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Child Care-acters (It’s a Pun!)

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Kids are funnier, more creative, and more astute than they are sometimes given credit for. As an adult it can be hard to remember how to think like a kid, making it harder to get inside the mind of a child character. So how do we improve the way we represent children in fiction?

Spend Time with Them

The best way to get to know someone is to spend time with them, right? Even if you’re not “a kid person”, spending some time with them can do wonders for getting those writer wheels turning. Take notes on the conversations you have. Who are more creative and honest than people too young for a verbal filter? I’ve heard some of the funniest, saddest, and purest one-liners while babysitting, and have been able to spin them into great dialogue, in some cases dialogue that isn’t even between children. Those little buggers can be wise.

Know the Vernacular 

With child characters, this means being able to distinguish the dialogue of a five year old from a ten year old, etc. I have read stories that underestimate the difference in children’s vernacular as they develop, and the result is unrealistic dialogue or inconsistent/flat characters. Again, exposure can be a huge help. And while we often want to believe in the innocence of children’s language, the truth is that by upper elementary a kid probably has a more colorful vocabulary than some parents might want or expect. In writing this is often used for humor, but if it fits someone’s environment or personality it can also be reflective of realistic characterization (think Stranger Things or the “Bleep” episode of the TV show Arthur).

Recognize Their Impact

Child characters are often used to empathetic ends. We see this when they are used as foils for jaded or angry adults. Their innocence and black-and-white view can diffuse tense situations, likes Scout Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, or increase tension by obliviously wandering in on an already taut scene. However, child characters can also reveal the darker parts of human nature, like in Lord of the Flies. Either way, they can provide a lot of insight into what it means to be human. But they should also be understood as more than just a literary symbol. They need to be well-rounded characters and relevant to the story. I think Laura from the movie Logan is a great (if slightly intense) example. If kids shouldn’t be talked down to then as characters they shouldn’t be “written” down to either. Let’s give credit where credit it due.

Happy Writing!

Question of the week: What was your favorite children’s book/series growing up?

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A Little Encouragement

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Happy Friday, friends! The weekend is here and with it, here’s a little extra encouragement as you work on that best-seller. Nothing is quite as demotivating as pitching an idea to someone who replies, “Hey that’s cool! Your story sounds kind of like…reminds me of….etc.” Sometimes it can feel like everything’s already been said, that your story isn’t worth putting out there, but fight that little brain demon and keep at it!

Want to know a secret? Some of the most mind-blowing characters we see and think, “Wow, I could never create someone as devastatingly amazing at that,” aren’t quite as stand-alone as we think. For example, Batman was not the world’s first mysterious and shadowy crime detective to make a hobby of stalking police commissioners. Much of his character draws from the 1930’s radio drama, The Shadow. (Which is actually super fun to listen to if you like podcast-type stories. You can find episodes free online.) So yes, sometimes we do need to stand on the shoulders of the storyteller who have come before us. But by incorporating our own voices we are owning our traditions and remaking the myths that have been the foundation of narrative for centuries. You’ve got this!

Happy Writing!

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A Guide to Preserving Literary Parents

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(Photo taken from Flickr)

When it comes to protagonists, we all know the drill–child loses parents at a tender age, discovers the world is not as friendly as it seems, and eventually becomes her own hero, cobbling together a family-of-circumstance along the way. Don’t get me wrong, I love these types of stories. They’re often my favorite. But, my fellow writers, where does it end? Will no one save the parents?

Parents as Motivators 

The most basic role of parent figures in fiction is probably that of the motivator. Often in YA it’s their death that leads to the main character’s emotional struggle. (For example, in classic Disney films parents have what I  would guess to be a 3% chance of surviving past the first twenty minutes.) But it doesn’t have to be this way! Living parents can be just as effective at motivating protagonists. Reuniting with estranged family can serve as a strong motivation or end goal. In my novel, Marley is offered the chance to find her parents as extra incentive to comply with the antagonist’s scheme. On the other hand, parents can also serve the “prove you wrong” purpose, leading the underestimated heroes to take up a cause to prove their worth.

