NaNoWriMo 5: Creating vibrant characters within a story

How do we create vibrant characters within a story?

A long description of a character, his/her antecedents, personality traits, skills, and relationships, does not in fact tell me anything about that character.  Such a description only tells me what is in the writer’s head about that character.  This can be valuable information for the writer to know, perhaps even crucial depending on the flow and needs of the story.

But the way I, as the reader, learn about character in the story is through action and reaction and interaction (all actions):  I learn about the character through seeing what they do and what they say and what they think and how they respond to the crises and relationships of the story.  Nothing else ultimately matters in terms of character.

So, if you tell me that my forthright heroine always speaks her mind and is decisive, and yet in her first interactions with the powerful alpha male hero she stammers, is wrong about things, is shy, and tongue-tied, then you have lost me, because I will start disbelieving what you are telling me because what the character is doing contradicts it.

In fact, you don’t need to tell me anything about my forthright heroine, not in personality terms.  There may be things you, the author, will want to tell me, but be cautious about doing so. Because it is very likely you won’t need to if you can use character action and interaction to get across those same things.

[Aside: That I am a big fan of the adage “Show, don’t Tell” that doesn’t mean there are never appropriate times to use Tell as one of the tools in your writing toolkit.  There are.  You just need to know when and why it works.]

When the forthright heroine speaks her mind despite knowing she will be taken to task for it, or the hardened warrior buys flowers he doesn’t need from an indigent child when no one is looking, or the publicly-admired prince slaps his servants in private because the water in in his bath isn’t the right temperature, or the hard-bitten foul-mouthed tough-as-nails detective cries (or doesn’t cry) when she is alone because her dog has just died, or the chance-met traveler on a winter night gives her cloak to a beggar, you then know far more about the character than if I reeled out a list of adjectives.

Additionally, when characters meet other characters they already know, their responses and interactions will be governed by that prior relationship.  The writer doesn’t have to tell us.  Because we are band animals, we most of us can quickly suss out relationships through watching interaction.  So if Jo enters the room and stiffly shakes hands with Emma while standing as far away from her as possible but warmly kisses Cecilia on either cheek, we can guess something–maybe we don’t quite yet know what–about her relationships with the other two women.

More importantly, consider this:  Humans like to figure out other humans.  We evolved to observe, interact, gossip, and create relationships.

Creating a relationship between the characters is not all a novelist does.  We as writers are also creating a relationship between the character and the reader.

So ask yourself:  Why does the reader need to know all this stuff you have in your head?

What do we truly know about people when we first meet them?  In that sense, every new person we meet is “shallow” until we get to know them better.

During the course of a story, we are getting to know characters better just as we get to know new acquaintances better by spending time with them.  We learn about them through conversation, activity, gossip, and observation.  They don’t hand us a sheet of paper listing important things about their life they think we need to know, not unless they are applying for a job and handing us their resume.  To a great extent the author-supplied info dump is a resume.  And resumes are almost always dead boring to read.

That doesn’t mean we don’t exchange information.  We do that all the time, through dialogue, action, reaction, and interaction.  The occasional judicious Tell can also be a good place to release information of this kind, but only the information we truly need to know that can’t be better revealed in another way.

Furthermore, never, ever, underestimate your readers.  Readers don’t need everything spoon fed to them.  Readers like to figure things out.  Readers (not all readers; not all books) read in part to interact with the characters.  We are social animals.  Let readers be social in their reading experience.  Because one of the relationships you are creating when you write is the relationship between the reader and your story.



[Disclaimer: I wrote this post some years ago and am reprising it due to election night interfering with my desire to write a new post.]

NaNoWriMo 4: The small detail that builds a big picture

In the first novel of the Crossroads Trilogy, Spirit Gate, I introduce Captain Anji who with his company of about two hundred soldiers is traveling toward the imperial frontier where war has broken out. He is on his way to take up an important command. Circumstances force him to journey entirely elsewhere, but for the purposes of this post let me discuss a salient detail.

Anji is called a “captain” because I did not want to make up words for ranks that the reader would have to learn. There was enough detail about this fantasy world that it seemed reasonable to me to go with basic terms like “captain,” “chief” (in its military usage), and so on. What I did know and needed to get across was that Anji is not only traveling to take up a major command more like that of a general but that he has significant status and rank in his own person regardless of his military rank.

As it happened my archaeologist spouse has since 2002 been employed under the umbrella of the Department of Defense working for the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (the “joint” in the title refers to a joint civilian/military unit). Because of this I have had a glimpse into the military that I might not otherwise have done.

While I was writing Spirit Gate I happened to be involved (at that time) in the unit’s Family Readiness Group, which is basically a support service network for the families of servicemen and women. During my time of FRG involvement, the general who was then commander of JPAC considered the FRG important enough that he made sure to be personally involved. Therefore I was able to observe him at a number of meetings.

