Building Characters

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Photo by Kelly Sikkema via Unsplash

Last week, I promised that I’d share with you the at-a-glance worksheet that I use to flesh out characters and here I am to make good on my word. Fully developing a multifaceted character takes time and words and probably several drafts of a work, but I find that this is a great jumping off point to get started on learning who your cast is.

Some of these prompts (“social media”) are relevant to my manuscript as it is based, more or less, in our world, but may not matter to yours. Feel free to add categories to you own like “faction loyalty” or “social caste.”

Fill in as much of the following as you can, but don’t worry; you don’t have to be permanently married to these answers. They can change as you write and explore your character. Keep in mind not only who they have been up until this point, but who they hope to be and what their goals are (and what’s standing in the way of them achieving those goals).

Name:

Age:

Sex:

Sexuality:

Gender:

Race:

Appearance:

Relationships:

Family: 

Career (current and past):

Health status (mental/physical, intro/extrovert):

Religion:

Politics:

Social media:

Class:

Powers/abilities:

Trauma (orphan, rape, abuse):

What do they want:

Hobbies:

Habits:

 


Looking for some insider knowledge on the dreaded query letter? Look no further!

Deidre Delpino Dykes, an author of speculative fiction, may actually be three birds in a trench coat. She is the co-organizer of the Columbia Writers critique group in Maryland and a passionate player and GM of tabletop role playing games. She is working on a novel-length manuscript and enjoys writing short and flash fiction, some of which has appeared in Wizards in Space vol. 1, Ghosts on Drugs, and Flash Fiction Magazine. Deidre tweets as @DeidreDykes and previously worked as a slush reader for Clarkesworld Magazine.

 

Who Wore it Better?

Cockatiel Banana


Looking for some insider knowledge on the dreaded query letter? Look no further!

Deidre Delpino Dykes, an author of speculative fiction, may actually be three birds in a trench coat. She is the co-organizer of the Columbia Writers critique group in Maryland and a passionate player and GM of tabletop role playing games. She is working on a novel-length manuscript and enjoys writing short and flash fiction, some of which has appeared in Wizards in Space vol. 1, Ghosts on Drugs, and Flash Fiction Magazine. Deidre tweets as @DeidreDykes and previously worked as a slush reader for Clarkesworld Magazine.

 

World Building: The Faction Game

World building is one of those big scary terms that either thrills writers to death (these folks create whole world bibles down to the smallest part of a tiny village’s economy) or it scares the pants off of them. Building a world from the ground up or even just populating one that already exists feels like a lot of labor that may never actually make it to the page. It’s hard to convince some writers to do things that don’t automatically equate to increasing their word count.

A few years ago, I attended a workshop at Capclave run by David Keener, author and tabletop RPG fan like myself, on creating a setting that is fluid and not static. While he writes speculative fiction as I do, these same methods can work in fiction based in our world like thrillers or even romance. What he did is inspire me to create a sort of checklist or worksheet to fill in a setting that adapts and changes as a story – or even a series – goes on.

What Not to Do

  • Design a setting that serves only one purpose (kill the emperor for an automatic happy ending, “The Terminator” time loop problem)
  • Add a major sci-fi/fantasy element without it impacting society as a whole
  • Create a society that is too neat and orderly (the real world is messy)
  • Ignore basic infrastructure (too many monsters can’t all live in one dungeon)

What Makes a Good Setting?

  • Complex enough to seem plausible/realistic, even if it is fantastical
  • Well-defined prerequisites for what it takes to function/for a person to be a member of society
  • Enough complexity to promote the possibility of conflict

Define Your Playing Field

Is your setting urban? Rural? Modern? Ancient? A fallen society? A sprawling forest with a magical creature dwelling at its heart? A series of mining colonies on asteroids? 

What are the Rules of Your World?

Does magic exist? What does it take to wield it? What sort of technology makes this society possible? What are the downsides to this technology? Who holds power in this world? What kind of government(s) exist?

What are the Factions in Existence?

Every society has different groups with power, or who are looking to amass more power, or who stand to lose what power they have. Who are these players and what do they want? How do they interact with one another? These don’t have to be groups, they can even be individuals in your characters’ lives. 

For each faction, fill out these prompts to flesh them out:

  • Attitudes
  • Goals
  • Strengths
  • Weaknesses
  • Day-to-Day Operations/Money
  • Key Players/Leaders

Filling in the World

Once you figure out who your major movers and shakers are in your world, it’s time to drill down into individual characters. I have a worksheet that I use to learn more about my own characters and I’ll share that with you next week.