Parents as Protagonists

Sometimes young writers such as myself forget that a parent can function as a stand alone character, or even the hero. In this capacity, they are the ultimate protectors. Case in point, the movie Taken. At the same time, parental characters don’t have to be confined by their guardian role. They can go on their own adventures, fight their own personal battles, and be their own comic relief. Two words. Dad jokes.

Parents as Antagonists

Ah, villains. How we love thee. Although a bit cliché, parental antagonists are fantastic, creating joyous inner conflicts that have given us gems like:

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Sorry, Darth. Not today. Of course, there are times when children fall in line with the evil whims of their parents as well, such as the case of Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter series. The turmoil between the will of a parent and a desperate to please hero is absolute gold. Not only does it increase tension, but it ups the stakes of the protagonist’s success. Basically, fictional parents rock, so let’s think twice before casting them out to sea.

Happy Writing!

Question of the week: Who are you favorite fictional parents?

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When to Write a Series

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Writing a novel is similar to knitting a scarf. It can be stunning, colorful and intricately designed, but no matter how brilliant, if it’s too long the loops can bury the person on the receiving end. If they’re too busy trying not suffocate in all the details to notice them, then what’s the point? Enter, the series. Heroically breaking our favorite tales into bite-sized pieces since who knows when. I have an enormous amount of respect for good series writers. So why are series so great, and when might a novel become a series?

The Temptation of Familiar Characters

Series are fantastic for those of us who don’t want to say goodbye to characters after just one adventure. When we readers comes across developed, timeless characters, we weep at the thought of letting them go. The proof is in the fan fiction. Picking up the next book in a series has all the warmth and excitement of running into the arms of an old friend. It’s homey, thrilling, and downright addictive. Unfortunately, characters can dull over time if forced to return to old habits after they’ve outgrown them. Be wary of writing a series for the sake of keeping characters around, rather than for the purpose of developing them and those around them.

Complex Plots

Breaking down stories with complex and/or long-running plots are probably the simplest way for a novel to transform into a series. If important aspects of the main plot, or even subplots, become too lengthy, it can tire the reader. I’ve had this happen to me while reading on several occasions, even when I absolutely love the book. I want to keep reading, but begin to develop a feeling of obligation in place of enjoyment. Turning a novel into a series can give readers a chance to better digest multiple complicated events that are vital to the overall story. In other words, it offers a bit of respite so readers can recharge their bookish hunger.

Prequels & Sequels

God bless the brave writers who successfully tackle prequels. Among the many great things the Star Wars franchise has taught us, it’s that prequels are like quicksand (Anakin knows what I’m talking about, that angsty sand-hater). They have the ability to suck us in with promises of revelational backstories and beloved characters. When done well, prequels have the potential to be the crowning jewel of a series. When they’re not, they leave us with a mouthful of mud and regret. Sequels that lack depth of plot can have similar effects. While a squeal doesn’t have to be a continuation of the original plot, it shouldn’t ignore it either. (Scott Lynch, author of the Gentlemen Bastards series, is excellent at maintaining purpose while working with different plots.) When going the series route, write with intent, and attack that prequel and/or sequel with gusto!

Happy Writing!

Questions of the week: What book do you think deserved a series, but never got one?

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Part of That World

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Every book lover has had that “Little Mermaid” moment. That moment where we fall so deeply in love with a fictional world that we’d die happy if we could spend just ten minutes there. But what happens when we’re not just experiencing fictional worlds? What happens when we’re creating them? Creating a fictional world can be challenging, but not to fear fellow mermaids! Here are a few starting tips to leave readers wishing they were part of that world.

Defining Borders 

As discussed in an earlier post, setting is a powerful tool, so it’s important to use it to its full potential. When designing a fictional world, making borders is a great place to start.Building land-based borders can help define the edges of a character’s world. These edges can be limited to something as small as a single street, or as vast as a universe. There may be entire continents that make up your world, but the ones that really matter are the ones that effect characters.

