Creating complex, well-rounded characters requires time thinking about how your characters look, where they’re from, and what motivates them, among many other things. A good way to help bring your characters to life and to establish a back story for them is to develop answers to a set of questions about them.
While much of the information you develop for your characters during the process will never be shared directly with readers, it will help you to understand the character better and more realistically portray how they will react to situations and other characters in your story. The more you know about your characters, the more realistic your story will be.
01Where Does Your Character Live?
Novelist and writing professor Michael Adams (“Anniversaries in the Blood”) has said he believes the setting is the most important element of any story. It’s definitely true that character, if not story, in many ways grows out of a sense of place. What country does your character live in? What region? Does he live alone or with a family? In a trailer park or an estate? How did he end up living there? How does he feel about it?
Knowing where your character lives can help you to understand how he might respond to certain people or situations.
02Where Is Your Character From?
In a similar vein, where did your character’s life begin? Did she grow up running around the woods in a small southern town, or did she learn to conjugate Latin verbs in a London boarding school? Obviously, this influences things like the kinds of people your character knows, the words she uses to communicate, and the way she feels about a host of things in her external world.
How Old Is Your Character?
Though this might seem like an obvious question, it’s important to make a clear decision about this before you begin writing. Otherwise, it’s impossible to get the details right. For instance, would your character have a cell phone, a landline, or both? Does your character drink martinis or cheap beer? Does he still get money from his parents, or worry about what will happen to his parents as they get old?
What Is Your Character Called?
Would a rose by any other name smell as sweet? According to novelist Elinor Lipman, absolutely not: “Names have subtext and identity. If your main characters are Kaplans, you’ve got yourself a Jewish novel, and if your hero is Smedley Winthrop III, you’ve given him a trust fund. Nomenclature done right contributes to characterization.” Your character’s name provides a lot of information about ethnicity, age, background, and social class.
What Does Your Character Look Like?
Is your character tall enough to see over the heads of a crowd at a bar or to notice the dust on the top of a refrigerator? Does she deal with weight issues and avoid looking at herself in the mirror? Though you need not have a crystal clear picture of your character in mind, physical details help you imagine how your character moves through the world, and this, in turn, helps your readers believe in the character.
What Kind of Childhood Did Your Character Have?
As with real people, many things about your character’s personality will be determined by his background. Did his parents have a good marriage? Was he raised by a single mom? How your character interacts with other people—whether he’s defensive or confident, stable or rootless—may be influenced by his past.
What Does Your Character Do for a Living?
As with all of these questions, how much information you need depends in some part on the plot, but you’ll need some idea of how your character makes money. A dancer will look at the world very differently from an accountant, for instance, and a construction worker will use very different language from either one. How they feel about a host of issues, from money to family, will be in some part dependent on their career choices.
How Does Your Character Deal with Conflict and Change?
Fiction involves some element of conflict and change. They’re part of what makes a story a story. Is your character passive or active? If someone confronts her, does she change the subject, head for the minibar, stalk off, or do a deep-breathing exercise? When someone insults her, is she more likely to take it, come up with a retort, or excuse herself to find someone else to talk to?
Who Else Is in Your Character’s Life?
Relationships and how people interact with others reveals character. They’re also excuses for dialogue, which break up exposition, offering another way of providing necessary information. Think about who will best help you convey this information and what kinds of people would realistically be in your character’s world in the first place.
What Is Your Character’s Goal or Motivation in This Story or Scene?
In longer stories or novels, you will have to ask this question repeatedly. Many of your character’s actions will result from the intersection of what he’s trying to achieve and his personality, which is composed of everything you’ve invented in answering questions about him. When in doubt about how your character should behave, ask yourself what your character wants from the situation and think about the answers you’ve given to all of the questions.
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Relationships are a complicated beast, and if you write romance like me, then you’re wed (pun intended) to the HEA (happily ever after) ending. But the reality is, we have a divorce rate of around 1in 2 marriages; so as much as it’s fun to delve into the romanticised ideal of soulmates wandering hand-in-hand into the sunset, the challenges of relationships can just as equally lead to hearts broken and relationships fractured.
Which is what this week’s article’s about.
Capturing the unwinding of threads of a relationship is complex. Just like the real world, our characters have a history of weaving those threads together in little steps and big steps, usually with the intent that their fabric will be as tight as Egyptian cotton. But people evolve, circumstances change, and sometimes a relationship isn’t strong enough. Usually these ruptures don’t happen quickly; they involve little tears and big tears over days, months and sometimes years.
If you’re looking to capture this heart-breaking (or cathartic) process in your story, either with your main characters or with those memorable secondary characters (your MC’s parents, best-friends or children), then consider these four predictors of relationship breakdown (they are a wonderful way to capture ‘show, don’t tell’ and to create some interesting moments into your story):
Far more toxic than frustration, contempt is a virulent mix of anger and disgust which involves seeing your partner as beneath you. Apart from its direct consequences of either belittling or angering a partner, contempt involves one character closing themselves off to their partner’s needs and emotions. If you constantly feel smarter than, better than, or more sensitive than your significant other, you’re not only less likely see his or her opinions as valid, but, more importantly, you’re far less willing to try to put yourself in their shoes to try to see a situation from their perspective.
If one or both of your characters are contemptuous of the other as they interact, you’ve just captured one of the cornerstones of an unhappy relationship. Consider these examples:
- Jane sends Jo a list of groceries for tonight’s dinner. When Jo gets home, Jane realises that Jo picked up self-raising flour instead of plain flour. Jane becomes frustrated, asking Jo what sort of idiot doesn’t know the difference between the two. She even posts it on Facebook so her sisters can see what she has to live with.