For now, look at the big picture and paint your world with broad strokes.


Looking for some insider knowledge on the dreaded query letter? Look no further!

Deidre Delpino Dykes, an author of speculative fiction, may actually be three birds in a trench coat. She is the co-organizer of the Columbia Writers critique group in Maryland and a passionate player and GM of tabletop role playing games. She is working on a novel-length manuscript and enjoys writing short and flash fiction, some of which has appeared in Wizards in Space vol. 1, Ghosts on Drugs, and Flash Fiction Magazine. Deidre tweets as @DeidreDykes and previously worked as a slush reader for Clarkesworld Magazine.

 

Trim the Fat

How on earth do some writers end up with such clean, concise prose and powerful storytelling that’s paced well? Well if that isn’t a great mystery of the craft, I don’t know what is. I’ll tell you my trick, however, and if you’re a bit of a pantser or rambler, you’ll probably love this (though plotters like myself – or hybrid plotter/pansters – can absolutely make use of this, too).

I’ve told you before to turn off your inner editor when writing a first draft. I stand by that. When it comes to your first go, let those ideas run wild and don’t worry about word count (whether you fall short or go over) just yet. Get that shitty first draft out and on paper (Anne Lamott would be proud) and, I beg of you, don’t worry about reining it in just yet. For now, just write.

Trim the Fat Ian Keefe Unsplash

Courtesy of Ian Keefe via Unsplash

One of the best tricks I’ve ever learned is to write long and then edit short. That first draft is what Anne Lamott calls the “child draft,” which should give you some insight in what it should do. It can wander, it can lack focus, it can be illogical, it can just contain the really fun stuff while avoiding some of the more dull portions. All of this is perfectly fine in a first draft while you build your world and get to know your characters better.

Cut loose, I tell you. Just write.

I’ve got a messy first draft and it’s way too long. Now what?

First of all, congratulations on completing a first draft! That’s no mean feat. But it turns out you’ve created a monster that you now must tame. I’ve got a few ideas.

  • Use KM Weiland’s Basics of Structural Timing  from her book Structuring Your Novel to find where your story beats should fall. Perform a word count on your entire document. Compare that to your word count goal (base this on industry standards for your genre). Now, do a little math and figure out where your Hook, Inciting Event, Key Event, First Plot Point, etc should fall, percentage-wise, in your goal draft. Now, figure out where these things happen in your first draft and edit (trim or expand or cut scenes) to come as close to these points as possible.
  • One quick and dirty trick is to cut down on adjectives (words that can qualify or modify a noun – big, orange, round, high) and adverbs (words that can qualify or modify a verb or adjective – quickly, quietly, quite, very). Note I said “cut down on” and not “cut out entirely.” Use them judiciously as overusing them will dilute them and strip them of their power. Example: “She ran quickly up the stairs” vs “She bolted/sprinted/hurled herself up the stairs, taking them two at a time.” Note that the second example does have more words, but it also conjures up a powerful mental image of the action. It’s another iteration of Show and not Tell.
  • You’ve heard it before and I’m telling you again because it works: Don’t be afraid to Kill Your Darlings. Does this mean literally killing characters? Well, yes, sometimes, depending on your genre. More often, though, it’s about finding what’s not working – even if it’s a scene you just love – and sacrificing it for the greater good of the piece. I wrote a short story this spring that opened with a five person fight that beta readers and I really enjoyed, which I had labored over for hours, but as I got through subsequent drafts, I realized it didn’t suit the tone of the piece and it was eating up words that didn’t need to be there. Farewell, carefully choreographed violence! I hardly knew ye.

Cut, but don’t trash

Another quick tip about this kind of savage editing? Don’t just delete things, never to be seen again. Save scenes, dialogue, characters, ideas that didn’t make it, and keep them in a document somewhere. You never know when you might be able to upcycle them for a later project.

…but still cut

I know it’s terrifying in a deep and soul-shaking way, but don’t be afraid to cut things. Yes, you poured your heart into the argument between the protagonist and her love interest, but ultimately it didn’t serve any purpose to do with character or plot. Sure, you wrote out a bible for how a distant fantasy kingdom farms and trades and punishes criminals, but maybe that setting doesn’t really fit with the story anymore. Of course chopping off chunks of your own work is going to hurt, but it’s far better than keeping everything in and having an out-of-control and unbalanced narrative. Get those scissors out and get to snipping.


Looking for some insider knowledge on the dreaded query letter? Look no further!

