As we prepare to launch Insomnia Publishing’s newest release, First Favor (the third Sam Archer book), I am kind of reflecting some on the things I’ve learned about editing, publishing, and writing over the last few years. While I’ve been a bit quiet on the blog front, I’ve been very busy on the life front. And on my career. This is likely to venture into the personal, so you are going to learn a bit about who I am and what my life is in this blog. It’s not really about writing advice, but maybe you’ll learn something? I don’t know.
Over the last couple years, I’ve been re-thinking my approach to editing, writing, and publishing. I’ve been giving deep thought to what I want, what I need, and what direction I want to take. Both with my company (the aforementioned Insomnia Publishing) and with my editing. I’ve spent a couple years studying editing and really giving deep thought into what services I provide, what my price points ought to be, and whether or not I am over- or under-charging. What kind of editing I do, and how I want to approach things in the future.
I also started writing the first book I’m publishing. I started Fallen in the middle of last year and finished the last draft of it earlier this year. I signed a contract with my own company (I have an in with the acquisitions editor) and have my novel in editing. Seeing the editing process from the other side with another editor has given me some insight into the “user” end of the experience. Though I will say my editor is a delight and very easy to work with. We are old friends, so there’s no sting or distrust there.
I also am switching software for my typesetting. Given the outrageous costs of Adobe, I was still using CS3 to work on my book covers and typesetting. It still works, of course, but I run the perpetual risk of losing the software and my ability to do the work if I lose the key and install disks since it’s no longer supported, and Adobe really doesn’t like the fact that I’m still using it and not paying the astronomical fees to update. Or paying monthly for access to their software. Which, frankly, is just abhorrent to me. I am, maybe, old fashioned in the sense that I prefer to buy my software and not rent it.
In doing that switch, I am re-visiting how I do my cover art and typesetting (I’m now using Affinity’s suite). While I’ve read reviews that it’s not as good as Adobe is, I can say with certainty that it’s a far cry from using CS3 (a software suite from around 2005), so anything it doesn’t match up to with Adobe certainly outstrips what I had. This has changed my work flow and made me faster and given me more versatility with my covers. It makes things easier to design the way I see in my head, too, which makes all the difference. For example, I had to re-typeset First Favor Sunday night into Monday after realizing that the file had un-typeset itself. A page had been deleted somewhere, and the manuscript was a disaster as a result.
While I was working on it I figured out some ways to make my life faster, make things more efficient. I’m always adding things to my process and learning new things while I work. Which, honestly, is one of the things I like best about this line of work. There’s always a way to refine what I’m doing, smooth things out, discover new details of the programs I use. It’s a never-ending process, and I love learning more in order to be better at my chosen vocation. I could list these little shortcuts, but I expect most of you would have your eyes cross if I discussed it. Typesetting is a highly technical field mixed with wizardry and a love of fonts. I am, in fact, a horrible font nerd at this point in my life, and I could probably spend a solid half-hour babbling about fonts, readability, and qualities you’re looking for in one if prompted. Or, if you’re unlucky enough to meet me at a cocktail party, unprompted.
In addition to that, I’ve been working on better ebook formatting and trying to learn how to embed fonts to let me use chapter headers and dropcaps. For example, in First Favor, I use a dropcap on each chapter in the same font as the chapter headers and the title page (and the cover). It’s “Chapbook” in case you were wondering. (I am sure you weren’t.)
Lessons in editing are a different kettle of fish than typesetting and cover design, of course.
Over the last few months I’ve done some book coaching for some lovely clients, both of whom need different things. I’m not going to get into their requirements because that’s personal, but it’s given me a different perspective on what I do. Walking someone through the process of writing their book and encouraging (and holding accountable) my authors is very rewarding. I love seeing them blossom and develop and meet goals. I’ve not done writing coaching in a formal way before, but I’ve been working with authors in my Discord group regularly. It’s not as detailed or as intensive as coaching, but I pop in, give lectures almsot every week, encourage folks, and we have a lovely community going.
Beyond that, I’ve been spending a lot of time in several groups for editors, talking amongst each other and discussing everything from comma placement and hyphenation to regional dialect. It’s a fantastic and fascinating thing to see and learn from. Some of these folks are veterans of over fifty years. Yet others are brand new to the profession and are drinking in the opinions and views of others. Also, different disciplines have such different perspectives. These things I’m always adapting into my own editing and learning.
Then we come to my writing.
I’m at a point where I’ve got an editor working on my book. This is my first time working on a novel with an editor, and I am finding the experience instructive and interesting. Also having finished a novel and working on my cover for real, preparing the typesetting, thinking about marketing… I think it’s going to teach me a lot about that part of the business. While I haven’t been on the author side of things before, I have been on the publisher side enough for long enough to make a good go of it, I think. I also have some phenomenal authors I am close with who are brilliant at it, and who I am going to be whining to as I learn to do this myself for the first time.
What this will teach me, beyond the satisfaction of publishing my own books (which has been a lifelong dream), this will make me a better editor and better publisher. And I am all for it. I look forward to this. I mean, also, I’m publishing a book, so the child in me who started writing as soon as they were old enough to hold a pencil is squealing and dancing. No, really. Child me did ballet.
If there’s an actual takeaway from this ramble, it’s that no matter how long you’ve been working in the field, there’s always something to learn, and exploring other angles of the same industry can provide a lot of insight into how to approach things. I’m not saying authors need to be editors. In fact, I think that (unless you have training) it’s a terrible idea. However, studying the thing from multiple angles can give you a whole new appreciation for the industry you’re in. I love learning, and every new milestone just tells me just how much further I have to go.
By the way, to plug the aforementioned novel my company is releasing, I’m really excited to introduce you to the third book in the Sam Archer series. Written by my good friend, Dr. Joseph Weinberg, this is the best book in the series yet. If you haven’t read them, you’re really missing out. The series is like a crossover between The Dresden Files and Constantine, insomuch as Sam is a man with no powers facing down a world of things so much bigger than he is. His voice is fantastic, the stories are wonderful, and I am kind of biased, but he has great cover art. (Spoiler alert: I did his cover art.)
First Favor comes out June 15th, 2021 and is available for pre-order from Amazon. If you haven’t read the first two books in the series, you can find Pipe and Pestle also on Amazon for $3.99 for the ebook.
If you enjoyed this blog post and want to give me a thumbs up, feel free to visit my ko-fi and leave me a tip! A few tips is a tank of gas, a cup of coffee, or a cheeseburger.
I’ve touched on the subject of POV (Point Of View) a few times in the blog here, if you check my backlog. Notably, I brougth it up in context of a discussion on head hopping a little while ago, but I realized I’ve not apparently discussed it at length, and that should change since it’s a thing I’ve noticed is a common and significant struggle for a lot of writers who are just starting out.
In school, we are taught about “person” in terms of language. I, you, he/she/them–first, second, third.
In school, we are taught about “person” in terms of language. I, you, he/she/them–first, second, third. Right? Okay. With that refresher out of the way, let’s take a look at the way these are related to POV. The first thing is, there are (more or less) four types of POV in writing and they mostly coincide with person. You have first person POV, second person POV (used rarely and almost exclusively in chose-your-own-adventure-style stories), third person limited POV, and third person omniscient POV. The last two are the stickiest, so we’ll address them after we handle the first two.
First person is simple enough. It’s written in (as the name implies) first person. The Dresden Files books are like this. As are To Kill A Mockingbird and Moby Dick. It’s written from the deep and exclusive perspective of the POV character. Typically there is only one POV character in books like this, though there might be two. With it being first person, you aren’t using the characters’ names to differentiate between who is what and where, so it can be more confusing to have multiple POV characters. I’m not telling you you’re not allowed to do it, but definitely have caution.