- Barry is organising his next fishing weekend with his two sons. Daria laughs as they are packing their tackle boxes, pointing out to their sons that she caught the biggest fish last time she went out in their godforsaken tin-can-of-a-boat.
Like contempt, criticism involves turning a behaviour (something your partner did) into a statement about his or her personal character (the type of person he or she is). As many of us have experienced or observed, fault-finding and belittling behaviour adds up. Over time, darker feelings of resentment and contempt are likely to brew.
- Alex has a habit of leaving her cereal bowl—soggy, uneaten weeties and all—on the coffee table every morning. Sam makes sure she makes note of it each day as she collects them, pointing out what a lazy and inconsiderate partner Alex is.
- After a sleepless night, Jake overheats baby Bobby’s mashed pumpkin. When Bobby spits it out and starts screaming, Sally scoops him up, shouting over the top that when it comes to parenting Jake couldn’t raise a sweat let alone a child.
Defensiveness involves a sense of protectiveness and guardedness about our thoughts and feelings. A character who is being defensive will often play the victim in tough situations with their partner; at times that may be justified, others not so much.
- A couple are late to a cousin’s wedding. Ashleigh is the first to say, “It wasn’t my fault!” as they slip into a back pew.
- Jane is online to her best friend, typing furiously that she never got a chance to tell her husband about the dint in the car door because all he does is watch YouTube. If he gets upset about it, he can’t say she didn’t try to tell him.
If your character can sense an argument brewing, they feel the tension tightening between their shoulders, notice their voice amping up a few decibels, and their response is to shutdown or walk away, you’ve got a stonewaller. Stonewalling can be just as toxic for a relationship as criticism or contempt because it keeps your characters from addressing their underlying issues. When perspectives don’t get a chance to be explored, then frustration is likely to morph into resentment.
- Ian and Sarah are arguing about their credit card debt. When Ian asks Sarah exactly how much those shoes cost, she turns and walks away. Picking up her phone, she retreats to the bedroom.
- During a parent teacher interview, Jacqui suggests that maybe their son isn’t succeeding in math because of the children he’s sitting next to. Her husband, Jed, rolls his eyes at the teacher, shifts his seat forward, and tells the teacher that their son just needs more challenging work as he’s obviously bored. Jed starts enquiring about extension work.
John Gottman, the guru of relationship therapy and founder of the Gottman Institute, has said that these four factors are tell-tale signs that all is not well with a married couple. In fact, when the frequency of these four behaviours are measured within the span of a 15-minute conversation, Gottman and his fellow psychologists can predict which marriages will end in divorce with striking precision.
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So the hero in my latest release has a few unlikeable traits (as in, pretty unethical and unsavoury behaviours), which would be fine in some genres, but not so much in romance. I realised that if I was going to have an online stalker who has come to some pretty dark conclusions about humanity, I needed to address this fairly early on in the book if I wanted my readers to fall in love with him alongside my heroine. Actually, if I wanted them to read past the second chapter!
I decided on the strategy I was going to use, but I began to reflect on the psychology behind Blake Snyder’s famous tactic. The tactic (which some of you would have guessed by now) we’ll discuss shortly; the science behind is the bit we’re going to delve into first, and it’s called the ‘halo effect.’
The halo effect
The halo effect is a type of cognitive bias in which our overall impression of a person influences how we feel and think about his or her character. Essentially, your overall impression of a person (“Gosh, he’s nice!”) impacts your evaluations of that person’s specific traits (“He’s probably also smart!”). We assume that because Johnny is good at A, then he must be good at B, C, and D. Conversely, it also works the other way (called the horn effect); if Danny is bad at A, then he must be bad at B, C, and D.
Psychologist Edward Thorndike first coined the term in 1920. Thorndike asked commanding officers in the military to evaluate a variety of qualities in their soldiers. These characteristics included such things as leadership, physical appearance, intelligence, loyalty, and dependability. He found that high ratings of a particular quality correlated to high ratings of other characteristics, while negative ratings of a specific quality also led to lower ratings of other characteristics. Soldiers were far more likely to be assessed as good in all areas or bad in all areas, even when there was no obvious correlation between the traits.
So yes, first impressions count out in the real world (which means they also do in your story).
Check out these other examples of the halo effect:
- We tend to perceive celebrities as attractive and successful, meaning we also tend to see them as intelligent and funny.
- Teachers are subject to the halo effect when evaluating their students. A teacher who sees a well-behaved student might tend to assume this student is also bright, diligent, and engaged (it’s actually how I see many students slip through the cracks in our educational system).
- The halo effect can also impact how students perceive teachers. In one study, researchers found that when an instructor was viewed as warm and friendly, students also rated him as more attractive, appealing, and likable (I’m glad I made it a point to smile at my students during my teaching years!).
- In the work setting, the halo effect is most likely to show up in a supervisor’s appraisal of a subordinate. In fact, the halo effect is probably the most common bias in performance appraisal. The supervisor may give prominence to a single characteristic of the employee, such as enthusiasm, and allow the entire evaluation to be coloured by how he or she judges the employee on that one characteristic. The employee could have areas they have yet to achieve competence in, but if they show enthusiasm, the supervisor may very well give them a higher performance rating than is justified.
- Marketers take advantage of the halo effect to sell products and services. The iPod is a great example—a popular product, it functioned as a great launching pad for the iPhone.
What’s more, researchers have found that attractiveness is a factor that can be influential in the halo effect. The truth is, we tend to rate attractive people more favourably for their personality traits than those who are less attractive. Several different studies have found that when we rate people as good-looking, we also tend to believe that they have positive personality traits and that they are more intelligent. If a prospective employer views an application as attractive, they are more likely to rate the individual as intelligent, competent, and qualified (and no, that’s not fair). What’s more, one study even found that jurors were less likely to believe that attractive people were guilty of criminal behaviour (so crime writers out there—consider making your murderer attractive if you’re looking for them to get away with it).