Deidre Delpino Dykes, an author of speculative fiction, may actually be three birds in a trench coat. She is the co-organizer of the Columbia Writers critique group in Maryland and a passionate player and GM of tabletop role playing games. She is working on a novel-length manuscript and enjoys writing short and flash fiction, some of which has appeared in Wizards in Space vol. 1, Ghosts on Drugs, and Flash Fiction Magazine. Deidre tweets as @DeidreDykes and previously worked as a slush reader for Clarkesworld Magazine.

 

How Not to Meet Your Writing Goals

Think about New Year’s resolutions. No, I’m not asking you to make one, but just think about how many you have made and then seen through in the long term. Do we really go to the gym three times a week every week for a whole year? Do we really stick to that diet? Do we actually lose twenty pounds by bathing suit season? Most people I know (myself included) don’t meet their own lofty goals. This is true of writing as well.

Pen and Ink Aaron Burden Unsplash

Photo by Aaron Burden via Unsplash

Last summer, I ran a program with Columbia Writers called Novel in Six, in which small cohorts of writers worked to hold one another accountable for writing an entire novel in six months.  The overwhelming majority of the participants did not reach this goal. A scant handful of writers did (I was among a pair of re-writers, and I did manage to reach my goal, but I wasn’t producing all that many new words. I was revising and honing what was already there, adding and subtracting scenes) and some barely got out of the outlining phase of the program. The same goes for NaNoWriMo (the goal is to write a 50,000+ word novel in one month). Are these big goals worthy and admirable? Absolutely. But can most of us achieve them if we’re not writing full time? A lot of writers will always fall short because life gets in the way.

Human brains are wired to prefer routine over novelty, meaning getting into a new habit and sticking with it can be exceptionally hard. There are a few tricks to wrangling your brain into reaching your goals.

Build a New Habit

Our brains hold onto goals and habits differently. There is a region called the orbitofrontal cortex, which is responsible for converting wishful hopes and goals into steadfast habits. It uses the neural messengers known as endocannabinoids. The best way to take advantage of the endocannabinoids is to be annoyingly consistent. Set aside time to work toward your goal every single day. Maybe even set aside the same time frame daily to do this work. The more regular the routine that you engage in, the more likely it is to become an automatic habit.

Make Dopamine Work For You

Dopamine is the feel good neurotransmitter which is released when we get something that we want. There’s a shortcut to get your brain to produce dopamine and that is by setting tiny goals and then achieving them. Doing an hour of cardio or jogging three miles might be a bit hard to do several times a week, but taking a ten minute walk after dinner is far more feasible – and you get the added bonus of feeling like you accomplished something you set out to do. Use this as a springboard to work toward larger goals, perhaps ten minute walks for a week, then fifteen the next week, and twenty the following.

Try taking a larger goal and breaking it down into bite-sized pieces in order to scaffold up to something bigger. A few weeks ago, I gave you a piece of advice to make you a better writer. I stand by my twenty minutes a day policy; spend ten minutes reading and ten minutes writing every single day.

How to Swing and Miss

It’s easy to want to set a huge writing goal, there’s a good chance that you’re not going to hit it. The bigger and more unrealistic, the less likely it is to occur. Failing to meet these goals breeds disappointment and a lot of negative thinking. It could even put someone off of writing altogether. It’s crucial to use your brain to your advantage to set reasonable goals and then to put in the work to meet them.


Looking for some insider knowledge on the dreaded query letter? Look no further!

Deidre Delpino Dykes, an author of speculative fiction, may actually be three birds in a trench coat. She is the co-organizer of the Columbia Writers critique group in Maryland and a passionate player and GM of tabletop role playing games. She is working on a novel-length manuscript and enjoys writing short and flash fiction, some of which has appeared in Wizards in Space vol. 1, Ghosts on Drugs, and Flash Fiction Magazine. Deidre tweets as @DeidreDykes and previously worked as a slush reader for Clarkesworld Magazine.

Overcome Your Writing Paralysis

Overcome Your Writing Paralysis

We all know the story: You sit down at your computer screen to write (an article, a novel, a poem, a blog post, etc) and your mind goes blank. This could be for many reasons; you feel you’ve run out of ideas, you’re worried what you’re writing is going to be garbage, or maybe you don’t feel divinely inspired by the topic you’re addressing. You’re frozen in place. You’re stuck. You have writer’s block. You can’t bring yourself to make progress.

I have a cure for writing paralysis, but you’re probably not going to like it.