I was much struck by a detail I would have never myself have thought to include (even though it is obvious once you stop to think about it): He had a young officer in attendance at all times. Obviously he had staff officers and a command structure, but this young man (who had the loveliest blue eyes, not that that is germane to anything) was in essence his “body man.”

Observing this I realized the presence of this “body man” was a telling detail that was missing from my depiction. I immediately gave Anji two “body men” (Sengel and Toughid) who are one or the other in attendance on him and on watch at all times.

There’s a lot you can know from this detail: Anji is an important enough man to warrant constant attendance, as well as needing a man at hand he can use to relay orders or run errands if need be, at any moment of the day or night. As well, Anji regards himself (with good reason, given his complicated history) as someone who needs to be guarded day and night. The presence of Sengel and Toughid, who rarely speak but who matter in the plot, also creates an expectation of constant military readiness, which can be seen as a good thing or as an ill thing, depending on your perspective — and it is exactly that perspective changing which matters in the larger thematic plot of the Crossroads Trilogy.

It is easy to fish up generic details as you write. I do it all the time, especially in first drafts when I may be paying less attention to the details than to the forward motion of the characters across the plot. At times not worrying about the details in the first draft may be the way to go; it can be easy to get bogged down and lose momentum. At other times it is crucial to slow down to seek out the specificity and even intimacy of those details within the setting that allow the deepest level of plot and theme to bubble up within their framework. Sometimes you cannot known the texture and look of such details without a serendipitous observation (such as the one described above). At other times it takes a concerted effort to research or experience an element pivotal to the setting or characters.

Whether in the first draft or in a later revising draft, I try to stop and think about what the details are telling me. I ask myself whether I am grabbing at facile answers rather than really digging for that small detail that by its existence unfolds a much bigger story.

NaNoWriMo 3: Finding the courage to write fiction

For Renay.
I started writing fiction seriously when I was fourteen. By “seriously” I mean with intent to create a finished story through characters and plot.
Let me clue you in here. The stories I wrote as a teenager were terrible.
Fortunately at the time I did not understand that so their terrible-ness never became an obstacle to my ability to write them. For me the stories were great because I could write what I wanted, stories that spoke to me, ones that emerged from the images and desires churning in my mind.If looked at from this other angle, those stories were excellent because they provided the apprentice work I needed to start learning the writing skills I could use later.
In those days, writing for myself and with a sort of blissful ignorance about the world beyond, I unthinkingly carried my courage with me. In some ways I envy that state of mind now.
These days writing and I struggle; we wrestle, to paraphrase Joseph Conrad. Doubts carve chasms at my feet; fear lofts as high as mountains; at times I can’t see the other side even though I know I have made the journey many times.
What kind of courage does it take to write fiction?
Some might answer: None, not if you are just writing a story for yourself, not if no one will ever see it except you.
But having the courage to write fiction is not just about the prospect of sending fiction out in the world to make its own way. It isn’t just about making ourselves vulnerable by asking others to read (and judge) what we have written. It isn’t just about daring to submit a manuscript for publication, however risky and scary that can seem both because you-the-writer might fail but also because you might succeed.
I like to think of any given person not as a single discrete and thus finite entity but as a multiplicity of ever-shifting selves. Because we can continually grow and change, we are never static, and thus we are in constant communication with our past selves, our current self and its versions adapted to the various niches and corners of our lives, and our anticipated future iterations who are themselves capable of branching into infinity.There is a lot of cross-talk in our heads. Wherever ideas come from (and I really don’t know), they arise out of and in conversation with the deepest levels of this chatter. These wellsprings contain some of the purest and clearest expressions of our inner selves, the waters we want to tap for our most expansive creativity.But that chatter can create a lot of fences, too, ones we keep slamming into when we thought we were promised open ground running all the way to the horizon.

I don’t actually know how to give me, or you, or anyone the courage to write fiction. I don’t fully understand courage; probably after years of wrestling I have a better grasp of fear and anxiety.

So here is what I did many months ago when I had fallen in a crevasse of painful and despair-encrusted doubt whose icy walls seemed to give me no purchase for climbing out:

I made rungs of my fears.

I wrote them all down. It took me a couple of tries because I was reluctant to admit to the ones that impeded me most, the ones that dug hardest and most cruelly at the core of my sense of worth and respect and confidence. Then I stuck them on a sticky-note underneath my keyboard.

I don’t mean to suggest that doing this exercise will automatically remove all doubts. For one thing, that didn’t happen for me and I expect it never will happen. For another, people work in such varied ways that no one tool suffices for all.

Finding the courage to write fiction sometimes means finding the courage to fully admit the staggering range of your doubts and fears, and to see them for what they are: an expression of a part of yourself so entangled with your ambition and creativity and drive that the two can never fully become extricated.