Harnessing the halo effect in your story
Deliberate use of the halo effect can be a powerful writers tool. The idea is to create the impression you want the reader to build upon early on. If you’re looking to create a good impression, you can do this by showing your character as funny or smart, and possibly attractive. Your readers brain will extrapolate from there without even realising it. My character was certainly smart, and the reader got that sense from his hacking knowledge and sharp dialogue. And yes, he’s good looking, but he’s also significantly scarred. Capturing a romance reader in this scenario was going to be a challenge.
The literary device that I used was Save the Cat; a term coined by the late Blake Snyder—a scene relatively early in the story where the reader meets the hero and he/she does something ‘nice.’ Often it will have a heroic flavour, like oh, saving a cat. If that action has enough emotional impact, your reader will start making generalisations about the character’s other personality traits.
In my particular scene, chapter two in fact, we’re introduced to Erik, who is stalking his peers online without them knowing of his existence. What’s more, the reader realises he’s been doing this for some time, and he does not have a very high opinion of humanity. By the end of the scene he also saves one of said peers from being blackmailed by his brother.
On the other side of the coin, you have the ‘kick the dog’ scene. If you want to create a first impression of your villain, then have them commit some act of unpleasantness. If a villain is kicking a dog in chapter two, my brain is going to put two and two together and conclude this dude isn’t very nice in other areas of his life. It’s fascinating that this cognitive shortcut happens outside of my awareness will set up my expectations for the remainder of the book.
The cool bit is that this allows you, the author, to either confirm these suspicions, or blow them off the page.
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Note: This is a guest post by Lisa Hall-Wilson, she’s an award-winning freelance journalist and author. She teaches writing classes online and writes historical and speculative fiction. Visit her website at LisaHallWilson.com. You can also find her on Facebook.
I have been a stay-at-home mom off and on for eighteen years. For the last twelve years, I’ve also been a writer.
I went from knowing nothing to having my own freelance business and being a national award-winning freelance journalist and author. One thing I had to learn was how to carve out time for my writing career while keeping my family a priority. You can, too.
I think “balance” isn’t the right concept. I don’t balance my priorities, I set priorities for short seasons.
For me, trying to keep all the balls in the air all the time was exhausting and inevitably I failed at all of it.
By making writing and family a priority for a short season (I’m talking a few hours, days or a week at a time), it all seems to balance out. My kids understand that I have deadlines and wordcounts to make and will hang out later, and sometimes I don’t touch my laptop for four or five days because it’s family time. I never neglect one or the other for very long.
There are different seasons with raising kids, so I’ll try and point out the adjustments I made in each stage.
- Make use of empty time
Empty time is all those soccer practices, swim lessons, auditions, rehearsals, and music lessons that you’re stuck waiting around for. I’m not talking about games or meets where you need to pay attention – that’s family time. But, in those multiple hours a week where I’m just waiting it out, I bring a printed manuscript, my laptop, my phone, or a notebook. Whether I’m editing, emailing, writing, reading/studying, or brainstorming, making use of those 20 min to 1 hour time slots is a game changer.
Now my are older and are into different activities so I spend more time in the car waiting and working and make sure my devices are fully charged before I leave. In winter, (I live in Canada, it gets cold in the car) I look for a nearby library or coffee shop. Bring some headphones and music that drowns out the noise of the crowd and get to work!
- Make use of play time
When my kids were younger, we lived in an apartment so I had to go with them when they went outside. In these times I brought interruptible work, so what I mean by that is work that I could pick up and set down and still accomplish things. This works even if you have to sit by a window or on the deck while the kids play. I would do a lot of editing or reading/highlighting moreso than writing at these times. I made sure I set aside one play time a day where they had my full attention.
- Write while they sleep
Whether we’re talking about toddlers or teenagers, making use of quiet time in the house when you have it is essential. The times of day they sleep will change so you have to be flexible. I am more likely to stay up late than get up early, so I’ve done that lots.
There was a season where I would work from 10PM to 3AM, sleep until 8AM and get up with the kids for school, go to a part-time job, sleep for a few more hours in the afternoon, do the supper/hang out with the family until 10PM or so, and start over. When they were in bed by 7PM, I wrote from 7 – 9PM each night because I had to be alert during the day and then spent time with my husband. It’s important when you’re writing in the outlier hours to take at least two days off a week from that schedule. If I didn’t, I was miserable and so was everyone else.
- Set aside time for your work
You need to set aside dedicated time to write. If you have a spouse or partner, work out a mutually-agreed upon arrangement where they will take the kids or help guard the quiet of your workspace for a determined amount of time. I had a couple of hours here and there during the week where everyone was home, but I could shut myself in a room and get work done.
It’s important to take those moments like play time and sports waiting to plan your writing time. Nothing is worse than getting those two hours and then lose a half hour staring at a blank screen. What was it Churchill used to say? If you fail to plan you plan to fail. This is not time to reread everything you wrote the day before and edit, you have other times for that. This is dedicated writing time.
- Weekends away
This was a game changer for me. My writer’s group splits the cost of an Air BnB rental, we bring our own food, and write. We don’t eat meals together, plan side trips, any of that. This is not a social time for me, it’s writing time.
I can get 20,000 to 25,000 words down (original stuff – not editing) on a novel between a Friday evening and Sunday noon. But I also make sure I am prepared with an outline, character sketches, etc. to make the best use of that time.
