No one likes the dreaded info dump.
Remember in grade school when you wrote a little story about Sally and puppies? Oh, it was so important back then to describe every physical trait about everything and everyone. A laundry list of pig-tailed hair and freckled faces and such.
"Hi, Mary," Sally said.
Sally was 7 years old. She had big blue eyes and red hair tied up in pig-tails. Her dress was pink and torn at the shoulder. Sally had freckles and was missing a front tooth, and she had a bandage on her knee. In her hand was a red leash. At the end of the leash was a puppy, with brown fur and...
You get the idea.
This may have led to a gold star in grade 3, but as a writer now, the laundry list is boring with a capital B. It interrupts the reader's flow, breaks the story, and offers up too much information that usually isn't necessary.
So, how do we add in character description without resorting to the list?
First, remember that your reader's brain will fill in any gaps. If I told you that Sally was a little girl with freckles, then you already have an idea of what she looks like. The brain is the great in-filler.
Second, you can drip these physical traits as you write your story, but only if they are either super important to the plot or to a character's richness. If your trait doesn't do this, you don't need it.
"Hi, Mary," Sally said. She wiped a red curl from her face and smoothed out her dress. "Do you want to see my new puppy?"
Later in the story (or in the scene), you could mention the bandage ("Hey, Sally, what happened to your knee?") or anything else that might develop the plot of Sally's richness. The important thing is to ditch the laundry list. Forever.
It's simple, really.
But not easy to do.
No one is born a master at anything. There are no overnight successes despite what our culture worships and what you may have been suckered into believing. Every skill, every accomplishment requires effort and lots of it.
Having said that, here are the 3 steps to writing an amazing novel or, for that matter, doing anything else in life.
Buy books, take classes, watch YouTube videos, talk to people in the game. All of this is easy to do. You don't need a certificate proclaiming that, just because you passed a bunch of courses and gave an instructor what they wanted, you're now an expert. Learning has never been easier.
2. Get Feedback
Video games are so compelling because they give you instant feedback. Open that door, and a zombie eats your brains. Next time? Don't open that door. Listen to constructive criticism from coaches, teachers, clients, readers, other writers. I am saddened by the number of writers coming into my workshops who don't want to share their work "until it's perfect". So they never share a thing. And they cannot improve their craft. Getting feedback is easy. Ask!
3. Do steps 1 and 2 over and over again for 10,000 hours.
This is simple, but not easy. It requires commitment, effort, showing up every day, practice and more practice, learning new stuff, sharing new stuff, learning what readers like and what they don't. But 10,000 hours? Seriously?
There are no short cuts to becoming an expert.
If you happen to be born with a bit more innate talent than the rest of us, it may take only 5,000 hours. But you still need to put in the time and effort. A concert pianist gives up sports in order to put in the time. An athlete gives up watching TV and playing video games in order to workout and practice.
Malcolm Gladwell studied the experts, the upper echelon of achievers, and learned that most if not all put in at least 10,000 hours of hard work before they "made it". If it takes you 200 hours to write a novel, and another 200 hours to revise it, that's a total of 400 hours per novel.
Not even close to 10,000. And you expect your first book to be a best-seller? It won't be. The math tells us you'd have to write 25 novels before you become really good at it. If you expect or hope your first novel to be on the NYT best-seller list, you are, frankly and honestly, dreaming. Just know that everyone goes through this. There are no short cuts at all. If you really want to write an amazing novel, then get back to work and write.
Yesterday, I wrote about the two key motivators that every one of your primary characters in a novel must have: a concrete goal (save the princess, slay the dragon) and an abstract goal (seek justice, find love, be honest)
Today, I'd like to show you a really practical way of fleshing out your characters in a fascinating way that my writers really enjoy and find the most helpful: The Proust Questionnaire.
Marcel Proust, before radio, TV and such, took a common Victorian parlour game and used it to develop his written characters. It's based on a bunch of questions and, once you fill it out, your characters will truly come to life! I find it way more helpful than a simple checklist of traits, physical attributes and so on.
YOu can find the questionnaire right here. It works particularly well when you take on the role of the character being interviewed, i.e., answering the questions.
Here are a few of the questions you'll encounter.
What is your current state of mind?
What do you consider the most overrated virtue?
On what occasion do you lie?
What do you most dislike about your appearance?
Which living person do you most despise?
What is the quality you most like in a man?
What is the quality you most like in a woman?
Along with completing the "interview", it also helps to have an image of your character in mind. Surf the net for the person you're thinking of. When I wrote the Ross 128 Trilogy, one of my primary characters, Jim Atteberry, was modeled after Commander Riker from Star Trek TNG :)
Let me know how this works for you!
Round, flat, nuanced, complex, realistic, maddening, boring...
There are lots of ways to describe your written characters.
One of the questions I get a lot in my writing workshops is how to create really interesting characters. The internet provides a mountain of information on this - as do books - and you may have come across some of these that encourage you to fill out all kinds of info on your characters' back stories. Things like when and where they were born, physical features, favourite subjects in school, pets, and so on.
These are well and good, and if you use them and they work for you: excellent!
I find, at least for me and my writers, these checklists have limited use.
So here's what I do:
What motivates her?
Your character behaves based on what motivates them at a fundamental level. And there are two key motivators. The first is what kind of story goal or objective faces them. This should be pretty clear in your story. Luke Skywalker wants to battle the Empire and rescue the princess. Fiona wants to be saved by her one true love. These are concrete goals that provide motivation for taking action (which, of course, moves your plot along).
The second kind of motivator is abstract. Ah, and now it gets interesting because this motivator is not always obvious when we see your character in action. An abstract motivator is something like: justice, loyalty, love, truth and honesty, generosity.
These are the building blocks for your character's behaviour. If, for example, your lead character is determined to destroy the oppressive government regime (concrete). As she moves through the plot, facing her obstacles, it's her abstract motivator that drives how and what she does. Sense of honesty? Then she won't lie to others. Sense of justice? Then she won't destroy one group in order to save another.
The fun stuff in a story occurs when our hero is placed in a terrible position where they have to question their fundamental beliefs :)
So, have a look at your main characters. Do you understand what their concrete goals are? You should know this. But, do you also understand what their abstract goals and motivations are? Spend a few minutes thinking about these, and writing more compelling characters will flow way more naturally.
Tomorrow, we'll look at the Proustian Questionnaire for fleshing out your main characters.
Whenever we create something, we encounter a ubiquitous underlying fundamental fear.
This may not work.
If only I could guarantee I'd sell a thousand copies of my book.
If only I could guarantee readers would love my book.
If only I could plot a best-seller.
THEN, I'd start my project.
But the creative process doesn't work that way.
So we look for templates, breadcrumbs of success. We play it safe with our stories. We fall into the mindset of the starving artist and blame the market or the competition or our upbringing.
Even if we could overcome all those things and follow all the recommendations from Writers Digest, and even if we signed up for all the master classes with all the famous authors, there are still no guarantees that anyone will read your book.
So what's a struggling writer to do?
Since we cannot predict the future or guarantee a result, to dwell on those will make us crazy.
Focus on what you can control.
Write every day (good, bad, and ugly).
Write your story.
Trust the creative process to teach you more about yourself than anything else.
Strive to make your next novel better than the one you just finished (you know what needs work).
Hi, I'm David. I write science fiction from a Christian worldview that promotes hope. Want to know the darker details? Click here.
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