try not to let it get you down. (Again, your writing does not suck!) You’re learning, and feedback will only make you better in the future.

8. Final Draft: Line Edit

After you’ve implemented all the beta feedback, it really is down to the final stages. Your third (and final!) draft needs to be as clean as possible. An editor will let minor mistakes slide, but the story as a whole needs to be readable.

We’re not all grammar know-it-alls, and in truth, we don’t need to be. But you do need to work on the basics.

Now it’s time to get down to the nitpicky edits. You’re going to look for things like misplaced commas, split infinitives, icky dialogue tags (i.e. too many words that aren’t “said”), -ly words, -ing words, and passive writing. I like to print my stories out at this stage so I can make editing notes and highlight until it looks like a sick and bleeding rainbow. I think it makes this tedious process more fun.

Run the story through Grammarly and Hemingway. Don’t just change everything these programs tell you to, though. Think about what they want you to change and then decide if the suggestion is right for your story.

For example, Hemingway loves to point out sentences that are hard to read. Those sentences aren’t necessarily wrong, though. You have to decide if you want to simplify the wording or leave it as-is.

Read your story aloud. Read it backward. (My editor sister swears by this one.)

Reading aloud can help you pick out missed words, weird wording, and where commas (a.k.a. pauses) should go. Reading it word-by-word backward is something I admit I don’t do, but my sister says it helps her take the words out of context so her brain doesn’t get tricky and fill in things that aren’t there while she’s reading.

Try it backward if you want to, but definitely read it aloud forward.


You’re finished writing! Now it’s time for another celebration! I prefer dancing maniacally (read: badly) to overloud 90s music, but you do you.

Your story is now ready for publication. Two weeks from this posting you’re going to send that baby out! (I expect most of you have been waiting with bated breath for that post on how to publish a short story.) I’ll take you through all the crazy formalities of the submission process next time, so spend the next two weeks getting that manuscript to shine!

Do you have a writing group? Will this be the first time sharing your work? Let me know in the comments.

By Sarah Gribble

Visit us at First Edition Design Publishing

Grammar Rules: Capitalization

Proper capitalization is one of the cornerstones of good grammar, yet many people fling capital letters around carelessly.

Not every word deserves to be capitalized. It’s an honor that must be warranted, and in writing, capitalization is reserved only for special words.

Most of the grammar rules are explicit about which words should be capitalized. However, there are some cases (like title case) in which the rules are vague. 

Capitalization of Titles

There are several contexts in which we can examine capitalization. When writing a title (of a blog post, for example), almost all the words in the title are capitalized. This is called title case.

Title case is used for titles of books, articles, songs, albums, television shows, magazines, movies…you get the idea.

Capitalization isn’t normally applied to every word in a title. Smaller words, such as a, an, and the are not capitalized. Some writers only capitalize words that are longer than three letters. Others stretch it to four.

There is an exception to the rule of using lowercase for short words in a title: Words that are important should remain capitalized, even if they are shorter than three or four letters. For example, the word run is only three letters, but if it appeared in a title, it would be capitalized, because it would be the verb (or action) within the title: “Would You Run for Office?” Similarly, important nouns (subjects of objects of a title), such as me, would retain capitalization: Marley and Me.

There’s no fixed grammar rule for which words aren’t capitalized in a title, although they tend to be smaller and less significant words; you should check your style guide for specific guidelines to ensure that your capitalization in consistent.

Capitalization of Acronyms

Every letter in an acronym should be capitalized, regardless of whether the words those letters represent start with capital letters:

  • The acronym for Writing Forward would be WF.
  • WYSIWYG is an acronym that stands for what you see is what you get. Although the words in the original phrase aren’t capitalized, every letter in the acronym is capitalized.
  • Most people use acronyms heavily in text messaging and online messaging. In common usage, these acronyms are rarely capitalized: omg, btw, nsfw. However, if you were using these acronyms in a more formal capacity, they would be entirely capitalized: OMG, BTW, NSFW.