- Office Hours
In the seasons where I’ve been home full-time, my office hours are school hours. This is not time to clean, volunteer, lead groups studies, spend time on Facebook. I treat those hours like an outside job as much as I can. I try not to work outside my office hours, but it’s hard if I’m neck deep in a story or facing a deadline – and there will be those seasons.
Summer holidays are hard because I don’t have a door on my writing space and I’m constantly interrupted. But at the end of the day, I’m OK with losing writing time because my kids want to talk with me. They’ll be out of the house soon, so I’m not going to rush that. Always make time for life.
- Go on an adventure!
I do my best to take my kids on “an adventure” a few times a month. When they were younger, we’d go for a hike and look for caterpillars. We’d collect leaves and see how many different ones we could find. We walked everywhere. We built snow forts and snow slides or went tobogganing (sledding). Now we go to the mall, a bookstore or movie.
When we get home, all they want to do is play quietly, rest, or read. We had family time, and now they’ll give you writing time usually without complaint. Setting priorities for a short season. This is how it works.
In the summer, I’ll take a whole day and go on an adventure (like the beach), and then they’re OK if I spend a couple of evenings writing. I focus on them entirely for that whole day, and they give me the freedom to focus entirely on my writing for a couple of evenings.
- Be kind to yourself
Sometimes life throws you a curveball and you have to step away from the keyboard. Someone gets sick, money is tight and you have to take a part-time job – whatever. Life happens. Resist the urge to feel guilty about this and sneak in time to write when you can. Write every day, even if it’s ten minutes while locked in the bathroom with a notebook. It all counts and keeps your passion for writing alive.
Also, take care of yourself physically and mentally. Go outside – fresh air always helps when I’m stuck on a story. Reliving traumatic events to write authentically requires that I take care of myself mentally and take breaks. Talk it out with a friend or spouse.
Some of these ideas may seem like they’re just a few drops in the bucket when you want to write full-time, but these snatches of time add up cumulatively.
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Can I skip the opening sentence for this post?
Let’s say you skip reading the first few sentences and start with the fourth?
I don’t like the pressure of writing a first sentence.
What if I fail to engage readers? What if I’m boring them? What if I’ve wasted my time on this article because my first line sucks?
The task of writing a first sentence can paralyze even the most acclaimed writers. In an interview with the Atlantic, Stephen King admits he can spend months, or even years, on writing the opening lines for a new book.
Sounds crazy, right?
As business writers, we don’t have the luxury of time. We have other things to do than worrying about one line of text.
So what can we do?
Let me share with you a trick for writing a first sentence super-fast. But first, let’s define what a good opening line is.
An outrageously good opening sentence
This is how the novel “Nervous Conditions” by Tsitsi Dangarembga starts:
I was not sorry when my brother died.
Why is this sentence good?
It entices you to read on.
That first sentence creates drama because it instantly raises two compelling questions in readers’ minds: Why did the brother die? And why was the author not sorry? A reader reads on because he wants to find out the answers to these two questions.
Stephen King says it like this:
An opening line should invite the reader to begin the story. It should say: Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this.
One of the most famous opening lines
This is how “The Catcher in the Rye” by J.D. Salinger starts:
If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.
This famous opening line is 63 words long.
Is such a long sentence a good idea?
Ben Blatt analyzed what makes a good novel great, and he also reviewed first sentences. His conclusions are not clear cut, as he summarizes in his book “Nabokov’s Favorite Word is Mauve:”
The first sentence is only as popular as the rest of the book, and brevity alone will not make a first sentence great.
Our literary heroes may write lengthy first sentences.
But when writing for the web, we need to remember our readers. They’re not curled up on a comfy sofa with a book and a glass of Rioja. They’re hurrying across the web, searching for interesting articles to read and share. Who has the patience to start reading a block of text?
So, instead of following J.D. Salinger’s 63-word mammoth sentence, take your cue from Toni Morrison, the master of short first sentences, like this one from “Tar Baby:”
He believed he was safe.
They shoot the white girl first.
From “God Help the Child:”
It’s not my fault.
Each of these sentences makes you curious to read on.
Your first sentence has two purposes. First, get people to read your first sentence—a short sentence works better because it’s easy to read. Then, make sure they want to read your second sentence.
The worst opening lines
Ben Blatt quotes the opening line of the book “Paul Clifford” by Edward Bulwer-Lytton as one of the most ridiculed opening lines ever:
It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents, except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the house-tops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.
Not only is that sentence awfully long, its worst crime is that nothing happens. Nothing grabs attention. Nothing makes me curious. It’s simply a description of the weather. So what?
Of course, in business we rarely write about the weather, but you may have come across similar opening lines that fail to whet your appetite for reading more. For instance:
Many ways exist to choose your words.
As you know, Rome wasn’t built in one day.
In business, you have to take risks.
The above opening lines may be short, but they’re obvious statements, killing readers’ interest. There’s no incentive to read on.
A little-known shortcut for web writers
Getting nervous about writing a good first sentence?
No need for nerves, when you know this blog writing trick …
Unlike novels, a blog post is often a conversation with our readers. And what easier way to engage readers than asking them a question?
A few examples:
Do you hear that nagging voice, too? (source)
Do you ever feel a pang of envy? (source)
Has it happened to you, too? (source)
In a face-to-face meeting, you often start a conversation with a question, like: Cup of tea? How did your meeting go? Or: How’s business?
Why not do the same in your writing?
The one magic opening line doesn’t exist
So, no need to search for it anxiously.
Instead, remember your reader.
Imagine him hurrying across the web. He’s feeling restless. He’s impatient because he’s been wasting his time reading lousy blog posts.
How can you engage him? How can you make him read your first sentence? And then the next?
A good writer draws a reader in, and doesn’t let him go until the last word.
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There will be tough love today, and even a bit of cursing. If it’s too much for you, feel free to leave now.