Writing in first person is pretty easy. It’s all from the “I” perspective, and you don’t really run into the temptation to switch POVs because the narrative style just doesn’t have room for that.
Writing in first person is pretty easy. It’s all from the “I” perspective, and you don’t really run into the temptation to switch POVs because the narrative style just doesn’t have room for that. So, for that reason, it can be simpler than the thirds. Though it does require a deep degree of knowledge and intimacy with your character(s), so make sure you’re prepared for that when you get into it.
I like writing in first person because it gives me a deep degree of intimacy with my characters, and it lets me create that intimacy in the reader. Of course, emotional journeys and such are a big part of my writing, so getting as up-close and personal as possible with my characters lets me do that.
Second person is, as stated above, used with rarity. Typically it is used in short literary stories, erotica, or choose-your-own-adventure style novels. I don’t advise its use in novel format because it’s also very “telling” and kind of puts the reader into the shoes of the character in a different way. It would be difficult to use effectively for a long work. I’ve never heard of it being done, anyway, and I don’t think it would be effective.
Now into the difficult ones that folks struggle with.
Third Person Limited
This POV is starting to get stickier. Third peron limited (TPL) is much like first person, except you are using different pronouns. With TPL, thoughts are typically written in italics when they’re written like dialogue. (Gee, Edwin thought, this POV stuff is complicated.) If POV is a camera through whose lens we see the world, TPL is perched on top of the POV character’s head (where first person is through their eyes exactly). With third person limited, we know ONLY what the POV character knows and nothing else. At all. Ever.
If POV is a camera through whose lens we see the world, third person limited is perched on top of the POV character’s head.
This is the POV from which the vast majority of modern novels are written. You may have multiple POV characters (whose POV must be separated by a scene or chapter break), but you are in one character’s head at a time, and you cannot know things outside what they see, know, or experience. This means you cannot write a scene between two characters and tell the reader what they’re both thinking. That habit is called head-hopping, and I refer to it in another blog. It’s confusing for readers and likely to cause literary whiplash. While it happens in certain genres (romance most notably), it’s not a good practice to get into.
If you need to be in multiple characters’ heads at once, then that brings us to the last type of POV.
Third Person Omniscient
While it has fallen out of favor in many circles, third person omnisicent (TPO) was a very common POV some time ago (mostly Victorian and a little after). If the camera is perched on top of the POV character’s head in TPL, in TPO it is hovering above the world like watching a battle shot in Lord of the Rings. You can see the bad guys hiding in ambush around the corner if the camera pans that way. You can see all the main characters at once. You’re not really deep in any of them, but you know what they’re thinking.
This style of writing still has a place in the world, and it’s how a number of book series that are widely-beloved are written. The Lord of the Rings books were written in TPO, as was the Harry Potter series (as much as I try to avoid that as an example these days, it’s widly-known and a good example of this POV). You aren’t following any one character too closely, and the story is often about a small group whose thoughts and actions you are always aware of. Ultimately, it’s kind of about narrative distance. With the camera analogy, you’re further away in this POV than you are in TPL.
Third person omniscient tends to have more “tell” than show in some ways. I’m not saying it’s bad by any stretch, but it is different.
Now, there are a couple flavors of TPO which further confuses things. There’s the kind where you have an external narrator, as in A Series of Unfortunate Events, where the story is being told as though in an oral tradition by a person who interjects their thoughts, opinions, and views into the narrative. Then you have it where there’s just a great deal of narrative distance. Ultimately, TPO tends to have more “tell” than show in some ways. I’m not saying it’s bad by any stretch, but it is different. If you want your story to be more arm’s length to your characters then it may be a good POV for you.
Can You Mix POVs?
This is where things can get messy. The short answer is…sort of. I’ve read books where there are break-in chapters written as journal entries by the antagnist. Those entries were quite effective, and they really set those bits of the story apart from the others by doing this. However, that’s about the only way I can think that changing POVs from third to first and back would be a good idea.
The place it gets awfully difficult is between TPL and TPO. A lot of writers drift between the two at random without really settling, and that’s an issue. If you write mostly in TPL and have a chapter or scene in TPO it can work, but note the thing here: you must have some kind of break between POV characters and POV styles. Mixing them without that break is a huge no-no. It’ll give readers whiplash, and it’ll damage your narrative. If you need to have a character guess at another character’s thoughts while in TPL, you can have them observe body language or use what they know of the character. Heck, they might even be wrong.
If you need to have a character guess at another character’s thoughts while in third person limited, you can have them observe body language or use what they know of the character.
What’s The Best POV For My Book?
This isn’t a question I can answer without knowing more about your story. Short of mixing POVs badly, there’s no real right or wrong answer here (except maybe second person) for most applications. A lot of that is up to your personal taste as a writer. Some genres tend to be more one style of POV than another, but there’s no one-size-fits-all category here, so choose which one you like the best and have at it.
The key here, however, is to be consistent. Outside of changing scenes or chapters (with a break in between, to be clear) you should choose a POV and stick with it. A lot of new writers find the idea of not telling the reader what’s going on in everyone’s head at once daunting, but you don’t need to in order to tell your story. Trust me. We humans walk around all day without a psychic link telling us what everyone is thinking at all times (and thank God for that). If you want to write in TPO, that’s okay. But make sure you do it with intentionality. The narrative distance from your characters and your story will have an impact on the way the story is told. And it will change your story some.
Some genres tend to be more one style of POV than another, but there’s no one-size-fits-all category here, so choose which one you like the best and have at it.
While there’s no wrong answer in general, your story may be better served by a specific kind of POV over another. Romance, for example, is typically told in TPL or first because we want to get deep and intimate with the characters. A spy novel that is more focused on the big-picture politics might be best told in TPO (I’m thinking Fist of God-style novels). While you certainly could tell those stories in other ways and with other POVs, they will have an imact on the way these stories come out. So it’s worth really considering before you start writing.
Of course, you can always go back later and try rewriting it in another POV style if you don’t like what you wrote the first time, but you will probably figure out whether a narrative style is working for you pretty early on, so chances of you deciding to rewrite it from the ground up is relatively slim. I say relatively because I have several friends and clients who have done it because they weren’t satisfied with a project after finishing. It happens sometimes, but it’s not something you’ll deal with constantly.
Ultimately, POV is a complex choice, but it’s not usually a difficult one. Most writers know roughly what they want to write in before they start writing, and a lot of that comes on instinct. Just make sure that when you are writing in a POV you do so with intentionality and don’t just jump around POVs because you aren’t sure what to do. That’s when things get dicey. As with many things in writing, your choice of POVs is a decision. It’s not just something you do based on vague ideas on gut instinct. While you might follow your gut instinct on what POV you want to use (and I won’t tell you not to), you should study it enough that you can evaluate why you’re having that gut feeling. And it sometimes takes work. Be mindful you’re not slipping from POV to POV.
As an editor, helping writers sort out their POV is something I’ve had to do a lot of. And since it can require such high-level work (as in all-encompassing and a lot of rewrites) it behoves you to understand it and save yourself the time and cost of having a professional cull it out for you. Having someone like me fix those problems can be expensive. While I absolutely am equipped to do it, and if you want to pay me to fix it I will, it can tack on hundreds of extra dollars to a job in billable time, so learning how POV works can save you a lot of trouble.
Don’t get me wrong–if you’re still struggling to understand it and have questions and want help, let me know. That’s what I’m here for. I want to help you. I’m not going to talk down to you for not understanding it. Not at all. But learning it before you hire someone and fixing it on your own if you can is definitely going to save you money and headaches in the long run!