First Word of a Sentence

As I’m sure you know, grammar rules state that the first word in a sentence is always capitalized.

Capitalization of Proper Nouns

To keep things simple here today, we’ll refer to a noun as a person, place, or thing. You need not worry about the other parts of speech because only nouns are eligible for perennial capitalization.

There are two types of nouns that matter in terms of capitalization: proper nouns and common nouns. Proper nouns are the names of specific people, places, and things. Common nouns are all the other, nonspecific people, places, and things.

When considering whether to capitalize, ask whether the noun in question is specific. This will tell you if it’s a proper noun, which should be capitalized, or a common noun, which remains in all lowercase letters.

Proper Noun Capitalization Example

The word country is not specific. It could be any country. Even if you’re talking about the country in which you live, which is a specific country, the word itself could indicate any number of nations. So keep it lowercase because it’s a common noun.

Conversely, Chile is a specific country. You can tell because Chile is the name of a particular land in which people reside. When you discuss the people of that land, you won’t capitalize the word people. However, if you’re talking about Chileans, you definitely capitalize because Chileans are a very specific people, from a very specific country, Chile.

Hopefully that makes sense. If not, keep reading because I’m about to confuse you even more.

Capitalization of Web and Internet

Have you ever noticed the word Internet capitalized? How about the word Web? The linguistic jury is still out on these newfangled technology terms, but generally speaking, the Internet is one great big, specific place. The Web is just another word for that same place.

Wait — what about websites? Do they get capitalized? Only if you’re referring to the name of an actual site, like Writing Forward.

Capitalization of Web and Internet is not a hard and fast grammar rule. Lots of people write these words in all lowercase letters. If you’re not sure about whether to capitalize these words, check your style guide.

Common Capitalization Errors

Folks often think that capitalization should be applied to any word that’s deemed important. Here’s an example:

We sent the Product to the local Market in our last shipment. Have the Sales Force check to see if our Widgets are properly packaged.

It’s not uncommon, especially in business writing, to see nouns that are crucial to a company’s enterprise capitalized. This is technically incorrect but could be considered colloquial usage of a sort. Unless it’s mandated by a company style guide, avoid it.

Here’s correct capitalization of our example:

We sent the product to the local market in our last shipment. Have the sales force check to see if our widgets are properly packaged.

Now, in a rewrite of the example, some of the words will be again capitalized, but only if they are changed to proper nouns (names or titles of things and people).

We sent the Widgetbusters (TM) to WidgetMart in our last shipment. Have Bob, Sales Manager, check to see if our widgets are properly packaged.

What about Capitalization for Job Titles?

Ah, this one’s tricky. Job titles are only capitalized when used as part of a specific person’s title:

  • Have you ever met a president?
  • Did you vote for president?
  • Do you want to become the president?
  • Nice to meet you, Mr. President.
  • I read a book about President Lincoln.

Again, this has to do with specificity. “The president” or “a president” could be any president, even if in using the phrase, it’s obvious by context who you mean. However “Mr. President” or “President Lincoln” are specific individuals, and they call for capitalization.

Grammar Rules!

Do you have any questions about grammar rules regarding capitalization? Any additional tips to add? Leave a comment!

By Melissa Donovan

Visit us at First Edition Design Publishing

Ten Myths About Creativity

Today I’d like to share an excerpt from my book 10 Core Practices for Better Writing.

This excerpt is from “Chapter Nine: Creativity,” which offers insights and tips to help you stay inspired and creative as a writer. The excerpt I’ve chosen presents ten myths about creativity. These are notions about creativity that people assume, even though many of them are counterproductive to creativity.

“You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have.” – Maya Angelou 

There’s an old myth floating around, which suggests that creativity is inherent. You’re either born with it or you’re born without it.