Do you worry what others think about you? Do you sit at your computer screen, paralyzed to type what you desperately want to say for fear of what your mom, husband, brother, friend, or best friend from second grade might say? Truth is, most of our family and friends won’t read our books or give them much thought. We only THINK they will.
Stop censoring yourself!
Maybe you have shared your writing and been burned, relationships severed, friendships or family relationships strained or even ended. It’s terrifying, all those what if’s.
Others people’s problems are other people’s problems. Don’t take that shit personally. #WriteWhatScaresYou
Fuck that shit. As Cheryl Strayed says, you need to write like a motherfucker. What does she mean by that? Does she mean to write with papers everywhere, cartoon balls of trash flying across the room, keys tapping to the beat of Copacabana? (Let’s hope not. We’ll never get that song out of our heads.)
No. She means that you need to own it. Own your shit. Write your shit. Ignore the voices of others, get in your head, your heart, grab your soul and write the shit out of that shit. This resonates with me because that’s how I wrote Broken Places (my latest release) and Broken Pieces. Let’s deconstruct.
Censoring Your Writing
Why are you censoring yourself? If I came up to you, stood over your shoulder, read your latest paragraph, and told you, “You can’t say that!” what would you say to me? Because if you said that to me, I’d tell you to go the hell. Not only because this is my book, but because who are you to tell me what to write? Isn’t this my book? My work? My story? My name?
This person telling you what to write — does their name go on that book cover? Are they the ones spending countless hours writing and rewriting the work? No. So, fuck em.
I get it, though. People attempt to tell us daily what we should or shouldn’t write about, right? It amazes me, to be honest, that others who don’t know our story, or who think they know our story intimately but can’t possibly because they don’t live in our heads and don’t feel our emotions or live our lives, want to censor us for what we may or may not say. What makes them so scared? That’s the real question, isn’t it?
I shared a Brené Brown quote the other day about having courage and vulnerability when sharing your story, and someone replied that when she’d done so, people had chastised her, she’d lost good friends (and even family members) because her truth upset them too much, so she’s done. She’s ‘taking a break from truth.’
This saddens me deeply. I’m not judging her — she’s had enough of that. What saddens me is she’s allowing others to make that decision for her, letting them dictate what is okay or not okay to share, because they are embarrassed she shared her abuse story; now others know and can’t deal, which is another form of censoring her and shaming her for something she didn’t do.
Censoring: The Loop of Shame
When someone abuses us, we often don’t tell because we are ashamed. When (or if) we do tell, we are shamed because it’s embarrassing and shameful to us — what child (in many of these cases, as was the case with me) wants to say that an adult used our body for physical pleasure? It’s sick and twisted, and yet here we are, alone, forced to wrap our young, innocent minds around these confusing acts, with nobody to talk to, nobody to help us understand that we did nothing wrong.
Fast forward to adulthood: we choose to write about it as a form of catharsis, healing, therapy, or simply sharing so others will know they are not alone, only to have our loved ones shame us for sharing, or further chastise us for going public in some way. Shaming a survivor is one of the most selfish acts there is.
We survived the abuse — dealing with your discomfort isn’t our issue. It’s yours. If you can’t get over yourself, oh well. Survivors don’t have to accept that. We have a basic human right to speech. We have a right to tell our story.
One fellow, T, shared his story in a public Facebook post, and with his permission, I’m sharing his story here with you today. T’s sister immediately chimed in to scold him for ruining the family name, embarrassing her, accusing him of lying, of creating current drama when all that happened in the past, and on and on. I complimented T on his courage and she came after me, warning me to “keep my mouth shut, to stay out of their family business, etc.,” even though this was all on his public wall.
What I love about the survivor community is that we support each other, and we understand that many people don’t understand that we have a right to tell our stories. We don’t do it for pity or attention (more on that in a moment), but as a way to heal and bond with others who have also survived, and to help educate non-survivors what it means to live the lives we do, to deal with all this on the daily.
Real or Imagined Censorship and Risk
Sure, there’s risk involved in opening up those dusty doors of honesty. I’m not immune to the coughs and sputters of family and friends, even strangers who may or may not judge me for my words, or who place blame on me for their behavior. I’ve been called a liar, an opportunist, one person even went so far as to accuse me of ‘prostituting myself for profit and attention,’ and I’m told often to just move on (as if I haven’t).
I find it interesting that people equate sharing my story with victimhood, or ‘being stuck in the past,’ when that’s not the case at all, yet they are determined to tell me that yes, that must be so. It’s sadly comical, the judgments people make about survivors.
Truth is, those are not my issues.
I wrote a guest post recently as part of my Broken Places blog tour and the host shared it, as hosts kindly do. Someone on Twitter replied that basically I am ‘playing the victim’ by sharing my story, that I’m somehow magically compelling people to “feel sorry for me.” Fortunately, people supported me without me saying a word (I don’t respond to those types of comments). If you know me at all, you know that I am anything but a victim…yet, these comments aren’t uncommon for survivors.
I’m not offended. I’m not religious. If anything, I want to thank this person for reinforcing I’m on the right path to help remove the stigma of childhood sexual abuse (or any abuse survivors) have to face. This person is a light for me — further helping me realize I still have a lot of work to do. In a strange way, I find comfort knowing my advocacy work is not done, and I have many more people to reach with my story, giving voice to others’ stories, and sharing my platform so other survivors can share their stories.
Ignorance needs an audience so sexual abuse survivors have one, too.