Also, no judgement if you’re one of my authors who’s wrestled with it. I got’chu, friend. It’s okay. We don’t wake up one day as writing experts, and it’s my job to help you as best I can. Plus, I love doing it. (And I love you. You folks are the best. <3)
Piggybacking off of last week’s post, we’re going to start studying antagonists this week. I cannot count the number of times I’ve run into authors struggling with their antagonist, and so often we wind up with two-dimensional bad guys for our main characters to struggle against. The reality is that you should design your antagonists to be exactly as robust as your main characters using the principles we looked at last week: flaws, strengths, and desires. These ideas work a little differently for the antagonists than they do protagonists, however, so let’s dig into that a little and see what the differences are.
The reality is that you should design your antagonists to be exactly as robust as your main characters using the principles we looked at last week: flaws, strengths, and desires.
First off, let’s throw out there that not every antagonist needs to be evil. They aren’t all mustache-twirling Snidely Whiplashes. Certainly some can be, but not everyone who stands against your characters needs to be “evil.” In fact, some stories are better off without Snidely Whiplash. I write this recognizing that some stories have antagonists that aren’t even people—they may be the environment or animals or even the main character themselves. However, for the purposes of this blog, I want to focus on antagonists who possess at least humanoid traits, even if they aren’t human. I can certainly talk another week about the way you might use other forces to work against your characters, but this week I prefer to zero in.
So, if we’re treating these antagonists as full characters in their own right, start by developing them as though they were the protagonist of your book. What I mean is: shift the perspective of your story to be from their point of view. This technique will get you into their head in a new and different way and provide you avenues to both work against the main characters and provide you some insight into places where the story may fall apart.
So, if our antagonists are their own characters—with all the depth and density that implies—how do we use them to our best advantage, and how do they differ from the protagonists?
As far as antagonists go, there are a few different types of antagonist:
Nature or External
I nod to the fact that nature or other forces (a disease, a hurricane, a landslide, etc.) belong in that list, but again, we aren’t covering those today.
The villain is a straight-up evil character. This being Emperor Palpatine or Sauron. While they should be treated with the depth of any other character, they often aren’t. Most of the time in media their actual motivations are hidden (and I’m not talking about digging deep into the lore here; I know both characters had motivations revealed in other sources). But readers might never know their motivations—a villain is typically just a person or entity (like an army or faction) who is portrayed as evil for whatever reason, and that’s just it. They usually aren’t sympathetic (more on that later), either.
This kind of antagonist is often used for epics or high fantasy (or sci-fi) settings where the villain and their actions are felt by the main characters, but they rarely come onto the scene directly. These are your evil overlord characters, typically (or the spiders in the shadows influencing leaders). They aren’t on screen often, and typically don’t show up early on in the story. In fact, by the time they step on the scene directly (if they ever do), the main characters are typically a good ways into their quest to stop them. These villains often appear to have absolutely no limits on what they will do to achieve their goals.
Characters who exemplify this are: Sauron (LotR), Palpatine (Star Wars), Firelord Ozai (AtlA), Horde Prime (She-Ra), Grigori Rasputin (Hellboy)
These characters are working for someone else. They may be of varying strengths and danger, but they aren’t the mastermind of the story. They’re worth mentioning, however, since they’re definitely antagonists who will come into play. These henchpeople may be any of the other types, but their key defining feature is that they are not in charge. They are following someone else’s orders, and the fact that they are not autonomous changes how they’re viewed to some degree, but they’re still antagonists in their own right.
Generally speaking in media, these characters are not viewed as their own faction, though there can be entire books surrounding them. Depending on their role in the story, they may have more or less depth or screen time. And there’s always the chance that you set one one as the main antagonist of a book only to reveal they have a boss in the end to foreshadow further story.
Notable henchpeople include: Saruman (LotR), Darth Vader (Star Wars), Hendricks (Dresden Files), Kroenen (Hellboy), Lock, Stock, and Barrel (Nightmare Before Christmas), Soundwave (Transformers)
Sympathetic antagonists are enemies like Thanos. Their motivations can be broadly understood, and they may even have a fair amount of time on screen. Think Wilson Fisk from the Netflix Daredevil series. In the first season, he’s set up to be someone who will be ruthless in pursuit of his goals, but you can get in his head. He even falls in love—and it’s real love, not feigned. You kind of want to root for him a little, and when he goes down, it hurts.
That isn’t to say these characters aren’t “bad guys.” But to quote the fantastic movie Wreck-It Ralph, “You are badguy, but does not mean you are bad guy.” These characters are typically still of seriously questionable morals, but they often aren’t the same flavor of evil as the villain character. Heck, a sympathetic antagonist might even join the main characters as a protagonist at some point in the novel. These characters usually have more depth than a “villain” whose real job is to just direct challenges toward the main characters, and they definitely spend more time front and center.
Other characters who exemplify this role are: Zuko (AtLA), Catra (She-Ra), Gentleman John Marcone (Dresden Files), Wilson Fisk (Daredevil), General Hummel (The Rock)
These characters aren’t inherently bad in any way. In fact, they may be great people and even friendly to the protagonist. However, they are definitely getting between the protagonist and their goals. This might be a rival love interest or a character who merely has goals that clash with the main characters’. However, these characters aren’t going to fit the mustache-twirling trope either. In fact, they’re individuals the readers might well root for.
This kind of antagonist may well be someone who gets revealed to be an ally at the end, or maybe they decide to shift lanes and join the main characters’ quest in later iterations.
Examples of this kind of antagonist are: Captain Hector Barbossa (PotC), Jacob (Twilight), Amenidiel (Lucifer), Moash (Way of Kings [recommended by a friend])
Now, all of these various flavors of antagonist can be used in any book, so there’s no divvying them up amongst genres. They’re all useful and all valid. And they can all fit many types of story. And, as I said at the beginning, these characters should be as fleshed as necessary. If you’re using a villain, you may not need to tell the reader all the details, but you as the writer should know.
Another thing that will set your antagonists apart is that they should be willing to go further to succeed at their goals than the protagonists.
Another thing that will set your antagonists apart is that they should be willing to go further to succeed at their goals than the protagonists. That isn’t to say your protagonists should be wilting flowers, but to give an example of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, you have Tony Stark versus Thanos. They both see the end of life as they know it and want to take actions to mitigate the damage. However, Thanos is willing to take the steps beyond what Tony Stark is—which is what makes him the “bad guy.”
This willingness to go further than the protagonist is in order to get what they want (stab someone for a Klondike Bar) is one of the things that defines them. Arguably so, evil is willing to go to further extremes than good in order to ensure their victory. While good may take extraordinary steps, those decisions are often destructive for the characters (think about Aang trying to decide to kill Firelord Ozai, for example).
Even the conflicting goals antagonist should take it a step further. That step too far is the crux of the matter. Barbossa kidnapped Elizabeth Swann where the other main characters aren’t willing to engage in quite such dramatic behavior. With the possible exception of Captain Jack Sparrow, but he’s. . .his own thing entirely. Amenidiel is constantly willing to take steps Lucifer isn’t in order to accomplish his ends. He is a good guy, but he makes some questionable choices in the face of trying to do the right thing—which is what sets him apart from Lucifer in the show.
Ultimately, creating a good antagonist is about making a good character whose goals are conflicting with the main character, whether those goals are evil, good, or otherwise. They need to be complete characters, which means we are able to follow their logic, their intents, and their plans. Even if they’re ultimately overthrown in the end.
I see it all the time on Twitter or in writing groups: people struggling with two-dimensional characters with no idea how to flesh them out. Or, conversely, people try to tell the reader literally everything about the character in an attempt to make them feel three-dimensional. That’s not how you do it. Creating a realistic character doesn’t mean you need to know their blood type, childhood nicknames, and the name of every romantic partner they’ve ever had (unless it’s relevent to the story). Creating a realistic character means they have to act like a human being–which means they’ll have flaws, strengths, and desires.