There are other ways to define borders as well. Unless it’s a Doctor Who-ish world where anything can happen at any time, there are usually basic laws to how things work. Consider: What are the physical limitations of the story and characters? For example, in my novel some people like Rumpelstiltskin use magic, but they can’t go around doing whatever they want. There are lines that cannot be crossed, which adds drama by creating consequences for people who try to overstretch their limits.

Creating Cultures

Who lives in your world is a large part of its construction. What do these people value and how does it shape their world? Do they blow apart mountains to get to the other side because they value efficiency, or do they avoid the mountains because of folklore? Culture will determine how characters interact with their environment and each other. When considering creating fictional cultures, it can be difficult to find a place to start. Research can help. I often borrow aspects from already existing cultures and integrate pieces into my work to form something new.

Often culture sculpts character. Much of a character’s personality depends on the values she’s gained from her culture. In many cases, it is then her backstory, the specific events throughout her life, that decides whether a she accepts or rejects those cultural values as her own. Culture can then be used as a form of support or conflict for a character.

Happy Writing!

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Namely, This

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Congratulations! You have created a masterful, swoon-worthy, fully embodied character who is ready to take on whatever fresh hell you can throw at them (because let’s be honest, driving a character up a tree and seeing how they’ll get themselves down is more fun than it probably should be). But wait! This magnificent hero is, alas, nameless, and it’s hard to sing heroic ballads when you don’t have something to call them.

Sweetest Name I Ever Heard

When considering names, the two most important characters are, naturally, the protagonist and antagonist. If working with a large cast though, it’s also worth thinking big picture. How does a collection of names sound and interact together on the page?

As a reader, I can get confused when too many characters have names that sound similar. This happens when the majority of names start with the same letter, have the same vowel pattern, or are too lengthy. If too many names are too long, it tires out my brain and I start filling in the names with white-noise. Not good, right?

I’m not saying we as writers should use every letter of the alphabet, or that we can’t use long names. But I find it helpful to think about the overall feel of the story when choosing names. It helps me to keep readers in mind as I sculpt the characters I want them to love.

Authenticity 

A characters name should reflect the culture of the world they live in. Lately, I’ve done quite a bit of research in the name of, well, names. This is so my characters more accurately reflect the time periods they live in. In terms of fantasy and sci-fi genres, this part can be a little trickier, but it comes down to a matter of authenticity.

Take the show Stranger Things. It takes place in a small town in the 1980s, and follows four middle school boys named Will, Mike, Dustin, & Luke. Fitting, right? It creates expectations for the boundaries of their world, the type of story being told. But then there’s Eleven. She completely shifts the tone of the story. Her name solidifies her as something “strange”, something out of place, and the audience holds onto that sense of uncertainty for the remainder of the story.

Essentially, character names can add to the tone of the work. They can also reinforce the culture and setting. It may seem a subtle detail, but it really can work wonders in terms of creating a more believable world in the context of fiction.

Does the Name Make the Character?

A character’s name rarely makes or breaks a story, unless it’s a piece that relies heavily on symbolism. (You want to talk symbolic names, read Catch-22. Also, it’s a fantastic book, so you should really just read it anyway.) Recently, I’ve been more mindful about what exactly I’m looking for when researching names. So far, it’s helped me get a much better grasp on not only the fictional culture I created, but on the nature of my characters themselves. The truth is, trying to name a character based on a cool, underlying meaning isn’t always necessary. Sometimes, Doug is just Doug.

As much as it broke my heart, I recently forced myself to change the names of some of my main characters. It’s not that I didn’t like the names. I wanted a cohesive world for my characters to live in, and one way to do that is through names. While I’m not rolling out Marley and Holden‘s new digs just yet, I will say that changing their names has added an additional layer of believability to the world I built for them.

Happy Writing!

Question of the week: What are some of your favorite characters’ names?

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The Beauty of Backstory

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If you’ve read my earlier post, Backstory Basics, then you know I’m a sucker for a good backstory. Welcome to part two. Backstory is a perfect way to reveal character, create suspense, and tie together events. But that begs the question, how much is too much backstory? How do you decide what’s important enough to put in the final product? Let’s discuss.