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Although the concept of intelligence and what exactly it means for a person to be intelligent are the subject of considerable controversy and debate, it’s widely accepted that intelligence is valued in our society. In fact, if you’re a sapiosexual, you find intelligence as the most sexually attractive feature in a prospective partner. I’m not going into the evolutionary theories for this (including that intelligent men have a higher sperm count and women intuitively understand this and so are drawn to them), so you’ll have to take my word for it. Intelligence is attractive, and a trait we see in many a hero (and villain in fact). In the landscape of writing, this is a trait you can harness to add layers to your character.
Although every psychologist who has endeavoured to define intelligence has come up with their own definition, intelligence is broadly understood as the ability to perceive or infer information, and to retain it as knowledge to be applied towards adaptive behaviours within an environment. The key as a writer is to create a character who presents as intelligent in a plausible manner. Sure, you can slip in their above average IQ scores as they munch over breakfast, or point out they have seven PhD’s, but what if your character is an adolescent? Or what if they live on the planet X where IQ tests aren’t used because the sentient species have acknowledged the limitations of cognitive testing?
What if you want to show, not tell?
Well, you’ve come to the right blog post. I undertook some research, and along with my professional understanding of intelligence (IQ testing is a regular part of my practice in schools), I considered it in terms of character development. If you’re looking to craft an intelligent character, then check out the following traits (quick caveat: they don’t all have to be present for a person to be considered intelligent, but each of these traits are understood as strong indicators of above-average cognitive capacity):
High Verbal Functioning
People with a high IQ have strongly developed verbal skills. Your character is likely to be able to verbalise meaningful concepts and express themselves articulately and maybe even eloquently. This means dialogue, internal and external, is going to be important in representing an intelligent character.
Strong Reasoning Capacity
A person with high intelligence is able to detect underlying concepts and relationships, and use reasoning to identify and apply rules. Abstract thinking is a strength, as is attentiveness to detail. Many detectives in crime novels demonstrate strong reasoning capacity, and every time they solve the murder by linking the dots that seem to live in different postcodes we’re wowed by their intellect.
Intelligent people not only notice this nuanced information in life, but they also maintain this information in conscious awareness. This process, which requires attention and concentration, allows them to manipulate and play with said information in their mind. I’d rather not recollect the amount of times I’ve looked like I’ve lost valuable IQ points because I can’t remember the of age of my firstborn child!
Smart people are fast thinkers. They can do all of the above, and they do it quickly. They are able to scan information accurately, make decisions, and implement those decision rapidly. These characters will drop one-liners in the blink of an eye, or be the first to recognise that the name of their victim isn’t on the list of missing people following the earthquake that levelled New York.
But it’s important to note that high intelligence doesn’t necessarily mean your character is any of the following;
Emotional intelligence; the capacity to be aware of, control, and express one’s emotions, and to handle interpersonal relationships judiciously and empathetically, is quite different to cognitive intelligence. Whilst people who do well on standardized tests of intelligence tend to be more successful in the classroom and the workplace, emotional intelligence is correlated with better social relations, better family and intimate relationships, and better psychosocial wellbeing.
Think of Sheldon in Big Bang Theory—with his borderline autistic tendencies, he’s an accomplished physicist, but he’s socially inept and emotionally naïve, which has been mined over 11 series of hilarious interactions. It’s worthwhile to consider whether your character has both of these qualities.
You’ve probably heard the saying there’s knowing that a tomato is a fruit…and understanding a tomato doesn’t belong in a fruit salad. In the same way, intelligence (knowledge of information and using it adaptively) isn’t necessarily wisdom (the ability to think and act using knowledge, experience, understanding, and insight). Your character may have acquired the knowledge (impressively and quickly), but wisdom is the proper use of that knowledge. Whilst trawling the internet I found this little nugget: Intelligence is knowing that Frankenstein was the doctor. Wisdom is knowing that Frankenstein was the monster.
Just because your character is smart, it doesn’t mean they’ll be nice. In fact, intelligent people can be less trusting and less compliant with rules (think of Tony Stark in Ironman; he’s brilliant, but socially irreverent to the point of egocentrism). Intelligence can give rise to suspicion (and if were to extrapolate that, to conspiracy theories), selfishness (you just need to read Richard Dawkins The Selfish Gene to know selfishness is smart), and subversiveness (which could be a good thing in your story, but also may make them unlikeable).
Intelligence doesn’t equate with emotional stability, in fact, it’s possible that higher IQ is linked with higher incidents of some mental health diagnoses (including anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia). Although the link isn’t clearly understood, it’s probably not important to our story building motivations. What is important, though, is to understand that your character may be in the top two percent of the IQ bell curve, but their physiology and environment (e.g. a traumatic childhood) will also play a factor in their emotional life.
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Have you read a book you feel compelled to carry on reading? You know the kind of book I’m talking about. You read it past your bedtime and during your lunch breaks. You read it because you want to not only know what happens next, but you also wonder what is really going on.
Chances are the author is using a series of cliffhangers to keep you interested.
What Is A Cliffhanger?
According to Oxford Dictionaries it is ‘a dramatic and exciting ending to an episode of a serial, leaving the audience in suspense and anxious not to miss the next episode’.
The term itself originated with a Thomas Hardy serial when one of his protagonists, Henry Knight, was left hanging off a cliff.
Writers use cliffhangers as a literary device at the end of scenes, chapters, and books. These end without the questions raised being resolved. The reader has to carry on reading to find out what happens.
The History Of Cliffhangers
One of the most famous examples of using cliffhangers can be found in One Thousand and One Nights. Scheherazade tells a series of stories to the king for 1,001 nights, ending each on a cliffhanger, to save herself from execution.
They were also an important element of Victorian serial novels, including those by Charles Dickens, a pioneer of the serial publication of narrative fiction.
Television series are notorious for ending seasons on major cliffhangers. The most famous example was the ‘Who Shot JR Ewing?’ ending in Dallas.