Creating a realistic character means they have to act like a human being–which means they’ll have flaws, strengths, and desires.
One thing many authors struggle with is accepting that their main character should be flawed. If the main character is perfect in every way, they will inherently come across as two-dimensional because (and let’s be frank here) everyone’s a bit of a mess. These flaws are what make characters come alive off the page. As a friend of mine commented on Facebook recently, your characters can also make stupid decisions, but they should be stupid choices based on who they are. Their fears, insecurities, things they’re ignorant of. The mistakes shouldn’t just be for plot reasons. Like Sherlock missing an important clue he should’ve seen, and the readers saw clear as day, because the story needed him to miss it with no explanation. If Sherlock missed something because he’d been hitting the opium and was high as a kite, then that makes sense. It builds toward his (very flawed) character, and while the reader might want to shake him for missing it. . .it makes sense for him.
These flaws don’t have to be crippling, but they should be more than things like minor nervous habits. Your characters might have prejudices. Or maybe they’re too proud to acknowledge that they are, in fact, not good at certain things. Or they’re too insecure to step up to certain challenges the right ways or can be goaded. These flaws can be capitalized on by enemies or by the author in order to put pressure on the character in certain ways in order to get them into the plot.
These flaws also provide the character a way to grow and develop over the course of the book and/or series. Let’s use Iron Man from the Avengers MCU movies. He starts his journey as a shallow, selfish, willfully ignorant jerk. And by Endgame, he’s become a very different character. He’s still Tony Stark and has all the panache and some of the same flaws, but he’s developed from a “genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist” into a genius, billionaire, leader, philanthropist. He battles PTSD heavily through the series and develops into someone worthy of Pepper Potts’ affection as he grapples with the realities of war and the burden of heroism. He’s not “perfect” at the end, but you can see the ways his journeys have changed him and how he’s pushed past some of his early flaws (and developed new ones) to become an individual worthy of the title of “hero.”
These flaws also provide the character a way to grow and develop over the course of the book and/or series.
So, we know what your character isn’t good at and what they’re afraid of. Those character flaws are key to creating someone realistic. But what about their strengths? Well, they can’t be good at everything, so these strengths should be focused around a few things. Going back to the example of Tony Stark, his strengths are largely his determination and his scientific genius. Unlike some of the other characters, he isn’t a particularly warm character, nor is he as calculating as, say, Black Widow. But he can think around corners and use his understanding of science to solve a lot of problems. Or at least try to solve them. This, of course, coupled with his hubris also causes major problems for the Avengers (Age of Ultron, anyone?), which allows those strengths to be used against the character for purposes of growth.
However, before we get into the way strengths can be used against the character, we also need to note that these strengths should be things the character uses to push the story forward and benefit them more than they do harm. If the character’s strengths are useless to the story or are not used in any way except to be punished, it’s going to make readers wonder why you bother having them at all. So you’ll want to make sure you aren’t just using them as foils for more failure.
Your character’s strengths should also make sense. Though be aware that not everything that’s real is believable, and not everything that’s believable is real. If I were writing my character in a novel, I probably wouldn’t make myself a pretty serious martial artist who has a genetic disorder that means I can dislocate a knee making the bed. No joke, it’s all true. There are a lot of folks who would read that sentence and do a double take and think that character’s totally unrealistic, but here we are. I have won awards for my historical European fencing, and taught Japanese sword arts for years. I’ve also been studying empty hand styles of martial arts on and off since I was four.
Be aware that not everything that’s real is believable, and not everything that’s believable is real.
And yes, I did dislocate my knee making the bed. I also dislocated my shoulder putting my violin in its stand. It’s a never-ending source of consternation and frustration.
These strengths–assuming they’re for a major character–should be pertinent to the plot. If your character is an expert at folding origami, but that never gets mentioned in the story or used once in any way, what’s the point? If you mention it as characterization to show aspects of the character, but it doesn’t impact the plot, that’s all right. But at least some of your character’s strengths should benefit them through the story somehow, even if it’s not in the ways readers expect.
Also, subverting expectations that the character’s strengths will always benefit them is a good thing, also. Tony Stark’s brilliance and over-reliance on technology created Ultron, and ultimately this same brilliance that allows him to see all the angles cripples him when he is trying to deal with the visions Scarlet Witch gave him because he doesn’t know how to think his way out of the problem.
Character strengths can always be turned on their head and can be used to lead characters down the wrong paths just as easily as they can guide them down the right ones. As people, we tend to rely on our strengths to navigate life, and if we encounter a situation where our strengths aren’t helpful we might well try to use them anyway and bungle it or break down because we have no idea what to do. Character strengths are absolutely not exclusively positive traits.
For example, personally, I tend to be very cerebral. I think my way through things and analyze them to death. This has not served me well during times when I instead should be allowing my feelings to come out and accepting them. I dislike leading with my emotions because they are often very messy and terribly complicated. And I don’t like messy or illogical (and feelings and logic are often on very different wavelengths). So I can identify with Tony trying to think his way out of all his problems and being led astray by over-reliance on his intelligence to solve everything when, in fact, if he led with his heart a little more he might find solutions.
It also left him quite lonely since his tendency to not think about the emotional end of things makes him quite a prickly and unlikable person. I’m lucky enough that I’m not cerebral to his extreme by any sense (nor am I some kind of super genius), but it just goes to show the downside of strengths can absolutely be something used to fuel your story.
As the brilliant Kurt Vonnegut famously said, “Every character should want something, even if it’s only a glass of water.” They might want multiple things, or maybe the thing they want is fleeting and temporary (like the glass of water). But your character should have a goal and a need. This goes for side-characters, too, and anyone on the proverbial screen long enough to get mentioned directly. These wants tie into developing a realistic character. Having desires (and those desires being logical and realistic) means the character will likely act in service to those wants.
“Every character should want something, even if it’s only a glass of water.”
You should also keep in your mind what your characters want at all times. This understanding of what they want and what they’re willing to do to accomplish that will provide you a great deal of fodder for understanding their mindset. If your character would stab someone for a Klondike Bar, well then you know what they’re willing to do in order to accomplish their ends. This will give you insight into not only your main character but into your antagonists, who should also be fully-fleshed characters. Even if the reader never learns about them.
A large portion of the MCU focuses around the fact that Tony Start wants to protect humanity. Desperately. Fiercely. He goes to some terrible ends to accomplish it, causing the crash and burn of the Avengers (in Civil War and Age of Ultron), but his desire, his want, is to protect people. And there’s nothing wrong with that, but what he’s willing to do to accomplish that end provides a great deal of plot fodder.
Conversely, Thanos wants to protect all life in the universe as well. While his understanding, views, and means are twisted, his ultimate want is to protect the future of life by preserving resources. And he’s willing to go further than Tony is to accomplish that. Tony and Thanos are, in a way, reflections of each other, which is one of the reasons the story is so compelling and why the two make such good foils for one another on screen.
In the end, developing a realistic character is all about understanding human nature. There are, of course, nuances to various cultures, races, times, and so on, but humans gonna human, more or less. We all have the three components of strength, weakness, and desire, and those are the quick and dirty keys to making a realistic character.
In the end, developing a realistic character is all about understanding human nature.
Does it help to have as much data about the character as possible? Yes and no. If you’re drowning in superfluous nonsense, you’re not going to be able to pull out the important parts, and all the data points in the world won’t help you if you don’t know what the character wants or is afraid of in that moment. Knowing the basis of why your character has these traits is valuable (for example, I tend to be kind of flighty and unfocused due to ADHD), but it won’t make or break a character to not have every single aspect of their life outside the story mapped out.