Strategize

When backstory is used is just as important as what information is revealed, so info-drop wisely. Too soon and it might lower emotional impact or kill the element of surprise. Too late in the game and it may feel irrelevant or confusing. A character’s past is what made them who the reader loves (or loves to hate), and that makes their history beautiful. Let readers settle into a character and get to know them as they are before taking time out for a flashback.

Also consider how to go about info-dropping. The use of dialogue is an easy and subtle way to hint at backstory, but if you plan on showing rather than telling, it’s important to look at the how. Will you seamlessly weave childhood memories into narration, or cut away from the action the second after the gun fires? (Two books I love that do an outstanding job of building momentum through backstory are Scott Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamora and Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows.)

Over the last few months I have gotten back to writing my novel in-progress. I thought it was done and ready for the editing stages, but after two rounds of editing I realized it didn’t have quite the right emotional punch. My problem? Too little backstory, too late.

Don’t Be a Drama Queen

Be a queen bee. Be a dancing queen. DON’T be a drama queen (guilty as charged). Unfortunately, I have a bad habit of this when it comes to wrangling up a powerful backstory. Let me explain. When I say I love backstory, I usually mean the dark, heart-wrenching,  So That’s Why You’re a Douche Canoe  kind. Basically, I focus on villains, like my novel’s main man, Rumpelstiltskin. But not every piece of character history needs to be gritty and life-altering, and actually, it shouldn’t be.

To create a realistic character we as writers must look at them from every angle. So by all means, reveal the tragic past, but don’t forget to make them human. Unless your character is a straight up psychopath, there’s going to be something that makes them smile besides dastardly deeds. Even an antagonist has a fondest memory, a favorite joke, a personal quirk. Maybe the guy likes puns. Whatever it is, remember not all backstory has to be drama-filled. Small moments matter too.

Love it or Leave it

It’s the moment of truth. You have created THE ultimate character history, from his first steps to this exact moment. So, how much do you keep? What’s most important? I’m of the writerly persuasion who sometimes ends up with enough backstory to warrant a whole freaking prequel, but I don’t want to write a prequel, so instead I have to go panning for gold.

First look for the pieces you love most. If you’re not ecstatic about your work, then readers won’t be either. If the parts you love most are irrelevant, try to revise it in a way that includes the information your readers need. If all else fails, keep what you created and recycle it for another character, another story. We’re writers, after all. Artists and wordsmiths! There are always more stories to tell.

Question of the Week: What’s you’re favorite kind of backstory?

Happy Writing!

For more on backstory, check out this article by Writer’s Digest

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3 Ideas to Consider While Editing

3 Ideas to Consider While Editing.jpgHaving finished the first legitimate draft of my book, I’ve been spending a lot of time revising and editing. At times, editing can feel like a major drag, especially after pouring so much heart and soul into a piece. It isn’t always fun, but man, is it necessary. That being said, here are three things to keep in mind while editing.

There is No Perfect First Draft

Writers spend a lot of time crafting their stories and deserve to feel proud of their work. An author’s story is his mind-child. But, much like real parents, sometimes it’s easy to slip into a defensive mindset when it comes to critiquing said child. I’ve found myself in this situation more than once with my own stories. It’s important to remember that there is no perfect first draft. With a some edits, a piece can (and probably will) get better.

Consider a Cooling Period

It’s also tempting to plow straight through to edits once a draft is completed (another editing misstep I’ve been guilty of). Sometimes tackling edits right away can be useful, but I’ve found a lot of times I need a cooling off period where I can step away from my work until the initial buzz has worn off. That way it’s easier to be objective about what might need expansion or cutting. Objectivity is key.

Editing is an Opportunity 

Editing can hurt, especially when a writer realizes something they love dearly–a scene, a character, a phrase–just doesn’t fit. But editing doesn’t have to be the enemy. It’s an opportunity to make the work better. There is beauty in the art of subtraction. It’s peels back the outer layers of the story and forces the writer to confront the message she is trying to convey to the audience. It brings us closer to the very heart of the story, and that is what writing is all about.