But creativity can be learned and developed over time. Some people may have a more natural inclination toward creative thinking, but anyone can foster and nurture creativity.

Artists throughout the ages have gone to great lengths and sunk to fathomless lows in pursuit of inspiration. The ancient Greeks personified inspiration in the muses. When they needed inspiration, they invoked these supernatural entities, calling on them for artistic help. Artists have set out on journeys, pursued spiritual and religious activities, and engaged in painful or unhealthy experiences in order to feed their imaginations.

Indeed, there are famous examples of authors drinking themselves to death or committing suicide, and of course, there is the well-known tale of Vincent Van Gogh cutting off part of his own ear. And finally, there’s the ever-present stereotype of the starving artist.

Despite these tales of suffering and tragedy among authors and artists, the most successful creative people tend toward more practical measures, choosing lifestyles and habits that are healthy and conducive to creativity.

Unfortunately, these destructive myths about creativity persist.

Ten Myths about Creativity

  1. Drugs and alcohol: One of the worst myths about artistry is that drugs and alcohol promote creativity. That’s a lie. What drugs and alcohol do is promote dependence. It is ineffective and inefficient to rely on these substances in order to make art. It’s also unhealthy, and in fact, it can be deadly.
  2. Misery: Another common myth is that pain, sorrow, and anger are the best conduits for creativity. Sure, when we are unhappy, writing can provide a healthy, therapeutic outlet. But this has nothing to do with creativity and everything to do with the need to express oneself. While misery may indeed inspire us, we can be just as inspired by happy or emotionally neutral experiences. Relying on a depressive state of mind for inspiration is just as dangerous as relying on drugs and alcohol. And like drugs and alcohol, such thinking is unhealthy and can be deadly.
  3. Suffering: This myth is based on the idea that artistry is won through suffering. Some people actually believe that artists should suffer, and suffer hard, before they get to succeed. What you have to do to succeed is work hard. You shouldn’t have to suffer.
  4. Divinity: There are less dangerous myths about creativity and inspiration. Some people believe that creativity makes a divine appearance only when they are supposed to create, and the rest of the time, they shouldn’t bother. We all have moments of great inspiration. They come and go and are rare for most of us. The most successful writers don’t wait for inspiration, they work for it. Regardless of our religious or spiritual beliefs, we can learn to control our own creativity just as we control other aspects of our lives. It’s called free will.
  5. Talent: Lots of people believe that creativity is inherently tied to talent. Talent just means you have a knack for something. Lots of creative people may not be especially talented, and there are plenty of talented individuals with no interest in pursuing the arts.
  6. Two kinds of people: Some people are artistic; everyone else is not. That’s definitely not true. Everyone is creative, and the more we nurture and foster creativity, the more creative we become. Creativity is closely associated with the arts, but artists aren’t the only people who are creative.
  7. Life of poverty: Many people believe that it’s practically impossible to succeed or make a living as any kind of artist. They mistakenly believe that an artist’s life is one of poverty and struggle. All kinds of people experience poverty—not just artists—and artists who do experience poverty don’t do so just because they are artists, as is proven by the many artists who never struggled with poverty.
  8. Fame and fortune: Conversely, some people believe that artists will enjoy great fame and fortune. While it’s possible that you could write a wildly best-selling novel and become rich and famous, it’s not likely, although the odds are better for you than for someone working in a cubicle eight hours a day who doesn’t make any art at all. At least you have a shot at fame and fortune.
  9. Creative people are weird: everybody’s weird.
  10. Creative people are creative all the time or whenever they want to create: Once you’ve shown yourself to be creative, some people will think you’re capable of doing anything that requires creativity or that you’re a constant fountain of ideas. While many creative people have more ideas than they know what to do with, some have to work hard at finding inspiration.

The truth is that creativity is different for everyone and possible for anyone. You just have to want it, and you might have to work for it.

By Melissa Donovan

Visit us at First Edition Design Publishing