BY THE WAY!
Did you know I have a Patreon? My patrons have monthly access to editing advice, coaching and, now, podcast-style readings of my weekly blog. For just five dollars a month, you can receive my blog as a podcast instead. At this point, that is going to be exclusive to my patrons with the exception of making the podcast-style reading available at no cost to anyone who is visually impaired.
As a disabled person, myself, I believe strongly that accessibility should not cost extra, so if you would find that audio helpful to you, please contact me, and we will make arrangements.
Since we’ve been talking about the structure of individual novels this month, and I mentioned the way act three of a book can tie into writing a series, it’s time I look at what it means to write a series and how we can use the three act structure and the Beat Sheet. In order to do this, I’m going to be drawing examples from Avatar: the Last Airbender (AtLA) because, frankly, it’s a masterpiece of storytelling. If you haven’t seen the series, you may still be able to follow my analysis and can use the Wikipedia summary of the events of the episodes to help you follow it.
Now, when you are writing a series, you’ll have each book’s plot and then you’ll have the overarcing plot, also called the “metaplot” as previously referenced. In series like Nancy Drew and Murder She Wrote, there isn’t a metaplot, and each book is a stand-alone tied to the others only by the occasional reference and the same main characters. I’m not writing this for that kind of book series, so if you’re not using a metaplot (and you aren’t required to), this blog isn’t for you.
Now, when you are writing a series, you’ll have each book’s plot and then you’ll have the overarcing plot, also called the “metaplot” as previously referenced.
As I said two weeks ago in my second act blog, the second act is typically half the story, which means that the third season of Avatar: the Last isn’t actually the third act of the story. In fact, act two continues well into the third season of the show, as we’ll discuss in the next segment.
Much the same as each book, you’ll have the three act structure and, personally, I use the Beat Sheet for planning out my meta plot as well because the beats work in roughly the same way, though you may have multiple books in a single beat of the story (just as you may have multiple episodes of a television show in a single beat of the metaplot). However, this is one of the reasons the trilogy format is so effective. Three acts, three books/movies/video games etc. It makes the whole thing somewhat easier in terms of structuring the meta (even if this is done unintentionally by the author) and tends to make sense to the reader.
While I acknowledge the existence of the five act structure and other act structures, I tend to default to the three act model because it’s what I know best and what I use personally. However, none of these models are “wrong” exactly. They just break down the story in different ways even if they are more or less all saying the same things.
So, on to Avatar the Last Airbender! Let’s do a “quick” zoom through the episodes that fit the beats in the story and where they are. There are twenty episodes in the first season of AtLA with some episodes covering multiple beats in the meta plot, and each episode itself more or less following the Beat Sheet. If you haven’t seen AtLA, I apologize that this may be a poor analogy for you, but it’s a series I know very well and is extremely popular. Besides, I’ve been using nothing but Star Wars and Dresden Files examples for awhile now, so it’s time to shake it up. Also, spoilers, I guess? Though the show’s been out long enough that “spoiling” it is unlikely.
Right now, I’m focusing only on the way the Beat Sheet covers all of season one. The next blog will cover how all three seasons fit into the Beat Sheet since each season has its own metaplot that ties into the overall story of Aang defeating Fire Lord Ozai. That’s right, this series has meta nested within meta, and we’re going there. It’s okay–it’s not as scary as it sounds, I promise.
Opening Image: Katara and Sokka are introduced as Water Tribe (after the opening intro that gives us a status of the world and an introduction to Fire Nation aggression). [Ep 1: The Boy in the Iceburg]
Set Up: Katara and Sokka find Aang frozen in an iceburg and wake him up, discovering that he is the long-lost Avatar. They wrestle with this and bring him back to their village where Katara and Aang adventure onto a Fire Nation ship, alerting the Fire Nation to someone being active there and drawing the attention of Zuko, who is introduced as the villain. [Ep 1: The Boy in the Iceburg]
Theme Stated: After alerting the Fire Nation to Aang’s presence, Zuko and the Fire Nation attack, causing Aang to be kicked out of the Southern Water Tribe village. Katara and Sokka join him, refusing to let him go alone. They then start the journey to the Northern Water Tribe to learn Waterbending. [Ep 2: The Avatar Returns] The theme of this season is more or less Aang learning about the changes in the world since he was trapped in the ice a hundred years ago. It also introduces the theme of the entire series which is Aang’s avoidance of his destiny as the Avatar and desire to just be the twelve-year-old kid he is.
Catalyst: Aang, on the way to the Northern Water Tribe decides to detour to visit his home in the Southern Air temple. Though he discovers it has been ravaged by war, and that his mentor, Monk Gyatso, was slain by Fire Nation forces. [Ep 3: The Southern Air Temple]
Debate: This realization causes him to start taking his role as Avatar seriously as he realizes that running from his responsibility the way he has caused a huge amount of strife in the world and, personally, for him. In this episode, we also see the introduction of Zuko’s story and what his motivations are. [Ep 3: The Southern Air Temple]
Break Into Two: Now we hit the main meat of the story as we start with the main characters spending their time on their journey learning from other people. Aang has decided he is going to be the Avatar and will not stand for further Fire Nation attacks, so begins to treat this with more seriousness. Sort of. He still acts like a child, but that’s because he is one. Aang meets the Kyoshi Warriors and basks a little in the hero’s reception he receives on Kyoshi Island. Sokka and Katara get some development through here, too. Namely Sokka discovering that “fighting like a girl” is far more badass than he’d given it credit for. [Ep 4: The Warriors of Kyoshi]
B Story: In addition, this is where we start to see Aang trying very, very hard to impress Katara. His interest in her and their relationship developing becomes a strong theme of the story, so we have the first blossoms of romantic interest appearing on screen here. [Ep 4: The Warriors of Kyoshi]
The Promise of the Premise: The next two episodes fall into this space. (See? More than one in a beat!) We have episode five, The King of Omashu where the team meets with Aang’s highly eccentric friend, King Bumi, who he asks to teach him Earthbending. Bumi refuses, but not before a bunch of hijinks designed to make Aang rethink what he believes and knows about the world and himself.
Then episode six, Imprisoned drives more toward the development of the kids as revolutionaries as the kids break an entire town’s worth of earthbenders out of a jail by inspiring hope in them. Interestingly, Aang only plays a secondary role in this episode, and Katara takes center stage as the inspirational character. She more or less takes this role through the series as the steady, certain leader of the group even though she isn’t the “main character” of the series. However, this strongly establishes her role in the story and in the main character pool.
Midpoint: Now, remember when I said in my blog about the second act that the midpoint is the height of tension? Here we are at it. The midpoint of this season hits with a two-part episode (which is one of the ways you can tell it’s the midpoint). During this two-parter [Ep 7, The Spirit World (Winter Solstice, Part 1) and Ep 8, Avatar Roku (Winter Solstice, Pt 2)] we learn more about the Avatar’s ability to commune with spirits and see him interact with the spirit of Avatar Roku who reveals to Aang that they need to go to a specific location at a specific time to get information about the overall story. In the second part of Winter Solstice, they arrive at their destination and gain the information they need, learning that the Fire Nation plans to use the power of a comet’s coming to fuel their final assault in the war they’ve been waging against the entirety of the world. This now puts the characters on a timeline they weren’t on before, and they start to feel the pressure, realizing they need Aang to master three styles of bending (which typically takes years of training) and stop the Fire Nation’s plans in a matter of a few short months. This is the peak of tension for the characters when they realize what’s at stake and how little time they have to pull off the impossible.