Step 1: Get Away From Your Screen

We all have the vast potential to be idea machines, pumping out content if only our brains would behave. But our brains aren’t the best at this while we are at rest or sitting in front of a blank page in a word processor. Neuroscientists tell us that there are three things that get us to a flow of creative ideas: increased dopamine levels, distraction, and being in a relaxed state.

Brains are most likely to yield good stuff when they’re happy. That means dopamine is being released, much like it would be when we’re exercising, having sex, listening to music, or taking a shower. Neurologist Alice Faherty argues that some people are built to be more creative than others because of the way our brains are wired. So remember: A happy brain makes for a happy writer.

Freeing up the subconscious from its usual tasks of problem-solving and keeping us from walking into walls gives it the opportunity to dig deep and find the creative seeds it’s been burying all day. Something as simple as getting into the shower after a day at the office can trigger a big change in the way our brains work. With this “incubation period” for ideas in full swing, tiny idea seeds can start to take root in the conscious mind.

When our brains are rocking out on alpha waves (when the brain is, or is in a state close to sleeping) we get a chance to focus internally instead of on the world around us. It’s not just sleep that can bring on this state of deep relaxation – soothing, familiar, repetitive tasks help us achieve this sort of mental quiet. With the phone off and the responsibilities of the day finally out of reach, we are able to better cultivate the creative ideas that have been trying to grow just below the surface.

The keys to helping those creative juices flow are doing something that makes us feel good (dopamine), being distracted from the everyday (distraction/incubation), and being relaxed while doing something familiar or nothing at all (alpha waves). Find ways to farm your brain for ideas at times other than when you’re sitting down at your computer. Take verbal notes into your phone’s voice memo app while driving or jogging, get a waterproof white board for ideas while you’re in the shower, keep a note pad on your bedside table, do something repetitive with your hands like knitting or drying dishes to let your brain run wild and then be ready to jot down what springs to mind.*

Step 2: Lower Your Expectations

This is the best jumping off point I can offer for getting past the trial of writing paralysis. I have, in the past, tortured myself by insisting that whatever I am writing must be perfect right out of the gate. This is such poison for creative flow! Here’s a reality check: Not every idea is going to spring forth, fully formed and armored, from your head a la Athena.

Remember Anne Lamott’s essay Shitty First Drafts? Read it. Take it to heart. Don’t aim for perfection on the page with your first attempt. Not holding yourself to an unrealistically high bar will aid in creativity; just focus on getting words on the page. Don’t edit while writing. Turn your editor brain off while you’re trying to generate original content up front.

Remember: Not every thing has to be perfect. It doesn’t necessarily even have to be good. It just needs to be.

Step 3: Just Write

This is the one that no one likes to hear, but I find that the solution to what is called “writer’s block” is simply push through the wall and surge forward into pumping out words. Remember, the words don’t have to be the next great American novel. They just have to exist. Once they’re out there on the page, you can come back and cull your content, only salvaging what is good and polishing it until it shines.

Use tiny goals to keep moving forward. Maybe that’s writing for just ten minutes a day. Ten minutes is better than nothing. Ten minutes a day is what I do every single day without fail. Even now, I’m on vacation and I’m taking some time to work on my manuscript and to put several articles in the hopper for the next few weeks. It’s a completely plausible goal to write for ten minutes a day (more is great if you can manage it, but you don’t have to) and because the bar is so low, you’re more likely to reach it and feel encouraged by your success rather than feel guilty because you set a lofty word count goal and didn’t hit it.

So get out there! Harvest ideas and get them on the page and then edit them until they sing. Your brain can be your ally if you only give it the best conditions in which to thrive.


Looking for some insider knowledge on the dreaded query letter? Look no further!

Deidre Delpino Dykes, an author of speculative fiction, may actually be three birds in a trench coat. She is the co-organizer of the Columbia Writers critique group in Maryland and a passionate player and GM of tabletop role playing games. She is working on a novel-length manuscript and enjoys writing short and flash fiction, some of which has appeared in Wizards in Space vol. 1, Ghosts on Drugs, and Flash Fiction Magazine. Deidre tweets as @DeidreDykes and previously worked as a slush reader for Clarkesworld Magazine.

*Articles Read, Referenced, and Otherwise Enjoyed for this Piece:

http://lifehacker.com/5987858/the-science-behind-creative-ideas

http://blog.bufferapp.com/why-we-have-our-best-ideas-in-the-shower-the-science-of-creativity

http://www.finerminds.com/mind-power/brain-waves/