Modern writers are using this device more often because readers can easily be tempted away from books. Instead of ending each scene satisfactorily, it has become quite commonly used to prolong suspense.
Cliffhangers are the clickbait that get the reader to turn the page. James Patterson has used this technique successfully using short chapters that end without major resolutions.
Here are 10 ideas for cliffhangers:
1. An Unanswered Question
This is the most common cliffhanger. Ask a provocative question or make sure that the one that started the scene is still unanswered.
2. A Loss
The loss can be physical or emotional. It can be a tangible thing or a relationship, but try to make it something that the protagonist thinks he or she can’t do without.
3. Dangle A Carrot
Show the character that something he or she wants desperately is there, but out of reach.
4. A Glimmer Of Hope
A pronouncement is made that something something that is needed, new, different, or exciting will happen soon.
5. A Physical Threat
Put the character, or somebody that he or she loves in immediate danger. If you have created empathy between your readers and your character, they have to carry on reading.
6. A Sense Of Foreboding
Use foreshadowing and body language. Use signs and symbols. Let your characters know that they will be going off into a dangerous place or a risky situation.
7. A Ticking Clock
End with a sense of urgency. A deadline has to be met.
8. An Accident
This can be a physical accident or a slip of the tongue. Set off an alarm. Reveal a secret. Break a leg.
9. Unexpected News
This includes any important information, or even a person, that shows up unexpectedly. End a scene with the protagonist receiving devastating news
10. An Unmade Decision
A character has a decision that needs to be made.
By Amanda Patterson
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I wrote my very first novel on the rainbow-colored pages of a Hello Kitty notebook. I was eight. It definitely read like an eight-year-old’s first novel, but it also was over 80 pages of a story with characters, a plot, and dialogue. I had a lot of maturing and growing to do, but even then I knew I was a WRITER. My parents encouraged this every step of the way and their support fostered creativity and faith in myself as a writer. Because of this new age of digital media, we have many more opportunities than ever before. This can be a great thing, but it also has some pitfalls. Here are 7 ways to encourage young writers.
A Note to Parents: These suggestions may not be suitable for young writers of all ages, especially the ones related to the internet. I would recommend you continue to use the common sense and boundaries that you already have in place with regards to these!
A Note to Young Writers: If you are reading, I’m so glad you are here! Please contact me if you have questions or need more resources. I would love to help you on your writing journey.
7 Ways to Encourage Young Writers
1. Buy a domain.
Do this right now. Immediately. Domains are a commodity and it would be great for you to own your child’s name.com right now. It costs less than $10 to buy and keep one as a placeholder, even if you don’t want a website yet. (More thoughts on owning your own name.) Do make the domain private (a paid service) so your family address, email, and other information cannot be accessed. If you DO choose to actually make a site, this will represent your young writer, so do be professional. Consider gifting this as a graduation present, as I have known some parents to do.
2. Get a Twitter handle.
Many social media platforms come and go. Twitter is, I think, in it for the long haul. Facebook also might be, but with it’s ever-changing algorithms for pages, I would recommend Twitter. I have also found that Twitter is a great place to make connections with other writers and reveals less than a Facebook profile. (Some tips for using Twitter!) Encourage your child to use it as a WRITER, not simply as interaction with friends. (If your child uses Twitter with friends, perhaps set up a separate Author Twitter handle.) Read these tips on how to use Twitter as an author.
3. Find community through Wattpad.
Wattpad is a place where writers can register, post their work, and read the work of others. Many people use it to reveal their work chapter by chapter, receiving comments and shares from other Wattpad users. Writers can be inspired by other writers, connect with new readers, and be part of a community. *A word of caution to parents: Not ALL writing on Wattpad is appropriate for all ages. Check it out with and for your child and make appropriate boundaries.
4. Set up good work habits & goals.
Writing should stay fun. But young writers can also learn about writing as a craft. Whether that is taking classes, attending a conference (like the Teen Book Con here in Houston), or simply setting up a time to write each day, young writers can learn good habits now that will help in the long run. Encourage your child to both foster creativity and also discipline.
5. Consider self-publishing on Amazon.
Every year in elementary school, I entered the Young Authors competition (and even won a few years). It was my favorite time of year because I got to write a book, then bind it together and hold it in my hands. There is something magical about holding your own book in your hands!! My nephew just published his first book on Amazon & Create Space and I couldn’t be prouder! But I use the word “consider” seriously. The only flip side to self-publishing is that the internet has a long shelf-life. Perhaps later on, your child might be embarrassed for that work to represent him or her. That work will carry his or her name (which could be a privacy concern) and will represent him or her. If you do decided to make the book available to the public, take it seriously. Hire an editor to make the work polished. Make sure the book formats correctly and also has a slick cover!
6. Start an email list.
This may sound like a strange one, but if your young writer does want to become a serious published author one day, starting an email list would be an asset. For now, it could be dormant like a website. Maybe it would be friends and family to start with, but your young writer could collect emails and add them to the list along the way. If he or she does publish on Amazon or Wattpad or has any fun writerly news, this email list could be the place to share it. No one EVER regrets starting an email list too early. (Read how to start an email list.) An email list is a valuable digital commodity and would be a huge resource to start early.
7. Encourage reading.
I don’t know any writers who were not also voracious readers as children. Read with your child and to your child. Take your young writer to author readings and to the library. Budget for books. Spend time in book stores. Allow for extra time at night for reading before bed. Mix up the kinds of books for your child—maybe encourage him or her to read one classic for every two or three modern or YA books. Readers don’t always write. But writers always READ.
How were you encouraged by your parents as a writer? Or how have you fostered creativity and writing habits in your child?