You also may notice that out of twenty episodes, the midpoint isn’t exactly in the middle of the story, but it’s pretty close (two episodes away). As from our talk about the second act, this is common. It doesn’t need to be bang on the center of the word count (or episode count) in this case, but it does need to be in the center of the tension.
Bad Guys Close In: Over the course of the next several episodes, the main characters start to feel the squeeze, and it takes a toll on their friendship. Infighting becomes more common until it reaches a peak in episode 11, The Great Divide. Through this, Zuko gets closer and closer, and they can feel his breath down their necks as they try to navigate their own responses to this tension with Katara stealing a waterbending scroll [Ep 9, The Water Bending Scroll], which ignites jealousy in her over Aang’s ability to learn bending at an unheard of rate (hanks to him being the Avatar, of course). Then she and Aang get taken in by a group of rebels of questionable morality which pits she and Aang against Sokka who doesn’t trust them for a minute [Ep 10, Jet].
This leaves Aang sort of in the middle without anyone, which is displayed with clarity through his experience trying to guide two warring tribes of Earth Kingdom people through a canyon where their fighting causes major problems. Aang, at this point, feels extremely alone, and this is displayed by his being separated from both groups through the whole experience and trying to manage both by being rejected by everyone. It is a reflection of his role as the Avatar and his desire for peace between Sokka and Katara who, after the events of Jet, are busy fighting each other and not the actual enemy. [Ep 11, The Great Divide]
All Is Lost: While there is a break in episode 14, the tension continues to mount through this segment of episodes. Through this part of the show, Aang wrestles with the enormity of what he has to do and is somewhat crushed by it. This kind of reaches a peak when a literal and metaphorical storm cause Aang to relive the moment when he chose to abandon being the Avatar [Ep 12, The Storm], and he has to confront the fact that his choices and abdication of responsibility contributed to everything that has happened in the world. Also, his continued conflict and desire to bridge the gap and find some way to heal the situation before taking the step of direct and open conflict is violently rebuffed despite hints of the possiblity of peace. [Ep 13: The Blue Spirit]
There’s a break in this bleak sort of outlook for an episode where Aang and the others save a village from destruction by a volcano (caused by their own unwillingness to see the signs and reliance on fortune telling), but it comes to a head shortly thereafter. [Ep 14: The Fortuneteller]
Dark Night of the Soul: There is a telling moment when the main group splits up for an episode due to Aang’s fears of abandonment overcoming good judgement, and he chooses to hide a message from Katara and Sokka’s father that he is both alive and misses them. [Ep 14: Bato of the Water Tribe]. While they don’t stay apart for more than half an episode here, this moment is very telling and is probably the bleakest point in the first season. The sense of loss is potent, and Aang struggles to face the repercussions of his actions even as they close in on the end of the time period alotted before the arrival of the comet. Also, at this point, Aang has still mastered none of the three other forms of bending he fears he will need before the comet’s arrival.
This is given a little bit of a breather when Aang begins training under a firebending master who starts him down the path, but Aang’s own impatience and fear drives him to try too much, too quickly, and he seriously injures Katara. While Katara discovers the ability to heal herself very shortly thereafter, this realization of this own distructive capacity hurts Aang to the core of his peaceful, airbender soul, and he eschews ever working with fire again. [Ep 16, The Deserter]
Aang’s negative, selfish, and angry attitude continues into the next episode where he is confronted by a group of refugees living in one of the Air Nomad temples. They have transformed it and the man in charge of this group is (even unwillingly) designing weaponry for the Fire Nation to wage war. Sokka’s ability with both tactics and inventing is unveiled here as he comes into his own in this episode and helps the leader of the group drive off the Fire Nation soldiers who have been threatening him. However, this does give them a brief taste of the way the mechanist’s inventions are being used in the form of steampunk-style air balloons that can drop payloads on targets. [Ep 17: The Northern Air Temple]
Break Into Three: The arrival of the kids at the Northern Water Tribe’s fortress heralds the closing of this season (since it completes the journey begun in episode two). Aang finally starts full instruction of waterbending under a master and fights to have Katara allowed to study as well, since the Northern Water Tribe is a distinctly patriarchal society. Something Katara chafes at since she comes from a very different background and resents not being allowed to use her waterbending for anything but support.
While this training is underway, Sokka meets Princess Yue, the ruler’s daughter, and falls hard for her though soon learns she is engaged (against her wishes) and is left with those feelings as the comet’s due date closes in.
Finale: Again indicated by a two-part episode, the finale of the season comes when the Fire Nation launches its attack on the Northern Water Tribe using the power of Sozin’s Comet. Aang and his compatriots fight back against this menace. During this conflict, it’s revealed the Uncle Iroh (admittedly my favorite character of the series), Zuko’s mentor and travel companion, is not as loyal to the Fire Nation as might be imagined by others. He, in fact, is willing to stand up against them in order to try and protect the balance of the world since unlike many of the others in the Fire Nation, he has a deep understanding of spiritual affairs and knows that the balance being destroyed by this conflict is something that cannot be restored.
Zuko fails to fight and win against Aang, despite his best efforts, and he flees in disgrace, and the Fire Nation assault on the Northern Water Tribe fails despite heavy losses on both sides.
Final Image: In contrast to the opening of Katara and Sokka being nothing more than average kids surviving in their world and Aang avoiding his responsibilities, we see Aang having faced the Fire Nation with a great deal of power and focus. He’s successfully defended an entire city and thwarted the attempt, giving hints of what kind of feats he will be capable of as a fully realized Avatar. Which is what he becomes at the end of the series. So in terms of the meta structure of the whole series, this is the end of Act One with Aang having faced the question of whether or not he’s really going to do this, and dealt with his world having been rocked to its core.
Let’s pause and chew on that for a second.
If you’ve stuck with me this long, I applaud you. This has been a haul. But this is a breakdown of a whole season and the meta of the season. Each individual episode also follows the Beat Sheet separately, and I could do this kind of analysis on every single episode of the show. The reason I did it is because this shows how each episode fits into the Beat Sheet individually. If you consider each episode to be a single book in your series, it demonstrates how you can use each story to fit into the broader structure of your metaplot while still having each book (episode) use the three act structure independently. Every episode of the show has a problem that has to be solved and deals with patterns of rising and falling action, and at the end of the episode, the world is a little different, and the characters have learned something new or grown somehow. Then each of those episodes fits into the broader scheme of the story in the manner I demonstrated above.
It also demonstrates how much of an Avatar: the Last Airbender nerd I am. So now you know that about me.
Next week we’re going to take this even further and evaluate how each season (I’m not doing this level of breakdown on the other two seasons, don’t worry) fits into the story of the entire show. Meta on meta. Plus more Avatar goodness.
Hey, it’s me, your friendly neighborhood editor resurrected from the dead. My hope is to make this blog a monthly thing. We’ll see if I can make that happen how I intend, but let’s give it a shot at least. I know I’ve said that about a million times, but maybe this time it’ll stick.
We can only hope.
So, to dig into this, let’s start with discussing the important parts of POV.
First, the POV character is the one who informs the reader. Everything filters through them, their biases, their experiences, and their knowledge. That means we only know what they do. Now, you can have multiple POV characters in a book separated by scene breaks or chapters, but you should only have onePOV at a time (if you change on the fly in the middle of a scene, that’s called “head hopping” which we’ll get into later).
Choosing your POV character is important–it informs your whole story. Can you imaginee reading the Dresden Files books from the perspective of Michael? Actually, some of you can, if you’ve read Jim Butcher’s numerous short stories from the other POVs. It’s a very different feel than from Harry’s experience.
The POV character is, typically, the main character of your book. If your book is about multiple main characters, it may end up with multiple POVs at different times, but don’t get crazy with this. Readers who jump from character to character to character don’t form a relationship with most any of them, so getting them to care about your character and their journey will be more difficult.