NaNoWriMo 2: Go forth

In Jewish synagogue practice, the Five Books of Moses are divided into portions, one for each week of the year. Each week the appropriate portion is read, and at the end of every year the entire Torah* will have been chanted aloud.

This week’s portion can be transliterated Lekh L’kha which is commonly translated as “Go!” or “Go forth!” God tells Abram (as he is called before he is given the name Abraham) to go forth, to leave the city of Haran where he has been living and to “betake yourself” (the literal meaning) to a new land.

In the Etz Hayim Commentary published by the Rabbinical Assembly of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, a note to this verse (Jewish commentary is filled with lots and lots and lots of notes) mentions a midrash (commentary) that interprets “go forth!” to mean “Go forth to find your authentic self, to learn who are you meant to be.” [Mei Ha-Shi-lo-ach]

Another Jewish synagogue practice is what we at our synagogue call the drash. Roughly equivalent to a sermon, this reflection on or interpretation of the week’s Torah portion is often given by the rabbi but can be delivered by any adult Jew. It need not mention God, but it can. It can be directly or only tangentially related to the events related in that week’s portion. Often a drash will develop out of the drasher’s interest in a single incident, phrase, or even a single word.

As our synagogue is lay-led (has neither rabbi nor cantor), our drashes are given by members of the congregation (or sometimes by visitors). Today a woman (JR) transitioning out of the Army into civilian life talked about the command to Go Forth. In the army, such a command would be followed by a long checklist of preparation, possible delay, more questions, inventory, missing equipment, and more considerations that I cannot now recall.

In the Torah, however, when Abram is told to go forth, he just goes without question or hesitation. There’s no mention in the text of any preparation, inventory, or delay. He hears, and he goes.

In a way it’s like stepping off a cliff sure of your wings.

I want to briefly step back and note that I use the Torah as a vehicle for this post not because I care if people believe or do not believe. That’s immaterial to me. In this context I use it as a tool to frame questions and discussions.

I don’t know where the inspiration to write comes from. I’m not sure anyone knows. Creativity exists as an essential element of the human condition.

What I do know is that people develop a lot of anxiety about creativity, and thus about writing. Can I write? Should I write? Do I have permission, and if so, from whom? Is what I write worth reading? Will anyone care? Will I ever be any good? Can I finish? Does it matter?

One of the benefits of an exercise like NaNoWriMo is that it cuts through the questions, for the moment although not for always because the questions are always with us.

Sometimes we just have to go forth without hesitation. We have to step off the cliff and write.




* Or one third of it, if the synagogue follows the triennial cycle, but let’s not confuse things.

NaNoWriMo 1: The Rules of Writing

NaNoWriMo has become a venerable tradition, almost a holiday of sorts collectively celebrated by writers around the world. Its rules are straightforward: Participants are challenged to write 50,000 words of a new novel in the month of November.

You can sign up “officially” at the NaNoWriMo site and thus participate alongside hundreds of thousands of other writers. You can participate unofficially, just trying to make word goal or with your own somewhat altered goals (you might be working on an already started novel, for example). Some people love the idea, others scorn it. My own view is that the month itself can be a catalyst for some people, and I see that as a plus.

In fact, it’s what I’m doing. July 2013 through October 2014 have been a blogging hiatus for me (despite my seemingly constant presence on Twitter!) due to personal family reasons. However with three releases currently scheduled for 2015 I need to ramp up my online presence and get back into the habit.

Why? I don’t know. Probably no good reason except as a change of pace from writing fiction and because it makes me feel as if I am doing something productive.

Honestly, writing fiction in the privacy of my home (or at the anonymity of Starbucks) passes in a cloud of invisibility until there is a book on the metaphorical table. There’s nothing wrong with that. In many ways it is to the benefit of writers to not be constantly taking the temperature of the outside world (see this beautiful essay by Tricia Sullivan on the writer as amphibious).

To those who prefer to avoid this more plugged in and connected world I would say, Excellent! Do what is right for you!

For me, I need to talk a bit right now.

So for the month of November I’ll be writing up short blogs about writing and narrative, inspired by a Twitter conversation I had some weeks ago with Mahvesh Murad and Sunil Patel about the most basic building blocks of story and how to go from idea to narrative.

That means TODAY I will start with my RULES OF WRITING.

We must always start with the RULES OF WRITING, correct? Murder your darlings. Write what you know. The first sentence is the most important sentence. And so on.

I don’t really like “rules” of writing so I would rather give you Four Observations I have found valuable.

1. You can do anything if you can make it work.

2. As for writing process: Figure out what works for you (and then what works for any given individual project, because not all projects will process the same way).

3. Write what is in you to write.

4. Be persistent.


I’ll give each of those “observations” a separate short discussion in future weeks.

Meanwhile, whether you are participating in NaNoWriMo or not, if you are writing and whatever it is you are writing: Good luck!