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If you want to become a writer but feel uncertain how to begin, you are not alone.
Writing, and especially fiction writing, can seem like a mysterious art, even to those who practice it. So if you’re starting from nowhere, it may take some work to convince yourself you can do it. Yet, in all honesty, becoming a writer is not a difficult matter. To become a best-selling novelist or win the Booker Prize may be difficult. But to become a writer or even a published writer is relatively easy.
Recently, I received three emails from people, each of whom want to become a writer. They all expressed very typical concerns. Below is what they said and how I would answer them.
Incidentally, I don’t pretend my advice on this subject is brilliant or original. There are no magic answers to these questions, only the same simple answers that have worked for most beginning writers.
The Student Writer
Here’s what the first person wrote in an email:
“I found the articles on this site educative and inspiring. I am hoping to be a writer too but am still in school. please advice me on what to do.”
I’m not sure whether this person is in high school or university. But it doesn’t matter. Here’s what to do if you are in a similar situation. Simply put, the best thing to do if you want to become a writer, regardless of your age, is to write regularly. Even if you write for just 10 minutes a day or one day a week. Even if you have to get up an hour before everyone else to get some quiet time.
The hard thing in the beginning is to make yourself devote time to writing. Yet writing is something you can only learn by doing – just like riding a bicycle or skiing. Some people have theorized that it takes 10,000 hours to master any skill. Writing is like that. And the more you write, the better you get at it—the greater your sense of how words should flow as they express thoughts, observations, and feelings. There are no shortcuts here. You just have to keep doing it until it becomes as natural as walking.
Remember too that a writer is simply someone who writes. If you are writing, you have already become a writer. The readership comes later.
The second thing that will help you become a writer is to read a lot. To some extent, it doesn’t matter what you read – anything from comic books to popular magazines is more grist for the mill. However, it cannot hurt to delve into the classics. There is a reason the great poets and authors are revered. The more of their language you can get into your head, the better.
When you feel ready and have a small body of work you feel good about, seek out other writers who can help you. Share your work and get their comments. If all they do is criticize and tear your work to shreds, don’t give up. Take their advice to heart and try to do better. Eventually you will get more compliments than criticism.
Once you reach the stage where you are getting positive feedback, look for places where you can publish. Maybe you start with a blog or a student newspaper. Today there are many more places online than ever before where you can publish your words. Eventually, you may find people who will pay you.
Bonus Video from ClueTV: Neil Gaiman
Stuck at the Idea Stage
This person is in the grip of an idea, but not sure what to do with it:
“i want to write a book and i have a title but don’t have any clue at all about how to get started. i need some advice badly.”
The person didn’t say if they want to become a writer of fiction or nonfiction. A title isn’t much to go on either, but if it’s an idea that won’t let go, it is a good starting point.
If you’re at this stage, I suggest you try to flesh out that idea. Play the part of an objective observer and start asking yourself questions about the title. Any questions will do. Invent answers that feel right.
After doing this for a while, you should have a better idea what this book will be about. At that point, I recommend you make some kind of an outline. If this will be fiction, perhaps start with the 8 Elements of Plot. If the book is to be nonfiction, try to come up with a one paragraph summary of your topic and the core message of the book. Decide who will be your audience. You want to tell them something they will be glad to know. Then decide on the arguments, evidence, ideas, information, etc. you need to prove your thesis. Those may become chapters. Doing some research on your topic will give you more ideas.
Once you have an outline you are happy with, you just have to start writing. Maybe the first draft won’t be any good. That’s all right. Just keep writing until you have a complete draft. Then go back and revise, rewrite, add new chapters, cut ones that don’t work, etc. Share your words and ideas with other people and get their feedback. Maybe it will take you ten drafts to get it right. That’s okay. It’s a learning process.
When you work on your second book, you will have an easier time because you already know what has to be done and that you can do it.
Important Advice from Ira Glass On How to Become a Writer
The third email came from a professed child:
“hiya, I’m 11 yrs old and I really want to write a novel, even if I do get it finished, do you think that the publisher will except me as I don’t want to do self publishing.”
Sometimes our most profound dreams and ambitions come to us at 11 years of age, before adolescence overshadows them. I myself first wanted to become a writer when I was 11. I taught myself to type on my father’s old manual typewriter and spent many evenings churning out science fiction short stories. It was a much more rewarding activity than many others I could have pursued at that time.
My advice to anyone this young who wants to become a writer is that, if possible, you should follow that dream. You’ll be very glad you did. Even if you never become a professional writer, you will become a better writer. And writing is a skill that is more valuable than most people realize, no matter what your profession.
It’s also important to remember that getting published isn’t everything and that writing a novel can be a fun activity even if it never gets published. Artists often make hundreds of drawings and paintings before they sell one. Great actors often start in amateur theatre. Similarly, writers often have to write several “practice novels” or short stories in order to develop their skills.
Besides, some people have published books at a young age, so who can say what will happen? Whether a book gets published depends on many factors, including the quality of the writing, the subject matter, the publisher’s preferences, what’s popular at the time, etc. Luck plays a big role too.
So if your dream is to become a writer, start by writing for your own enjoyment. Later on, you can look for a readership.
Also, you and your parents should check out the Young Writers Program at NaNoWriMo. It’s an annual fun challenge in which you try to write a novel in 30 days. You decide what length of novel to go for. They have a great workbook full of helpful advice on planning. You can challenge your friends to see who can write the most words before the contest is over.
You don’t have to show anyone what you’ve written unless you want to, so no one will criticize your novel. It’s all about quantity, not quality, and having fun.
And the best part is that you will become a writer over the course of the month.
So grab the pen. The empty page is waiting. You have nothing to lose, and much to gain…
By By Glen C. Strathy
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