While there’s no hard and fast rule, you should probably not have more than three or four primary POV characters. If you throw in a chapter or scene written by an incedental NPC here and there, that’s all right, but don’t overdo it. Think of it like salt. If you add some salt, it can really enhance a dish. Some people like more or less of it, but if you just dump all of it in, it will become inedible in its entirety.
Whether you’re writing from first person or third person, you shouldn’t write about things your POV character doesn’t know. For example, if she doesn’t know the person across from her plans to kill her, you shouldn’t tell the reader that. What you can do is have your character put pieces together, notice things like body language, tone, things like that. Neurotypical (people who are not, for example, on the autism spectrum) people are capable of reading facial expressions and body language to put together someone’s emotional state most of the time. If your POV character isn’t neurotypical, then you, as a writer, need to account for that in your handling of such things.
Let’s write a sample scene to show you what I mean:
Mary slouched in the diner booth, staring at Bobby. He’d been quiet today, and he was thinking of breaking up with her. He frowned at his pancakes and sighed. “I think we should see other people.”
The words hit Mary like a fist, and her jaw dropped. “What? It was going so well!”
“Yeah, well. I just think I’d be better off with Joan.” Bobby really liked Joan, and whenever he thought of her, he smiled. Like he was now.
Mary felt like someone had kicked her in the belly. “Oh.”
You can see, immediately, that I’ve jumped between POVs here (Mary’s and Bobby’s). The first paragraph starts implying it’s in Mary’s POV, but we have the revelation that Bobby was thinking of breaking up with her. Which also has the effect of robbing the last line of the paragraph of any power, since we know it’s coming.
The second paragraph is squarely in Mary’s POV, describing how she feels the impact of the breakup.
In paragraph three, it goes back into Bobby’s POV, since Mary (we can assume) is not in Bobby’s head and doesn’t know exactly what he’s thinking or feeling.
Then, paragraph four returns to Mary’s point of view.
This small scene is indicative of head hopping. There are authors who get away with this. A dear friend of mine recently mentioned she was reading an Ann Coulter book where this happens, and it’s somewhat common in the Romance genre. This head hopping robs the reader of any mystery of what’s happening right here, and you don’t really know which character you’re in deep POV with.
In this case, it’s not particularly confusing, but if you added more characters, it could end up a catastrophe. Fast.
So, how do we fix this poor scene? Well, first, we choose a character to write from. I’m going to go with Mary. Then, let’s rewrite it focusing on what Mary can see, feel, taste, touch, and so on. What she knows.
Mary slouched in the diner booth, staring at Bobby. He’d been quiet today, and she wasn’t sure why. He frowned at his pancakes and sighed. “I think we should see other people.”
The words hit Mary like a fist, and her jaw dropped. “What? It was going so well!”
“Yeah, well. I just think I’d be better off with Joan.” A small smile curled the corner of his mouth when he said Joan’s name.
Mary felt like someone had kicked her in the belly. “Oh.”
Now it’s written from exclusively Mary’s point of view. It describes a little of what she can see regarding Billy’s feelings (paragraph three), but it doesn’t give the reader any knowledge they wouldn’t have already. This means the reader doesn’t have warning that he’s going to break up with her immediately, so when it happens, the reader experiences it along with Mary, rather than trying to do it splitscreen.
Let’s try it from Bobby’s POV:
Bobby felt the weight of Mary’s eyes on him from across the diner table. He’d spent the day trying to figure out how to say what came out next, but it was best that he just say it. He sighed. “I think we should see other people.”
Mary’s jaw dropped, and she let out a huff of air. “What? It was going so well!”
“Yeah, well. I just think I’d be better off with Joan.” Bobby really liked Joan, and whenever he thought of her, he smiled a little.
Her lower lip quivered a little, and Mary looked at the table. “Oh.”
Now we can see what’s going on in Bobby’s head, and Mary’s reaction is described through what he can see (her quivering lip, her sigh). This is still written solidly from Bobby’s POV, but it doesn’t mean the reader ignores the impact on Mary.
Finally, a note on Omniscient POV:
Omniscient POV isn’t accounted for in this article because it is both pretty uncommon these days and it is quite different than the limited POV varieties (first, third). Omniscient writing requires different things, but it, too, does not head hop. It is written with less intimacy to the individual characters, but what it sacrifices in depth, it makes up for in perspective.
Omniscient POV is very much its own thing. If you have read books like “Lord of the Rings” by JRR Tolkein or “Rocket’s Red Glare” by my dear friend Cy Stein, you’ll notice that you aren’t deep into any individual character’s head but instead see everything more or less all the time.
This blog has run pretty long already, and I’ve covered POV before on this blog, so I think I’ll just summarize by saying: head hopping bad. Don’t do it.
This is likely to be cross-posted on my brand new blog about roleplay (both tabletop and freeform). If you’re interested in the subject of tabletop gaming or freeform roleplay, please consider subscribing!
So, I’ve talked a lot about characters and their development on here, but I wanted to address something that is important to a character whether you’re writing them into a novel or playing them around the table during a game of Dungeons and Dragons: flaws. Too many times people try and make perfect characters, and those characters always fall short.
Real people aren’t perfect. We have bumps and warts and bad hair days. But when I’m talking flaws, I also mean more substantial than, “too pretty/handsome for their own good!” They should have real flaws. Flaws being things that challenge them, that make them grow. Things like anxiety, depression, PTSD, a terrible temper, or maybe they’re judgmental. Things that aren’t so pretty and may not be a great deal of fun to be around.
Let me give you an example taken straight from one of my works. My in-progress science fiction novel currently titled “Vigil” is about a character who starts the story as a coward. He’s hiding from what he can do and hiding from everyone in the world. He’s not particularly attractive, he’s not the smartest guy in the room, and by midway in the book he has PTSD. He’s not perfect, and he knows it. That said, he grows and changes and develops over the course of the story.
The fact that he starts the story imperfect makes him a little shake-worthy by some readers. Which is exactly what I wanted. He’s an IT guy who gets thrown into something way bigger than him and is scared of it. For good reason, too. Those things are terrifying!
So, when you design a character, edge away from perfection or perfection disguised as a flaw. Mary Sue characters are never fun for people to read about because what development can there be for someone who is already perfect?
I’m broaching a controversial and sticky subject in this blog, and I want you to stick with me. This post isn’t going to be political because my opinions aren’t something I want to breach on this blog. However, it will touch the subject, and I know this is a difficult subject for us to discuss in the world.
So why am I writing about this? Well, every few weeks I see someone posting a question about whether or not writers (as a whole) have a responsibility to write about “x” or “y” socio-political subject. These discussions are valid and include a lot of useful and important conversation regarding said subjects. Like I said, the specifics aren’t something I’m here to blog about. But the concept of social responsibility of writers comes up over and over again, and it’s something I think is important to address.
What kind of responsibility do writers have? Well, we all know that writers can change the world. They can bring to light tough issues that are under-represented or change perspectives on other ones. Writers have power, and it’s only right we should consider how we use that power to inform the world of our moral views. But should we be required to do so? I think the resounding answer on that is: no.
If writing about a specific subject, or incorporating specific elements into your story is in your heart then go forward with it and change the world. Fight for your beliefs. Sway hearts. Use the power of your word to speak on issues that are important to you, and make your voice heard. But if you “just want to tell a story”, that’s okay, too. I put that in quotes because there’s no such thing as “just telling a story” to some extent.