Happy Writing!

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This Isn’t the End: Killing Characters with Purpose

RIP (1)Every reader has a fictional death they will never get over, from books to movies to television shows. If you have ever mourned a character who was close to your heart, whether it was because of his/her personality, skills, or hotness, I feel your pain. Let us have a moment of silence for our fallen.

And…moment is over, because, if current writing trends have proven anything, it’s that he/she probably isn’t so dead after all. Look at shows like Supernatural, Doctor Who, or Arrow. Characters are continuously killed off and then resurrected by popular demand. Because of this, fictional death has lost its punch.Why worry if the writer has a history of reviving his characters? (I’m looking at you Joss Whedon, you beautiful devil.) Why care about the character’s life if it isn’t finite?

I think the mainstream writing community, television or otherwise, needs to put weight back into the concept of death. If the audience knows there is a good chance a character might come back then, more likely than not, they won’t care if the character dies. After the initial two second shock the emotional tether is broken. Strange as it may seem, I would rather be heartbroken over a character’s death than apathetic about his existence.

So how can we as writers make death more meaningful?

The Wow Factor

It can be fun to kill off characters for the sheer purpose of shocking readers. But just because you can doesn’t mean you should. A character’s death should have purpose, whether it’s to advance the plot or motivate another’s actions. That’s what makes it meaningful. If a writer kills off a character simply for the “wow” factor, or because the character no longer has a purpose, it’s probably a good time to reflect–does that character belong in that story?

Don’t Hesitate

As many a warrior has said, “Kill, or be killed.” Reluctance to kill off a character because they are likable can create a significant stumbling block. If a writer knows his character is going to die, he should think it through, but shouldn’t hesitate because of personal preference. If the character is really that loved and still relevant to the story then it makes sense to keep him on. If not, a writer’s gotta do what a writer’s gotta do. Be strong, my friend.

We’re almost There

So your character is dead, and you know you’ve made the right decision for the good of the story. Now all that’s left is to fight the temptation to bring that sucker back to the land of the fictional living. The more a writer loves her character the more tempting it is to resurrect him, especially in genres like fantasy and sci-fi, which make it easier to do so. To be clear, reviving characters is NOT a bad thing. Becoming predictable is. It’s important for writers to think carefully before bringing a character back to life.

Well, here we are at the end of another post. I hope you find it helpful. Thank you for reading, and as always…

Happy Writing!

Question of the Week: Whose fictional death will YOU never get over? Comments welcome!

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Keeping Creative

Keeping Creative

Winter can bring what I’m sure even the most well-studied of medical professionals would refer to as “the blahs”. Here in Midwest, after the initial novelty of glittering white snow has come and gone, the blahs are there until spring. And a dreary environment can suck creative bones dry. So here are some tips to keep the inspiration coming, because we KNOW winter is.

Break Out the Library Card

It may seem obvious, but what a person reads can directly influence how and what she writes. So while you’re stuck inside this winter, pick up a few new books and dive in! Experiment with different genres, reread the tales that inspired you as a kid, or research that thing you’ve always been a little curious about but never seem to have time to Google. Bottom line: read! You’re bound to find new ideas or old ones worth refreshing.

Play!

Who needs an excuse to play? Board games, video games, make-believe with younger cousins. Have fun! Let loose. As long as it’s engaging and fun, something’s bound to come from it (even if those great memories don’t make it into your next bestseller).

Get Outta’ Here

Sometimes all it takes to coax creativity from the corners of your brain is a walk through the mall. Or a chilly stroll down the street. A trip to anywhere that isn’t your own house. While winter can limit our outdoor experiences, new surroundings, even indoors, can make a huge difference.

I hope you all enjoy the thrilling rush that comes from the start of a new winter season! But if you do find yourself suffering from the creative blahs, don’t worry. It happens to everyone. Fear not, they can be cured.

Happy Writing!

 

 

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