Good stories in every genre connect to parts of us and parts of the human condition. I know I sound like a snooty literary teacher, but those connections are what make them so powerful and why we crave them. Romance, adventure, coming of age, fear, excitement, loss… all of these themes can (and many are) present in many different works and genres of writing. My novels so far have largely displayed the theme of coming to terms with something in yourself that you have previously avoided. I make characters go through hell to face their inner demons. It’s an inner journey that I have taken, myself, so it’s natural that would be reflected in my writing.
All that said, I don’t think writers should be “required” or “forced” to incorporate any particular elements in their work. I encourage people to use the power of their words to reach out to others, but the best way to encourage change is to be the change you want to see. If you want to see more (or less) of a certain story element in writing then reflect that in your writing. You can encourage people to confront certain issues and discuss them in their work. Those conversations, as I said previously, can be valuable. But required? That’s going into bad places.
Outside of the fact that it treads on our individual artistic expression, forcing or shaming someone into including certain story elements means those story elements will not be represented in the strongest or best way possible. “A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still,” as the old adage goes. They might provide lip service to whatever it is they’re being pressured into, but it won’t spring from a place of authenticity. Without authenticity, writing means nothing. It’s just words on paper.
Authenticity is a vital part of writing. I don’t mean the accuracy that comes with research. I mean the author’s emotional investment. If you aren’t feeling what you’re writing (overall, not that moment where you’re writing because you have to power through the mid-manuscript blues) then it’s not worth writing. It’s not worth publishing. It’s not worth reading. Requiring people to do things without authenticity will result in worthless work that is more of an insult and liability than it is an asset.
In the end, yes—writers are responsible for telling the world stories that matter. Stories that move people. Stories that reach them. However, every writer needs to write for themselves. They need to speak on what makes them lie awake at night. Those are the stories that will shake the world.
One of the things new authors I know stumble on the most is writing tight prose. They often feel they need to make readers see things exactly as they are in their head, and this leads to overwriting. In their quest to make readers see what they see, they describe every little detail at length to try and create the “perfect image” in their readers’ heads.
This is a mistake.
Think about when you read a book written by a master. Their descriptions tend to be short but evocative. They don’t hang on all the details, either. They give you what you need in order to see the events, and then they move on. My favorite example of this comes from Neil Gaiman’s “American Gods” where he describes a character as being “the size and shape of a refrigerator”. Those few words create an immediate picture in the mind. While that picture doesn’t have things like eye color, hair color, and clothing, it tells you everything you need to know about the character at that moment. Gaiman doesn’t waste words.
New writers (and even more experienced ones) need to remember that readers will picture things how they picture them. That’s half the fun of reading a book: picturing it in your head. How many times have you seen a movie made from a book and scoffed, “That’s not how it was in the book at all!” Well, that’s partially because Hollywood makes changes, but partially because we create grand and sweeping ideas of what things look like. The only way for a reader to do that is if the writer leaves them breathing room. Don’t try and force them to see exactly what you see unless it is important to the story.
Another problem with this habit is that readers tend to skip long descriptions. If you spend half a page describing the exact color and texture of your character’s hair chances are readers are going to see the first few words and skip the rest. You know you do it, too, so don’t even pretend otherwise. The truth is we all do it. Why? Because it’s boring! It doesn’t further the story, and we want to know what happens next.
So what do we do about it? Simple: don’t describe anything not relevant to the story. Is the main character’s eye color relevant to the story? No? Then leave it out because the reader won’t care. I don’t remember the eye color of a character in a book unless it’s unusual or different. For example, I remember the eye color of the Pernese dragons because it was part of the story and world – their mood-ring eyes were an important note. I don’t remember the color of F’lar or F’nor’s eyes. Or Lessa’s. Or Mennoly’s. I remember the dragons. Why? Because it’s important. Moreover, in real life how many people do you know whose eye color is something you really think about? Your spouse, probably, your kids. Maybe a few other people. (I remember my father and sisters’ because it’s the same as mine; I remember my mother’s because it’s different.) But unless someone’s eyes are a particularly important part of their character or are unique in some way… who cares what color they are? The same goes for hair color and style, clothing, or other details.
The only exception to this is for characterization. If there is something about the character that is told in their clothing or their hair style or their eyes then by all means, use it. I have a friend who wears only fine Italian shoes… even when he’s outside shoveling. I think the shoes look a little silly, but he won’t wear anything else. That’s an important thing about who he is as a person. I have another friend whose hair is a different color every time I see her. That also says something about her personality. Particularly since the colors are often things like “bubblegum pink” or “sunshine yellow”.
Finally, we come back to my old harp of avoiding adjectives and adverbs unless they are important or necessary. Most of the time they aren’t and can be replaced by a strong noun or verb. A good example of this is a friend and mentor of mine, Randall Andrews, who wrote in a recent story that a character’s breasts had gone “National Geographic”. The image is kind of offensive (as intended by the character who said it), it creates a specific image in the mind, and it’s one most of us can understand. It omits all the adjectives you could use to describe the character’s breasts and replaces them with a single, concrete description that lets me, the reader, picture in my head what’s going on there. Not that, in this case, I really wanted the image. That kind of evocative writing is what we should all be striving for.
My least-favorite type of writer is this one, and I’m sorry to be the mean one to say it, but it’s true. There are many of them in the world, and I never stop being frustrated by them. It’s the people who, when they put their work up and you critique it say:
“This isn’t supposed to be work.”
Hold on there, Hemmingway. Take a step back and say that again. This isn’t supposed to be work? So, what? You just think something up, slap it down on the page, and it’s an instant masterpiece? Right. Because Michelangelo just decided to be a painter one day and the Sistine Chapel happened. He didn’t spend his entire life dedicated to his craft or anything, right?
Personally, I think this type of person is worse than that aunt or cousin who thinks you should quit writing and get a real job. At least they have the excuse of not being a writer. They don’t know how much we work our butts off to hone our craft and accomplish our goals.
For some reason writing has this stigma attached to it, like it’s different from the rest of the arts. No one thinks you can learn violin over night and become Lindsay Stirling in a week. And if they do they learn otherwise in the first few notes. The same thing with painting. You can figure out you’re not Rembrandt by sticking a paintbrush in some paint and slapping it onto canvas with the precision of a four-year-old eating spaghetti and know you aren’t a painter pretty quickly. Maybe it’s because words on a page look like words on a page, and if you don’t know what you’re looking at it isn’t as obvious (sometimes) as the fact that your painting looks more like the floor after a frat party than it does your Aunt Gladys.
We’ve all had those friends in our lives who write Godawful poetry and ask us to read it. We are expected to smile and nod because it’s an expression of their twisted, suffering SOUL. It breeds this feeling that you can’t tell someone their writing would be improved by judicious application of gasoline and matches. Believe me, sometimes you need to be told that. You also sometimes need to say it.
Writing is work. It’s long hours of grueling, frustrating, BORING work. If you are trying to make writing your profession you need to pull up your boots and wade in because it will require the same dedication that any job or collegiate-level education will demand. Your long hours in front of your computer pounding away keys are your freshman 101 classes. Then you hit your senior year when you realize you have to make something coherent out of that mess.
I have spent hundreds of hours on the manuscript I’m working on. I wrote it in a furious rush during NaNoWriMo 2013 and have been polishing and ironing out the kinks since then. It takes that long? Yeah. Yeah, it can. You know why? Because it’s work.
I don’t say this to the detriment of folks who write as a hobby. Hobbyists are doing it for fun. They may be exceptionally talented, and may even be good writers, but they are doing it for fun. Professionals are different. Professionals are expected to be… well… professional. We can’t just slap down awfulness and be satisfied with it because that isn’t who we are.
Those who don’t want to put in the time, blood, sweat, and tears to become strong writers aren’t going to cut it as professionals. They’ll be mediocre hacks for the rest of their lives whose time is better served doing something else.